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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,316

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This is the grave of Joseph Pulitzer.

Born in the town of Mako, in what is today south central Hungary, in 1847, Pulitzer did not go into the town’s iconic industry of garlic, which it is still known for today. Rather, he came from Jewish business-merchant family. The family was in fact quite well off. In fact, his father was so successful that he retired in 1853, moved to Pest (the eastern part of Budapest, but a different city at the time) and gave his children the finest education possible. But he died in 1858 and the family fortune fell apart. The kids would have to do something.

In fact, the poverty the teenage Pulitzer felt was quite real. He tried to join the Austrian, French, and British military but was rejected every time. Not sure why. Age perhaps, maybe health. And so he joined the U.S. military to fight treason in defense of slavery in 1864 and emigrated after signing a contract to do so. He got to the U.S. late that year, realized he was getting screwed by the people recruiting him, and so walked off and found a regiment in New York to volunteer for. He ended up in the 1st New York Calvary and fought in the Appomattox campaign before the war ended. The regiment was almost all German and so he didn’t speak any English yet.

After the war, this poor though reasonably well-educated man had to find something to do. First, he went to New Bedford to work in whaling, but that industry was dying rapidly. He was homeless for awhile. He eventually ended up in St. Louis, doing whatever job he could get, which was a lot of different stuff. He was a waiter for awhile but got fired for dropping a tray on a customer and soaking him in beer. Maybe it was an accident….maybe not.

What changed Pulitzer’s life was getting screwed over by someone who promised him a job in New Orleans, took his money, then forced him off the boat 30 miles south of St. Louis. He wrote about his experience for a German language newspaper and it was accepted. He impressed people in St. Louis. Despite his still terrible English, he managed to pass the bar in 1868. “Joey the Jew,” as he was known in St. Louis, was deeply involved in the German language intellectual community in the city and then the English language community as he got more fluent.

It didn’t take long for Pulitzer, despite his language limitations, to get involved in politics. He was a passionate Republican, as were many Germans. He saw Carl Schurz as a personal hero on top of that. Despite the fact that he was only 22 years old and thus ineligible to run, Republicans nominated him for an open seat in 1869. His competitor was an ex-Confederate. So he won and everyone just ignored his age. He was an enthusiastic person, just generally, and he brought that to Jefferson City, where he worked tirelessly to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment and fought corruption. Like Schurz, he was disgusted by Grant’s toleration of corruption and so got behind the Liberal Republican idea that ended up with the disastrous Horace Greeley in 1872. After that, Pulitzer became involved in a number of agricultural reform movements and third party attempts around the Grange. This is the stuff that would eventually become the Populists. But by 1876, Pulitzer was a full-fledged Democrat, a lot more concerned with the corruption of the Republican Party than Black rights. And to be clear, the corruption of the Grant administration was genuinely amazing and isn’t something made up by people who want to downplay Reconstruction. It was really bad. The problem here is people like Schurz and Greeley and Pulitzer deciding that Black rights were less important.

While Pulitzer remained a very active politician, and by the 1870s a very strong Democrat based on his small government and clean government views, he moved his activism toward newspaper ownership, which is why we know him today. He bought a series of papers in St. Louis and built an empire. It didn’t take his workers very long to realize that he was making all the profit and they were making none and so they tried to unionize. He crushed that union like a bug. He would claim his whole career to be a populist, but that never applied to his own life. He hated any kind of worker activism as much as John D. Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan if that was going to affect his operations.

It took a few years to become a real power player in St. Louis but by the mid 1880s, he began to create a national newspaper empire. In 1883, he bought the New York World off of Jay Gould, who had acquired as part of a deal but had no real interest in it. Gould was glad to sell, even though the two mean had serious animosity toward one another after one of Pulitzer’s men killed one of Gould’s men in a battle over a candidate back in St. Louis. But hey, what’s a little murder when there’s a deal to be made? Gould basically ripped him off but Pulitzer gave in and bought it.

Pulitzer soon became, along with his rival William Randolph Hearst, the king of New York papers. Like Hearst, he focused on cheap sensationalism, public interest nonsense, crime, love stories, and other crap. It worked like a charm. Soon, the World had the nation’s largest newspaper circulation. He hired reporters such as Nellie Bly, ran comics in color, and gave people what they wanted.

What Pulitzer wanted was money and Democratic victory. He became close with Grover Cleveland and other leading New York Democrats of the Gilded Age. His hard work for Cleveland over James Blaine probably swung the election in 1884, as Cleveland won his home state by all of 0.1% and thus the whole thing. Really hard to say who was worse in that awful election.

That same election, Pulitzer decided he wanted to be in Congress and so ran and won a term. He quickly realized this was a complete waste of his time and did not run for reelection in 1886.

Hearst and Pulitzer together helped lead to America declaring war on Spain in 1898. This was such a stupid and unjust war. Spain was awful in Cuba, but the U.S. was no better after the invasion. The yellow journalism, painting the Spanish as monsters, was absolutely grotesque. Moreover, the painting in these papers of the Cubans as innocents changed immediately upon the American invasion. Pulitzer’s men started drawing the Cubans as darker and more savage. And as for the Filipinos, they were flat out savages in these comics.

Also, the entire justification for the war was a giant lie. The Spanish quite obviously did not blow up the USS Maine in Havana’s bay. Why would they? The Spanish knew very well they could not match American forces, as was easily proven. Moreover, it is obvious that the boiler or engine blew up, which was hardly uncommon at this time. But Pulitzer didn’t care about what was right. He cared about selling papers. Nothing else mattered.

Well, actually one other thing mattered. That was hurting his workers. Pulitzer, along with Hearst, was the reason for the newsies strike in 1899, since the extremely impoverished young boys who sold their papers were shafted again and again in the finances of this and they had no recourse to it. Once again, Pulitzer could be a fake populist and a cheap patriot, but when the rubber met the road, he would crush workers any way he could.

By the early 1900s, Pulitzer’s health was fading. He had depression issues (maybe because he considered what a horrible human being he had become) and was also losing his sight. He gave up the main operation of the paper by 1904 and mostly lived in Maine after that. He died in 1911, at the age of 64. He was worth $30 million, which was almost almost 0.1% of U.S. GNP. Wish he would have gone into garlic after all.

In 1917, Columbia University started the Pulitzer Prize. Really it’s perfect. Given the complete corruption of journalism today, twenty years after our media elites cheered for the unjust U.S. invasion of Iraq like Pulitzer cheered for the unjust U.S. invasion of Cuba, it’s a beautiful symmetry. Let’s name our top journalism awards after one of the worst journalists in American history. And when you look at who wins these things–three for Thomas Friedman, one for Judith Miller, etc–it’s hard not to laugh. Yes, some good people win them, but this has long been a way for elite journalists to love on each other in a giant tongue bath. Perfect it would be named after Pulitzer.

Joseph Pulitzer is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit some of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Clark Mollenhoff, a former Nixon staffer and union hater who won in 1958 for journalists’ favorite topic of labor corruption, is in Lohrville, Iowa and Anthony Leviero, who won in 1952 for reporting on the battle between Truman and MacArthur, is in Arlington, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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