Introduction to Yellow Journalism

But the unabashed sell-congratulation that characterized the genre accounts only partly for the extravagant growth of myth and misunderstanding. Another part of the explanation is that the genre's leading practitioners-Hearst, notably, and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Pulitzer of the World, as well as regional figures such as Frederick G. Bonfils and Harry H. Tannem of the Denver Post-seemed to invite censure and scorn.

They were ambitious and controversial figures, and their foes recognized they were vulnerable to personal attack by impugning their journalism. After all, what better way to impugn and discredit Hearst than to blame him and his newspapers for fomenting an "unnecessary" war?

Hearst was a ready target for such scorn, especially after his political ambitions became clear at the end of the nineteenth century.28 His politics and the sell-indulgence of his newspapers invited attacks such as this one in Harper's Weekly in 1906:

The man, therefore, who as the owner of newspapers, would corrupt public opinion is the most dangerous enemy of the State. We may talk about the perils incident to the concentration of wealth, about the perils flowing from a disregard of fiduciary responsibility, about abuses of privilege, about exploiting the government for private advantage; but all of these menaces, great as they are, are nothing compared with a deliberate, persistent, artful, purchased endeavor to pervert and vitiate the public judgment. Why? Because upon that judgment we must all of us rely in a self-governing community for the conservation of everything we prize and for all the progress for which we hope.29

The searing portrayal of Hearst in the 1941 motion picture Citizen Kane undoubtedly sealed his reputation as a cynical, ruthless manipulator.30 Citizen Kane also helped popularize the purported Hearstian vow to "furnish the war" with Spain.31

Perhaps a more important explanation for the myth that has obscured yellow journalism is that the genre proved so elusive to definition. Yellow journalism has been equated to lurid and sensational treatment of the news;32 to egregious journalistic misconduct of almost any kind, and to Hearst, himself. None of those shorthand characterizations is adequate, revealing, or even very accurate. None captures the genre's complexity and vigor.

The term "yellow journalism," as we shall see in Chapter One, emerged in early 1897, popularized by the New York Press and its stern and fastidious editor, Ervin Wardman. But the editor who pressed the phrase into the vernacular never explicitly defined it. For Wardman, "yellow journalism" was an evocative and dismissive epithet applied interchangeably to the Journal and the World. (While they shared many features and elements, the Journal and World were fierce competitors and resisted being so linked. But they were certainly not conservative newspapers in appearance or content.)


The phrase "yellow journalism" and the salient features of the practice were quickly diffused in the late nineteenth century. The New York Tribune adopted the term in February 1897, with a bow to Wardman's Press,33 and within weeks, newspapers beyond New York were also referring to "yellow journalism." Meanwhile, the elements characteristic of yellow journalism were said to have spread "like a prairie fire,"34 taking hold to varying degrees in newspapers in several U.S. cities.

It was a highly idiosyncratic genre: Not every exemplar of yellow journalism was a facsimile of the New York Journal. The Denver Post and San Francisco Examiner were, for example, noticeably less inclined to indulge in self-promotion than either the Journal or the World. The Boston Post opened its flamboyant front pages to display advertising, a practice not uncommon in Boston at the turn of the twentieth century.35 The Journal was more inclined to use banner headlines than the World.

Such differences notwithstanding, those newspapers that can be classified as "yellow journals" were, at a minimum, typographically bold in their use of headlines and illustrations. They certainly looked different from their gray, conservative counterparts, and their use of design elements was more conspicuous and imaginative. They were, moreover, inclined to campaign against powerful interests and municipal abuses, ostensibly on behalf of "the people." And they usually were not shy about doing so.

That there were shades of yellow journalism is hardly surprising, given the genre's dimensions and inherent complexity. But that variance contributed to difficulties in defining the genre (difficulties that evoke the definitional imprecision associated with "public" or "civic" journalism, a practice that emerged in the United States during the 1990s).

Practitioners of yellow journalism recognized the definitional vagueness,36 but offered little clarification. Hearst, who came to embrace the term, unhelpfully described yellow journalism as "truthful journalism of an aggressive, not a negative, character."37 Arthur Brisbane, one of Hearst's top editors, said: "Anything in journalism that is new and successful is yellow journalism, no matter what you or I see fit to call it."38

Not surprisingly, foes of the yellow press were more eager to disparage than define. Thus were the yellow journals accused of such malevolent effects as "corrupting the young and debauching the old, championing vice and lewdness, and defying respectability and decency."39 The practice of yellow journalism was likened, moreover, to a "contest of madmen for the primacy of the sewer."40

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28. Hearst was twice elected early in the twentieth century to Congress from a New York City district, but failed in subsequent bids to win the presidency of the United States, the governorship of New York, and the mayoralty of New York City.
29. "Comment," Harper's Weekly (20 October 1906). Hearst was running for New York governor at the time. The commentary paraphrased remarks by Hearst's opponent in the gubernatorial campaign, Charles E. Hughes.
30. For a brief but revealing discussion about how Citizen Kane "has for generations suborned our perceptions" and left a "distorted portrait" of Hearst, see Harold Evans, "Press Baron's Progress," New York Times Book Review (2 July 2000): 7, 4.
31. The motion picture includes a scene in which Charles Kane, played by Orson Welles, receives a telegram from a correspondent with the word "there is no war in Cuba." Kane's reply: "You provide the prose poems. I'sll provide the war."
32. See, for example, Gene Wiggins, "Sensationally Yellow!" in Lloyd Chiasson Jr., ed., Three Centuries of American Media (Englewood, CO: Morton Publishing Company, 1999): 155.
33. See "Wise Limitations of the War Power," New York Tribune (18 February 1897), 6.
34. Will Irwin, "The American Newspaper: The Spread and Decline of Yellow Journalism," reprinted in Will Irwin, The American Newspaper (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1969).
35. Edwin A. Grozier, the Boston Post's editor and publisher, conceded that the practice of placing prominent advertising on the front pages gave the city's press a "somewhat provincial" appearance. Cited in "Front Page Advertising," Fourth Estate (8 February 1902): 10.
36. Fourth Estate quoted James Creelman, formerly a correspondent for the New York Journal and the New York World, as saying in 1902 that the difficulty for people who sought "to seriously deal with yellow journalism, rather than approach it in a spirit of levity or wanton malice. . . is the lack of definition of yellow journalism acceptable to both sides in the debate. See "Strong Features of the eYellow Journals," Fourth Estate (3 May 1902): 8.
37. Cited in "Hearst Defends So-called Yellow Journals," Fourth Estate (13 September 1902): 4. The Fourth Estate account included comments by Hearst that had appeared in the London Express.
38. Cited in "Yellow Journalism's Defined," Editor and Publisher (20 January 1917): 14.
39. "Fall of Yellow Journalism," New York Press (28 March 1897): 6. The Press editorial was written during a well-publicized boycott of the Journal and World by clubs, social organizations, and reading rooms in metropolitan New York. The boycott dissolved in failure a few months after the Press predicted in the editorial of 28 March 1897 that yellow journalism would soon "practically disappear from newsstands. Goodbye to it, and no regrets!"
40. Brooks, "The American Yellow Press," 1131.



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