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Morris Lecture celebrates enduring impact of Joseph Pulitzer

January 30th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

By Catherine Meidell
News Editor, The Utah Statesman

LOGAN—Joseph Pulitzer, a pioneer of journalism in the mid-19th century who used wordcraft to keep American government in line, and who was among the first to establish an independent press, was celebrated this week at Utah State University.

Biographer James McGrath Morris, author of a new book on Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, came to campus to deliver a Morris Media & Society Lecture on the newspaper baron whose name is linked with the nation’s top journalism prize.

“He knows more about Pulitzer than anyone on the planet today,” said Ted Pease, head of USU’s journalism and communication department, which sponsors the lecture series.

See related story on Morris’s talk and an in-depth interview on Utah Public Radio.

In the 1880s, Pulitzer—a Hungarian immigrant—bought struggling The New York World and became the first to create a true press for the masses in the United States, Morris said. Upon arriving in America, Pulitzer entered into a realm of journalism that was drastically different at that time.

“His views of journalism changed immensely,” Morris said, “like a painter’s realization that they are part of something bigger.”

Pulitzer’s World and before that The St. Louis Post-Dispatch were among the first independent, non-partisan newspapers in America, a big change, Morris said. Newspapers of that era were normally paid for by political organizations, and reflected their positions.

For example, he said, the Post-Dispatch’s competition in St. Louis were The Missouri Republican and The Missouri Democrat.

Most recognize Pulitzer’s name because of the Pulitzer Prize, the prestigious award he established before his death for journalists whose writing has an impact on the masses, Morris said—it is no accident that the top annual Pulitzer Prize is for public service, he said. Pulitzer’s aim was to give recognition to those who pursued the same work he did. He also established the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“Newspapers [before Pulitzer’s World] were very polite, expensive and read by the upper class,” Morris said. The kind of people who read newspapers in the late 1800s were those who held their pinkies up while sipping tea, Morris said, appalled by the content Pulitzer published about the lives and struggles of lower-class immigrants. He said these critics were “missing the point.”

Pulitzer found it imperative to appeal to the “average” American, Morris said. “He had come to appreciate journalism as something sacred in democracy.”

After Pulitzer made his mark through the The World, newspapers became diverse, written for the common man, and included cartoons and sometimes sheet music, he said.

“A printing press in the 19th century was like an iPad in the 21th century. It was so exciting people would come to see press rooms.”

In order to research for his book, Morris said he spent a large portion of the day taking copious notes, studying U.S. archives and traveling to Paris after finding a Pulitzer family member who had a previously unknown journal written by the publisher’s brother, Albert. These pages revealed an entirely new face of Pulitzer that previous biographers had left out.

Morris worked previously as a journalist and said he acquired many of his nonfiction writing skills in the newsroom.

“Journalism is the best training ground for writing,” Morris said. “Some writers better than me, they haven’t succeeded.

“The secret to success in life is showing up,” he said. “You have to turn in the story.”

Morris said newspapers in the 19th century had constant deadlines, running multiple new editions of the paper throughout the day with the latest news.

Pulitzer’s newspaper World was embroiled in one of the biggest newspaper wars in American history, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. This battle of “yellow journalism” ended up being Pulitzer’s downfall.

Through his research, Morris said he has grown to respect Pulitzer’s ambition to create social awareness and change.

“For me, I’m lucky, the process of writing and the journey is more important than the finished product,” Morris said. “I’m not filled with regret or disappointment—I was doing it [writing] all the time, but now I can get paid to do it.”

This story originally appeared in The Utah Statesman on Jan. 26, 2011.


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