Yellow journalism. Everybody’s heard of it, but few can define it. What is understood is that yellow journalism is a bad form of a normally good thing, like yellow snow. But that’s about it.
In the old days, calling someone yellow was like calling them chicken. So maybe calling someone a yellow journalist was like calling someone a chicken hawk, which is a term we use today for politicians who wrap themselves in the flag and push for war but avoided the draft themselves in the Vietnam era when their own bacon would have been on the line.
That understanding of yellow journalism rings true to our ears because the cause that is most associated with yellow journalism is the Spanish American War, and the cause most associated with chicken hawkery is the Iraq invasion of 2003.
If you were paying attention in 2002 and 3, you might have heard a few comparisons being made between the looming Iraq war and the long ago Spanish American War. But you had to be paying real close attention; and few people were.
Or maybe the analogy rings true to our ears because of what Dylan said in the lyrics of Tombstone Blues:
Maybe. But in any event, yellow journalism is not chicken journalism.
There really is no definitive answer for where the name yellow journalism comes from, but there are a couple of likely explanations. One is that ‘yellow’ refers to one of the splashy colored inks that daily papers began using in the 1890s to make their papers stand out against the black and white of the competition. So describing a particular publication as yellow journalism would be a way of saying that it put flair over substance; not even style, just flair.
The other explanation is that ‘yellow journalism’ comes from the term ‘yellow papers’, which was a nickname given to the two New York newspapers that both ran a comic strip in the 1890s called the Yellow Kid, and which happened to be the newspapers belonging to William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
We’ll get into the subject of the Yellow Kid in more detail in the next episode. For now, here is a list of the four basic attributes of yellow journalism, according to wikipedia:
- The use of scare headlines in huge print.
- Lavish use of pictures or imaginary drawings.
- Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and the false testimony of so-called experts.
And 4, dramatic sympathy with the underdog against the system.
Now, that last one stands out, because it sounds like it ought to be a good thing, right? Sympathy with the underdog, against the system.
And if you listened to the last podcast, it should remind you of a person of interest named Joseph Pulitzer. We described him in fairly heroic terms for the way he made journalism for the people, and for the reforms his newspapers were able to bring to the table during the Gilded Age, penetrating its previously impregnable mantra of laissez faire, let it be.
And then, as the story goes, which we will get into, William Randolph Hearst came to town. And suddenly the rules changed. It wasn’t just folksy journalism anymore. It was something more volatile.
This is when the era of Yellow Journalism began.
And, we should make a distinction here between the Era of Yellow Journalism, capital Y capital J, and regular old lower case yellow journalism, the generic term that we still use today to describe a certain type of reportage.
The Era of Yellow Journalism really only lasted from about 1895 to 1898, but its impact lasted far beyond, which is why you and I are having this discussion 120 years later.
William Randolph Hearst vs. Joseph Pulitzer. In order to tell stories more effectively, we usually end up streamlining the narrative, sacrificing the complicating details in order to get the basic point across. So, you may have heard the same history of Yellow Journalism that I have.
Hearst bad. Pulitzer good.
Joseph Pulitzer. Newspaper pioneer. Visionary; an immigrant who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and brought the daily paper to the everyday people, opening the door for things like labor reform, social reform, political reform, and economic reform.
The citizenry of the 1880s was desperate for a response to the laissez faire approach of the Gilded Age and its unsolvable problems, and Pulitzer’s newspapers were the first draft of the chapter of history called the Progressive Era that would do just that.
Pulitzer introduced big headlines, front page-cartoons, and graphics. His paper would have a mix of salacious stories to push your buttons, and emotional stories to tug at your heartstrings.
The fact that this is what is otherwise known as tabloid journalism, and that Pulitzer is in fact responsible for starting tabloid journalism, or that he took away readership from more established papers that couldn’t or wouldn’t follow his lead into the realm of tabloid sensationalism is largely overlooked, because in the shorthand version of history, the ends justify the means.
Hearst, on the other hand, is relegated to the role of arch-villain in that version of history. He was the entitled rich kid who just wanted to be famous, respected (or at least feared), and more powerful than his father. He had the instincts of a ruthless capitalist and the only reason he got into publishing was to make himself great.
Hearst’s strategy for duplicating and ultimately surpassing Joseph Pulitzer’s success was simply to out-Pulitzer Pulitzer; to use even racier headlines, even splashier colors, even more prurient subject matter. Anything Pulitzer could do, Hearst could do bigger, or should we say, ‘more bigly’?
Respecting the objective truth was not a priority.
Hearst kept lowering the bar, according to the shorthand version of history, and Pulitzer had no choice but to follow him down. Hearst did everything he could to undermine Pulitzer, and if Pulitzer wanted to stay in business, and continue his mission of spreading badly needed reform, he had no choice but to stoop to Hearst’s level, and fight fire with fire.
Hearst used his family fortune to lure Pulitzer’s top talent away.
He got his newspaper to double Pulitzer’s page count, and then he halved the price of his paper from two pennies to one, just to twist the screws.
Hearst didn’t just want to have the top newspaper in the country. He also wanted to crush Pulitzer. Just to prove that he was the king. He had father issues and an inferiority complex. He needed to be the best at something, and he was willing to do anything or print anything to get there.
That’s the popular version of history, and it may be somewhat true, if somewhat overstated.
I used two sources to get information about the Hearst-Pulitzer feud. Just two. One was an American Experience type of documentary that I watched on YouTube.
That clip pretty much told the story you just heard. The other source was Wikipedia, which had a more disjointed, less cohesive narrative, because it’s compiled from different contributors working independently, without an editor. But, Wikipedia included additional information that the documentary left out.
Wikipedia mentioned that Pulitzer did the same things to undercut his competition that Hearst later did to him. Wikipedia was a little more explicit in stating that Pulitzer engaged in tabloid journalism before Hearst came along, and that Pulitzer was also criticized by more respected publications at the time for lowering the bar well before Hearst did.
The documentary made it sound like Hearst lowered the price of his daily paper from two pennies to one in order to put Pulitzer out of business. But Wikipedia seemed to say that Pulitzer was the one who lowered his price to a penny in order to put Hearst out of business.
Now, that seems like a pretty important detail to nail down if we want to tell the story right. And it seems like what a good journalist would want to do in these circumstances would be to start looking for additional sources in order to get some corroborating details. But I didn’t want to.
The fact that two sources could each authoritatively state two different versions of history, of truth, OR that I could somehow misinterpret what each of them stated, is precisely the point we’re trying to make about what was wrong with the era of Yellow Journalism. Basically, you couldn’t trust your daily paper to tell the truth anymore.
Remember, the average daily reader in New York City was a new newspaper consumer. He or she wouldn’t have bought or read a daily paper before Hearst and Pulitzer came along. Newspapers weren’t originally intended for people like them, in the same way that voting wasn’t originally intended for people like them by the Founding Fathers, but rather exclusively for the educated property owning class.
The Founding Fathers didn’t have anything against the common people, they just thought that expecting them to be informed voters was asking too much. Allowing ordinary people to vote was tantamount to letting children decide what would be for dinner. It would lead to demagoguery and worse. That was how it went for the first six American presidencies.
But the seventh president, a man of common origin and a bit of a demagogue himself named Andrew Jackson, opened up voting during his first term for all free white males, regardless of background or status.
Now, that was right around 1830, when the country’s population was still relatively small and homogenous, and was comprised almost exclusively of British-descended Anglo Saxons, and African slaves. After Jackson’s second term, would come the big waves of Irish immigration, and Germans. And then, following the Civil War and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the floodgates would be thrown open to the tired, the poor, the non-Anglo Saxon masses.
Would Andrew Jackson have thought of these Slavs, Italians, and Jews as white? Well it didn’t really matter, because everybody, that is to say every adult male, could vote. Even the freed black slaves could vote…in theory anyway.
And, they could all be informed voters by reading their daily paper. The only problem was, by 1895 those papers could no longer be relied on to tell the truth.
The New York City of the 1890s would have been unrecognizable to the New York City of the 1790s, when George Washington was president and the ink on the Constitution was barely dry. And we’re not just talking about technology and infrastructure here, we’re talking about demography; the huddled masses.
American democracy was a sort of trickle down democracy. The Founding Fathers had never intended for everybody to vote. They believed that there needed to be a ruling class making the decisions; they just didn’t want a monarchy, or an autocrat doing it.
Universal suffrage to them looked like putting the children in charge of the household, and was the surest way to lead to another autocrat, another king, a demagogue who would dazzle the masses with big promises, tell them exactly what they wanted to hear, and once in office, would begin systematically consolidating power and eliminating opposition. And in short order the grand experiment in American democracy would be over.
Andrew Jackson was the first commoner to become president. And, in many ways, he was the founding fathers’ worst nightmare. He was a war hero and a folk hero from the backwoods with a lot of fiercely loyal popular support, and little respect, even open disdain, for many of the values that the Founding Fathers considered sacrosanct. We could easily spend a whole podcast talking about this if we’re not careful. Suffice it to say that, upon his presidential inauguration, in order to make a point, Jackson allegedly opened up the White House to the masses, who promptly spked the punch and turned the White House lawn into a drunken free for all, scandalizing the nation’s capital, and the republic for which it stood.
As President, Jackson tried to eliminate the federal bank, one of the central institutions of the young nation. And most infamously of all, he authored the Indian Removal Act, which legitimated the wholesale practice of forcing peaceful Indian tribes in good standing off their lands and onto far away territories and reservations, in order to open up those lands for white settlement; it’s a chapter of history best embodied by the Trail of Tears, when the Cherokee nation was forced off their land in Georgia and sent to the newly designated Indian territory of Oklahoma.
When the revered Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall authored an opinion contravening Jackson’s dictate, President Jackson’s response supposedly was to say: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Which is a way of saying that Marshall may have the letter of the law on his side, but he doesn’t have an army.
By founding father standards, Jackson played fast and loose with the constitution and represented an affront to the institutions of American democracy. For the Founding Fathers, Andrew Jackson as president is what happens when you let the deplorables vote. It’s interesting that Donald Trump sees himself as a Jacksonian figure; or more likely that Steve Bannon told him he was a Jacksonian figure.
Suffice it to say that Jacksonian Democracy, as it came to be called, changed America into something that the founders might have called vulgar and dysfunctional, but is in fact the only America that we, our great grandparents, and even their great-grandparents have ever known. And in case you haven’t noticed, Jackson is on the $20 bill (although not for much longer) which means that not everybody in high places thought he was bad for democracy. And today, other than history buffs, few people are even aware that there ever was a Jacksonian crisis in American presidential politics.
So, what does all this have to do with Hearst and Pulitzer?
Well, to answer that, we just need to say a few more things about the presidency.
Probably the most salient feature of the American presidency is just how few constitutional crises there have actually been. Th e prime objective of the founding fathers was to make sure the president could never accumulate too much power and become king, and they were remarkably successful in that endeavor.
It’s easy enough for us to take for granted now. But when the founders looked around, every nation on their radar, more or less, and every democratic experiment in history, did eventually succumb to monarchy or dictatorship sooner or later.
They knew they were swimming against the tide with this new experiment of theirs, and they were fanatical about loading up the system with checks and balances to keep any single individual from gaining too much power. What stands out is that over the span of 45 presidencies and 230 years, it still works, because it was built to last, like a Roman aqueduct.
There have been just a handful of constitutional crises involving the chief executive, and they were all resolved peaceably, unless you want to count the Civil War.
George Washington set the precedent for the president, with his firm decision to run for two terms and no more. Every president honored that precedent until Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. There had never been an actual law limiting a president to two terms, it was just a tradition that everybody upheld out of respect for the system. The moment Roosevelt was out of office, the Congress passed an amendment officially limiting the president to two terms.
Even Andrew Jackson, who flaunted some unwritten rules about the presidency, upheld many more unwritten rules.
The truth about the presidency is that other than its dealings with Congress, the limits on presidential privilege and power are generally not codified in law, but are only based on traditions and norms. And basically, that’s been enough so far. 230 years and no major conflicts of interest, until the election of Donald Trump, and suddenly, we’re scrambling to contain his excesses with a system that is designed to run as a gentlemen’s agreement.
Well, what if we extend that analogy from the presidency to the newspaper business?
That’s the snapshot we need to keep in mind as we go back to the 1890s and the huddled masses and the rapidly changing face of America during the industrial revolution, when two guys named Hearst and Pulitzer were becoming more powerful by the day than any newspaper publishers had ever been before, and they were too busy selling papers to be worried about upholding journalistic standards
Freedom of the press, if you remember your history, is an essential part of the Constitution. It’s right there in the First Amendment. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.
As per the Constitution, the press, aka the fourth estate, enjoyed the freedom to print whatever it wanted (outside of sedition and libel). But, as with the presidency, what do you do when the norms and customs that kept the fourth estate in its lane, no longer keep it in its lane?
About that term, Fourth Estate. The first three estates mean different things depending on the context, but are generally understood to be the pillars that make up the establishment of any given society. So, in prerevolutionary Europe the three estates of the establishment would refer to the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners, and is where the term antidisestablishmentarianism comes into play, which is probably the longest word I can type into this computer without triggering spellcheck, and was rumored to be the longest word in the dictionary back when I was a kid, before molecular biologists came up with some longer words.
In the US, the three estates refer colloquially to the three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. But whether in Europe or in the US, the Fourth Estate always refers to the press.
As you know, it takes four pillars to uphold an establishment. And to the drafters of the Constitution, the free press was considered to be just as important a pillar as the three branches of government in upholding up the long-term stability of our system…that’s the Fourth Estate.
Today, we’re secure in the knowledge that we live in an information age, but as recently as 30 years ago, the whole concept of an information age would have seemed baffling. There was really no context for it as late as 1990.
So imagine how unprepared for it they would have been in 1890.
We spent an entire podcast episode describing the technological boom of the late 19th Century as an information age that was made possible by the invention of the telegraph, the way our information age was made possible by the invention of digital technology.
We talked about how the late 19th Century was when the Western world took the great leap forward into modernity. When the US went from being a country of farmers to a country of city slickers. And a big part of that leap involved the development of mass media, which at the time consisted exclusively of newspapers, because there was no radio yet, let alone television or movies.
Newspapers themselves had always been part of the cultural landscape. Benjamin Franklin was a newspaper publisher, and he used his paper to push his own beliefs, philosophical and political.
And newspapers had continued in that vein throughout the next century, serving usually as the mouthpiece of a particular political movement or figure. That was how the Founding Fathers understood newspapers to be.
Then, with the advent of the telegraph, world news and other immediate information, like weather reports, could be included in the paper, and soon there were dispatches from the front in the Civil War, complete with accounts and renderings of the carnage.
But the newspaper was still the purview of educated people, gentlemen. Ordinary folks had no business reading the paper. Until technology made it cheaper, and Joseph Pulitzer came along and made it more interesting, and easier to read.
By the laws of trickle down democracy, that was probably a good thing. Ready or not, by 1890, the future had arrived. The huddled masses were appearing on these shores from the far-flung corners looking for the American dream.
And a relationship with the daily paper was as good a way as any to get them on board as participants in the American experience.
Pulitzer would probably argue that an article has to engage you before it can turn you into a critical thinker. And sensational journalism was more engaging than regular old-fashioned boring journalism.
The press was free to print what it wanted, as long as it didn’t engage in outright libel, But, there were expectations that had been set in place by decades of tradition. Pulitzer broke many of those traditions in terms of what kind of stories he ran and the way he presented them, but he always strove for accuracy, as every journalist knows you should. Daily newspapers like Pulitzer’s were expected to have a particular slant, but they were also expected not to print untrue or irresponsible things.
As an old reporter himself, Pulitzer respected that.
Hearst had an altogether different relationship with the newspaper business. He was half a generation younger than Pulitzer, and he was a product of the Gilded Age. He was part of a greed is good generation, when anything done in the name of free enterprise was considered valid. In other eras, he might have been a real estate developer or an investment banker or a movie producer. But in the late 1880s, thanks to Pulitzer having achieved “rock star” status with his dailies, newspaper publishing was the glamour profession for a young gun looking to make a splash and go places quick.
Newspapers themselves had morphed into something much different. When Pulitzer started out, newspapers were still broadsheets, basically documents full of small print and geared towards a specialized audience. By Hearst’s time, and thanks mostly to Pulitzer himself, newspapers were eye candy, like billboards, like TV shows really, in age before television. They were infotainment. And because of the high speed technology of the telegraph and telephone wires, news could travel so much faster than it ever could before. So there was much more to report on. And newspapers could be printed and distributed faster than ever before.
So the people who ran the large daily papers, the people who mediated the information in this 19th Century information age, found themselves in a position of unparalleled power and influence that would not have been possible a generation earlier. They were information brokers. They looked at all the information coming over the wire, and they decided which ones would be stories and which ones wouldn’t. And on the other side of the equation, they occupied a larger part of their readers’ headspace than anybody outside of bosses or immediate family.
Newspapers in the 1890s were an expanding universe. They were at the front end of the 19th Century tech boom. There was always some new invention or innovation coming onto the market, and the newspaper barons were quick to figure out ways to make use of them, whether it be sharper photos, colored ink, or faster delivery.
And, as with our own internet information age, the better the technology got, the cheaper it got. And as it got cheaper, more people signed up for the service. Pretty soon, the whole city was reading, and buying, a paper.
And this huge customer base gave the newspapers another way of making money: Advertising. Not only could you charge big companies a premium for large front page ads, but you could also charge for classified ads.
The 1890s marked the beginning of our consumer age. Having a penny newspaper that could provide you not only with your daily news brief, and your community bulletin, and games and entertainment, but also access to a list of providers for every kind of good or service on offer, even personal ads, was a tremendous convenience. People of the newspaper age, like people of the smartphone age a hundred years later, wondered how they ever possibly managed without one.
That’s what the entrepreneurial mind of William Randolph Hearst saw when he looked around after college for a business that would get him straight to the top as quickly as possible.
Hearst built up his West Coast publishing empire, taking the paper his father gave him, the San Francisco Examiner, and revamping it to look more like a Pulitzer paper. He went out and hired the best talent he could find to write for the Examiner, signing up names like Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and Jack London.
From the beginning Hearst dreamed of running a nationwide empire of newspapers, and began acquiring papers in other cities, but he knew that attaining the kind of status he really wanted meant making it big in New York City, which meant taking on, and beating, the great Joseph Pulitzer.
In 1895, with financial backing from his mother, (Hearst’s father had died in 1891), he acquired the failing New York Morning Journal, and set out to take on his rival directly.
Hearst’s strategy had always been to out-Pulitzer Pulitzer. He brought over his finest people from San Francisco and went around New York hiring the best talent he could find, generally luring them away from other New York papers by offering generous pay packages plus other incentives, like huge bylines for his favored writers and VIP treatment. And he wasn’t above hiring outlandish characters as contributors, as long as they could help drive up his numbers.
Within months of setting up shop in New York, Hearst had lured away Pulitzer’s three top editors. According to one source, he waited until Pulitzer was on vacation to do it, and lured them away with the offer of more money. According to another source, he didn’t have to offer them more money, because all three had grown tired of Pulitzer’s demanding ways and difficult personality, and were happy for the opportunity to work in a less negative atmosphere.
So Hearst had his dream team, but what he really needed to set himself apart was a cause he could attach himself to, something he could put his name on the way Pulitzer did with the reforms of the 1880s. He found that cause in the Cuban independence movement.
By 1895, the American Frontier had closed, which is to say, the West had been fully settled, and the formerly isolationist United States was on its way to becoming a global superpower. Big on the national agenda was the completion of the so-called Isthmian Canal, which would ultimately be called the Panama Canal. The completion of this waterway on the narrow isthmus separating North and South America, would drastically shorten the shipping lane between America’s eastern and western seaboards and be a total game changer for American, and world, trade.
Of course, such a canal would be a national treasure, and would have to be protected at all costs, lest another power, a European power, be tempted to come in and seize it after the US did all the hard work of building it. This is where the Monroe Doctrine comes in, a doctrine put fort by America’s fifth president back in 1823, stating that any attempt by a European power to expand its colonial operations in the Western hemisphere, would be taken as a hostile act against the United States itself.
At this time, the island of Cuba was still a colony of Spain, but it was actively trying to gain its independence through rebellion. The Cuban independence movement was a popular cause in America for two reasons. One, the anti-colonial message resonated well on a popular level with the American ideals of independence, and two, the idea of driving Spain out of the region boded well for American hegemony, for an offshore continuation of the Manifest Destiny that had extended the country from sea to shining sea.
Spain was seen as a weak colonial power, and Cuba was seen as an essential buffer against potential European incursion into a future American canal zone. If America was going to have its canal, it would need to have a strong naval presence to protect it, the thinking went, and that meant making sure that if the Spanish were kicked out of Cuba, no other European powers were allowed to move in. That meant, in all likelihood, that if the Spanish were kicked out, America would have to move in.
There were two different questions on the table here, and a lot of different answers: Should Cuba be liberated, and should America do the liberating? And if so, to what extent? You could see how someone could support Cuban independence and oppose American military occupation. But you can also see how the lines could become easily blurred. If we support the rebels’ cause, is it then okay to give them food and provisions? If it’s okay to give them provisions, is it also okay to give them guns? If it’s okay to give them guns, wouldn’t it be okay to park a couple of warships offshore just in case?
As long as we’re just helping them gain their independence, and not actually taking over the island for ourselves, well that would be okay, wouldn’t it? What if we just administer the island temporarily, until Cuban democracy is strong enough to stand on its own? Okay, but what if Cuban democracy gets too strong, and they want to develop their own alliances with nations that are not deemed friendly to American interests?
Then what do you do?
This is where concepts like ‘mission creep’ and the fog of war and quagmire come into play. By 1900, these dilemmas would be all too common for Americans, some Americans anyway. But in 1895, that was not yet the case.
In 1895, the romance of the Cuban cause was enough to stoke people’s interest. They weren’t thinking about the long-term ramifications yet.
And this is where William Randolph Hearst seized his opportunity.