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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

An American Success Story   

By Denis Brian John Wiley & Sons 438 pages; $30

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Like big stories, ambitious books often have bold nut graphs, and Denis Brian unfurls his nut graph early: Joseph Pulitzer was "the Einstein, Shakespeare, Churchill of journalists, and is still the greatest newspaper editor of all time, at least in the English-speaking world."

This brash statement obliges Brian to achieve at least two goals. He must defend the greatest-editor claim, and, more intriguingly, he must dissect what makes a superior editor and how Pulitzer became one.

How well does he do? No more than medium well on either point. Brian's book, it turns out, isn't very analytical and never develops an orderly, convincing brief comparing Pulitzer to other editors or to whatever the gold standard for editing might be. It leaves a trail of crumbs and clues of insight into great editing, but readers must detect and assemble the case on their own.

What Brian does succeed in, however, is exciting play-by-play. Pulitzer may or may not be history's top editor, but he lived a fascinating, action-packed life full of daring, drive and drama, and Brian delivers an immensely readable story.

Pulitzer was born in 1847 in Hungary. Ungainly, nearsighted and temperamental, he was spurned by the Austrian army and even the French Foreign Legion. Despite speaking pitiful English, he sailed to America to join the Union Army, leaping from the ship into Boston Harbor and swimming the final yards to shore to collect a $300 enlistment bounty that otherwise would have gone to his recruiter.

He fought without distinction in the Civil War, studied law but failed to gain clients because of his scruffiness and lucked into a job for a German-language newspaper. From there he soared.

"Pulitzer willingly worked nonstop all day and night...turned in reams of good copy, covered breaking news and politics, showing...a mastery of the job." Within four years, he had gotten himself elected to the Missouri Senate (which he covered and served in simultaneously), shot a lobbyist and been convicted of assault (for which he was fined $405), and become a co-owner of the newspaper.

In 1878, he bought the St. Louis Dispatch for $2,500 at bankruptcy, and he quickly resurrected it using what would become his signature formula: "cater to the masses and earn their trust."

In 1883, he bought the ailing New York World, propelling himself into the national limelight. Using the same populist formula that had worked in St. Louis, Pulitzer upped the paper's circulation tenfold within two years. Until his death in 1911 and despite being a "blind invalid for the last 22 years of his life," Pulitzer was a larger-than-life media emperor.

He influenced the election of presidents, served briefly in Congress, engaged in nonstop crusading, surrounded himself with some of the foremost writers of the age (Nellie Bly and Theodore Dreiser, among others), was unsuccessfully prosecuted for criminal libel by Theodore Roosevelt, and raised the money that brought the Statue of Liberty to New York. Forever straddling the line between public service and sensationalism, he both endowed the nation's first school of journalism and engaged in a gutter rivalry with William Randolph Hearst that defined yellow journalism.

All this occurred as he deteriorated into what Brian calls "a physical and mental wreck," suffering from blindness, insomnia, asthma, diabetes and probably depression. Because of fragile arteries in his brain, he never tied his own shoelaces after age 43. Beset by raging headaches, he traveled the seas in a yacht or imprisoned himself in soundproof rooms, attended by a brigade of secretaries and presiding over the paper through cables and coded messages.

It is a life story of Dickensian peculiarity and proportion, but those qualities don't necessarily confer greatness. What accounts for Pulitzer's enduring legacy? What makes people celebrate an editor 100 years later?

Many potential answers present themselves. From the jump into Boston Harbor to his refusal to bow to infirmity, Pulitzer's life was a testament to the drive to succeed. He excelled in seeing both the big picture and the devilish details. He recruited top people and challenged them sometimes ruthlessly.

More than anything else, Pulitzer's legacy derives from his special ability to manage both ends of journalism's needs versus wants continuum. He gleefully satisfied human interest, and he devotedly served the public interest.

Pulitzer was a premier popularizer. He pushed for crime stories, sports coverage (including cockfights), better illustrations, bigger headlines. He took on infidelity by priests, disclosed urine tests of presidential candidate James C. Blaine, and revealed the double life of John D. Rockefeller's father, a bigamist whose unmarked grave was located by a World reporter. He organized "an expedition...that rescued 24 white slaves from bondage."

Pulitzer also was ahead of his time in covering international news and women's issues. He took labor seriously. His investigators unearthed unfair tax patterns, impurities in milk production "maggoty milk supply," the headline read and the plight of the impoverished "one of the families subsisted for nearly a week upon the carcass of a big Newfoundland dog."

He famously championed the motto, "Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!"

"A newspaper should be scrupulously accurate, avoid everything salacious or suggestive that could offend the good taste or lower the moral tone of its readers," Pulitzer declared. But he added: "I do not mean the good taste which is offended by every reference to the unpleasant things of life.... I mean the kind of good taste which demands that frankness should be linked with decency."

Perhaps more than any other editor, he showed that a paper could simultaneously entertain and serve, and his pronouncements on that point still ring. A journalist, he proclaimed, is "the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state.... He is not thinking of his wages or of the profits of his owners. He is there to watch over the safety and welfare of the people who trust him."

Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.