Sixty Years with the Pulitzer Ideals

When I was eleven I had my opinions. One of them was that of the two newspapers that arrived at our house each day, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was by far the best. The Globe had Peanuts, the best comic strip in the world; the Benchwarmer column, written by the earthy and wise Bob Burnes; and Dear Abby, whose advice to parents helped me keep one step ahead of my own.

When I shared this point of view with my father, he looked at me dolefully, wondering, perhaps, if he had sired an idiot.

He was kind and did not express this sentiment aloud. Rather, he explained to me that the Post-Dispatch, the afternoon paper, the one with the longer stories, the more elegant headlines, and the serious mien, was the quality product. Someday I would understand that.

But my father wouldn't wait for someday. And so began my education. First I was shown "the Platform." "Predatory plutocracy?" What exactly was that? And he explained.

Later, he handed me a book -- coffee-table size -- with the ink work of an artist known by a single name -- Fitzpatrick. His editorial cartoons for the Post-Dispatch were bold, strident, easily understood. Good versus evil. I pored over the book again and again.

Not so with another book published by the Post-Dispatch: Joseph Pulitzer II's report to America after a post-war visit to the German concentration camps. The pictures were this Jewish kid's nightmarish introduction to the enormity of the Holocaust.

Richard M. Weiss

Richard M. Weiss 

My father had more than a passing interest in Pulitzer. He worked at what was then KSD-TV, a Pulitzer-owned operation, just several blocks down 12th Street from the newspaper. He left a fledgling and not altogether successful law career in 1945 for KSD, when it was expanding operations from radio to television. The trade name for his television work was producer. But whenever anyone asked in those days, we told them that dad "wrote the news."

Of course, a lot of that news came from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for which my father held an uncommon reverence. For him little else was sacred. Over the years, my father got to know several of the Post-Dispatch lions, as did my mother, who for the last several decades has worked in public relations for Famous-Barr. My mother would have the P-D luminaries over for dinner and cocktails or at times build special events for Famous-Barr around their work. Among them were the likes of Dick Dudman, the intrepid Washington bureau chief and foreign correspondent; Bill Woo, then an elegant feature writer; Sally Bixby Defty, the effervescent reporter about town; and Dick Weil, a St. Louis boy who'd gone east to cut his journalistic teeth at the Berkshire Eagle, then returned to the Post-Dispatch as a most provocative political correspondent.

So now I could attach faces and personalities to the bylines, and it wasn't long before I wanted to become one of them. And, even more, my dad wanted me to become one of them.

When I was in high school, my dad encouraged me to spend a summer traveling to Russia with the idea that I would return and write about the Soviet state from the perspective of a high school kid. He would use his connections to put the piece in front of the features editor and I would be off to the races.

And that's exactly what happened, except that my story went through my father's editing, taking several drafts and numerous additions and strikeouts in No. 1 pencil before it could be shown to a Post-Dispatch editor.

But it made the paper. And I know circulation spiked that day because my mom and dad bought maybe 10,000 copies to send to relatives and friends worldwide.

Oddly, that grand effort did not give me a leg up on a job when I got out of college. I landed at the Kansas City Star, a good paper. But if it had a platform, I do not remember what it was. (What I do recall is that the newspaper ran a Bible verse on the front page every Sunday.)

In 1975, the Post-Dispatch called and offered me a job at something like 40 percent more than I was making. I told the managing editor, Evarts Graham, that I would need a day to think about it. There was an are-you-kidding-me-kid kind of silence on the line, but Graham did not withdraw the offer.

When I arrived at the Post-Dispatch on Dec. 1, 1975, I found a movie set on the fifth floor. Graham looked like Spencer Tracy. He sat at a desk in a glass office and smoked a pipe. Underwoods and Olympias clacked, and men with classy names like Selwyn Pepper in white shirts and ties shouted, "Copy!"

Graham was a Harvard grad, and many others were from Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. One reporter, not much older than me, had left Harvard Law to work for the Post-Dispatch.

But after a while, the pedigrees and sheepskins didn't matter much. The guy who taught me the most in the early going had attended the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College and started in 1963 at a tiny enterprise called the Rutland Herald. But the cigar-smoking Harry Levins could take your 18 inches of hackneyed, overwrought prose and whittle it down to a crisp, engaging 10 or 12 inches in the space of a few minutes. Better yet, he could show you how you could do it.

Then there was the quiet, unassuming fellow a few desks away who rarely seemed to smile. Yet somehow, he was the one we always wanted to please. His name was Jim Millstone.

In the 1960s, he was the man who covered the Supreme Court and the civil rights struggle for the Post-Dispatch. Haynes Johnson, the former Washington Post correspondent, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the freedom marches in Selma, Ala., in 1966, said the prize should have been Millstone's.

Millstone had risen to the rank of assistant managing editor overseeing the Washington Bureau. He was also the senior editor who stayed at work the latest, reading all the important stories and making sure they were played appropriately. He was, in short, our sun god, the near perfect embodiment of the Pulitzer platform as far as many reporters were concerned. He was our tie to Pulitzer's past prowess and he was beaming a light down the path to our futures, because he was nothing if not a great teacher.

Jim died in 1992 of brain cancer, and there's been no one like him since.

Jim left us at a transitional time in journalism -- both for the Post-Dispatch and newspapers nationwide. The Post-Dispatch, fending off a takeover, took the company public in 1986. The Internet was peeking over the horizon; so was the so-called 24-hour news cycle. The platform was joined by a series of mission statements that addressed "shareholder value."

All media, of course, have had to address this tension between being businesslike and living up to the highest journalistic values. But at this paper, I'd like to believe, the angst was more palpable. Our founder was a glorious and courageous man that set the template for American newspapering much in the same way that Mark Twain did for the American novel. His son Joseph II led this newspaper to an eminence on the national stage far beyond what our city's importance then would suggest. His grandson had the foresight to take the company into the new medium of television.

All of them had to come to terms with the family legacy and changing times. We would have loved to claim more Pulitzer Prizes than we did as an affirmation that we were indeed living up to our heritage. When April rolled around each year and the Pulitzers were announced, we found ourselves chagrined to be out of the running; maybe even cursed. It matters that much to us.

But we never give up. I think Dick Weil best captured who we are in remarks at his retirement a year ago. We are a lot like hockey players, he suggested. We are ever willing to go into the corners, take our licks, get our noses bloodied and our teeth broken, all for the sake of getting the story. There is honor in that, if not always victory and a trophy.

That passion, I think, is peculiarly Pulitzer. It's a striving to live up to the highest standards, and the pride of working for an institution where those standards were set. Not everyone gets such an opportunity. We have been lucky.

I know my dad felt that way until the day he died.

That was Feb. 22, 1983, five days before his station changed hands -- from Pulitzer to an out-of-town buyer, Multimedia.

It was a heart attack. But not a broken heart. Insofar as Pulitzer was concerned, my father's heart was filled with pride. Mine is too.