For the 65th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Chris Daly and Jody Sowell in the first of two episodes on the newspaper titans who transformed American journalism.
Historian Chris Daly (Boston University) reviews the sensational career of publisher Joseph Pulitzer before we take a virtual tour of the Missouri History Museum in Pulitzer’s adopted hometown of St. Louis with Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Jody Sowell: With someone like Joseph Pulitzer, here is this great inspirational figure for people who are journalists or not, a real rags-to-riches story, a real immigrant success story. It’s something we can all learn from, and it’s a way of better understanding American history as a whole.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
They were two larger-than-life publishers who transformed American newspapers. In the late 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed to win over readers with screaming headlines, eye-catching pictures, and escalating stunts. They embodied the new age of yellow journalism, marked by sensational reporting that played up crimes and scandals, exaggerated events, and sent circulation numbers soaring. We are releasing back-to-back episodes today and tomorrow to examine the lives of these newspaper titans. Today, we review the unlikely career of Joseph Pulitzer, a poor Hungarian –
immigrant who arrived in America during the Civil War and crusaded against big business and corruption in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World. First you’ll hear from Chris Daly, a journalism professor at Boston University, who has written extensively about Pulitzer and helped conceive a documentary about him. Then we’ll head to Pulitzer’s adopted hometown of St. Louis for a conversation with historian Jody Sowell at the Missouri History Museum. Welcome, Chris, to the Journalism History podcast.
Chris Daly: Well, Nick, it’s a real pleasure to be here with you and your listeners.
Nick Hirshon: We’re happy to have you here as we kick off this first of our two episodes on the newspaper titans, specifically the two publishers most associated with that term in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal. And today we’re going to start by looking at Pulitzer –
and you, of course, are an expert on Pulitzer. You’ve covered his career in your 2012 book, Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism, and you helped conceive and edit the documentary Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, which aired in the spring of 2019 on the PBS television series American Masters. So as we start off, Chris, can you just tell us what has drawn you to devote so much of your attention to Pulitzer?
Chris Daly: Well, he is a fascinating figure, so there’s that. You know, there’s the – the sort of biographical appeal. I think you also have to consider the dimensions of his career. He’s someone who, in the – in the landscape of that period, 1890s, first part of the 20th century looms so large you can’t miss him battling with corrupt politicians, battling with the president of the United States, innovating over and over and over.
So there’s that dimension, the impact, you know, on the field historically. And then, I think Pulitzer is also a very unusual figure in the scale of his legacy. Pulitzer keeps influencing American journalism every month through the existence of the journalism school at Columbia that he founded in his – endowed in his will and of course the Pulitzer Prizes, which continue to inspire great work by American journalists. So this – this is a career really unlike any other.
Nick Hirshon: And let’s then dive into it. Joseph Pulitzer was born on April 10, 1847, in what is now Hungary, and young Joseph actually grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father was a successful grain and produce merchant, but when Joseph was only eleven, his father died and his mother remarried. And in Covering America, your book, you describe how Pulitzer –
despised his stepfather, and as he approached manhood, he looked for a way out of Hungary. So can you take us back to that time? How did Pulitzer first come to the United States?
Chris Daly: Oh, sure. So Joseph Pulitzer was not a great physical specimen as an adolescent. He was very scrawny didn’t have great eyesight and he actually tried to enlist in several armies in eastern and middle Europe, and they all rejected him. They didn’t want the liabilities that they saw with this kid. But late in the sometime around 1863, he did come across an advertising flyer being distributed in Europe by the Union Army of the United States, which was running out of bodies to keep fighting the Civil War and they were not particularly fussy by this point about who –
they brought in, and so the recruiter signed him up and he was put on a ship along with a lot of other young men to be recruited into the U.S. Army and you know, the story goes that as the ship approached the East Coast of the U.S., Pulitzer had caught – caught wind of the fact that these recruiters would get paid money by the U.S. Army for bringing in these young men, but if a young man showed up at the recruiting office on his own, he could get the bonus himself. So Pulitzer jumped ship and swam to shore, dried himself off and went to the recruiting office and got himself issued into the U.S. Army, got the bonus, and you know, launched himself as an American.
And I think it’s worth noting there that that young man who came here was alone.
He was penniless. He had no advanced degrees. He did not speak English. He was, in other words, exactly the kind of person that this administration currently in power in the U.S. is trying to exclude and make sure they can never come here again, and yet, you know, here’s a tale of, you know, up from the bottom, up from the very bottom and, you know, Pulitzer’s mark on America is all the more remarkable, I think, because of the, you know, such an inauspicious beginning.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and as you write in the book, that story of his journey to America, desperate teenager landing on the shores of a country where he has no friends. You just said no family, almost no cash. It sort of exemplifies the qualities that will come to define him later in life: his daring nature, willpower, and a head for making money. Um, and then after the Civil War, a new generation that includes Pulitzer brings what you –
describe in your book as a dramatic and lasting change to American journalism. After he serves in the Union Army, Pulitzer ended up in St. Louis, and he studied law and passed the bar exam, he became a U.S. citizen, and in 1878, he buys his first newspaper, the St. Louis Dispatch. He merges it with the St. Louis Post. But we know that Pulitzer eventually goes east, so can you tell us how he got to the paper that he is best known for today, the New York World?
Chris Daly: Sure. So after, you know, his success in St. Louis, Pulitzer had capital. He had money to spend in order to, you know, expand his business enterprises. So he took that money and went to New York, and the New York newspaper market was big enough that it had quite a few papers in it, including some that were not doing very well. And the World was one of those. It was, you know, a failing newspaper, and therefore, it was available dirt cheap.
So he used his own money to buy the newspaper outright and was on his way. So from that point on, all the money he made was – was his to do as he wanted with. Uh, he could spend it on himself, he could reinvest it in the paper, which he mainly did but he didn’t come into the job with, you know, a lot of debt and creditors waiting for him.
Nick Hirshon: And so now he’s running the New York World in a very competitive market for newspapers. The World is located on Park Row, on the same street as some of those competitors: the Sun, the Herald, the Times, the Tribune, and the Journal. And the World had the lowest circulation of all of them, as you write, less than 23,000. So how did he gain ground on these other papers? What sort of coverage was he running in the World?
Chris Daly: Oh, sure. Well, I think you have to – you have to begin to see the many dimensions of Joseph Pulitzer’s success –
and I think this is one thing that I’d like to kind of address early on in our discussion, and that is, oh, one thing I find very frustrating is in many, many discussions of Joseph Pulitzer there’s a tendency to focus on one dimension of him whether that is the, you know, political reformer-crusader, whether it is the stunt journalist, whether it is the innovator in graphics and, you know, the use of color inks and cartoons and things like that. But Pulitzer was all of those things, and I think that’s what’s most important to keep in mind, was that he was, as you mentioned, a person of tremendous energy, but also he had many distinct abilities. And it’s – it’s wrong, I think, to – to see any one of them as representing the whole person of Joseph Pulitzer.
So let me start by suggesting he was a very smart business manager of the newspaper. He cut the daily price down to 2 cents. Since the days of the penny press in the 1830s, the prices of New York City newspapers had been creeping up, and by the time Pulitzer arrived in the 1880s it was commonplace for those newspapers to sell for 3, 4, 5, even 6 cents a day. So Pulitzer did one thing right away to separate himself from the rest of the marketplace, and that was get the price down to the point where, you know, the ordinary working person could afford it, immigrants, maids, working people of all kinds in the labor – laboring class, in the lower ranks of the trades, you know, there were a lot of people in New York who couldn’t afford 5 or 6 cents a day for a newspaper but –
could pay 2 cents. So that’s one thing, a conscious move to go down market and sell cheaply but to a lot of people.
And of course, the other thing, you know, that he started to do right away was to punch up the writing and the energy level in the contents of the paper. You know, there’s – we use this term sensationalism a lot and it’s often, you know, used as a pejorative. It suggests that, you know, the publisher, the reporters, the editors are being irresponsible and hyping things that maybe aren’t particularly relevant or playing up the ghoulish and bloody aspects of things. And – and that’s a – a useful term when we need it, but I think there’s another dimension of this that I really wanna bring out about Pulitzer, and that is, he thought that the writing –
in a newspaper should appeal to the senses of the readers, that is, you know, to their — the way he was always getting his reporters to try to answer the questions: How did things look? How did things feel? Even how did things smell? Uh, he wanted to touch the readers through all of their different senses, and so the writing had to become much livelier, and of course the reporting had to become better, too. You know, first you have to notice these things when – when a – you as a reporter are out in the field. Then you have to get back to the office and bring them to life in words and sometimes pictures. So that I think too is another part of Pulitzer’s success.
And I’d throw another item into that formula as well, and that is, as an immigrant, he never forgot what it was like to be an immigrant, to be here in this country, a confusing place, that New York could be overwhelming, and he established the World as a friend of the immigrant. And by that, I mean, you know, it was very visual, it was much easier to read and understand than some of the other English-language New York City dailies but also he would, you know, run these features on a regular basis explaining life in America to the newcomer, doing things like in the early spring he’d have a guide to the game of baseball. How do you play baseball? What do all these strange terms mean? How could an immigrant who just arrived here really get in touch with the national pastime? And these kinds of things, you know, I think endeared Pulitzer to a tremendous number of the immigrants who were still flooding into New York City all during this period. So there’s a bundle of innovations right there that set him on a –
pathway toward, you know, the tremendous success that followed.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and as you talk about those innovations, he’s also benefiting from technological advancements in journalism that helped fuel productivity and profit. By 1890, he had 1,200 employees and he was on his way to producing a million copies a day. Eventually the World grew into the nation’s largest newspaper. So how about the technology changes? How did those in that era help Pulitzer grow the World?
Chris Daly: Sure. So one thing, you know, is the continuing fall in the price of newsprint, that kind of crappy paper that we have been publishing newspapers on for a long time. Once – you know, once we got away from linen and other rag-based papers of the 18th century, which were quite expensive, that’s one reason that those newspapers cost a lot. Uh, but during the 19th century, the techniques for making paper out of wood pulp –
kept improving so that the final product got cheaper and cheaper. So you could now contemplate printing a million copies a day of a many, many page newspaper and not break the bank. Of course also the speed of those presses kept increasing such that, you know, they could physically, literally roll fast enough to keep up with that kind of output. And I – I think another sometimes underappreciated breakthrough here, at the same period of time, is the linotype machine. Uh, thanks to Mergenthaler the ability to turn what we would think of as copy, you know, pieces of paper, usually handwritten, that are being produced in the newsroom, those have to be converted into you beds of hard –
type that can be used on the printing press. The key intermediary there is the linotype machine where a skilled operator can sit there and look at a piece of handwriting and turn it into hard print in a very short time. So that’s – that’s – that catches up the speed of the back end, the printing part of it, with the volume of stories and the pace of fresh reporting that’s going on in the newsroom. All of those things combined make it feasible to consider that scale of mass production of newspapers.
And one other thing that’s coming along in the same period is the invention of the half-tone process, which makes it possible for the first time to present an image of a photograph along with text in the same page of a newspaper.
So newspapers can now start to be – to really – really and truly for the first time integrate photography and print.
Nick Hirshon: So as all of this is going on, Pulitzer is running the World, what is his style as a publisher? You’ve mentioned that he had some suggestions for reporters before, but was he more of a hands-on publisher appearing in the newsroom and directing coverage? Or since you mentioned that he was sick throughout his adult life, the failing eyesight and constant headaches, did he direct the paper from afar and delegate a lot of that responsibility to editors?
Chris Daly: Uh, yes. In short, yes, he did. You know, when he was younger, he, of course, spent a lot of time in newsrooms. Some people thought he lived there but, you know, as his eyesight got worse, as his headaches got worse, his hypersensitivity to sound, Pulitzer was really racked by a lot of different, uh –
neurological disorders and complaints. And so he spent more and more time on his yacht, The Liberty. He spent more and more time roaming around Europe in search of the perfect, like, health spa. He would go to famous hot springs at places like Baden-Baden. He would try over and over again to find the perfect getaway in Switzerland. And so, for a lot of reasons, he was not physically present in the newsroom as the years went by. But he had a series of aides and secretaries and he was constantly dictating orders to them to be relayed back to the newsroom. And there, you know, his managing editor, John Cockerill, or one of the many editors who worked under him, would be in charge of making sure that Mr. Pulitzer’s wishes were carried out.
And Pulitzer was a very close reader of his own newspaper, no surprise, but he would study it every day and, you know, fire off these rockets back to the newsroom about everything that he thought could have been done better.
Nick Hirshon: And one of the things that he did pioneer that I guess he thought could be done better was the stunt that would appeal to some of the common people who were reading the paper. This is actually a great resolve to a so-called slow news day, if news did not break on a particular day, the New York World guaranteed it would provide lively reports anyway by essentially making its own news, right? So what about these stunts that appeared in the World?
Chris Daly: Sure. Yeah, Pulitzer was open to all kinds of good ideas, especially ones that would increase circulation. So he took a gamble on the young, daring woman reporter whose byline was Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Cochrane. Uh, you know, famously talked her way into a dare –
uh, to try to get a job at the World. She had to go undercover into the women’s insane asylum in New York City, pretend to be mentally ill in order to do a first-person expose of the conditions inside the asylum. That’s a pretty overwhelming kind of an assignment, and I have to say just, like, in a personal aside, the only story in my reporting career that I can recall that I ever, like, flopped on, I just couldn’t even deliver the copy, was a time when I was assigned as a young reporter to go to a state mental hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts. And I was so shaken by the experience – and this – I was just there for a couple of hours on a walk-through. Uh, but I could not go back to the newsroom and put it together to – two sentences.
Nellie Bly, on the other hand, you know, lived for more than a week in the asylum as a patient, so she got the – she got the treatment. She got the crappy food, she got the cold baths, she heard other patients being beaten. It was horrific, horrifying kind of experience, and then Pulitzer, you know, sent a lawyer around to help get her out and played the story up on the front page, milked it for all it was worth, and – and there, you know, I – I would give Pulitzer some extra credit here because this is a – this is a great episode that not only launched Nellie Bly’s career at the World and not only sold a lot of papers, but also served Pulitzer’s other great interest, which is reform, which is the improvement of society. He felt the newspaper should be –
doing more than just, you know, profiting off the misfortunes of others, exploiting them, serving as kind of a voyeur, and instead the newspaper should be serving as a – as a protector and an advocate and an avatar of reform.
So of course he built a campaign around Nellie Bly’s reporting and got the New York City government to spend a tremendous amount of money on fixing up that women’s insane asylum. So, you know, I think we need to give a tip of the hat here to Joseph Pulitzer. He was not merely sensationalist. He was not, you know, ruthlessly exploitative of subjects and circumstances. He was seeing them as a way to make life better.
Nick Hirshon: And so it seems like he has, of course, this vast –
contribution to American journalism, you mentioned at the beginning. When he dies in 1911, he left $2 million to Columbia University to endow a school of journalism and pay for the annual Pulitzer Prizes, which become the highest honor in the field. So what do you make of this, Chris? Even though we’ve just described Pulitzer is maybe known for stunts and you said he has this stereotypical connection to sensationalism – although I suppose some of that is true, he’s a pioneer of yellow journalism – it seems that he wanted to be remembered for something greater. So what do you make of this sort of affinity for the tradition of journalism with Columbia University and the Pulitzer Prizes?
Chris Daly: You know, this brings me to another dimension of Pulitzer’s role in journalism, and that is, he was committed to trying to elevate the standards and practices of journalism. When he came into the business in the 1880s, it was, let’s face it, a –
you know, a pretty scruffy lot of men who worked in newsrooms and a newspaper was definitely a blue-collar kind of job. It was not a profession by any means, and Pulitzer consistently advocated in – in publisher forums, in his own writings, he consistently pushed for higher standards of accuracy of all-around professionalism, independence from parties, independence from the government, independence from – even from advertisers. He really contributed a lot to this ethos that the newspaper works best when it is profitable enough to be able to tell anybody to just buzz off and to go about, you know, following its own direction.
So I think you see that in his determination to use a lot of his fortune to not just, like, put his name on buildings, which actually didn’t even happen at Columbia. Columbia did not call the program the Pulitzer Program in Journalism or the Pulitzer School. His name was on the building, but, gee, I mean, it – it was a very low profile. Nevertheless, you know, he did endow one of the top schools in journalism in the country, and I think the prizes have really crept up on all of us in terms of how, with each passing decade, those prizes have become more and more prestigious, more and more something that younger journalists are aware of and think of themselves as you know, being possibly able to compete for –
if they are good enough, and that – and that’s what I think you know, Pulitzer has done for all of us ever since his death is to raise the ceiling, if you will, on American journalism. What can we do? He’s not only asking what have we done, but what could we do with new tools, with new approaches, with new scoundrels, with new schemes and – and – and new levels of rottenness, you know, to expose? The challenge, you know, is – is tougher than ever. The tools are better than ever, and Pulitzer is there to keep, I think, you know, trying to push us further and further up that hill.
Nick Hirshon: Well, he’s certainly a fascinating and multilayered figure. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today about him because he is presented sort of stereotypically –
as this one-dimensional guy who was just known for bringing about yellow journalism and this downturn in American journalism and all of that, or people only know him from the Pulitzer Prizes, I suppose, and think, Oh, he must have been an amazing publisher who was revolutionary and was only, you know, good. And, of course, there’s a – as you kind of pointed out, a mixture of both of those in the true story, so you’ve helped us get a more accurate idea of who he was, and we thank you for that. We also look forward, ’cause we’re not done with you yet, to having you back on our next episode, which will be released tomorrow, on William Randolph Hearst, the, obviously, the rival of Joseph Pulitzer, so we’re gonna get into the big war between Pulitzer and Hearst and some of the similarities and differences in their personalities, but right now we’re not done with Pulitzer just yet. We’re going to head to St. Louis for a special interview with a museum official in Pulitzer’s adopted hometown.
I’m joined now by Jody Sowell, the managing director of strategic initiatives at the Missouri History Museum. Jody, welcome to the show.
Jody Sowell: Thank you, Nick. It’s great to be here.
Nick Hirshon: And we’ve just heard the historian, Chris Daly, discuss the remarkable career of Joseph Pulitzer, and we appreciate your taking the time today to tell us about Pulitzer’s roots in St. Louis. So the Missouri History Museum explores the history of St. Louis from its founding in 1764 through the present day, and that of course includes the period when Pulitzer arrived in St. Louis, 1865, right after the Civil War. So what can you tell us about Pulitzer’s life in St. Louis?
Jody Sowell: Right, so Pulitzer’s career is remarkable, and – and it gets its start here in St. Louis. So you’re right, he came to St. Louis in 1865. He was – he was struggling to sort of find his way in New York, and – and there was a real German influx into St. Louis, so this was a – certainly a friendly community to immigrants.
And so he comes to St. Louis but – but doesn’t – doesn’t really find his footing here. It’s interesting: When he first came to St. Louis, he said that the lights of St. Louis looked like a promised land to me, but it – but it didn’t really start off as a promised land. He took – took several jobs. He was a waiter, he was a baggage handler, he worked with mules for a while. So really – really struggled to find his way and certainly didn’t jump into journalism.
But one thing he did, you know, he didn’t really speak much English when he came to St. Louis, so he would go to the Mercantile Library to study English and to study law. And – and that’s where his journalism career starts in a bit of an unusual way. He was observing a chess game and Pulitzer always – always opinionated Pulitzer just –
started to critique the players and say the moves that they should have made. Well, those players were the editors of a German-language newspaper called the Westliche Post and they were so impressed by maybe his bravado as much as his chess skill, and so they hired him on as a reporter. And just a few years later, he would actually be a part owner of that newspaper.
Actually a little bit later, in 1878, he buys the St. Louis Dispatch and then merges that with the St. Louis Post to become the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They produced their first issue on December 12, 1878, but really becomes one of the most important newspapers in the country at that time. It really is where Pulitzer –
Pulitzer sort of forms his beliefs about the activism of journalism and that journalism should always be looking out for the little guy and against the monied interest. It is at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where he forms those opinions. He doesn’t – doesn’t take long before he moves to New York. He moves to New York in 1883, so by the time, you know, he starts the Post-Dispatch in 1878, he moves in 1883, but he started the paper that is still the city’s major newspaper, and it really is where he establishes himself as the type of journalist that he would get more credit, and sometimes criticism for, in New York. So yeah, the Post-Dispatch is that sort of continual legacy of Joseph Pulitzer.
Nick Hirshon: And I understand that he stayed in St. Louis for about two decades before he took control of the New York World, and so he’s connected with lots of places in the city. You were kind of referencing some of these. He worked for a time at Tony Faust’s Oyster House and Saloon until he was fired for spilling food on a customer. And we were talking about he spent much of his free time at the Mercantile Library, which has – which was a hub of cultural and intellectual interchange in the city, but the library that he frequented at 510 Locust Street was demolished and replaced with a new building in the 1880s, but there are still some reminders of Pulitzer’s past in St. Louis today. For example, I know there’s one big one at the Missouri History Museum, a marble bust. Can you tell us a little bit about this bust of Pulitzer?
Jody Sowell: You’re right. In our museum, the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park in St. Louis, we have what I think is another –
great reminder of Pulitzer’s status in – around the world, really. So it is a bust created by August Rodin. You know Rodin from The Thinker or The Kiss or The Gates of Hell sculpture. Rodin was controversial when he started off. Many people did not like his style, but he became more and more popular, and by 1907, business leaders around the world really wanted a bust created by Rodin. Pulitzer himself I’m not so sure was that interested, but his wife certainly was and Rodin was – uh, sorry, Pulitzer was vacationing in France in 1907, and with the help of some editors at the New York World, they connect with Rodin and ask –
him to go down and meet with Pulitzer and create this bust. Pulitzer, by the way, was very prickly, especially at this stage of his career, and said that was fine. That Rodin could come down, but that Pulitzer said, “I’m not gonna adapt myself to him. He’s gonna have to adapt to me. He’s gonna have to come with me whenever I’m out for a ride. He’s not gonna be able to touch me in the afternoon.” So Pulitzer had all these rules of how Rodin should behave.
Rodin comes down to do the – to carve the bust. It’s a white marble bust. When you see it at the museum, you’ll see that it is sort of a head-and-shoulders bust, but Pulitzer is wearing no shirt. This was common practice for Rodin. He asked his models to –
pose without clothing. When Rodin first told Pulitzer this, Pulitzer wanted no part of it. Pulitzer was a bit prudish, did not like the idea of undressing in front of people and having someone sculpt him that way. Rodin put his foot down and said, “I can’t do this unless I can see the neck and shoulders, and I will just leave and never do this bust if you don’t agree.” So they compromised. Everyone else had to leave the room. Pulitzer then took off his shirt, Rodin created the bust that you can now see at the Missouri History Museum.
One of the most fascinating parts of that bust is it really tells many stories, but one is the health struggles that Joseph Pulitzer had, and I’m sure your historian talked about. Pulitzer was battling blindness for – for many decades –
and certainly at this time. And so Pulitzer actually asked Rodin to carve the bust as if he was sighted and not show that he was blind, and Rodin said simply that, “I will – I will show what I see in your face, not what you see or what you want shown.” And so when you look at the bust, you will see that what Rodin has done is almost completely closed Pulitzer’s eyes so you get that sense that – that he is going blind, but it’s done in such a dignified way, I think it also shows the – the power of Pulitzer and what a proud person he was, and – and that’s something that Rodin said. Rodin said, “Blind though he was, he was a great dominant force, and this characteristic I tried to express in my bust of him.”
So that bust was created in 1907. Just four years later, Pulitzer passes away. But that is part of our permanent collection and something that visitors can see in our second-floor gallery. And I really – for me, it’s an interesting bookend. Pulitzer both starts his life in St. Louis, and when you pick up the morning newspaper, you remember how important Pulitzer was to this community. And then that bust by Rodin really shows the final days of Pulitzer and the struggles that he was having, but also the pride that he had and the worldwide importance that he had, that he would be able to call on Rodin to create such a bust.
Nick Hirshon: I’m glad you gave us that context there ’cause it sounds like that bust tells a bit of a story about Pulitzer the man even though,
obviously, one of the most powerful, influential men in the world at the time, still maybe grappling with his own mortality, his sickness, his failing eyesight, which we’ve discussed was a part of his life you know, for a very long time and yet still he was – he was concerned about how he would appear in this bust. So maybe some concern there about posterity, how he would be remembered, do you think?
Jody Sowell: I think so. He specifically wanted this bust to be in – in the newsrooms and so he knew that these would be on display. He knew that this was one way that he would be remembered. You know, of course his biggest legacies – his biggest legacies are the Pulitzer Prize and Columbia University. So no matter –
how he had been portrayed, he was going to be remembered as a great and important and influential individual, but he was absolutely concerned about how he was portrayed, how he was seen and – and I don’t know if we can even fully grasp how difficult those final years were for him. I mean, the amount of care that he took in – in having quiet. You know, sounds bothered him so much that he was basically creating soundproof chambers that he could live in and – and he would go through incredible bouts of depression. So it was an incredibly difficult period, but he was always thinking about what future generations would think of him.
Nick Hirshon: A very complex man and one that is fascinating for us to think about, has a lot of maybe some vanity there in the creation of the bust, but also –
a lot of insecurities coming out that we could all relate to. But your museum also has other items that I understand relate to Pulitzer. So what other things could folks see if they go to the Missouri History Museum about Pulitzer?
Jody Sowell: We do. Many of those are in our collection that is not necessarily on public view, but you can come in and do research about Pulitzer. So we have another bust actually created by one of Rodin’s students, and this was a common practice because Rodin would oftentimes make a cast and then his students would actually produce these busts or these statues and monuments. We have an old newspaper desk that Pulitzer used, and we have lots of papers, a really fascinating collection from the full Pulitzer family, but we also have some Civil War documents from Joseph Pulitzer. So those aren’t on display –
at the museum, but they are part of our library and research center, where researchers can come in and do their own research.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and as you look back, Jody, and consider the entire scope of Pulitzer’s time in St. Louis, what do you think living there meant to him? Did it hold a special place in his heart? Obviously, I think a lot of us today associate Pulitzer more with New York for the New York World, and as you said, the Pulitzer Prize is out of Columbia in New York City. But St. Louis seemed to play a pretty prominent role. So how much did that mean?
Jody Sowell: I think it meant a lot. You know, it was a foundational role. It really was where he got his start, and in 1907, when he – when he retires, he’s not just retiring from the New York World. He’s retiring from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as well and he – you know, he has this – these great parties in –
both New York and here in St. Louis to announce his retirement. Now, he had announced his retirement before, so people weren’t quite sure whether to believe him, but he – he makes this great statement during his retirement speech in 1907, and you know, the Post-Dispatch still has it etched in a wall in their offices, and it’s become known for them as the Post-Dispatch platform. And I really think it shows – it encapsulates all of the beliefs that Pulitzer had about the power of journalism and really those beliefs were formed here in St. Louis.
So the quote is a little bit long, but if – if you’ll forgive me, I’ll tell you what it says because I think it’s a great – a great kind of closer about what Pulitzer –
hoped would be his legacy, and – and clearly is because the Post-Dispatch still uses this as sort of their foundational statement, their mission statement. So he said that he knew that the newspapers would be fine after he left and he said that the Post-Dispatch, he said, “It will always fight for progress in reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether –
predatory plutocracy or by predatory poverty.”
I think that is both an amazing statement for its time, but it’s also inspiring that that has also remained along with the Post-Dispatch itself, along with this Rodin bust, is that sort of mission statement, that sort of challenge for journalism. And I’ve talked to journalists often. We did a Pulitzer Prize photographs exhibit just a couple of years ago, and I tell audiences that that’s – those are the ideals that most journalists are trying to live up to. They don’t always succeed, and we oftentimes talk about those journalists who don’t succeed in those efforts, but I believe that that’s what most journalists are trying to do, is expose those issues, expose those problems, and are really inspired by the life and legacy of Joseph Pulitzer.
Nick Hirshon: Well, I think “inspired” is the right word there, as you say, because for someone who was going through so much in life, certainly did not start out rich and then also had all of these health problems, for him to still be so bold and so independent and fierce in the competition with William Randolph Hearst, as we’re getting into in this podcast series on Pulitzer and Hearst you know, it’s a – it’s interesting to see this other dimension of him beyond the sort of one-dimensional “he was involved in this newspaper war and he was a yellow journalist and he did some sensational things and that was about all he’s known for,” and you’ve given us a – a good scope of that, and we appreciate it, and I’d encourage our listeners to plan a trip to the Missouri History Museum. General admission there is free. Of course, as we weather the COVID-19 pandemic, tours of many museums have been temporarily suspended or the museum hours have changed, and so you should always check websites, check the –
Missouri History website in advance to make sure it’s open whenever you are planning to go. The URL of the website’s a little bit long, but if you just Google “Missouri History Museum,” it’ll pop up. And before we wrap up here, Jody, I’d just like to pose to you a question that we always ask guests to end the Journalism History podcast. Why does journalism history matter?
Jody Sowell: Journalism history matters because truth matters and because knowing more about the world around you is one of the things that we should think of as a responsibility. And it’s easy to get lost in today’s back and forth about fake news or who is biased and forget that journalism really has this proud history.
And to know American history, you really need to know journalism history, and that’s certainly the case with someone like Joseph Pulitzer. Here is this great inspirational figure for people who are journalists or not, a real rags-to-riches story, a real immigrant success story. It’s something we can all learn from, and it’s a way of better understanding American history as a whole.
Nick Hirshon: Thank you, Jody, for coming on today to talk to us on the Journalism History podcast, for showing us this side of Pulitzer from his St. Louis years. We really appreciate all of your time.
Jody Sowell: Thank you very much. It was great fun talking to you.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis.
As we wrap up today, I’d like to recommend some other ways you can learn about Pulitzer. Of course, Chris Daly’s fantastic book, Covering America, and the PBS documentary that he helped conceive, Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, as well as two books on Pulitzer. The first is Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power by James McGrath Morris, which is considered the definitive biography of Joseph Pulitzer, and the other is The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper 1898 to 1911, written by Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano. And don’t forget to listen to our next episode to be released tomorrow on Pulitzer’s rival, William Randolph Hearst. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”