Pulitzer Of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   November 1991

Pulitzer Of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch   

Joseph Pulitzer II And The
Post-Dispatch:
A Newspaperman's Life

By Daniel W. Pfaff
Penn State Press

Book review by Howard Bray
Howard Bray is the former director of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      



Joseph Pulitzer II And The
Post-Dispatch:
A Newspaperman's Life
By Daniel W. Pfaff
Penn State Press
455 pages; $29.95

How did young Joseph Pulitzer turn out to be such an exemplary editor and publisher of a great newspaper when his father, an icon of American journalism, made him the frequent target of his temper and bombast and ceaseless judgment?

In failing health, the old man desperately wanted to impart to his son his vision of what a newspaper should be: fiercely independent of partisan and financial interests, committed to the public good, and profitable.

Those tirades were not without cause. Booted out of prep school for a midnight incursion into the headmaster's house and yanked from Harvard for desultory studies, "Prince Joe" was soon fired for absenteeism from his father's beloved New York World .

Redeemed — but still under close paternal control — and sent off in 1906 to the family-owned St. Louis Post-Dispatch , Pulitzer soon wrote his father that he might have turned out worse. "After all I am not a drunkard; I am not a degenerate; I am not a gambler, and I am not a rounder — and in these four respects I am superior at least to the average millionaire's son." Undoubtedly. Besides his father, he was tutored by seasoned editors and business managers.

How Joseph Pulitzer II made the Post-Dispatch one of the nation's most respected dailies is recounted by David W. Pfaff, a journalism professor at Pennsylvania State University. Up front he discloses that the Pulitzer Publishing Company Foundation made a grant "to enhance the physical quality of this book and to augment its promotion." The grant, Pfaff notes, "was both offered and accepted with the specific stipulation that it carried with it no conditions as to the book's content." The author's honesty about his subject is apparent.

Pfaff has mined a rich vein of Pulitzer correspondence and office memos. ("They write down everything, even the grocery list," a journalist who has examined the family's archives told me.) Interviews with some executives who were close to Pulitzer help expand the story. But the heavy reliance on Pulitzer's own files leaves room for a future work.

Still, Pfaff illuminates Pulitzer's 43-year reign over what the author regards as the golden age of the Post-Dispatch , when it won 12 of its 17 Pulitzer Prizes and prospered. The newspaper exposed political corruption was a steadfast voice for civic betterment, though it came slowly to the cause of racial justice.

It fared far better than the New York World . The senior Pulitzer had bought the World in 1883 with profits from the smaller Post-Dispatch and made it an influential and rich property. His oldest son, Ralph, succeeded him but the World began slipping in the hotly competitive New York market. Young Joe urged changes to reverse this course, fearing the Post-Dispatch would be milked to save the World . His father's will enjoined the heirs from selling the New York paper. But in 1931, the World died.

Pulitzer's father had angrily resisted young Joe's urging that their papers reject ads for quack nostrums. After Joseph Pulitzer II took charge of the Post-Dispatch , he barred such ads, costing the paper millions of dollars. (In 1970, long after his death, the paper decided to refuse cigarette ads, and reportedly lost about $3 million a year from the policy. The ban was lifted after five years because the paper needed revenue and concluded the ban had scant impact on readers.)

The Depression and the New Deal confronted the country with hard choices. The paper, generally sympathetic to Democrats, endorsed Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1932. Four years later, Pulitzer shifted the paper's support to Republican Alfred M. Landon, believing that F.D.R. sought too much government control of the marketplace. Later, however, the paper would endorse Roosevelt for a third and a fourth term.

O. K. Bovard, the paper's legendary managing editor, thought the New Deal wasn't moving far enough to end the economic crisis. Bovard's remedy, which he urged on Pulitzer, was socialism. Pulitzer insisted that Bovard detail how his proposal for nationalization of basic industries could be translated into a credible editorial position. Bovard declined and resigned.

But Pulitzer gave his editors a long leash. "They always find him ready to reason and willing to listen to opposing arguments," said Irving Dilliard when he was editorial page editor. Still, it was Pulitzer's press, and he had the last word on what went into the paper. Like his father, Pulitzer never required a writer to write against his conscience.

"It seems fair to say," observes Pfaff, "that his outlook was closer to what might be called the conventional mainstream than that of his editorial subordinates generally, or it might be said that he was less a doubter and a distruster than they."

Current concerns with the widening gap between rich and poor would ring familiar to Pulitzer. He doubted that income would ever be fairly distributed, but he was certain "that the country must make progress towards the goal of fairer distribution." That from an aristocrat who in 1937 was the highest paid executive in Missouri, earning $255,000. A year later the paper's contract gave the newsroom the highest minimum wages the American Newspaper Guild had ever gotten.

As the Cold War began, Pulitzer questioned Dilliard's zeal for constitutional rights of free expression even for communists. Others dissuaded him from his plan to require Post-Dispatch job applicants to sign a loyalty oath, a practice that was being adopted by government and business. But Pulitzer wanted applicants questioned orally and the "record kept in writing and signed by the respective employer."

St. Louis was racially segregated during most of Pulitzer's life. In 1941, he asked his managing editor, Benjamin Reese, "whether a Negro reporter might not be worthwhile." "No!" was the curt reply. Pulitzer was perplexed by the race issue. "His attitudes about reform were strongly tempered by his reading of the readiness of whites to support change..," Pfaff writes. In 1947 he drafted a memo to Reese suggesting the paper hire a black columnist. "How, may I ask, without the rankest hypocrisy can we preach tolerance on the editorial page and then deny a qualified Negro..an opportunity to speak for the Negro? Sooner or later we must face this issue, why not now?" But he never sent it. Three years later the Post-Dispatch presented a 13-week series on the decay in St. Louis, including its sprawling black slums. The series energized programs to relieve the blight.

In 1951 Pulitzer bought and closed his evening competitor, the St. Louis Star-Times . That put me out of work as a cub reporter, but it boosted the Post-Dispatch 's circulation well ahead of the only remaining daily, the Globe-Democrat . Today, only the Post-Dispatch survives.

Joseph Pulitzer died in 1955, but Pulitzers remain in the management of the company. They have in Joseph Pulitzer II and his father two tough acts to follow.

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