Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about the Pulitzers, early African American journalism, and the relationship between advertisers and consumers

Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism By Roy J. Harris Jr.
University of Missouri Press
473 pages, $39.95

It is possible that hardly anybody would remember Joseph Pulitzer—he died in 1911—had he not attached his name to the Pulitzer Prizes. Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, established prizes in journalism, the arts, and letters as part of a bequest to Columbia University. (His will also created Columbia’s journalism school, but the university chose not to name the school for him.) After a wavering start in 1917, the prizes gradually became more reputable and occasionally controversial—and one of them, the gold medal for public-service journalism, has become a milestone for newspapers and their staffs. But as Roy Harris Jr. points out, there has never been a book about this particular prize. A journalist himself, he was inspired to write this chronicle by the work of his father, a reporter who played a role in winning three gold medals for the Post-Dispatch. Clearly, Harris knows his way around: using both the Pulitzer archives at Columbia and interviews with surviving winners, he recounts not only the obstacles that newspapers overcame in publishing their investigations, but goes on to trace the sometimes uncertain trails that led through the bureaucratic thicket at Columbia. Who remembers, for example, that the Columbia trustees, who still held a veto power, almost blocked the New York Times’s medal for publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1972? Or that The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage was initially ranked third or worse by jurors? As Harris notes, history came to the rescue of the Post, and Woodward and Bernstein, when the scandal broke open just before the advisory board’s decisive deliberations. There are many more such engaging stories. With newspapers in apparent, highly publicized decline, this volume serves as a reminder of just how effective superior journalism can be.

T. Thomas Fortune, the Afro-American Agitator: A Collection of Writings, 1880-1928
Edited by Shawn Leigh Alexander
University Press of Florida
320 pages, $65

T. Thomas Fortune (1856-1928) was the leading African American journalist of what is sometimes called the Gilded Age, the four or five decades after the Civil War. But black America has called that era “the nadir,” in which the promises flowing from emancipation dried up. Fortune, born of enslaved parents in Florida, became by the age of twenty-three a fiery journalist, trying to make the nation live up to its promises. He wrote copiously the rest of his life, not only for the African American newspapers he edited but for the mainstream New York press. This collection, assembled and annotated by Shawn Leigh Alexander of the University of Kansas, contains many editorials and essays not seen since their original publication; even today, they crackle and roar. Fortune’s reputation has been overshadowed somewhat by his association with Booker T. Washington, a towering figure who was seen by white America as the primary megaphone for black America. In Alexander’s view, however, Fortune deserves to be seen separately, as one who struggled to be his own man, suffered a calamitous breakdown in the effort, and never recovered the vigor of his early years.

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
By Rob Walker
Random House
320 pages, $25

The March 10, 2008, issue of The New Yorker included a story, “Raj, Bohemian,” by Hari Kunzru, a young London novelist. The narrator of this tale is deeply angered when he discovers that nearly everybody in his hip crowd has been trying to sell him one or more commercial product as part of their paid “placements.” Fantastic? No. Rob Walker describes the flourishing growth of just such arrangements—people covertly volunteering to impress friends with the virtues of, say, a certain book or a certain pizza, sometimes for money, sometimes just for the pleasure of leading a trend. Walker, who writes the “Consumed” column for The New York Times Magazine, offers a whole array of evidence to suggest that relationships between advertisers and consumers are undergoing a profound redefinition. Even as advertising becomes more pervasive than ever, consumers are discovering new methods to outwit the advertisers, or becoming the advertisers themselves. The bewildering variety of such activity is fueled by technology and youth. Walker peers into contemporary culture and finds “a world of multiple mainstreams and countless counter-, sub-, and countersubcultures” all intent on creating self-identification through consumption. Or something like that. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.