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World

Pulitzer’s principles relevant to our time

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That confrontation actually happened in the first decade of the 20th century, pitting President Theodore Roosevelt against Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who had lifted The World to the rank of most influential newspaper in New York and the broader United States.

In one of his numerous crusades, Pulitzer charged Roosevelt with orchestrating a $40 million (R554 million) cover-up of corrupt practices in the building of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt retaliated by demanding, in an address to Congress, that the government perform its “high national duty to bring to justice the vilifier of the American people”. Not cowed, Pulitzer proclaimed, “Our republic and its press shall rise or fall together.”

After three years of legal battles, the United States Supreme Court ruled for Pulitzer, arguing that even the president was not above the law.

The encounter between the one-time penniless immigrant and the most powerful man in America is but one footnote in the film Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, which opens on 1 March in New York. The documentary on the life of the man who founded newspaper journalism’s most prestigious prize and stood up to the most powerful forces in the country could not come at a more relevant time.

The movie is the latest of about 20 films, mostly documentaries, by Oren Rudavsky.

Pulitzer used the clout of his newspaper to bring the Statue of Liberty to New York Harbour; to defeat a proposal to charge pedestrians for walking across the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge; and to acculturate the waves of new Jewish and other immigrants to the new country. As a permanent legacy, he endowed the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize.

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