Pulitzer Prize Warning: Avoid Arrogance of Power

Posted: Apr 17, 2001 12:00 AM
Joseph Pulitzer's 15 minutes of annual fame arrived Monday afternoon. That's when hot journalists garnered the prizes named after and funded by the editor/publisher who ruled the press roost a century ago. But the unmentioned story about Pulitzer is this: His own life shows what happens when a nose for news turns into the arrogance of power. Pulitzer, like some of today's press leaders, had a penetrating intellect and superb journalistic instincts, but he was described as a man who "exudes the venom of a snake and wields the bludgeon of a bully." From the 1880s through his death in 1911, as owner of the most influential newspaper in New York City, he thought he could do whatever he wanted. One fellow newspaper editor noted, "Absolute authority made Pulitzer a tyrant." As a young man, Pulitzer had been a great reporter and editor, but as he gained power he became -- as one biographer put it -- a "helpless megalomaniac and egocentric." When Pulitzer gradually went blind during the 1890s, he called himself "the loneliest man in the world" -- but that isolation was largely self-imposed. Pulitzer separated himself from his wife and children for most of his last 20 years because he wanted around him only "compliant attendants," whom he would swear at and occasionally whip. Pulitzer's wife often wanted to join him, but Pulitzer raged at her, then complained that he had to eat dinner with "nobody at my table except paid employees." Many of those assistants admired him at first, but later or usually sooner he would turn on them. One reporter wrote, "When anything went wrong, and things seemed to go wrong with him very often, there would come from his office ... a stream of profanity and filth." Pulitzer's essential problem is that he wanted to be treated as an infallible god. When Charles Evan Hughes, later to be the Supreme Court's chief justice, visited Pulitzer in 1903, he reported, "One would have supposed that Mr. Pulitzer was sitting as the judge of all the earth." Pulitzer spent many of his last years sailing in a yacht with 75 employees trained to cater to his whims. As one biographer put it: "The yacht represented the logical end toward which the eccentric despot, so concerned with democracy, had been working for decades. It gave him complete control. It was an absolute monarchy." Pulitzer could have improved his disposition by understanding that he really was not in control, because a God far more powerful than any newspaper publisher is. Pulitzer's only bow in that direction displayed his arrogance: For a time he sent an atheistic employee to church every week to place a new $5 bill on the offering plate and then leave. Another of Pulitzer's assistants explained, "Mr. Pulitzer has then attended church." Pulitzer ended his life agitated by what he called his "constant and manifold failures." Having forsaken God, he complained that he was "forsaken and deserted." History, however, has not forsaken him, because he had the foresight to use a bit of his fortune to set up awards that became the most prestigious in American journalism. Now, on the day Pulitzer Prizes are handed out, his name is remembered, and perhaps even loved by the winners. Those winners, though, need to remember the danger they are in. A Russian folk tale tells of a warrior valiant on horseback who traveled to Moscow to receive the thanks of the Czar. His reward came in the form of heavy, jeweled armor, which the hero wore on his trip home. When fording a river, his horse stumbled and the warrior drowned, weighed down by what was intended to lift him up in the esteem of his countrymen. Joseph Pulitzer drowned similarly, weighed down by his arrogance. So may some winners of his prize, unless they consider themselves public servants rather than press lords.