W. Joseph Campbell

‘News of World’ closure breaks link to 19th century yellow journalism

In 1897, Debunking, Year studies on July 10, 2011 at 12:04 am

The abrupt closure of Britain’s largest Sunday tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s raunchy, scandal-ridden News of the World, breaks a link to the yellow journalism that flared in urban America at the end of the 19th century.

Jail-breaking journalism

I’m not referring to the News of the World’s tabloid flamboyance, which certainly evoked the typographic boldness of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, a broadsheet that was the leading exemplar of American yellow journalism.

The link went deeper than appearances.

The News of the World was an heir to Hearst’s activist-oriented, participatory journalism — a self-engaging, self-promoting style of newspapering unheard of these days in the United States.

As I note in my book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst’s Journal at the end of the 19th century sought to set a standard for the American press, insisting, I write, “that newspapers were obliged to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

The year 1897 brought memorable evidence of Hearst’s style of activist journalism.

In the summer that year, Hearst deployed a phalanx of Journal reporters to solve the grisly case of headless torso murder in New York.

Later that year, a reporter for the Journal broke from jail in Havana a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. The Journal – and more than a few other U.S. newspapers — celebrated the breathtaking breach of international law.

For the Journal, the Cisneros jailbreak (see image, above) was “epochal” and represented the “supreme achievement” of its paradigm of activist journalism.

It acknowledged that freeing Cisneros had violated Spanish law and flouted international convention — and the Journal seemed delighted to have done so, saying:

“The Journal is quite aware of the rank illegality of its action. It knows very well that the whole proceeding is lawlessly out of tune with the prosaic and commercial nineteenth century. We shall not be surprised at international complications, nor at solemn and rebuking assurances that the age of knight errantry is dead. To that it can be answered that if innocent maidens are still imprisoned by tyrants, the knight errant is yet needed.”

That sort of willingness to wink at illegality was demonstrated by the News of the World well before it became swept up in a cellphone-voicemail hacking scandal that brought about its demise.

Final edition

The News of the World, which published its final issue today, had been for years one of the world’s most controversial titles, due in part to its activist-oriented undercover operations, ostensibly undertaken to bring drug dealers, fugitive financiers, and other criminals to justice.

As I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the targets of the News of the World often were “small-time celebrities and wayward sports figures dabbling in modest quantities of illegal drugs. The undercover methods were criticized as entrapment and dismissed as ‘a kind of investigative reporting without much investigating.'”

I also described a notorious case in 1999, in which reporters for News of the World “posed as wealthy Arabs and enticed a British earl to buy cocaine and share the drug with them. A detailed report about the peer’s conduct — he was depicted as drunkenly snorting cocaine with a £5 note — soon after was splashed across News of the World. He was arrested and convicted of selling drugs.

“But the presiding judge declined to send the peer to jail, citing the subterfuge of the News of the World. If not for the journalists’ sting, the judge observed, the crimes likely would not have been committed.”

Such outlandishness hinted at the tabloid’s more recent and more egregious misconduct of breaking into the cellular phone voicemail of hundreds of people, including members of Britain’s royal family and perhaps victims of the terror attack on London’s subway system July 2005.

Phone-hacking, of course, wasn’t an element in the repertoire of the yellow press of Hearst or of his mean-spirited rival, Joseph Pulitzer. Nor did they did bring on the war with Spain in 1898, as is often alleged.

But on occasion they turned to deception, misrepresentation, and self-motivated activism in pursuit of their lusty brand of big-time journalism.

WJC

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