Review: Pulitzer by James McGrath Morris

by Kim on April 15, 2010 · 16 comments

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Title: Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, & Power
Author: James McGrath Morris
Genre: Biography
Year: 2010
Acquired: Requested from the publisher for review
Rating: ★★★★☆

Two Sentence Summary: Today, “Pulitzer” is mostly just a word — the name of the most prestigious prize in journalism. But the prize’s namesake, Joseph Pulitzer, was an American immigrant who’s story represents a rags-to-riches tale that illuminates how American journalism developed into what it is today.

One Sentence Review: Morris’ biography reads a lot like a novel (and with a character as insane as Pulitzer, why not?), occasionally gets bogged down in detail, but is always fun to read.

Long Review: As a journalist, I’m familiar with the Pulitzer Prize — an annual award honoring the best works in journalism and the arts since 1917. But I was less familiar with the prize’s namesake, newspaper publish Joseph Pulitzer, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who used politics as a path to becoming a newspaper giant in New York City. In the opening to Pulitzer, biographer James McGrath Norris compares Pulitzer’s power in the journalism world to the power held by other industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. High comparison, don’t you think?

Joseph Pulitzer immigrated to America 1864 after being recruited to take the place of a Northern citizen in the Civil War. After a short time serving, Pulitzer was released and moved to St. Louis where he quickly became involved with a local newspaper and the city’s political scene. He served for a time in the legislature, but always had a passion for print. Before almost anyone else, Pulitzer realized the power the media has in American life and started to use that power for his own political means.

Eventually, Pulitzer followed his dream — purchasing a newspaper in New York City — and moved his family their to build an empire. Just when he reached the top, Pulitzer came down with a series of (real and imagined) illnesses that kept him constantly away from the paper seeking treatment. He continued to micro-manage his staff via telegram, ushering in the eras of yellow journalism and news as a source of political power that we still see evidence of today.

As the summary suggests, this book is a fairly balanced look at both the story of Pulitzer and the story of journalism more generally. I loved the way events in this book connected to events from other books and movies I love. For example, Pulitzer was one of the men responsible for the newsboy strike at the center of the musical Newsies. Check out this unflattering clip of Pulitzer from the movie:

After reading the book, I don’t think that portrayal is too far off from the kind of person Pulitzer could be at his worst. He was a man I found simultaneously sympathetic, admirable, and downright annoying.

One of the most difficult things for me as a journalist was to balance my views of the social purpose of journalism with what Pulitzer believed. I believe that journalism is a public service, while Pulitzer saw his newspaper as a path to power. In one scene, he argued that the news section of the paper wasn’t important — it was just a path to get people to read the editorial page. That’s almost exactly the opposite of what I believe. I suppose that’s why I’ll never be a newspaper empire-builder.

Another interesting part of the story was Pulitzer’s fall from grace near the end of his life. As he aged, Pulitzer gradually went blind and constantly demanded outrageous accommodations from his staff. At one point, Pulitzer hired staff to build a completely sound-proof room in his home. The staff built it, then spend time making as much noise in the house as possible to test out the room. They thought it was perfect, but when Pulitzer went to sleep he said he could hear things and immediately left the extremely expensive house.

Although Pulitzer’s illnesses and increasing insanity are interesting, my biggest critique of the book is the pacing in the end. The story drags, getting bogged down in Pulitzer’s long list of medical treatments (and the fact that Pulitzer got increasingly unlikable at the end of his life), then ends abruptly after his death. I would have loved a few more chapters about Pulitzer’s ongoing legacy to round out what is a truly fascinating story.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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