Yellow Journalism: Past and Present

Journalism is a constant battle of ethics and morality in and of itself. Every story, down to the last punctuation mark on the page, has to be edited and re-edited, fact checked, sourced, and validated beyond any chance of reproof. At least that's how it is ideally. But in a world where news is a business and a business needs to make money, the lines between telling the truth and selling the story can be blurred to a point that is beyond reckless. Starting with Hearst and Pulitzer and the Spanish-American War, journalism has had the power to send nations to arms and people into a frenzy with just a little added sensationalism. This is what we know today as “yellow journalism,” the warping and exaggeration of a story by the media.

The Yellow Kid

Richard F. Outcalt left Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and began working for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. This coincided with a major circulation war between Pulitzer's and Hearst's papers. The cartoon, Hogan's Alley, featured a child in an oversized yellow shirt who would make comical commentary on the daily workings of New York City. The Yellow Kid became America's first successful comic strip, as it appealed to the working class and was able to highlight things about the city in a way that was simultaneously insightful and humorous. The comic helped to boost the New York World's sales, and even spawned its own line of merchandise, an event many historians agree is the first time merchandizing was used as it is today.

In order to snatch some success away from his competitor, William Randolph Hearst offered Outcalt a massive pay raise to come over to The New York Journal with his Yellow Kid. In response, Pulitzer hired artist George Luks and continued running Hogan's Alley with a Yellow Kid knock-off. This chain of events led to a legal feud over the copyrighting of the Yellow Kid. Hearst claimed legal ownership of the Yellow Kid cartoon, but a loophole in the copyright system only allowed him to own the rights to the name “Yellow Kid,” and not any of the images or trademarks associated with the character itself. With no legal avenue to divert the issue, both publishers instead just put aside more and more room for their individual interpretations of the Yellow Kid, attempting to outdo one another by printing more and more of the comic. The rivalry between the two papers was brought very clearly into the public eye, revealing the downward spiral in quality of both as they fought tooth and nail for circulation. The “Battle of the Yellow Kids” was symbolic of the deterioration of integrity in journalism. New York Press editor Ervin Wardman had been a longtime critic of both papers and their penchants for sensationalism and exaggeration, had tried multiple times to put a name to the crude tactics they employed. First trying “new journalism” and “nude journalism,” Wardman finally settled for “Yellow Kid Journalism,” which was eventually shortened to its modern name: yellow journalism.

War of Circulation

Pulitzer had purchased the New York World after finding his success in San Francisco. He was the first to use flashy headlines to draw readers and also the first to use questionable material to keep them reading, increasing circulation from 15,000 to 60,000. In an attempt to combat Pulitzer's growing audience, Hearst purchased the New York Journal and dropped the price down to a penny. When the price drop didn't succeed in ousting Pulitzer, Hearst began to use Pulitzer's own questionable tactics against him. The fierce rivalry turned its focus then on Cuba. The small island colony had begun a rebellion against its mother country, Spain, and many in the United States supported the movement for Cuban independence. There was popular demand for Spain to leave Cuba entirely, and others even began to supply Cuba with arms in order to fight back. Hearst and Pulitzer seized the opportunity to ensnare audiences, painting pictures of dashing young revolutionaries fighting daringly against their cruel oppressors. This was when they turned from exaggeration to imagination. Many stories printed during this time turned out to be completely untrue. Sources were entirely invented, dates and events were fabricated, and stories of Spanish cruelties that never occurred were reported in great detail. At the time, readers could not get enough. Hearst even had “combat dispatches” who stayed in classy hotel rooms in Cuba and sent back reports that they had completely made up.

Two stories caused uproar amongst Americans, who began demanding war. The first was the story of a Cuban woman named Clemencia Arango who was detained on a ship bound to New York by Spanish officials and searched under the suspicion that she was carrying secret documents to the rebel leaders living in the city. Though the original report from one of Hearst's men who happened to be on the ship contained no claim of it, Hearst's story accused the Spanish officials of sexually harassing the woman. The paper famously questioned the government: “Does our flag shield women?” Hearst later was forced to apologize when it came to light that the allegations held no truth at all, but that was soon glossed over with the release of the second fake story. The second major fabrication was of a Cuban man with American citizenship, Ricardo Ruiz, who had returned to Cuba to fight in the rebellion and had been arrested. Ruiz later died in the prison. This story appealed strongly to the middle class, and Americans were then primed and ready for war with Cuba. However, this was not the end of the yellow journalism, not enough just yet to start the war.

Modern Media

Ethical horrors aside, yellow journalism succeeded where moral journalism could not. Paper was dirt cheap, the working class could afford it, and they ate up everything that Hearst and Pulitzer could give them. Despite the lack of class and concern for truth, the success of their methods could not be denied. Viewers were entertained and entranced, and that meant money in the pockets of both Hearst and Pulitzer, and wild success for both of their papers. These methods have found their home in modern day media as well. The Internet is a breeding ground for yellow journalism, allowing anyone to be a source on anything. Too often the Internet community gets inflamed over stories that simply aren't true, spreading them like wildfire with only the click of a button and an angry tirade in the comments. For example, the story of Samsung paying Apple $1.2 billion dollars in nickels that were then transported by trucks simply is not true. But nearly everyone heard of it or saw it as they browsed through different websites and social media. And the whole story was started by a satirical comedy website based in

Mexico. The Onion has become infamous in its own way, with many taking their comedic and satirical articles as fact, including reputable news sources such as Fox News, The New York Times, and ESPN. In more recent history, if anyone in the media or the government had bothered to cross-check sources on whether or not Iraq did actually have nuclear weapons, the United States might have avoided a war that lasted nearly ten years and cost thousands their lives. A little bit of fact checking can go a long way.

Technology Warning

New technologies are not only allowing stories to come from virtually anywhere, but they also make it that much easier to completely fabricate something. A video was released recently of an eagle swooping down and snatching a baby away in its talons. While thousands of people clicked, watched, and were aghast when they believed it was true, people had already moved on with their lives before it was revealed that someone had simply edited the video and that no baby had truly been harmed in the photo shopping of the film. Where Hearst and Pulitzer have words, any bored teenager with a laptop has access to Photoshop and video editing technology that can make it look like Kim Kardashian and the resurrected Kim Jong Il had mimosas over brunch. And people would jump all over it.

Saving Face

That Hearst and Pulitzer developed a nearly impeccable business model for their time is beyond denial. They took cheap paper and cheap stories and reached an audience hungry for glitzy titles, racy subject matter, and glamorous pictures and became newspaper legends. Newspapers around the country adopted yellow journalism as well during their time, scrambling to keep up with the two media giants who had the whole country in a frenzy. This contamination of the media continued until the entire industry was debased and written off as the frauds they had become. But the fact remains that these were businesses, and businesses must make money. The glamour and sense of the forbidden have lingered on past the days of Hearst and Pulitzer. A snappy title or scandalous picture on a Twitter feed will draw readers in without a question, and violence and sex to readers are like candy to trick-or-treaters. But a level of responsibility must be maintained, despite all of that. Fortunately, the audiences of Hearst and Pulitzer managed to redeem themselves in the end. Yellow journalism ceased having an appeal once people realized they were being duped.

Though the Internet makes it hard for people to continue to care about something after they click the back button, it has also become a useful tool in debunking media myths and seeking out other opinions. Entertainment has its value, but people do not want to be lied to. Anyone with access to a computer now has the ability to do their own rudimentary fact checking. Maybe it would not be possible today for Hearst and Pulitzer to write away the truth of official reports since they no longer would occupy the place of the middle man between the people and the government. This is also why it is so vital for journalists today to be absolutely sure of information before they print it a repeat of the blundering before the Iraq war with falsified documents “proving” that there were nuclear weapons in Iraq would never happen, and major media centers could avoid the outrage and humiliation from the people after the facts came out. Flash and entertainment have their merits, but ethics and morals are beyond value in the business of communication and information.

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