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Publishing colossus gets his due in new biography

Pulitzer is a name so often mispronounced that it's best to begin by making this point: It's PULL-it-sir, not PYOU-litz-ur . . . PULL-ease!

Derivation: Pullitz, an ancestral village in Moravia.

All right, who was Joseph Pulitzer really? Ninety-nine years after his death at only 64, the most insightful bill of particulars to date is provided by James McGrath Morris in his meticulously researched "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power."

After transforming himself from a penniless Hungarian immigrant into a plutocratic American colossus, Pulitzer endowed the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, as well as the annual prizes for excellence in journalism and the arts that bear his name. The storied newspaper publisher became so enshrouded by myth, however, that an essential biography was long overdue.

Thanks to Morris, it has arrived. He humanizes the icon as never before, transcending W.A. Swanberg's previously authoritative "Pulitzer" of 1967 by sheer industriousness and serendipitous sleuthing.

"Joseph Pulitzer was the midwife of the birth of the modern mass media," Morris states with no shortage of evidence. ". . . Pulitzer's lasting achievement was to transform American journalism into a medium of mass consumption and immense influence."

Morris compares what Pulitzer accomplished in the 19th century to the invention of television in the 20th, calling him "Ted Turner-like in his innovative abilities, Teddy Roosevelt-like in his power to transform history, and Howard Hughes-like in the reclusive second half of his life as a blind man tormented by sound."

Interwoven through the finely textured narrative are the struggles of Joseph and Kate Pulitzer as a married couple and as parents, not the least of which was burying two of their seven children.

Joseph Pulitzer, a passionate political player who spent a year in Congress but resigned in disgust, was intent on serving the masses. A veteran of the Union Army in the Civil War, he found his base of power and influence in St. Louis. Through shrewd buying, selling and merging, he rose to riches, invigorated the Post-Dispatch and, after an 11-year ascent, hurtled to Manhattan.

In 1883, Pulitzer bought the New York World from financier Jay Gould and turned it into "the most widely read newspaper in American history." With unmatched flair, he maximized the impact of his populist message through oversize pictures, full-color layouts/supplements/comics, screaming headlines ("BAPTIZED IN BLOOD"), a common touch and, above all, the story.

"If there was a "Pulitzer formula,' " Morris says, "it was a story written so simply that anyone could read it and so colorfully that no one would forget it." Pulitzer "pushed his writers to think like Dickens. To the upper classes, it was sensationalism. To the lower and working classes, it was their life . . . their world." Bylines ranged from Nellie Bly to Mark Twain.

"Pulitzer," Morris recounts, "had an uncanny ability to recognize news in what others ignored." There were newspapers galore, and competition was never fiercer, yet Pulitzer made his splashy World "stand out like a racehorse among draft horses."

As much as by the consumers whose tastes he indulged and shaped, Pulitzer was defined by those who despised him: Roosevelt, for one, whom Morris calls "a victim of Pulitzer's stubborn, unbending insistence on principle over compromise or expediency." TR tried his utmost, albeit unsuccessfully, to have Pulitzer imprisoned for libel.

Then there was rival titan William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal. His circulation war with Pulitzer devolved into yellow journalism, with its sensationalistic stench of exaggeration, distortion and outright fabrication. Never was it more toxic than in coverage surrounding another war, the Spanish-American.

Pulitzer and William Jennings Bryan couldn't stand each other, either, and there also was a blood feud between the World and New York City's citadel of Democratic bossism, Tammany Hall.

Social justice is what Pulitzer professed, but his detractors called it sanctimony, or worse. They went as far as to condemn his philanthropic efforts as "thinly veiled attempts to cleanse his legacy before his approaching death."

Be that as it may, the crown jewel of the prizes he bequeathed -- the gold medal -- is the focus of a newly updated paperback, "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism" by Roy J. Harris Jr. For anyone interested in journalism's core mission, it's a wonderful read.

As keepers of the Pulitzer flame go, first among equals is Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia and prominent member of the board of 20 that passes final judgment on the nominations made by the juries for 14 prizes in journalism and seven in letters, drama and music. By coincidence, he, too, has a noteworthy new book, "Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century."

Among 2010's wide-ranging diagnoses and prognoses for the news business, the most penetrating so far is by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, "The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again." That daunting World is most assuredly not anything like the World That Pulitzer Wrought, when dinosaurs ruled. Instead, it's the evolving-at-warp-speed Brave New World of highly individualized 2 4/7 media, where the better angels of journalism's nature must (mustn't they?) urgently reconstruct their lofty perch to once again make it secure.

Introducing Morris' book are Pulitzer's words "Don't tell stories about me. Keep them until I am dead." Imagine what this man who made his reputation putting ink on 1800s newsprint might have thought if he knew that stories would still be told about him in a 21st century that's digital. Or if he had even a hint that being awarded a Pulitzer Prize would mean that the first sentence of a winner's obituary would surely say so.
bigcap,3 AAs a reader tries to distill an essence from Pulitzer's meteoric, self-contradictory and ultimately tragic life, nowhere is there more purity than in the citation bestowed last April on a down-to-earth editorial page editor from tiny Glens Falls. As a counterpoint to the New York Times' unparalleled 101 Pulitzer Prizes, this was the Post-Star's very first. A statement.

And why was Mark Mahoney honored? For relentlessly and effectively "admonishing citizens to uphold their right to know."

Joseph Pulitzer couldn't have asked for a better legacy.

Gene Krzyzynski is a veteran copy editor for The News.


Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power

By James McGrath Morris


560 pages, $29.99

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