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.

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:

In reply to the inquiries of his editors and managers, the new proprietor gave directions, which may be codified as follows:

No red ink.
No pictures.
No double column heads.
No freak typography.
No free advertisements.
No free circulation.
No free notices to advertisers.
No reading matter advertisements with-out marks.
No medical advertisements.
No advertisements on first page.
No free passes from railroads.
No free theatre tickets.
No collectors of advertising bills.
No Bryanism.
No coupon schemes.
No guessing contests.
No prizefighting details.
No advertisements that a self-respecting man would not read to his family.
No concessions from the advertising rate card.
No personal journalism.
No pessimism.
No friends to favor.
No enemies to punish.
No drinking by employes.
No speculation by employes .
No private scandal.
No word contests.
No prize puzzles.
No advertisements 
***Of immoral books,
***Of fortune tellers, 
***Of secret diseases,
***Of guaranteed cures,
***Of clairvoyants,
***Of palmists,
***Of massage.
No advertisements
***Of offers of large salaries,
***Of large guaranteed dividends,
***Of offers of something for nothing.

Prizefighting details? Personal journalism? Word contests? Ads on the front page? I shudder! Pictures? Double-column heads? Red ink? Freak typography? Medical ads and ads for immoral books? How the mighty Times has fallen afoul of the Ochs code! Surely when the Times' Nicholas D. Kristof bought sex slaves out of bondage, the ghost of Ochs must have wept. By 1890s standards, today's Times is as yellow as a lemon.

Campbell's revisionist view doesn't downplay the activist nature of the yellow journals, which would set up soup kitchens, send relief to victims of hurricanes, file lawsuits to get government contracts overturned, and, in the Journal's case, once organized a Havana jailbreak. To Campbell's 21st-century eyes, such partisan efforts—which Hearst called "the journalism of action"—got a second wind in the "civic" and "public" journalism experiments of the 1990s, in which newspaper editors met with citizens and attempted to solve or address communities' "problems." The difference, Campbell notes, is that the yellow journalists imposed solutions from above while the civic journalists strove to percolate agendas from the ground up.

The purest forms of civic journalism and Hearst-ian journalism of action have always given me palpations of distrust because I'm never sure how far either camp has skewed coverage to fit a predetermined agenda. And yet, paging through Campbell's two books, I found myself yearning for the sort of vital newspapers that were common in the Hearst-Pulitzer heyday.

"The yellow press possessed an effervescence, a visceral and essential appeal that newspapers 100 years later seem desperate to recapture," Campbell writes in Yellow Journalism. Have the hell-bent professionalization of journalism and the erection of a complex ethical code for its practitioners sapped from newspapers their life force? Can yellow journalism be reinvented—tamed and respiced, perhaps—in a way that preserves its best elements, subtracts the worst, and still glows? Is there a place in the newspaper world for saffron journalism?

******

Yellow Journalism demolishes the myth that Hearst sent Frederic Remington a cable stating, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."* That said, you furnish the e-mails to slate.pressbox@gmail.com, and I'll furnish the Twitters. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word yellow in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, June 9, 2011: This article originally misspelled Frederic Remington's first name.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.