|1897 American journalism’s exceptional year Journalism History 29, (4) Winter 2004|
The ‘journalism of action’
By late 1897, the Journal proclaimed it had developed a new kind of journalism, one infused with an activist ethos that “does not wait for things to turn up,”55 but cuts through the inertia of bureaucracy to “get things done.”56 This, the Journal declared, was the “journalism of action” and it represented “the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.”57 The “journalism of action” enabled a newspaper to “fitly render any public service within its power.”58 As such it offered a clear choice for the future of the profession—a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering, printing, and commenting on the news. 59
The brashness inherent in the “journalism of action” reflected the spirit of the late 1890s, especially the sentiment of “épater le bourgeois”60—to shock middle class values. Its dynamism corresponded well to what John Higham has called the “clamorous vitality”61 of fin-de-siècle America.What’s more, the “journalism of action” reflected the fin-de-siècle fascination with the “new,” an adjective widely applied to connote exceptional modernity.62 “Not to be ‘new’ is, in these days, to be nothing,” Henry D. Traill, a British journalist and literary critic, wrote in The New Fiction, a collection of essays published in 1897.63 “New” found expression in Art Nouveau, the New Woman, New Politics, New Hedonism, New Drama, and the New Journalism (a term that critics began using interchangeably with “yellow journalism”64). The Journal characterized itself as the exceptionally modern newspaper, asserting: “From a news point of view, there are two classes of papers in New York—the Journal and all the others.”65
The “journalism of action” was more complex than merely self-congratulatory. It was characterized by a panoply of activist strategies by which the Journal injected itself as the self-activating participant in solving crime, extending charity,66 influencing foreign policy, and thwarting what it deemed abuses of municipal government. “A newspaper, hardly less than a government, is the guardian of the people’s rights,” the Journal insisted.67 Repeatedly in 1897, the Journal stepped into the vacuum left by government incompetence and indifference to secure legal injunctions to block suspected “grabs” and “giveaways” in the award of municipal transportation and utilities contracts. In December 1897, the Journal recounted its successes in such efforts, proclaiming on its front page: “The Journal Stops: Gas Franchise Grab in Brooklyn, Trolley Franchise Grab in Brooklyn, Death Terminal of the Bridge, Dilatory Work on Fifth Avenue, $10,000,000 Light Monopoly in New York.”68 The accompanying article declared: “Having devised and developed ‘the journalism that acts,’ the Journal will be found constantly fulfilling the particular duty it has taken unto itself—acting when public service requires; acting in the way to accomplish beneficent results.”69
Whilenot ignoring the swagger and excesses of the “journalism of action,” the Journalist trade publication identified the strength and popular appeal of the Journal’s method, stating: “It is the freshest news brightly presented, the sham sharply punctured and, above all, the feeling … that behind and through the paper there beats a warm, generous, human heart alive to the troubles and miseries of humanity and anxious to alleviate them.”70 Considerable hope was attached to the Journal’s campaigns against trusts and municipal corruption. The “journalism of action” was seen as “honest, fearless, unpurchaseable journalism,” Henry A. Crittenden, a reform-minded commentatorwrote in the Journalist, adding: “It is not too much to say that the vital interests of the national progress and of the civilization demand that Mr. Hearst and the new journalism shall win in this titanic battle” 71 against trusts and corruption.72
While no doubt owing a modest debt of inspiration to the World and its “stunt journalism” of the 1880s and early 1890s,72 the “journalism of action” most strikingly evoked an 1880s British notion of “government by journalism.”73 The principal advocate of “government by journalism” was William T. Stead, a central figure in Britain’s “new journalism” movement and editor in the late 1890s of the Review of Reviews.74 Stead’s was a breathtaking description of powerful media effects, in which the journalist applied decisive influence. “Every day,” Stead wrote in 1886, the journalist “can administer either a stimulant or a narcotic to the minds of his readers.”75
Stead was quite certain of the effective power of the press, which he maintained was made more profound by an increasingly literate populace. He wrote:
I have seen Cabinets upset, Ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, Bills transformed, estimates remodelled, programmes modified, Acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither, war proclaimed and war averted, by the agency of newspapers. There were of course other agencies at work; but the dominant impulse, the original initiative, and the directing spirit in all these cases must be sought in the editorial sanctum rather than in Downing Street.76
Stead was keenly aware of the New York Journal’s activism and, notably, congratulated the newspaper for its “splendid deed of knight-errantry” in organizing the jailbreak in Havana in October 1897. “No more worthy use can be made of the sceptre of modern journalism than this,” Stead declared, adding that “the Journal has added a laurel to journalism of which every journalist in the world has a right to feel proud.”77
61. John Higham aptly invoked the phrase to describe the dynamism characteristic of American political and social culture in the 1890s. See Higham, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890’s,” in John Weiss, ed., The Origins of Modern Consciousness (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1965), 40.
62. See Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties, 21–22.
63. Henry D. Traill, The New Fiction and Other Essays on Literary Subjects (Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press: 1970 reprint of 1897 edition), 1.
64. See, for example, J.B. Montgomery-McGovern, “An Important Phase of Gutter Journalism: Faking,” Arena 19 (February 1898): 240.
65. “’If You Don’t Read the Journal, You Don’t Get the News,’” New York Journal, Aug. 1, 1897.
66. See, for example, “Aid the Cold and Hungry; Journal Hears the Cry and Opens a Relief Fund,” New York Journal, Jan. 27, 1897.
67. “A Newspaper’s Duty to the Public,” New York Journal, Nov. 15, 1897.
68. “The Journal Stops,” New York Journal, Dec. 3, 1897.
70. “What We Want,” The Journalist, May 1, 1897, 12.
71. Henry A. Crittenden, “Mr. Hearst and the New Journalism,” The Journalist, Dec. 4, 1897, 34.
72. The Journal’s anti-corruption campaigns in years immediately after 1897 won similarly high praise. Disclosures about the corrupt Ice Trust in 1900 prompted the editor of New York’s Town Talk gossip sheet to write: “’The Journal’s exposure and pursuit of the criminal officials who betrayed the people in the interest of the Ice Trust will stand for many years as one of the most splendid and useful achievements of the modern newspaper.’” Quoted in David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst ( Boston, Houghton Mifflin: 2000), 151. For a brief discussion about the Ice Trust scandal of 1900, see Campbell, Yellow Journalism, 3–4.
73. See, notably, the escapades of Nellie Bly, including her around-the-world adventure in 1889. The World’s forays into activist journalism never were as frequent, successive, or flamboyant as were the Journal’s during the crowded year of 1897.
74. W. T. Stead, “Government By Journalism,” Contemporary Review 49 (May 1886): 653–74.
75. See Ray Boston, “W. T. Stead and Democracy by Journalism,” in Joel H. Weiner, ed., Papers for the Millions: The New Journalism in Britain, 1850s to 1914 (New York: Greenwood, 1988), 91–106.
76. Stead, “Government By Journalism,” May 1886, 662.
77. Ibid., 664.
78. “Editor Stead Hails It with Joy,” New York Journal, Oct. 13, 1897.