#135 Joseph Pulitzer Politics & Media

Summary Notes


In "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power" by James McGrath Morris, the astonishing life of Joseph Pulitzer unfolds, illustrating his pivotal role in shaping modern American journalism. Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who overcame adversity, transformed American journalism into a powerful tool for mass consumption and influence, harnessing the industrial revolution's societal shifts. Despite his later wealth and success, including his instrumental role in the Statue of Liberty's completion, Pulitzer's life was marred by personal tragedies, health issues, and familial estrangement. His relentless ambition and innovative strategies propelled his newspaper, The World, to historic circulation heights, but his later years were overshadowed by blindness and reclusiveness, leading to a solitary and reflective existence. His story, paralleling the likes of Ted Turner and Howard Hughes, serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale about the costs of relentless ambition and the pursuit of power.

Summary Notes

Joseph Pulitzer's Contributions to Mass Media

  • Joseph Pulitzer was a key figure in the transformation of American journalism into a medium of mass consumption and influence.
  • He was the first media lord to recognize and capitalize on the changes brought by the industrial revolution.
  • Pulitzer combined entertainment, technology, business, and demographics to create a new form of media.
  • His achievements in media were as significant as the creation of television in the 20th century.

"What he accomplished was as significant in his time as the creation of television would be in the 20th century, and it remains deeply relevant in today's information age."

This quote highlights the magnitude of Pulitzer's impact on the media landscape, comparing it to the revolutionary impact of television.

Pulitzer's Life and Personality

  • Pulitzer's life is considered as fascinating as his professional achievements, making him a compelling biographical subject.
  • He is compared to influential figures like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Turner, Roosevelt, and Hughes.
  • Pulitzer's later life was marked by blindness, reclusiveness, and a maniacal desire for control over his newspaper empire.
  • His personal life included intense rivalries, notably with William Randolph Hearst and Teddy Roosevelt.

"His fascinating life, however, makes him an irresistible subject."

This quote emphasizes that Pulitzer's life story, beyond his professional accomplishments, is rich and engaging, warranting a biography.

Pulitzer's Impact on Modern Media

  • Pulitzer founded the New York newspaper "The World," which ushered in the modern era of mass communications.
  • He maintained control over his newspaper through coded telegrams, dictating operations to the smallest details.
  • Pulitzer and Hearst are credited with the birth of yellow journalism, which emphasizes sensationalism and personal biases over factual reporting.

"An almost unbroken stream of telegrams, all written in code, flowed from ports and distant destination to New York, directing every part of the paper's operation."

This quote describes Pulitzer's meticulous management style and his commitment to maintaining control over his newspaper's operations from afar.

Pulitzer's Personal Struggles and Rivalries

  • Pulitzer's blindness and accompanying ailments contributed to his reclusive lifestyle.
  • He had a tumultuous relationship with Teddy Roosevelt, who once attempted to imprison Pulitzer.
  • Pulitzer saw his blindness as a way to remain unbiased and aloof, akin to a "blind goddess of justice."

"I think God Almighty made it for the benefit of the world when he made me blind."

This quote reflects Pulitzer's belief that his blindness served a greater purpose, allowing him to remain impartial and focused on his work.

Pulitzer's Early Life and Family Tragedy

  • Pulitzer was born in Hungary in 1847 and faced numerous family tragedies, including the deaths of his siblings and father.
  • These personal losses led to an obsession with health and a fear of death that persisted throughout his life.
  • His father's death and the resulting financial issues forced Pulitzer to seek opportunities in America at the age of 17.

"Joseph understood more fully the extent of the calamity. He had been nine years old when his older brother died, ten when his younger brother and sister died, eleven when his father died, and 13 at the death of his last sister."

This quote conveys the depth of personal tragedy that Pulitzer experienced at a young age, shaping his character and drive.

Pulitzer's Immigration to America and Early Struggles

  • Pulitzer immigrated to America during the Civil War, joining the Union Army to secure passage.
  • After the war, he faced unemployment and language barriers but was determined to succeed.
  • Pulitzer took on various jobs, including mule tending and construction, to survive.

"He was friendless, homeless, tongueless and guideless."

This quote encapsulates the immense challenges Pulitzer faced upon arriving in America, highlighting his resilience and determination.

Pulitzer's Intellectual Pursuits and Social Ascension

  • Pulitzer was a voracious reader and self-educator, utilizing libraries to improve his mind and social standing.
  • He joined the Mercantile Library, dedicating his free time to reading and learning.
  • Pulitzer's intellectual curiosity and improved conversational skills opened doors to new opportunities.

"The Pulitzer's flat was filled with books. Joseph favored works of history and biography."

This quote illustrates Pulitzer's early passion for reading and learning, which played a crucial role in his later success.

Joseph Pulitzer's Start in the Newspaper Industry

  • Pulitzer learned about a job opening at the Post through the German immigrant society.
  • The Post was owned by a former Civil War general and Emil, both of whom Pulitzer knew.
  • Pulitzer's diligence was observed by the elder man, president of the German Immigration Aid Society.
  • Pulitzer quickly proved himself at the Post, demonstrating exceptional effort and dedication.

"Pulitzer learned about a job opening at the Post." This quote indicates the beginning of Pulitzer's career in the newspaper industry, where he first learned of a job opportunity.

"The post was owned by two of the city's most eminent Germans, the former civil war general in whose cavalry Pulitzer had served." This quote highlights Pulitzer's connections that helped him get his start at the Post, emphasizing the small-world aspect of his career beginnings.

"I could not believe it, Pulitzer recalled. I the unknown, the luckless, almost a boy of the streets, meaning homeless, selected for such a responsibility." Pulitzer expresses his disbelief and humble beginnings upon being chosen for the job, reflecting on his unlikely rise to responsibility.

"What he lacked in experience, he more than made up for raw, resolute effort." This quote summarizes Pulitzer's work ethic and determination, compensating for his lack of experience with hard work.

Pulitzer's Work Ethic and Ambition

  • Pulitzer was known for his relentless work ethic, being available at all hours.
  • His inquisitive nature and industry were seen as an annoyance to less diligent colleagues.
  • Pulitzer was committed to giving his best effort in all tasks.

"He was so industrious indeed that he became a positive annoyance to others who felt less inclined to work." This quote describes Pulitzer's intense dedication to work, which frustrated his less motivated coworkers.

"Pulitzer was unwilling to put forward anything but his best effort." This quote emphasizes Pulitzer's commitment to excellence and his refusal to settle for mediocrity in his work.

Pulitzer's Rise to Ownership and View on Media

  • Pulitzer found his work at the Post to be a calling rather than just a job.
  • He impressed influential people with his intellect, which opened up opportunities.
  • Pulitzer eventually became a part owner of the newspaper, viewing media as a way to shape politics.

"The world into which Pulitzer peaked seemed to be one of limitless possibilities." This quote captures the sense of opportunity Pulitzer felt in the newspaper industry, where he saw potential to influence and shape the world.

"That young fellow clinches the future." This quote from Brockmeyer reflects the high potential others saw in Pulitzer and his ability to shape the future.

Pulitzer's Personality and Political Career

  • Pulitzer's aggressive and argumentative personality was shaped by his upbringing.
  • His confrontational nature led to physical altercations and challenges, including duels.
  • Pulitzer's interest in politics grew, and he used his newspaper as a platform to win elections.

"I cautioned him that he must become more conservative and forbearing for fear that he might someday meet a person like himself and then there would be trouble." This advice to Pulitzer highlights the potential dangers of his hot-tempered nature and foreshadows future conflicts.

"In only five years, he had grown from a bounty hunting Hungarian teenager to an American lawmaker." This quote summarizes Pulitzer's rapid transformation from a struggling immigrant to a significant political figure.

Pulitzer's Fight Against and Participation in Corruption

  • Pulitzer wrote against corruption but later accepted a lucrative, low-effort political position.
  • This hypocrisy illustrates the predictable human nature and fallibility of even the most driven individuals.

"A seat on the St. Louis police commission was about to open up." This quote introduces the opportunity for corruption that Pulitzer would eventually take, despite his earlier stance against such behavior.

"He got very favorable coverage in Pulitzer's newspaper. Assured that he would appoint Pulitzer." This quote directly points to the quid pro quo arrangement between Pulitzer and a political ally, highlighting the corruption involved.

Media Influence and Manipulation

  • Pulitzer observed the power of the press to manipulate political outcomes.
  • The media's role in shaping public opinion and political events was evident to Pulitzer even before he built his media empire.

"The convention was a striking example of the confluence of independent journalism and politics." This quote sets the scene for how Pulitzer witnessed the media's influence over politics firsthand.

"The power of the press must be invoked, they said. It is our chief, if not only weapon." This quote from the quadrilateral of newspaper owners illustrates their view of the press as a tool for political influence, not just for reporting news.

Pulitzer's Media Empire and Political Career

  • Pulitzer's hard work led him to part-ownership of the Post.
  • His inability to work with partners and political shifts led to him selling his interest in the paper.
  • Pulitzer's political career seemed to end with this loss, but his media influence continued to grow.

"They probably would have done the same thing to any other man who worked 16 hours a day as I did through that campaign." Pulitzer acknowledges his work ethic as the key to his success, rather than any inherent special quality.

"Within a week, he was the owner. The seven years after reading his first copy of the post in hopes of finding employment in St. Louis. Pulitzer was an American newspaper publisher." This quote encapsulates Pulitzer's journey from seeking employment to becoming a newspaper owner, highlighting his rapid rise in the industry.

Early Career and Political Downfall of Joseph Pulitzer

  • Joseph Pulitzer was voted out of his house seat and lost reappointment to the police board.
  • The owners of the Post, which was aligned with an opposing political party, offered to buy him out.
  • Pulitzer received approximately $30,000 from the sale, which was 3 to 6 times his original investment.

"The price they proposed was commensurate with their desire to be free of him, because now he's on the opposite end of the political party from them."

This quote indicates the owners' eagerness to sever ties with Pulitzer due to political differences, leading to a buyout that was financially favorable to him.

Pulitzer Spots a Business Opportunity

  • Pulitzer identified an opportunity to buy a German language newspaper during a national depression caused by the collapse of the Jay Cooke & Company.
  • He recognized the value in the newspaper's membership in the Associated Press (AP), which was extremely valuable due to the restricted access to news.
  • Pulitzer's strategy was to buy the newspaper primarily for the AP membership and then sell off the physical assets.

"He doesn't want the paper. He wants their membership in the AP, which is extremely valuable."

This quote emphasizes Pulitzer's strategic focus on acquiring the valuable AP membership rather than the newspaper itself.

Pulitzer's Clever Business Maneuvers

  • Pulitzer quickly flipped the AP membership to the St. Louis Globe, which was not an AP member.
  • He sold the physical assets of the newspaper to a group of investors within 48 hours, netting a profit of $11,000 to $20,000.
  • With his capital, Pulitzer invested in local infrastructure projects before experiencing a period of depression following his mother's death.

"In his 48 hours tenure as newspaper publisher, Pulitzer netted between eleven and $20,000."

This quote highlights Pulitzer's ability to turn a quick profit from his short tenure as a newspaper publisher by selling off assets.

Pulitzer's Personal Struggles and Ambitions

  • Pulitzer faced a deep depression, feeling a lack of calling and purpose in life.
  • His restlessness led him to travel and search for new opportunities.
  • Despite his financial success, Pulitzer experienced personal turmoil, including the death of his mother and a yearning for a meaningful career.

"For Joseph, now 30, with no specific profession or even a home, such introspection was demoralizing."

This quote reflects Pulitzer's personal crisis and the emotional impact of his mother's death, leading to self-reflection and a sense of aimlessness.

Acquisition and Transformation of the St. Louis Dispatch

  • Pulitzer acquired the St. Louis Dispatch, a struggling newspaper, at a bankruptcy auction.
  • He utilized a "Trojan horse" strategy to avoid raising the auction price, sending someone else to bid on his behalf.
  • Pulitzer merged two of the three evening papers in St. Louis to consolidate power and extend his financial runway.

"Pulitzer knew that if he was to openly join the biding, others would assume that he had seen in the paper something of value that had escaped their attention, and the price would soar."

This quote reveals Pulitzer's strategic thinking and secretive nature, aiming to acquire the Dispatch without drawing attention to its potential value.

Pulitzer's Business Acumen and Editorial Strategy

  • Pulitzer was an innovator in journalism, known for his foresight and risk-taking.
  • He demanded precise information on the newspaper's operations and financial health, creating a daily statistical report.
  • By attacking corruption and monopolistic behavior, Pulitzer gained new readers and increased the paper's influence.

"A newspaper that espoused their cause would find a ready audience."

This quote indicates Pulitzer's editorial strategy of aligning with the interests of merchants and small businessmen to expand his readership.

Pulitzer's Dominance and Move to New York

  • Pulitzer's partnership with Dylan dissolved due to incompatibility and Pulitzer's overwhelming talent.
  • Facing ostracization and physical assaults in St. Louis, Pulitzer decided to move to New York.
  • He purchased the New York World from Jay Gould, which was a failing newspaper at the time.

"It became increasingly clear to Dylan and Pulitzer that their partnership would not work."

This quote signifies the end of the partnership due to Pulitzer's dominant personality and superior talent, paving the way for his solo career in New York.

Pulitzer's Early Success and Ambition

  • Joseph Pulitzer was already wealthy before moving to New York but greatly increased his wealth there.
  • He incurred a significant debt of nearly $500,000 to sign a contract, indicating a high level of financial risk-taking.
  • Pulitzer's purchase of the bankrupt Dispatch and subsequent success in St. Louis was a prelude to his ambitions in New York.

"Signing the contract put Pulitzer nearly $500,000 in debt."

The quote highlights Pulitzer's willingness to take on substantial financial risk to achieve greater success in the newspaper industry.

Strategic Editorial Approach

  • Pulitzer's approach was to start slowly with the newspaper and build upon it.
  • He focused on conditioning his editorial staff to his principles of writing and editing.
  • This strategy set the foundation for the newspaper to become the most widely read in American history.

"At this point, he sought solely to condition his editorial staff to his principles of how a paper should be written and edited."

This quote emphasizes Pulitzer's initial focus on instilling his editorial philosophy in his staff as a foundation for the paper's future success.

Innovation in Content and Presentation

  • Pulitzer understood the importance of content in competing with over a thousand other newspapers.
  • He emphasized the quality of the message over gimmicks and tricks.
  • Pulitzer also innovated the visual aspect of the newspaper by adding illustrations, which helped it stand out.

"He had found every excuse possible to add illustrations to make their paper stand his."

The quote illustrates Pulitzer's recognition of the importance of visual differentiation in the crowded newspaper market.

Understanding the Audience

  • Pulitzer recognized the need to cater to the diverse and growing immigrant population in New York.
  • He used illustrations as an educational tool for those struggling with English, similar to tactics used by Levi Strauss with visual branding.

"A great many people in the world required to be educated through their eyes, as it were."

This quote shows Pulitzer's insight into the needs of his audience and his strategy to engage them visually.

Leveraging Public Service for Business Growth

  • Pulitzer used the fundraising for the Statue of Liberty's base as a means to gain attention for his newspaper.
  • He engaged readers by promising to publish the names of all donors, which boosted the paper's circulation.

"The public service also turned out to be good for business as the world's circulation soared."

The quote connects Pulitzer's public service initiative with the business benefit of increased newspaper circulation.

Pulitzer's Decline and Health Issues

  • Despite his success, Pulitzer's intense work ethic led to severe health problems, including blindness.
  • His relentless drive and lack of self-care were factors contributing to his declining health.

"Work and tension continued to wear Pulitzer down."

This quote underscores the negative impact of Pulitzer's excessive work on his health.

The Rise of William Randolph Hearst

  • Hearst studied and emulated Pulitzer's methods, eventually surpassing him in the newspaper industry.
  • Hearst took over the San Francisco Examiner and transformed it using Pulitzer's playbook.

"For years, Hearst had read, studied, and cut out articles from the world."

The quote shows Hearst's deliberate effort to learn from and ultimately outdo Pulitzer's successful strategies.

Pulitzer's Focus on Quality and Innovation

  • Pulitzer prioritized having the best paper over the largest in size.
  • He instructed his writers to use shorter paragraphs and sentences, understanding readers' preferences for brevity.

"I regard it as more important to have the best paper than the biggest in size."

This quote reflects Pulitzer's commitment to quality over quantity in his newspaper.

The Tragic End of Pulitzer's Life

  • Pulitzer's later years were marked by isolation, family disappointment, and an overall tragic ending.
  • His pursuit of wealth and success came at the cost of happiness and family relationships.

"He was bereft of friends, and the companions with whom he spent his days were paid to be with him."

The quote poignantly captures the loneliness and sadness of Pulitzer's final years, despite his earlier achievements.

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