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What Made The ‘World’ Great?
It exposed corruption. It hired drunks. Good writing was rewarded. No wonder every newspaperman wanted to work there.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
A pistol shot drove him from St. Louis again. The gunman this time was his chief editorial writer, Col. John A. Cockerill, who shot and killed a politician, claiming self-defense. The incident caused great public indignation and coincided with a general failure of Pulitzer’s health. His eyes had been damaged by long hours of reading by gaslight, and he coughed blood, suffered insomnia along with attacks of asthma and spells of depression, and showed signs of incipient diabetes, all of which would plague him the rest of his life.
Bound for Europe with his wife for rest and recuperation, Pulitzer stopped over in New York and seized the chance to buy the World for $346,000. He nailed to the masthead a pledge of what the new World would be, and it stayed there until the paper’s last day: “An institution that 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 plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty. ” Signs were posted along the walls of the city room with Pulitzer’s standing order to his staff: ACCURACY. TERSENESS. ACCURACY . The World had no sacred cows, and it never knuckled under to advertisers. When the manager of a department store where a murder had taken place called to demand that the story be killed, the reporter was instead told by his editor: “Put the name of the store in the first line of the first sentence of the first paragraph. We’re going to teach people that when they buy space in this Daner, they don’t buy the paper along with it.”
“You have all been living in the parlor,” Pulitzer told his reporters. “Now I wish you to understand that you are all walking down the Bowery.”
Only a year after buying the World , Pulitzer was largely responsible for electing a President. The presidential campaign of 1884 had degenerated early into a contest of scandal and doggerel. Republicans, discovering that Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate son (which Cleveland frankly and publicly admitted), chanted:
The Democrats, uncovering a letter Republican James G. Blaine had written a money baron with a postscript asking him to “Burn this letter,” worked up their own chant:
It became evident toward the end of the campaign that New York was going to be the key state. With only a week to go before the election, Pulitzer made a brilliant stroke. On the morning of October 29 a minister in a group of Protestant clergy greeting Blaine denounced the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine took no notice of the remark. In fact nobody did, except the man from the World . In a city with five hundred thousand Irish, German, and Italian Catholics, nothing could be more deadly.
That evening Blaine was given a dinner by 180 financiers, including William H. Vanderbilt, Russell Sage, John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould. Reporters were strictly barred, but characteristically the World learned about the proceedings from start to finish. Pulitzer sent for his favorite cartoonist, Walt McDougall.
Next morning the World ’s front page was devoted entirely to Blaine. An article told of the “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” remark. Nearby a cartoon mimicked the Babylonian feast in the Bible where a finger wrote on the wall, “You have been weighed and found wanting,” and a seven-column streamer went across the page: “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.” The half-page, crowded drawing showed Blaine flanked by tycoons, eating “Monopoly Soup,” “Lobby Pudding,” and “Gould Pie,” while an unemployed man and his starving wife and child begged for crumbs from the table.
On November 7 the vote was in, and New York’s Union League Club lowered its flag to half-mast. Cleveland had carried the state by 1,149 votes and with it the Presidency. (And Pulitzer himself had been elected to Congress, although he resigned four months later because, he asserted, it took him away from his work.)