Twentieth-century American journalism was born in a little-remembered burst
of inspired self-promotion. It was born in a paroxysm of yellow journalism.
Ten seconds into the century, the first issue of the New York Journal
of 1 January 1901 fell from the newspaper's complex of fourteen high-speed
presses. The first issue was rushed by automobile across pavements slippery
with mud and rain to a waiting express train, reserved especially for
the occasion. The newspaper was folded into an engraved silver case and
carried aboard by Langdon Smith, a young reporter known for his vivid
prose style. At speeds that reached eighty miles an hour, the special
train raced through the darkness to Washington, D.C., and Smith's rendezvous
with the president, William McKinley.
The president's personal secretary made no mention in his diary of the
special delivery of the Journal that day, noting instead that the New
Year's reception at the executive mansion had attracted 5,500 well-wishers
and was said to have been "the most successful for many years."1 But the Journal exulted: A banner headline spilled across the front page
of the 2 January 1901 issue, asserting the Journal's distinction of having
published "the first Twentieth Century newspaper. . . in this country,"
and that the first issue had been delivered at considerable expense and
effort directly to McKinley.2
There was a lot of yellow journalism in Smith's turn-of-the-century
run to Washington. The occasion illuminated the qualities that made the
genre - of which the New York Journal was an archetype - both so irritating
and so irresistible: Yellow journalism could be imaginative yet frivolous,
aggressive yet self-indulgent. It advocated an ethos of activist journalism,
yet did so in bursts of unabashed self-adulation.
For all its flaws and virtues, yellow journalism exerted a powerful influence
in American journalism at the turn of the twentieth century. Yellow journalism
was much decried but its salient features often were emulated. The genre
was appealing and distinctive in its typography, in its lavish use of
illustrations, in its aggressive newsgathering techniques.
To a striking
degree, features characteristic of the yellow press live on in American
journalism, notably in the colorful layouts that characterize the formerly
staid titles that used to disparage the yellow press- titles such as the
New York Times and Washington Post. Indeed, it may even be appropriate
to think of leading mainstream U.S. newspapers at the turn of the twenty-first
century as embodying a kind of tempered or "reformed" yellow
But in the decades since the twentieth century's first American newspaper
rolled from the presses, the swagger and excesses of yellow journalism-and,
to be sure, the arrogance, wealth, and ambitions of its leading practitioner,
William Randolph Hearst-have managed to obscure the genre and its contributions.
Myth, the blight of serious history, has overrun yellow journalism, distorting
popular and scholarly understanding of the genre.
The stuff of American
journalism's best-known legends comes from the time of the yellow journalism,
a period bracketed by Hearst's arrival in New York in 1895 — a seismic
event in the city's journalism4 - and the undeniable fading of the genre's
most flamboyant signature features by 1910. In that time, newspapers embracing
the salient elements of yellow journalism appeared in Boston, Chicago,
Denver, and San Francisco, among other American cities.
Perhaps the myth told most often about yellow journalism is that of the
purported exchange of telegrams between Hearst and the artist Frederic
Remington, in which Hearst is said to have vowed, "I'll furnish the
war,"5 between the United States and Spain.6 That Hearst made good
on the supposed vow - that the yellow press succeeded in bringing about
the Spanish-American War in 1898, that it was "Mr. Hearst's War"7 - is another undying myth, one that tidily, if mistakenly, serves to illustrate
the power and the lurking malevolence of America's news media. Indeed,
all of American journalism suffers indirectly from such mythology.8
Yet another durable, widely held myth is that the yellow press was primarily an entertainment medium,9 that it frivolously discounted and even corrupted,10 fact-based journalism in order merely to titillate and distract its readers.11 Hearst's best-known biographers have tended to support this impression.12
In reality, a defining characteristic of the yellow press - and, notably, of Hearst's Journal - was abundant spending on newsgathering, especially on news from afar.13 "Its conquests," a Boston editor said of the Journal, "are costly."14 The Journal figured that its expenses related to covering the Spanish-American War exceeded $750,000,15 or the equivalent 100 years later of $15 million.
The Journal gloated about its extravagant spending on newsgathering. Not atypical was this claim, in which the Journal disparaged its rivals, notably the New York Sun: "The reason the old journalism doesn't like the Journal is that the Journal gets the news, no matter what it costs. The Sun and its kind cannot afford to spend money since the Journal has taken their readers away from them, and the probability is they would not do so if they could afford it. They are still living in the Silurian age."16
Next > 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. George B. Cortelyou, diary entry, 1 January 1901; Cortelyou papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
2. Langdon Smith, "The Journal, the First Newspaper of This Century's -McKinley," New York Journal (2 January 1901): 1. McKinley was quoted in Smith's article as tersely offering thanks for the newspaper and the silver case. The Journal sent the second copy of its 1 January 1901 edition to Vice President-elect Theodore Roosevelt, and the third to New York Governor-elect Benjamin B. Odell Jr. For another account of the Journal's first issue of the twentieth century, see "Greeting to the Century," Fourth Estate (5 January 1901): 5. Smith reported on the Spanish-American War for the Journal and, in 1899, was nearly lured away by the rival New York World, the managing editor of which was impressed by the "vivid description" that characterized Smith's prose. See Bradford Merrill, letter to Don C. Seitz, 6 July 1899, 1899 file, NewYork World papers, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.
3. The term "reformed yellow journalism" was proposed in 1902 by a former editor of the New York Journal, Samuel E. Moffett. He said that "respectable" newspapers need not eschew large headlines and illustrations, or avoid criticizing powerful interests. Moffett suggested making "accuracy instead of record-breaking celerity the supreme requirement in your news-room." The suggestions were cited in "Are Yellow Journals as Bad as They Are Painted?" Literary Digest 25, 5 (2 August1902): 132.
4. For example, the trade journal Fourth Estate said: "The advent of young Hearst is an event of the greatest importance, for he means what he says, says what he means and states that he is here to stay. . . . Hearst is young and ambitious. He is worth watching. He wants to prove that he has more than his millions to back him. He is in New York to hustle and not to buy gold bricks. If he can, as he intends to, push the Journal into the first rank, he will have proved the power of his purpose and achieved his ambitions." See "W. R. Hearst Here," Fourth Estate (10 October 1895): 1. Fourth Estate added: "The result of new blood in metropolitan journalism will be watched with the deepest interest, not only in New York, but throughout the country" (2). See also, "Who Will Be Next?" Fourth Estate (7 November 1895): 1.
5. James Creelman, On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent (Boston: Lothrop Publishing, 1901), 177-178.
6. The purported exchange has often been invoked by journalists and media historians. See, among many others, Clifford Krauss, "Remember Yellow Journalism," New York Times (15 February 1998): 4, 3, and Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1978), 61-62. Many biographers of Hearst have repeated the anecdote, some of them without qualification. See, for example, Ferdinand Lundberg, Imperial Hearst: A Social Biography (New York: Equinox Cooperative Press, 1936), 68-69.
7. Philip Seib, Headline Diplomacy: How News Coverage Affects Foreign Policy (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997), 1-13. See also, W. A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), 144.
8. Another enduring myth is that the yellow press was decidedly and intentionally downscale, that it appealed primarily to the poor, to newly arrived immigrants, and to people with an uncertain command of English. But the contrary evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, is persuasive: The yellow press most likely was read across the social strata in New York and elsewhere, as will be discussed in Chapter Two.
9. See Schudson, Discovering the News, 89, 91.
10. Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in NineteenthCentury America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 101. Barth argued:"Yellow journalism reduced newspapers to a tool of power politics in the hands of news barons with concern for news reporting as an instrument of communication forged by the interaction of journalism, the modern city, and its residents."
11. Sociology studies have tended to emphasize that point. See, for example, Robert E. Park, "The Yellow Press," Sociology and Social Research 12 (1927- 1928). Park wrote that Hearst's "appeal was frankly not to the intellect but to the heart. The newspaper was for him and last a form of entertainment (10). See also, Carroll DeWitt Clark, "News: A Sociological Study," Abstracts of Theses, University of Chicago Humanist Series 9 (1930-32): 244.
12. See, notably, Swanberg, Citizen Hearst, 162. See also Lundberg, Imperial Hearst, 54-57.
13. The yellow press covered local news with vigor, too. John D. Stevens wrote of the New York Journal and New York World: "If they titillated, the yellow papers also told New Yorkers what was going on, what forces were shaping their lives. Each issue bulged with news accounts and feature stories which were little parables about life in the big city." Stevens, Sensationalism and the New York Press (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 99-100.
14. John H. Holmes, "The New Journalism and the Old," Munsey's Magazine (April 1897): 78. Holmes, then the editor of the Boston Herald, wrote: "Another feature characteristic of the enew [yellow] journalism's is the liberality with which its promoters expend money in the furtherance of their aims. . . . Many journalists conceive great undertakings, but refrain from executing them on account of the expense involved. The enew journalist's is not troubled with hesitation on that score. Like the general who orders guns to be trained in position where effective service can be rendered, he does not stop to count the cost." Munsey's returned to this theme a few years later, stating that "when all is said and done, the fact remains that the eyellow journals's are the progressive newspapers, those which spend the largest sums to get the latest and best news and to present it most attractively and forcefully." See Hartley Davis, "The Journalism of New York," Munsey's Magazine 24, 2 (November 1900): 233.
15. "Just One Small Fact," New York Journal (21 January 1902): 14.
16. "Truth's about the Old Journalism," New York Journal (2 February 1897): 6. "Old journalism" was the Journal's dismissive term for newspapers also known as "conservative." They included the New York Sun of Charles A. Dana. "New journalism" was a precursor term for "yellow journalism."