“It is not enough to refrain from publishing fake news . . . accuracy is to a newspaper what virtue is to a woman,” Joseph Pulitzer, voiced by a thickly Hungarian-accented Liev Schreiber, says in Oren Rudavsky’s Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, opening March 1 at the Quad. Made for PBS’s American Masters series, the documentary, narrated by Adam Driver, gets off to a slow start, with numerous talking heads, wearisome reenactments, and modern-day B-roll shots. There’s some fascinating information about Pulitzer, who was born in Hungary in 1847, came to America penniless to fight in the Civil War, and eventually built a publishing empire that made him extremely wealthy even as he still fought aggressively for the poor, the disenfranchised, the overlooked, the underrepresented. Of course, Rudavsky (A Life Apart: Hasidism in America) — who directed the film, wrote it with Robert Seidman and editor Ramon Rivera Moret, and produced it with Seidman and Andrea Miller — had limited pictorial resources for the first half of Pulitzer’s life, before photography became more mainstream and before Pulitzer bought and ran the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World.
Thus, the second half of the film is significantly better, as Rudavsky explores Pulitzer’s battles with William Randolph Hearst, which led to the concept of “yellow journalism,” then with President Theodore Roosevelt over possible corruption involving the Panama Canal deal, and finally with his health, as he loses his eyesight but continues to run his paper. The fight with Hearst over circulation numbers and who can get the most sensationalistic stories first is downright exciting, evoking the current 24/7 news cycle on social media, while elements of the Roosevelt scandal are echoed today by President Donald Trump’s relationship with the press. Among those celebrating Pulitzer, who was a firm believer in justice and was not afraid to stand up and defend it loudly, is novelist Nicholson Baker, who acquired and preserved many issues of the World and reviews several of them on camera, turning the pages as if examining priceless treasures, which in many ways they are. The voice cast also features Lauren Ambrose as Kate Davis, Rachel Brosnahan as Nellie Bly, Hugh Dancy as Alleyne Ireland, Billy Magnussen as Hearst, and Tim Blake Nelson as Roosevelt. Rudavsky will be at the Quad for Q&As following the 6:55 screenings March 1 and 2 and after the 3:05 show March 3.