Joseph Pulitzer was a social reformer and a scandal-monger at the same time. That his name lives on as a synonym for excellence in journalism is a great tribute and, as we learn from this excellent documentary, a great irony. It was the unbridled feud between this Hungarian immigrant and fellow newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst that gave birth to the term “yellow journalism.” That is just one of the many contradictions that make up the man portrayed so well in this documentary by Oren Rudavsky.
The film opens, as it should, with Nicholson Baker leafing through bound pages of the New York World that he helped saved from destruction. (That’s a great story in itself.) The World was not only a massive broadsheet but a colorful one, literally and figuratively. It was founded by a relative newcomer to the United States who became the epitome of a self-made man in the second half of the 19th century.
His saga is the stuff of legend, from a time when ambition, determination, and sheer guts could lead to greatness. As he built his newspapers, first in St. Louis and then in New York, he fought corruption and championed the voiceless. At the same time he indulged in scandal and hyperbole in order to sell his daily paper, all the more so when he had fierce competition.
Liev Schreiber provides the voice of Pulitzer, and Adam Driver narrates this straightforward, well-researched documentary, which calls on journalists, biographers, teachers and others to tell its story, accompanied by fascinating visuals. The researchers who identified vintage headlines, newspaper stories, illustrations, photos and early motion picture footage deserve a special bow. Rudavsky includes well-staged dramatic recreations to cover certain passages in Pulitzer’s story but keeps this to a minimum.
Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People will air on PBS’ American Masters series but it has played the festival circuit and is enjoying a brief theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles. If you want to learn more, click HERE. I’m glad I got to see it. There is resonance to its story, which contrasts modern-day images with evidence (as if we needed it) that history does tend to repeat itself. Pulitzer might not like everything said about him here, but he would have to admire its honesty.