Introduction to Yellow Journalism


Yellow journalism was a product of a lusty, fiercely competitive, and intolerant time, when editors were known to shoot editors,53 when editors were shot by their readers,54 and when newspapers almost casually traded brickbats and insults.55 The latter practice was remarkably well-developed at the end of the nineteenth century. The Journal and World, for example, were ever eager to impugn, denounce, and sneer at each other,56 so, too, were conservative newspapers.57 The gray, staid Washington Post said this about one of its conservative counterparts in 1899:

"The New York Times has such abnormal keenness of vision that it is occasionally able to see that which does not exist. The ardency of its desire sometimes overcomes the coolness of its reason, so that the thing it wants to see shows up just where it wants it to be, but in so intangible a form that no other eye is able to detect, no other mind finds ground to suspect its presence."58

More generally, yellow journalism reflected the brashness and the widely perceived hurried pace of urban America 59 at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a lively, provocative, swaggering style of journalism well suited to an innovative and expansive time - a period when the United States first projected its military power beyond the Western Hemisphere in a sustained manner.60

The recognition was widespread at the end of the nineteenth century that the country was on the cusp of rapid, perhaps even disruptive transformation. For example, the demographic profile had begun to swing from predominantly rural to largely urban; the population of U.S. cities expanded by nearly one third during the 1890s,61 growth fueled in measure by incipient immigration from central, southern, and eastern Europe.62

The sense of change at the end of the nineteenth century went well beyond demography, however. It was more profound, more elemental.63 "Political, commercial, social, artistic and religious customs and thoughts that have stood for many years - some for many centuries - are yielding place to new more rapidly than they have for many generations past," one commentator wrote in the spring of 1898. "Scientific discovery, popular education, free thought and business enterprise are all factors in the change."64

"Scientific discovery" seemed to have annihilated time and space. "Space is no intervention now between communication," an editorial writer in Cincinnati marveled in 1900. "[N]ot only do the wires of copper bind the world together in closer communication, but with the telephone it is possible to converse with friends a thousand miles away, hearing distinctly every word and recognizing the individual voice. Closer acquaintance has thus wrought vast changes in public opinions and policies. The entire civilized world has been drawn more closely together, old ideas and prejudices have been wiped out."65

Prejudice of course had not been excised. If anything, the late nineteenth century was a time of stunning intolerance, of prejudices renewed and deepened. In Southern states, black men were disfranchised and Jim Crow segregation became institutionalized, efforts that often were championed by local newspapers. The Raleigh News and Observer, for example, played a central role in North Carolina's virulent white supremacy movements which led to the severe curtailment of black suffrage at the end of the nineteenth century.66

The yellow press of New York felt the sting of intolerance, too, notably in a boycott by social organizations, clubs, reading rooms, and public libraries. The boycott spread quickly throughout metropolitan New York during the first months of 1897, but ultimately proved unsustainable - in no small measure because the Journal and the World were livelier, more aggressive, more insistent, and generally more appealing than their conservative rivals.67

To be sure, yellow journalism did not simply burst upon the media landscape of the United States in the 1890s, unique and fully formed. It was malleable and it borrowed from past practice. Pulitzer, for example, had engaged in crusades and indulged in sensationalism several years before Hearst's appearance in New York City.68 Yellow journalism was, as contemporaneous observers noted, born before it was baptized.69

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53. Two New Orleans newspapers editors were reported to have shot and badly wounded each other in 1899 in a dispute arising from publication of a cartoon depicting one of them as a dog on a leash. See "Editors Shoot Each Other," Fourth Estate (12 October 1899): 4.
54. Frederic G. Bonfils and Harry H. Tannem, owners and editors of the Denver Evening Post, were shot and wounded in their offices by a lawyer in 1900.Both men recovered from their wounds. See "Assassin Visits the Post," Denver Evening Post (13 January 1900): 1.
55. The exchange of insults sometimes led to blows, as in Clinton, IL, in 1903, when rival editors brawled in public. See "Editors Come to Blows," Fourth Estate (20 June 1903): 3.
56. See "Fiercest of Fights." The Fourth Estate editorial deplored the brick-bats and said of the Journal-World enmity: "When two newspapers find their time chiefly occupied in exaggeration of one another's faults, it is then time to consider whether journalism is doing justice to its high estate."
57. There were exceptions, however. Edwin A. Grozier, editor and publisher of the Boston Post, insisted that no employee speak badly of competing newspapers. See untitled editorial page comment, Fourth Estate (11 April 1895): 6. By 1905, newspapers generally were less inclined to exchange insults and brickbats in print. See "Decline of Bad Temper," Fourth Estate (8 April 1905): 6. The Fourth Estate comment said: "Close observers have remarked with pleasure the decline of bitterness and personal attack in newspaper controversies. Of course, the controversies go on, but the days when one editor could not differ with another without calling him names are over."
58. "Seeing Nonexistent Things," Washington Post (18 June 1899): 6. The Post was referring to the Times's opinion (mistaken, as it turned out) that the appeal of William Jennings Bryan as a Democratic presidential candidate was fading. Bryan was the party's presidential nominee in 1896 and in 1900.
59. For example, Fourth Estate described the dawn of the twentieth century as "these days of rush and hurry." See "The Twentieth Century," Fourth Estate (5 January 1901): 8. The trade journal noted on another occasion that "society hurries because it wants to hurry, wants to do things quickly and get them out of the way; and the railroads and the telegraphs have been called into existence to meet its need." See "Modern Journalism," Fourth Estate (2 August 1900): 14.
60. The extension of U.S. influence to Asia, it has been argued, was a largely unintended consequence of the Spanish-American War. For a brief but persuasive discussion on this topic, see Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 590-591.
61. "Table 80- Population 1900, 1890, and 1880," Abstract of the Twelfth Census 1900 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902), 100.
62. Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (New York: Norton, 1987), xxxiv.
63. Fourth Estate referred to the late nineteenth century as "this remarkable time of transition, transformation and triumph." See "A Look at the Future," Fourth Estate (18 July 1895): 6. The trade publication declared: "Modes of locomotion and of living are changing, and man has become a nobler animal, with abilities that seem supernatural and ambitions almost too great for attainment."
64. David A. Curtis, "Yellow Journalism," The Journalist 23, 1 (23 April 1898): 19.
65. "The Century's Place in History," Cincinnati Times-Star (1 January 1900):4.
66. W. Joseph Campbell, "One of the Fine Figures in American Journalism's: A Closer Look at Josephus Daniels of the Raleigh News & Observer," American Journalism 16,4 (Fall 1999): 37-56.
67. The Journal was not just a victim of intolerance, however. It campaigned vigorously against Chinese immigration early in the twentieth century, asserting: "The Chinaman remains always a Chinaman. He cannot, like other foreigners, be made over into an American. . . . We have one race problem [in] the South. Shall we deliberately invite another to harass us and our posterity?" "Keep Out the Chinese!" New York Journal (29 January 1902): 16.
68. Innovations in journalistic practice have tended to come gradually rather than dramatically and abruptly. Moreover, as John Stevens noted: "It is tempting to overstate the originality of Joseph Pulitzer's contributions to journalism. The truth is that he invented nothing, but by adapting and demonstrating so many techniques he set new standards for the business. Certainly he was not the first to exploit sensational news or to gear content to women." Stevens1 Sensationalism and the New York Press, 68.
69. See Brooks, "The American Yellow Press," 1130.



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