Fair and Unbiased
This year, the Pulitzer Prizes celebrates one hundred years of recognizing excellence and integrity in newspaper journalism and, more recently, other forms of media. However, prize founder Joseph Pulitzer wasn’t exactly known for honorable work during his lifetime. In fact, Pulitzer was a pioneer of yellow journalism.
Early American Newspapers and Bias
Eighteenth century newspapers mostly featured advertisements, including ads for runaway slaves and servants, and letters submitted by locals. According to Peter Onuf, BackStory co-host and history professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, papers became more politicized during the Revolution when editors “increasingly identified with political parties.” By the nineteenth century, many newspapers had partisan editors at the helm.
In the 1800s, newspapers were mainly the megaphones of political parties. A blog post by late University of Wisconsin-Madison professor James L. Baughman noted that political parties “actually subsidized the operations of many newspapers” and that wasn’t a good thing. In fact, the government contracts awarded to journalism outfits ensured that they “had a real interest in who got elected,” said Onuf. This type of bias gave way to yellow journalism, a form of reporting more focused on sensationalism than facts.
Yellow Journalism and the Rise of Joseph Pulitzer
One of the best examples of yellow journalism is the 1898 coverage of the Maine explosion. The USS Maine was an American battleship deployed to the harbor in Havana, Cuba as a display of U.S. power. According to the U.S. State Department, “On the night of February 15, an explosion tore through the ship’s hull, and the Maine went down.”
Initial reports of the Maine’s destruction indicated that the explosion had come from onboard the ship. However, a later naval investigation stated the source of the explosion was a mine in the harbor. It was the latter report that Joseph Pulitzer clung to and used when reporting the tragedy on the front page of his newspaper, “The World.”
Pulitzer was born to wealth (or at least comfort depending on what story you read) in Hungary in 1847 and came to the U.S. during the Civil War, according to his Pulitzer Prizes bio. Pulitzer’s was a riches-to-rags-to-riches story since his early days in this country involved a brief stint of homelessness and starting at the bottom of a German daily called “Westliche Post.” During his early years as a writer, he was known for exposing corruption.
By 1878, Pulitzer was owner of the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” and by 1883, he’d negotiated purchase of “The New York World.” This made him a well-established player in the game, like fellow publisher William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst and Pulitzer had used their publications to fuel anti-Spanish sentiment for years. Both publishers seized upon the sinking of the Maine as an opportunity to further their goals. As you can see in the headline from Pulitzer’s paper, the facts of the Maine’s destruction weren’t the focal point of the story.
Has Bias and Yellow Journalism Disappeared?
Anyone who has been to journalism school will tell you that a journalist is taught to be fair and unbiased. Part of how writer’s accomplish this is by:
- having multiple sources
- attributing those sources
- the writer not being a part of the story
Mostly, these methods work, but sometimes they don’t.
BackStory researcher Melissa Gismondi, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, believes that if we “take yellow journalism to mean journalism based on sensation and without evidence,” then that style of journalism didn’t end after its Golden Age heyday. She cites the “Massie Affair” as an example.
In 1932, Thalia Massie, a wealthy white woman living in Hawaii, was kidnapped, beaten and raped. When the press covered the crime, they used words like “white woman of refinement and culture” to describe Massie and “thugs,” “degenerates,” and “fiends” to describe the five men accused of the crime who were of Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese-Hawaiian descent. Gismondi points out that this “shows the profound racial, gender, and class anxieties in the new, overseas American empire, as well as the tremendous power that journalists have to shape trials and the public response to them.”
Awarding Excellence and Integrity in Media
In Joseph Pulitzer’s 1904 will, he created the structure for the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1912, the year after his death, the Columbia School of Journalism was established and Pulitzer Prizes were first distributed in 1917.
It may seem odd that a man who used scandal to sell newspapers created an award recognizing the opposite. Onuf suspects the move may have been a “quest for posthumous respectability.”
Though there have been a few controversies surrounding the prize – mostly for making or not making the award to certain individuals – more journalism awards have gone to “exposure of corruption than to any other subject” according to the Pulitzer Prizes website. It looks like Pulitzer found respect after all.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist