Who Was This Pulitzer

pulitzerHe Invented Modern Newspapers

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. The awards are an annual and much anticipated part of modern journalism, literature, history, poetry and music. The journalism prizes are, in many ways, the Academy Awards for ink stained wretches. They bring with them prestige, bragging rights and, one would suspect, champagne corks popping in a few newsrooms.

The prizes were endowed and named after the Hungarian Jewish emigre who did nothing less than invent the modern newspaper. And, just in time for the announcement of the prizes comes a fine new biography of Joseph Pulitzer entitled – Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power. The author is James McGrath Morris.

Talk about your self-made man. Pulitzer came the United States at 17 with little more than the clothes on his back. He immediately lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Army and saw combat in the Civil War. Afterward he established himself in St. Louis, got involved in newspapering and politics, became a leading citizen of the German speaking community, served in the state legislature and became a major national figure in Democratic politics. In keeping with his many contradictions, Pulitzer started his political career as a “liberal” Republican, but came to despise President Grant and switched parties.

In the cut throat newspaper world of New York City at the eve of the 20th Century, Pulitzer stole key employees from his younger brother’s paper – they never got along – and established the New York World as a new type of newspaper – brightly written, interesting, controversial, afflicting the comfortable. He made a bundle, reported on bribes made to influence the construction of the Panama Canal, saw his health decline as a result of his obsessive work ethic, went blind and died on his fabulous yacht in 1911.

Oh, yes, there was the circulation war with William Randolph Hearst that ushered in the era of “yellow journalism.” At the height of his influence, Pulitzer’s New York World had a circulation of 600,000 daily, the largest in the world at the time. He was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, but with an element of public interest that seems quaint today and so un-Murdoch-like. Hence Pulitzer’s legacy.

The Hungarian-born, German-accented Jew who all his life longed for acceptance, created a lasting legacy; the prizes that carry his name as well as Columbia University’s School of Journalism that he bankrolled. Ironically, the newspaper king who invented the popular press created the enduring awards celebrating quality journalism and did much to establish higher standards for the craft.

Joseph Pulitzer died almost a hundred years ago. His brand of aggressive journalism may also be a dying. The prizes that carry his name are a fitting legacy for a demanding, aggressive, courageous, egotistical newspaper tycoon. It remains to be seen whether American journalism will long remain equal to the prestige of Pulitzer’s prize.

Pulitzer once said that the survival of popular government depended upon a disinterested, public spirited press. By contrast, “a cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.” Pulitzer’s nightmare seems to be coming true.

American newspapering – indeed the craft of journalism – faces a crisis of survival. The cynical and the mercenary – FOX, MSNBC, Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow – demand large audiences for what passes these days for real journalism. What they do really does debase the people and their government. Pulitzer, with all his faults and excesses, would have seen right through the current trends.

Consumers of news have a duty here. Demand excellence and reward the disinterested and public spirited. The Republic depends upon it. Really.

Replacing Justice Stevens

Brandeis+portraitThe Liberal Seat on the Court

With Justice John Paul Stevens retiring, President Obama has the opportunity to name his second justice in less than two years. How important is the pick?

Consider this: Since 1916 when Woodrow Wilson made the controversial appointment of Louis Brandeis to the high court (that’s his portrait to the left) only two other men have held the seat. Stevens, who has sat on the Supreme Court for 35 years, and William O. Douglas who held the seat even longer, more than 36 years. Brandeis served for nearly 23 years.

One seat on the Supreme Court and only three occupants in nearly 100 years. There is a lot riding on any Supreme Court appointment, but the symbolism of filling this particular seat – the liberal seat on the Court – assumes even greater importance.

Brandeis/Douglas/Stevens, each made a large and lasting mark on the Court and the nation. Filling those robes demands a respect for the history of the institution as well as a sense of how one person can shape the Court.

One sure thread ties the three famous justices together. Each was a champion of the individual and individual expression. Douglas once said that the Constitution is not “neutral…it was designed to take the government off the backs of the people.” In addressing the importance of the First Amendment he said, “Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle or impure butter.”

Brandeis and Stevens shared a profound distrust of concentrated government power. One of Brandeis’ most famous quotes addresses his concern. “The greatest dangers to liberty,” he wrote, “lurk in the insidious encroachment of men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”

Brandeis, an opponent of “bigness” in government and business, opposed much of the expansion of presidential power under Franklin Roosevelt even while sharing FDR’s progressive desire to regulate banks and eliminate monopoly.

Stevens will be long remembered, I suspect, for his Hamdan v. Rumsfeld opinion limiting presidential power related to the war on terror.

Brandeis, the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court, brought controversy with him in 1916. Former President William Howard Taft spoke against his appointment contending Brandeis was unfit to serve. The Senate took four months to confirm him, the vote was 46-22.

Douglas, only 40 when FDR named him, drew only four negative votes in the Senate, but went on to become an extremely controversial figure while on the Court. He was very political – FDR came close to putting him on the presidential ticket in 1944 – and very outspoken. Douglas championed environmental causes to such a degree that some Court observers thought his strong personal opinions influenced his judicial decisions. Ironically, then-Congressman Gerald Ford tried to impeach Douglas in 1970 and five years later appointed Stevens to replace him. Douglas caused more gossip in 1965 when he married wife number four, a woman a third his age.

Stevens, by all accounts has become so effective by mastering the careful, personal politics of the high court. And while he is the acknowledged leader of the liberal faction, he evolved into that role or, as he prefers, the Court evolved around him. This much is certain, whomever Obama nominates will not receive the unanimous Senate vote that Stevens’ nomination received in 1975.

Many factors will be weighed and measured in the coming nomination and confirmation of the justice who will eventually replace John Paul Stevens, but the president – a student of history – must know that the person he appoints will be filling an historically significant seat on the Supreme Court. Stevens, as Linda Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times, has been the bridge between two different kinds types of Supreme Courts – the one he joined in 1975 and the one he leaves this year.

The Brandeis/Douglas/Stevens seat should be reserved for a justice of historic importance, such is the legacy of this appointment. Barack Obama may make no other more important decision in his presidency.

Weekend Potpourri

menckenFrom Mencken to the Dodgers…

Ever wonder about the origin of the term “banned in Boston?” It originated with what was called the Watch and Ward Society, as in watch for something bad and ward it off.

The caustic critic and reporter H.L. Mencken took those Boston blue bloods to task in 1926, trying and succeeding in getting himself arrested for distributing banned and “obscene” material – his magazine, the American Mercury.

My friends at the Massachusetts Humanities Council issue a wonderful, daily e-newsletter with a highlight of each day in the Bay State’s history. This week they featured the Mencken story, a classic example of one crusaders effort to counter censorship.

One of Mencken’s great quotes: “All [zoos] actually offer to the public in return for the taxes spent upon them a form of idle and witless amusement, compared to which a visit to a penitentiary, or even to a State legislature in session, is informing, stimulating and ennobling.” So there.

All is not well in Dodgerland

The Daily Beast has some of the lurid details of the high stakes, high money divorce of the McCourts, the owners of, among other things, one of the most storied franchises in sport – the Dodgers. Frank McCourt has said the divorce from his wife, Jamie – a divorce that the L.A. Times says will end up being the most expensive in state history (now that is saying a mouthful) – won’t disrupt the team.

“My kids will own the Dodgers someday,” McCourt said. “As we get this matter resolved… things will get back to normal.” I hope so, but only for Joe Torre’s sake. He’s the only thing this Giants fan likes about the Angelenos.

And, oh by the way, you ever wonder how the super rich manage to get by? The Times also reports that from 2004-2009, the McCourts banked $108 million and didn’t pay a cent of income tax. Now, I really dislike the Dodgers.

Egan on Earthquakes

In his New York Times on line column Tim Egan ruminates about the earthquake that will someday hit Seattle.

“Living in earthquake country,” Egan says, “is the life embodiment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time while still being to able to function.”

The human mind is amazing. Intellectually we know disaster can strike any moment, but practically we (mostly) continue to carry on despite that realization.

Better it is to hold the cynicism in check and live the life of an optimist. As the great Mencken said: “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”

Have a good weekend.

What is it about Montana

MurrayGiants in the Senate

Fewer than a million souls live in Montana, the state that sprawls out under the Big Sky. Yet, during the 20th Century, Montana produced well more than its share of powerful, influential United States Senators.

The handsome and very liberal Jim Murray, a wealthy son of Butte, Montana, is one of a group of Democratic senators who wielded real power and have had lasting influence, while representing geographically massive, but population small Montana.

Murray’s pioneering role in pushing for universal health care coverage was recalled recently in a fine piece by Montana journalist Charles Johnson. Johnson notes that Murray occupied, from 1934 to 1961, the seat now held by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a champion of the health care legislation recently passed.

“Jim Murray was a trailblazer as part of a trio of lawmakers who worked hard but ultimately failed to pass national health insurance bills under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,” Johnson wrote.

As proof that little really ever changes in American politics, Murray’s work more than 50 years ago with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the father of the current Dingell in the House, was attacked as “socialized medicine” that was certain to usher in the ruination the country.

Johnson recalls that Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican now regarded as one of the all-time giants of the Senate, once interrupted Murray at a hearing to denounce the health legislation as “the most socialist measure that this Congress has ever had before it.”

Murray, never a great orator, shouted back at Taft: “You have so much gall and so much nerve. … If you don’t shut up, I’ll have … you thrown out.”

The charge of aiding and abetting socialism was perhaps an even more powerful accusation in the 1950’s than it is when hurled at President Obama today. Murray’s brand of progressive liberalism always brought with it a charge that he was a dangerous lefty. In his long Senate career he never had an easy election.

Charles Johnson notes the irony in the fact that while Murray’s most passionate opponents in the 1940’s and 1950’s came from the ranks of the American Medical Association, the AMA’s current president endorsed the recent legislation, noting that it “represents an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

Now, it is Baucus’ turn to have his role in the passage of the health care legislation fiercely debated in Montana. Perhaps as as indication of the intensity of the furor, Baucus, who was re-elected just last year, has gone up on television in Montana today seeking to explain why the legislation that he had a major hand in creating and, that dates back to his Senate predecessor, is good for Montana.

Each of Montana’s most influential U.S. Senators were controversial in their day. In my read of the state political history, Murray and Baucus properly join Sen. Tom Walsh, the investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal; Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the man who lead the fight to turn back Franklin Roosevelt’s assault on the Supreme Court in 1937, and Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, as Montanans who have made a lasting mark on the Senate and on the nation’s business.

Few states can claim a larger collection of truly influential – or controversial – U.S. Senators. Big names, indeed, from the Big Sky State.

Life in the West

ACPPAndrus Center Explores Land Issues, Challenges

When Bob Abbey, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, testified before Congress last year during his confirmation hearing he talked about the need for common sense communication around the many demands on the 256 million acres of our land that he manages.

“We can achieve our common goals and better serve the public by working together while we continue our discussions on issues where we might disagree,” Abbey told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

That statement is a pretty good summary of the 15 year old philosophy of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

The Center, chaired by the former Idaho governor and Secretary of the Interior, will host Abbey and the nation’s other major land manager, Tom Tidwell, the Chief of the Forest Service, at a day long conference in Boise on May 1st.

Registration for the conference – Life in the West: People, Land, Water and Wildlife in a Changing Economy – began yesterday at the Center’s website.

As Dr. John Freemuth, the Boise State University political scientist who serves as the Center’s Senior Fellow, has written:

“Whether it is lost habitat, wolves, or the many other battles stemming from different values, many worry that a livable and familiar Idaho could slip away under economic and other pressures. At the grassroots level there have been a number of efforts and partnerships underway in Idaho that might have something to teach us about building necessary “civic capacity” as we try and grapple with this landscape level change at the state level. We want hear hear and learn from some people involved in these efforts, in order to better see what might be needed to build a sustainable political and social coalition to work successfully all around the state.

“This Andrus Center conference will develop a set of action items designed to build on current successes in Idaho and elsewhere and commit to a follow up of these action items over the next several years by tapping citizens and leaders committed to making our capacities grow.”

If you are one of the thousands of Idahoans who care deeply about the use and future of our public lands, you will want to be part of this conversation. As Cece Andrus has often said, the best ideas come about when people check their guns at the door, sit down together to understand the point of view of others and come away with common sense conclusions. The many thorny issues – energy, water, wildlife, access – that confront us in the West certainly need a common sense touch.

I hope you’ll join us on May 1st at Boise State University.

Quit Digging

st.+petersThe First Rule…

The Roman Catholic Church has violated the first rule of addressing a crisis – again.

That old and true rule: when you find yourself in a hole – quit digging.

I say this with love for my Church, but with a profound sadness about the inability of its leadership to understand how badly – and repeatedly – the now world wide sexual abuse scandal has hurt. Not to mention how inappropriate has been the response of Church leaders to a crisis that seems to grow more serious by the hour.

First, a long line of American Catholic Bishops failed to address the issues of abuse by priests dating back, in some cases, for decades. When the lawsuits began to unravel the cover ups and the media attention increased, the church took precisely the wrong stand. It circled the Catholic wagons, stonewalled, avoided responsibility and blamed the media. Eventually some Church leaders saw the light and realized their first duty was to the victims and not the institution, but in the interval much lasting damage was done.

Now the whole, awful pattern seems to be playing out again in Ireland and Germany and beyond. The Pope’s handling of the mess, and his handlers handling of the mess, prompted a well-known parish priest in Idaho, who is also a canon lawyer, to go public with a call for Pope Benedict to resign. Father Tom Faucher in Boise suggested in an Op-Ed in the Idaho Statesman that some of the problem is generational. Benedict is 82. But, there is nothing generational about failing to aggressively, sensitively and completely address this cancer on the Church. We’re talking about the safety and well being of children, after all. Even a bunch of old men must know the importance of doing that.

The real first rule of crisis communication – whether its a clergy abuse scandal or a Tylenol recall – is to simply, humbly and honest do the right thing. There is no substitute.

As USA Today noted in a recent editorial: time and again in the recent past the Church has faced a choice to protect children or protect the Church. The choice has been to protect the institution. Doing the right thing begins with admitting the obvious. This is a crisis of leadership, a failure of fundamental decency, an abdication of candor and responsibility. None of it will be fixed by blaming the New York Times or equating criticism of the Pope with the horrors of the Holocaust.

There must be a collection of Cardinals holed up deep in the inner sanctums of the Vatican who see this is just another PR problem. If only we shift the blame, they must be thinking, and spin the issue to make it about anti-Catholic sentiment all this will fade away. Nope.

The pithy, often very wise, cradle Catholic Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, said what I suspect many Catholics feel: this year the Church gave up its credibility for Lent. Sounds about right.

We know how this is going to end and it will not end well. Every great crisis of responsibility and accountability has an arc, a trajectory. The crisis of confidence and leadership will continue to get worse. Responsibility will be assigned. It is only a question of how long it takes and how much more damage is done while we wait.

In the meantime, it will be said time and again that the Catholic Church has survived scandal and worse for 3,000 years. But, these times are different. This is the age of Facebook and Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle. Judgments are faster and last longer and the impacts are world wide. The only way to spin this crisis is to confront it and accept responsibility. The sooner the better.

Someone in a high position – the highest position – must say, as that patron saint of lawyers Sir Thomas More did upon the scaffold, that one can be the servant of an institution, but first one must be the servant of God.

As Maureen Dowd notes in her column today, Catholics live and believe on faith. “How can we maintain that faith, she asks, “when our leaders are unworthy of it?”

Catholics around the world wait for their leaders to do the right thing.