Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People

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Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People

Runtime 84 minutes. PG

Everybody hears of the Pulitzer Prize but how many know anything about the man for whom the prize is named? Joseph Pulitzer (Liev Schreiber) came to the United States in 1864 as an impoverished 17-year-old from Hungary, his fare paid by Massachusetts military recruiters who were seeking soldiers for the Civil War. After serving eight months, he made his way to St. Louis and went into the newspaper business, eventually starting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

When the Post-Dispatch was such a success he went to New York and bought a floundering newspaper, The World. At the time, New York was not what it is today. As an example, 2.5 million pounds of horse manure had to be removed every day.

A workaholic, Pulitzer turned it into the top newspaper in the city, if not the United States, as he took on the powerful, including President Teddy Roosevelt (Tim Blake Nelson), who castigated Pulitzer to Congress, accusing him of libel for claiming that Roosevelt’s crowning achievement, the Panama Canal, was a “colonialist overreach built on a $40 million cover-up.” Teddy wanted to put Pulitzer in jail, claiming, “…it is high national duty to bring to justice this villifier of the American people.” I guess some things never change.

Pulitzer hired a young cartoonist, Richard F. Outcault, whose cartoons showed the mayhem of life in New York. Eventually Outcault’s cartoons featured a big-eared, bald street kid in a yellow gown who made caustic comments about what was going on. It was probably the most popular feature of the paper and one that got New Yorkers talking every day.

When the 32-year-old William Randolph Hearst decided to get into the New York newspaper business he bought the floundering Journal (a few weeks after Pulitzer sold it) and immediately set out after Pulitzer’s World, resulting in a knock down, drag out battle with Pulitzer, and, eventually, the Spanish-American War.

Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer and he continued his cartoons with his yellow shirted character in the Journal. This is the origin of the term “yellow journalism.”

Before moving to New York in 1878 at the age of 31, he married Katherine “Kate” Davis (Lauren Ambrose), a beautiful woman of high social standing, from Georgetown in the District of Columbia and brought her back to St. Louis. Apparently, though, he was not an easy man because she is quoted as saying, “He said that I did not understand the proper relations between husband and wife, that all the little things that go to make a man comfortable, I failed him. There is not a servant in the house who had worked harder than I had. I have made a slave of myself.”

Maybe he was a lousy husband, but he was certainly a fighter. He was blind the last 20 years of his life, but that didn’t stop him from taking on one fight after another.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles I was very aware of the newspaper The World Telegram and Sun because Dan Daniel, the New York Yankees correspondent for the weekly St. Louis Sporting News, wrote for the World Telegram and Sun.  It was an amalgamation of mergers of three old New York newspapers, one of them Pulitzer’s World. None of them survive today. However its death was an intriguing anomaly in that in 1966 with New York flooding with newspapers, the World Telegram & Sun joined with Hearst’s Journal American and the Herald Tribune to produce The World Journal Tribune a joint afternoon edition. That lasted less than a year before it went out of business leaving New York with three newspapers, The New York Times, The New York Post, and The New York Daily News. So the great papers of Pulitzer and Hearst died together again.

Directed by Oren Rudavsky from a script by him and Robert Seidman, these are just a few of the delicious tidbits in this intriguing documentary about a controversial man who had a great influence on publishing in America.

Tony Medley is an MPAA-accredited film critic. See more reviews at


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