The Power and Peril of Journalism: Pulitzer’s “World” and Luce’s “Time”

I recently had the chance to dig into a couple of good books: Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power (Harper, 2010) by James McGrath Morris and The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century (Knopf, 2010) by Alan Brinkley of Columbia University.  Both are notable texts by major publishing houses that tell important stories about the recent American past and the heights–and depths–of power.

I won’t attempt any kind of lengthy review here, but I will say that each biography tells a somewhat similar story: a young, ambitious man scrapes his way into journalism, dallies in politics, and ultimately becomes head of a publishing empire that allows him massive influence and brings him great pain.  In Pulitzer’s case, he was a Hungarian immigrant who went to St. Louis and eventually published the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before assuming ownership of the New York World, a mighty paper in its day.  In Luce’s case, he was the son of a left-leaning Presbyterian missionary to China who began Time magazine at a young age and quickly became a major success.

Both of these men married and had children, but neither of them cared much for family life.  They were each obsessed with power, specifically political power.  They wanted not only to chronicle the unfolding of history but to make it.  Each biography is difficult to read for this reason; discussion of each man’s children is scarce, just as each man was in the life of his children.  Neither man had a happy marriage; Luce destroyed his first marriage to marry the flamboyant Claire Boothe.  Both believed strongly in the political destiny of America and found in this cause their true religion.

Pulitzer and The Publisher are both well-written, enlightening, and generally nicely paced.  Neither work is strictly academic history; these are chronological works that purport to show the sweep of two grand lives.  There is thus limited engagement with other secondary sources and less of an argument than readers will find in more academic histories.  Some readers will bog down a bit in the commentary on each man’s work; some of Pulitzer’s battles with the government get tedious, while the exhaustive details of Luce’s policy on China wear one down after a while.  That said, the reader learns a great deal in each text; I had little knowledge, for example, of either the wild and woolly New York publishing world at the turn of the century or the conflicts between Communists and other parties in China near the midway mark of the twentieth century.

The books show the reader two major things, in my judgment.  First, publishing and journalism are powerful endeavors.  You read these texts and you realize that journalists, particularly leaders, have tremendous power to shape public opinion, exceeding, it seems, that possessed by most politicans.  Journalists don’t make the most money; they don’t enjoy the most fame; but they do shape the way people think on a daily basis.  Even in a day when traditional media outlets are on the decline, they still hold vast amounts of power, even as Pulitzer and Luce did.

Second, it is interesting to read these biographies of two such powerful and wealthy men, who despite all their accomplishments and earnings so clearly have little peace and happiness.  Those who would claim that people can find joy outside of Christ will find little evidence in biographical history.  You can be a person of power and influence, but in many cases it will cost you dearly.  You will have to give up on many of the pleasures God has created: marriage, children, congregational life, free time.  Pulitzer also relinquished standards of decency in his papers, pioneering “yellow journalism,” and ended up a hypochondriac and insomniac.  Luce blinded himself to weaknesses, whether his own or those of others, and had no true friends.  If this sounds like moralizing, it is in point of fact a direct finding from the biographies of Pulitzer, Luce, and many of their stratospheric peers.

You can’t help but read material like this and think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:26:

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

An excellent question which has only one answer.

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  • schreinerpatrick

    thanks good post. Being a journalism major both of these books are going on my wish-list.

  • good post; great conclusions. It’s not worth gaining the whole world if you lose your own soul…or your wife…or your children. Seek Christ and the love of all these will be added unto you.