Introduction to Yellow Journalism


This study seeks neither to laud nor apologize for yellow journalism. Its excesses were many and difficult to countenance. It was a notably impenitent genre. The Journal, in particular, was seldom given to acknowledge lapses and errors.91

Its indulgence in oddities and pseudoscience,92 moreover, lent to yellow journalism a sense of absurdity and encouraged the notion that the genre was eager "to sport with the facts."93 While strange and improbable stories (such as "The Missing Link Found Alive In Annam,"94 "Is the Sun Preparing to Give Birth to a New World?"95 and "Pontius Pilate's Interview With Christ"96) were generally confined to Sunday supplements, they live on as blighting counterfeits.97

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to assess yellow journalism solely in relation to such excesses. Oddities and pseudoscience were diversions, not the principal elements of content; not all columns of the yellow press "were filled . . . with frivolities and slush."98

This study, while mindful of the lapses and shortcomings of yellow journalism, recognizes as well that it was a robust and searching genre, the understanding of which has been warped by myth and error. The study, therefore, pursues a twofold objective.

First, it revisits and offers fresh perspectives and interpretations about the prominent mythology of yellow journalism. The study specifically seeks to correct the record about legends and misunderstandings, such as Hearst's purported vow to "furnish the war," and about misleading claims, such as the undying notion the yellow press plunged the United States into war with Spain. Those and other myths of the yellow press are addressed in the first part of this study.

The second, related objective is to assess the extent to which the defining features of yellow journalism live on in leading American newspapers. That they do live on has often been asserted by media historians 99 but never has been tested systematically. The second part of this study presents the results of a detailed content analysis of the front pages of seven leading U.S. newspapers at ten-year intervals, from 1899 to 1999. The content analysis indicates that some of the less flamboyant elements characteristic of yellow journalism have been generally adopted by leading U.S. newspapers.

A separate chapter offers qualitative evidence about how the genetic material of yellow journalism can be found in various strains of activist-oriented journalism of the late twentieth century-namely, in "development journalism," a movement popular in developing countries during the 1970s and 1980s; in "public journalism," which emerged in the United States during the 1990s, and in the virulent brand of crime-busting journalism practiced by large-circulation British tabloid newspapers at the end of the 1990s.

In puncturing the myths and defining the legacies of yellow journalism, this study focuses to some degree on Hearst's New York Journal. Such a concentration is inescapable: Not only did the Journal perhaps best exemplify the accomplishments and excesses of yellow journalism, the newspaper was central to the genre's most powerful and enduring myths. More broadly, however, this study endeavors to present a nuanced and less emotional understanding of an energetic, complex, and much-maligned genre of American journalism. Yellow journalism has long awaited such treatment.

Most discussions of the yellow press, after all, have been conducted through the biographies of the figures most readily associated with the genre - of Hearst and Pulitzer, principally. A notable exception was John D. Stevens's Sensationalism and the New York Press, an insightful if largely descriptive account that considers the yellow press of New York City in detail.

Stevens's work does not, however, examine the genre as it emerged elsewhere in the United States, nor does it explore its myths and legacies. Sidney Kobre's The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism is a useful treatment, but is principally a descriptive survey of important figures and institutions of the press in the United States during the late nineteenth century.

This study, then, seeks to fill a significant gap in the literature. It begins with Ervin Wardman and the first sustained use of the term "yellow journalism."

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91. Similar criticism was raised about the American press at the end of the twentieth century as well. See, for example, Robert J. Haiman, Best Practices forNewspaper Journalists: A Handbook for Reporters, Editors, Photographers and Other Newspaper Professionals On How to be Fair to the Public (Arlington, VA: The Freedom Forum, 2000), 13. Haiman wrote: "There is a broad feeling in the public that newspapers not only make too many mistakes, but that they also are unwilling to correct them fully and promptly."
92. See, for example, "Can Scientists Breed Men from Monkeys?" New York Journal (22 August 1897): 13. Other yellow journals carried bizarre tales as well. See, for example, "Is Our Earth Alive-Has It a Soul?" San Francisco Examiner (25 April 1909): 18.
93. Brooks, "The American Yellow Press," 1128.
94. "The Missing Link Found Alive In Annam," New York Journal (6 December 1896): 33. Annam is in what now is central Vietnam.
95. "Is the Sun Preparing to Give Birth to a New World?" New York Journal (12 September 1897): 20-21.
96. "Pontius Pilate's Interview With Christ," New York Journal (7 November 1897): 17.
97. Such features probably were not taken altogether seriously by readers. Fourth Estate said that it suspected the oddities were seen as "wildly ludicrous to people of moderate sense and education." See "Past and Present Sensationalism," Fourth Estate (18 November 1897): 6.
98. Brooks, "The American Yellow Press," 1135.
99. See, for example, Molt, American Journalism



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