Bring back yellow journalism.

Media criticism.
March 30 2009 7:32 PM

Bring Back Yellow Journalism

At its best, it was terrific. At its worst, it wasn't that bad.

New York Journal.
New York Journal

How many times while plowing through a New York Times or Washington Post news story have you muttered to yourself, "I haven't had this much fun since the last time I read a GAO report."

That's not to deny the importance of GAO reports or of significant but dull newspaper stories. But every now and again, I wish the newspapers landing on my doorstep contained a little more blood, took a position without being partisan, yelled a tad more, and brushed some yellow from the palette while painting their stories.

There. I've said it. I wish our better newspapers availed themselves of some of the techniques of yellow journalism and a little less of the solemnity we associate with the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Yes, the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World from the 1890s.

Now before you storm the U.S. Congress' Periodical Press Galleries, demanding that they deny my latest application for a press card, hear me out. Being rambunctious to the extreme, yellow journalism is misunderstood. At its best, yellow journalism was terrific, and at its worst, it really wasn't all that bad. That was my takeaway a couple of years ago after I read W. Joseph Campbell's 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. Now that I've consumed Campbell's earlier book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001), that takeaway has become my conviction.

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It's not that Campbell, an associate professor at American University's School of Communications, doesn't appreciate the, um, downside of yellow journalism. In The Year That Defined American Journalism, Campbell acknowledges Hearst's tendency to exaggerate some coverage (e.g., during the Spanish-American War), to use the paper's pages to advance his own political ambitions, to manipulate public opinion, and to indulge in "oddball" stories such as "Can Man Breed Men From Monkeys?" (But those mostly appeared in the Sunday supplements, Campbell notes.)

Hearst also wasn't big on conceding error, Campbell writes, so if the wheel turned and Hearst were reborn, we'd have to kill him. That said, he inspired some great newspaper stories. As a contemporary critic of the Journal wrote in 1898, Hearst "would have one of the best papers in the English language" if only he would "cut his newspaper in two, publish the real, vital news in one part, and the sensations, rot, and nonsense in the other."

Campbell cites as favorable the views of media historian Frank Luther Mott, who said yellow journalism "must not be considered as synonymous with sensationalism." In Mott's mind, the essence of yellow journalism—or the essences, if you prefer—were its subjects: crime, scandal, gossip, divorce, sex, disasters, and sports.

Presentation played a role, too. Headlines that "screamed excitement, often about comparatively unimportant news," heavy use of pictures, a Sunday supplement and color comics, sympathy with the "underdog" and "campaigns against abuses suffered by the common people"—they all cut to the heart that was yellow journalism. The one completely irredeemable part of the yellow journalism package was its dependence on faked interviews and stories.

Campbell cites a range of authorities to dispel the yellow-journalism caricatures. Far from being a flavor consumed by only the poor and immigrants, yellow newspapers enjoyed wide readership across class, sex, and age lines. Media historian John D. Stevens found that the yellow papers "published a fair amount of sober financial, political, and diplomatic information." They crusaded against the privileged and the powerful; they exposed corruption in government and corporations and "probably encouraged the rise of magazine muckraking in the early twentieth century." The yellow papers also paid reporters well, which is a big plus in their favor.

H.L. Menckenwas a fan of sorts. Assessing William Randolph Hearst in the May 1927 issue of the American Mercury, he praised the aging press mogul for his accomplishments. Hearst's yellow journalism "shook up old bones, and gave the blush of life to pale cheeks," Mencken wrote. "The government we suffer under is still corrupt, but, especially in the cities, it is surely not as corrupt as it used to be. Yellow journalism had more to do with that change than is commonly put to its credit." As long as we're collecting nice things to say about this lapsed form, remember that Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor to combat yellow journalism.

It will come as no surprise that Campbell argues in both books that 1) yellow journalism doesn't deserve its bad rap and 2) that modern journalism has absorbed much from yellow journalism's look and techniques. One of the biggest enemies of yellow journalism in the 1890s was Adolph Ochs, who purchased a controlling interest in the New York Times in 1896. He prided himself in publishing the journalism of restraint and impartiality (aka anti-yellow journalism). Upon acquiring the Philadelphia Times in 1901, Ochs had a list of newspaper "don'ts" drawn up, which aims squarely at the yellow papers. The list was published in a newspaper trade journal and reprinted (paid) in the June 29, 1901, New York Times. It states: