Monday, March 25, 2013

Pulitzer's seven deadly enemies

To Joseph Pulitzer society had seven deadly enemies: inaccurate information, injustice, special privilege, corruption, public plunder, demagoguery and inertia.

More than a century since his death, is Pulitzer’s list any less valid? If anything, it’s more so.

During some downtime on vacation I loitered in a used book store and came across the 1941 biography of Pulitzer, written by the last city editor of Pulitzer’s most beloved newspaper, The World of New York City. Pulitzer was a Hungarian immigrant who arrived penniless to the U.S. and did an unremarkable stint as a Union solder during the Civil War. He became wealthy enough to will money to Columbia University to fund its journalism program and what remains the most prestigious of American journalism awards – the Pulitzer Prizes.

I bought the book. I would brag that it’s a first edition, but I suspect it was the only printing. Others have written more scholarly works on Pulitzer than J.W. Barrett’s book, but it holds within it the style and attitude of a pre-war America that is as educational as the raw biographical story.

Like most journalists, Pulitzer was no saint. He brawled with fellow publishers and unabashedly pursued political agendas. He also could be considered the first modern American journalist, whose ideals are probably more important today than they were when he espoused them in the late 19th century.

The relationship between newspapers and those in power is no less contentious now than it was during Pulitzer’s day. As I’ve noted before, over the past five years alone, the Post Register has resorted to legal action several times to get information from public officials that was rightly in the public domain.

Pulitzer introduced a radical new twist to newspapers – graphics. Most early editions of The World included wood-cut engravings of important people of the day, and what some still consider to be one of the most influential political cartoons in American history: Belshazzar’s Feast, which helped turn the tide of the 1900 presidential election toward Grover Cleveland, who eventually was the narrow winner.

He would be intrigued by today’s Age of Entertainment, in which technology seemingly has usurped principles when it comes to journalism. I can only imagine what he would say: “How does technology make the basic enemies of society any less threatening?”

The answer, of course, is that technology has made these enemies all the more dangerous. Inaccurate information? It’s all around us. Special privilege, corruption, inertia? Worse than ever.

I am sometimes accused of naively clinging to basic journalistic principles when they seem little more than vestiges of a less sophisticated era. In truth, the passage of more than 100 hundreds since Pulitzer's death has only reaffirmed the rightness of his list.

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