Introduction to Yellow Journalism

It was a genre keen to adapt and eager to experiment. Its distinctiveness and popularity were in no small measure attributable to a hearty embrace of established and emergent techniques and technologies. Yellow journalism cannot be explained as merely an effect or artifact of technological advances-such as the high-speed presses that cost upwards of $100,000 at the turn of the twentieth century and could print in five or even six colors.70

The genre's boldness and its diffusion were due fundamentally to the tastes, affluence, and idiosyncrasies of individual publishers. But yellow journalism undeniably was shaped and propelled by the developments of the time, which included:

  • The emergence of a "graphic revolution,"71 marked by the popularity of half-tone photographs 72 and the rise in importance of newspapers's art departments.73 The half-tone ultimately helped to transform the appearance, and appeal, of newspaper front pages.74
  • The fall in the cost of pulp-based newsprint,75 which enabled newspapers to experiment with bolder headlines 76 and to expand the page count of their daily and Sunday editions 77 Cheaper newsprint helped make possible the six-figure daily circulations claimed by the Journal and World.78
  • The advances in newsroom technology. Typewriters, notably, became standard 79 and were valued for their efficiency. Electric typewriters were emergent.80 Moreover, college-educated reporters were at the turn of the twentieth century becoming "more and more of a factor" in New York City journalism.81
  • The enhancements in delivery systems. At the end of the nineteenth century, automobiles began replacing horse-drawn carts as a principal means of distributing newspapers in New York City.82 In addition, New York metropolitan newspapers were routinely sent by high-speed train to cities throughout the eastern United States.83

Despite the multiple technologies and developments that facilitated its emergence and diffusion, yellow journalism in its most flamboyant, immoderate, and sell-important form could not be long sustained. By the close of the first decade of the twentieth century, it clearly had faded. The tendency to self-promotion, once so frenzied and inescapable, had subsided. The New York American (the Journal's successor title) and the New York World were, by 1909, far less eager to place their names in front-page headlines than they had been ten years before.

The fading or softening of yellow journalism was also attributable to a convergence of multiple forces: Conservative competitors began to in-corporate features of the genre, notably in somewhat bolder layouts. Muckraking magazines such as McClure's, became journalism's most prominent crusaders, exposing municipal corruption and corporate greed and misconduct. Publishers became enfeebled (as did Pulitzer) or turned toward other interests (as did Hearst, to state and national politics). Reports of sporting events migrated from the front page to discrete sections.84

Meanwhile, the term "yellow journalism" became tied inextricably to an improbable assortment of journalistic failings and misdeeds, notably that of provoking the war with Spain in 1898.85 The myth of the yellow press and the Spanish-American War deepened in the 1930s with publication of studies by Joseph E. Wisan 86 and Marcus M. Wilkerson,87 and of polemics such as Ferdinand Lundberg's hostile biography, Imperial Hearst.88

By the end of the twentieth century, the understanding of "yellow journalism" had become so distorted, so choked by myth and misunderstanding, that discussions of the genre often were little more than ill-informed caricatures. Consider, for example, the following passage from Harper's magazine in 1997, which discussed Hearst and the Journal's reporting of the insurgency in Cuba that preceded the Spanish-American War-during what the author called "the florid bloom of crime and underwear that soon came to be known as yellow journalism":89

For eighteen months, the Journal had been printing vivid, first-hand accounts of the cruel suffering inflicted by Spanish brutes and tyrants on the innocent, democratic, freedom-loving Cuban people. The stories were counterfeit, composed by an atelier of thirty-odd artists and writers, among them Frederick [sic] Remington and Richard Harding Davis, that Hearst had dispatched to Cuba to dramatize the revolution presumably taking place in the mountains. The revolution was nowhere to be found, and so Hearst's correspondents stationed themselves in wicker chairs on the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, where they sipped iced drinks and received news by telepathy. Borrowing from one another's adjectives, they sent word of imaginary atrocities and non-existent heroes, descriptions of battles that never occurred, fanciful but stirring tales of Spanish officers roasting Catholic priests on charcoal fires and feeding prisoners to the sharks.

When all else failed, they sent an attractive Cuban girl whom they persuaded to travel north with a terrible story of how she had been violated by General Valeriano Weyler, the commander of the Spanish troops, whom the correspondents had never met but whom they routinely described as "the destroyer of haciendas," "the destroyer of families," and "the outrager of women." When the fair maiden arrived in New York, Hearst prepared for her appearance at Madison Square Garden with three concise instructions, always the same and always ready to hand, that expressed his reading of the First Amendment: "Hire military bands. Secure orators. Arrange fireworks."90

The errors, half-truths, and distortions in the Harper's account are not only spectacular: They are illustrative of the kind of routine denunciation and gratuitous misunderstanding that attaches to the yellow press and its practitioners. The Harper's account errs in many ways:

The Spanish did resort to harsh measures in their failed attempt to quell the insurrection in Cuba; the Journal kept no "atelier" of artists and reporters on the island; Davis and Remington, whom the Journal dispatched to Cuba, stayed a short while but traveled beyond Havana; some Journal correspondents did spend time with the Cuban insurgents; the Journal sometimes carried extravagant atrocity stories, but so did many other U.S. newspapers; correspondents for the Journal were acquainted with Weyler, the Spanish military leader in Cuba in 1896-1897; Weyler did not violate the Cuban "girl," the description of whom suggests Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, an eighteen-year-old woman whom the Spanish imprisoned for sympathies with the insurrection and whom a Journal correspondent rescued from a jail in Havana and sent to a tumultuous welcome in the United States.

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70. "The Cost of a Big Daily," Fourth Estate (30 November 1901): 12.
71. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1961), 13.
72. Fourth Estate noted in 1897 that a "distinct passion for half-tones has been developed during the past few weeks throughout the country." See "Note and Comment," Fourth Estate (11 March 1897): 7. A little more than a year later, Fourth Estate declared it "interesting to note the extraordinary proportions which the pictures are attaining in the daily newspapers." See "War News Rapidly Developing Color Printing," Fourth Estate (28 April 1898): 1. The trade publication had credited the New York Tribune with "a novelty in newspaper accomplishments" in making use on 21 January 1897 of a half-tone photograph of U.S. Senator Thomas Platt. See "Half-tones for Perfecting Presses," Fourth Estate (28 January 1897): 6. However, two newspapers in Minnesota claimed to have used halftones much earlier, prompting Fourth Estate to ask: "Who Holds the Half-tone Record on Fast Presses?" Fourth Estate (11 February 1897): 7. The two newspapers were the Minneapolis Times and the St. Paul Dispatch.
73. Holmes, "The New Journalism and the Old," 78. The art department, Holmes wrote in 1897, "is now as much a portion of a newspaper outfit as are the presses themselves. Every event has to be set off with "cuts," the more numerous and the more startling the better."
74. The enthusiasm for half-tones in the late 1890s was well described by Bradford Merrill, the World's managing editor, who observed in a letter to Pulitzer in 1899: "The tendency is to use half-tones and actual photographs in all editions, and the improvement in process is working three important results: First, it gives absolute accuracy; second, it saves space by making the pictures small; and last but not least, the tendency will be greatly to reduce expenses because photographers are cheaper than draughtsmen." Merrill, letter to Joseph Pulitzer, 13 June 1899, New York World papers, 1899 file, Butler Library, Columbia University.
75. The price fell to less than two cents a pound in 1896. See "Below Two Cents," Fourth Estate (8 October 1896): 1.
76. See "Newspapers and Headlines," Fourth Estate (6 October 1898): 4.
77. See "The Extinction of Newspapers," Scribner's Magazine 32 (October 1902): 507-508. The article noted: "It is the cheapness of the paper that makes it possible for the publisher of a metropolitan journal to put 150 tons of ewood-pulp's into a single Sunday issue" (508).
78. During the Spanish-American War, the Journal claimed daily sales of as many as 1.6 million copies.
79. "A New Time Saver," Fourth Estate (21 December 1899): 7.
80. "Electric Typewriter," Fourth Estate (28 September 1901): 4.
81. Davis, "The Journalism of New York," 228. The emphasis on recruiting college graduates was exploitative. Fourth Estate noted in 1900: "The tendency each year seems to be to drop the high-priced, experienced men for young fellows, fresh from college, who are ready to work for just enough to pay their expenses. The number of the latter is so large that the ranks are kept full at all times." See "Journalistic Kindergarten," Fourth Estate (5 May 1900): 6.
82. See "Delivery by Automobiles," Fourth Estate (24 March 1900): 5. The article said: "The New York Journal has successfully introduced the automobile in its newspaper delivery department. The machines are heavily built in order to stand the strain of moving rapidly over rough pavements. They can carry more papers than the ordinary wagons, can be run at a high rate of speed, and seem to be admirably adapted to the hard work they are expected to do. . . . The Journal is the first of the Manhattan newspapers to adopt these admirable machines in its circulation department."
83. Davis, "The Journalism of New York," 232.
84. For a brief discussion of sports coverage in the yellow press, which credits the New York Journal as the "first to develop the modern sports section," see John Rickards Belts, "Sporting Journalism in Nineteenth-Century America," American Quarterly 5, 1 (Spring 1953): 56.
85. See Brooke Fisher, "The Newspaper Industry," Atlantic Monthly 89 (June 1902): 751.
86. Joseph E. Wisan, The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (1895-1898), (New York: Octagon Books, reprint edition, 1965).
87. Marcus M. Wilkerson, Public Opinion and the Spanish-American War, A Study in War Propaganda. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1932).
88. Lundberg, Imperial Hearst, 66-82.
89. Lewis H. Lapham, "Notebook: The Consolations of Vanity," Harper's Magazine (December1997): 11.
90. Lapham, "Notebook," 11.




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