SARATOGA SPRINGS – Saratoga Jewish Community Arts will present a Zoom discussion of the film documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People” on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m. The film may be viewed free on Kanopy and PBS Passport.
Pulitzer is probably best remembered for the journalism awards that bear his name and yet these aren’t mentioned until nearly the end of the film.
According to organizers, that seems just, given the breadth of Pulitzer’s American Dream-defining life, a Horatio Alger story in real time.
Pulitzer grew up in a Hungarian Jewish family with the education of private teachers from France and Germany. Seeking adventure at 17, he tried to enlist as a soldier in the Austrian Army. Failing that, he tried Napoleon’s Foreign Legion and after that, the British Army for service in India. He was turned away each time because of weak eyesight and frail health until he came upon a bounty recruiter in Hamburg, Germany, who authorized his enlistment in the U.S. Union Army during the American Civil War, a contract enlistee to serve as a substitute for a draftee, a procedure permitted under the Civil War draft.
He found himself in a regiment of predominantly German speaking immigrants, and after the war he headed west as a “penniless Jewish immigrant,” working with mules and on railroads.
Settling in St. Louis, he got involved with politics in Missouri, and was elected to its state Senate. In 1878, with profits from an earlier newspaper investment, he created the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which would become the flagship of a media empire.
Pulitzer was known to have a somewhat obnoxious personality and an outspoken and cantankerous editorial voice. He championed what he regarded as the sacred role of the free press in a democracy.
His papers introduced an entertainment section covering sports, fashion, comics, etc., next to murder, mayhem, exposés and sob stories, coverage that was sensationalistic, socially conscious, and sometimes both, defining the medium of news in a way that can still be felt today.
“While some considered him a gutter life,” said Phyllis Wang, coordinator of SJCA, “he was a man of great contradictions, aspiring to a high society life while spreading the voice of democracy in the United States.”
In later years, Pulitzer bought the New York World, the first national paper, and it became a powerful instrument for battling monopolies and corrupt government as the World’s circulation became larger.
Pulitzer’s papers would claim that Roosevelt benefited from the construction of the Panama Canal during his presidency and Roosevelt sued for libel.
After three years of legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Pulitzer, arguing that the president was not eligible to bring libel, since it was not defined as a federal crime.
Pulitzer called for taxes on incomes of the wealthy and crusaded against doctored milk, contaminated water, and harmful tenement conditions. He fought to establish decent wages, safer working conditions, and a 12-hour workday. Oddly enough, these were platform policies the Roosevelt administration would also support.
Registration for the Zoom chat is required at [email protected]www.saratogasinai.org or www.saratogajewishculturalfestival.org.