Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor

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Writing the World ’s valedictory to its publisher on October 30, 1911, Cobb remembered the message he had spiked four years earlier. ”… Mr. Pulitzer’s idea of a great newspaper was concisely expressed in a cablegram … on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday—An institution which should always fight for progress and reform; never tolerate injustice or corruption; always fight demagogues of all parties; never belong to any party; always oppose privileged classes and public plunder; never lack sympathy with the poor; always remain devoted to the public welfare; never be satisfied with merely printing the news; always be drastically independent; never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

Except in the Post-Dispatch ’s circulation area, where J. P.’s words sound as brave and as pertinent as they did in 1907, there is a ring of pathos in them because “always,” in the case of the World , turned out to be less than twenty years after Pulitzer’s death. (The Scripps-Howard people bought what was left of it in February, 1931.) But there was never anything pathetic about them to Cobb. Editor of the World at last, he held the paper to its creed for the rest of his tragically brief life. No editor in the land more effectively championed Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” before the First World War, nor his course during that war, nor the League of Nations after it. Cobb remembered, too, Pulitzer’s prophetic admonition less than two months before he died: “Be kind and gentle with Woodrow Wilson, but when he goes astray, lead him back.” No one criticized Wilson more discerningly, on the very points most historians do today—the too-partisan call for a Democratic Congress in 1918, the failure to include notable Republicans like William Howard Taft and Elihu Root on the peace commission, his toleration of Jim Crowism in government departments (for which Cobb blistered him to some effect), and the sad delusion that he might run again in 1920.

Perhaps O. K. Bovard, the celebrated managing editor of the Post-Dispatch , who was another battlehardened graduate of Pulitzer’s personal school of journalism, had it right. The light really went out of the World, Bovard noted privately years later, on December 21, 1923—the day Frank Cobb died of cancer. In his own way, Cobb deserves the eulogy he gave Woodrow Wilson at the conclusion of the moving editorial that filled the whole page of the World on Wilson’s last day in office. They are the words of Paul the Apostle to Timothy:

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”