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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
Pulitzer never did get on with Theodore Roosevelt, especially after disclosing on one occasion that TR had accepted a $125,000 campaign contribution from J. P. Morgan and similar donations from other financiers. Things came to a head when the World learned that the federal government was buying at face value forty million dollars of securities of the defunct French company that had started the Panama Canal. Insiders, who had bought a large block of the shares cheaply, profited hugely when these were redeemed at face value. Arhong those insiders, the World suggested (without solid proof), were President Roosevelt’s brotherin-law, Douglas Robinson, and President-to-be William Howard Taft’s brother Charles. On his last day in office.TR, in a rage, ordered a criminal libel action against the World under an obscure 1825 statute to “Protect the Harbor Defense from Malicious Injury.” Pulitzer replied, “ The World will not be muzzled!” It was a two-year battle before a federal judge quashed the case, and the Supreme Court further ruled that the President has no power to bring such actions.
Pulitzer died on October 29,1911, of a heart attack aboard his yacht while one of his secretaries was reading to him from a biography of Louis XI. His last words were whispered in German: “Softly, very softly.”
A generous but demanding and critical father, Pulitzer had fought endlessly with his two eldest sons, Ralph, age thirty-two at his father’s death, and Joseph, Jr., twenty-six, reserving his uncritical love for sixteen-year-old Herbert, born after Pulitzer went blind. To the family’s astonishment, the will disposed of the World by leaving 60 percent of the stock to Herbert; 20 percent to Ralph, who was now to take his father’s place as editor of the World ; 10 percent to Joseph, Jr.; and the final 10 percent to be divided among deserving employees. Pulitzer stipulated that the World was to be carried on as a public trust, like the Pulitzer Prizes he had established and the Columbia University School of Journalism. “I particularly enjoin upon my sons and my descendants,” the will read, “the duty of preserving, perfecting and perpetuating The World … as a public institution, from motives higher than mere gain. ”
Joseph, Jr., went off at once to St. Louis, where, with the aid of O. K. Bovard, whom he took along as his managing editor, he made the Post-Dispatch one of the best, most influential, and profitable papers in the United States. Ralph, an able but mild-mannered editor, lacked the temperament to carry on his father’s fiercely aggressive policies. Nevertheless, as Jim Barrett said, recalling his arrival from Denver in 1912, “One could see how the World set the pace and dominated the metropolitan press. On every story it was the World man who commanded greatest attention and respect.”
In that same year and out of Pulitzer’s own original turf, St. Louis, came a young man of exactly his height, with the same Roman nose and Grecian head, and enough of a resemblance to perpetuate the legend—unfounded—that he was a natural son of Pulitzer, come to save the kingdom.
Herbert Bayard Swope at once became the World ’s spectacular star reporter. On any major story, Swope would not only get all the information the other reporters did but a great deal more besides. He had an uncanny ability to charm people into telling him more than they intended and sometimes into doing more than could have been expected.
In July of 1922 he induced a Broadway gambler, Herman Rosenthal, to give the World an affidavit charging extortions by police officials, one of whom—Lt. Charles Becker of the Broadway precinct—had even forced his way, Rosenthal said, into his business as a 20 percent partner.
Next Swope took charge of the somewhat slothful district attorney, Charles Whitman, and got him to open a grand-jury inquiry. During the early morning of July 16, a day before Rosenthal was to testify, he was called out of the Hotel Metropole and was shot dead at close range by four men who fled in a gray car. Some witnesses noted the license plates. Within an hour Swope was at Whitman’s home, shaking him awake and hauling him to the police station, where Swope wrote a statement for Whitman to the effect: “I accuse the Police Department of New York of this murder.”
Next Swope rounded up a covey of Broadway gamblers who swore Becker had ordered Rosenthal’s murder. The four gunmen were traced, found, and went down in New York history under their business names of Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louie, Whitey Lewis, and Dago Frank.