W. Joseph Campbell

Recalling Hearst to bash Murdoch: Superficial and off-target

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2011 at 12:26 am

Hearst: Murdoch's model?

The fallout from the phone-hacking scandal rocking Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings in Britain has prompted unflattering comparisons that the tough old media mogul is but a latter-day reincarnation of William Randolph Hearst, American press lord of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Trouble is, such comparisons are facile and no better than superficial. Hearst, for example, hardly established the international presence that Murdoch commands.

And these off-target comparisons have become an occasion to indulge in the hoary media myth that Hearst and his yellow press fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Sun Herald newspaper of Mississippi, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2006 for coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast, did just that in an editorial published over the weekend.

“Not since William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire sensationalized news and gave a distinctive yellow tinge to journalism has the world seen the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian/American media lord whose News Corporation has spread its tabloid brand in print and on the airwaves to so many corners of the globe,” the Sun Herald harrumphed in its editorial.

Of Hearst, the Sun Herald further stated:

“His newspapers were so powerful in molding public opinion that they were credited with pushing the United States into war with Spain in 1898.”

Really?

No.

As I pointed out in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, critics who blame the yellow press of Hearst (and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer) for bringing on the war invariably fail to explain how the contents of those newspapers came to be transformed into policy and military action.

How did that work? What was the mechanism? Why was the yellow press so singularly powerful at that moment in American history?

In truth, as I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, there was no mechanism by which the newspapers’ contents were translated into policy and a decision to go to war. They were not that powerful.

Had the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer brought about the war with Spain, then “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, adding:

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

In short, senior officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of what was called the yellow press. They did not turn to it for guidance or insight in policymaking.

Their thinking was not shaped by yellow journalism.

A variation of the Murdoch-Hearst criticism is to assail Murdoch — as a commentary  posted yesterday at Huffington Post put it — “the latest prime purveyor of so-called ‘yellow journalism’.”

The author, novelist Terence Clarke, declared that yellow journalism as practiced by Hearst and Pulitzer “sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers.

“It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Now, with Murdoch leading the way, journalism in many instances has fallen victim to the same wish for sales, and has descended, again, from the high ground it should occupy.”

Oh, spare us such superficiality.

The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer was much more than merely sensational.

Anyone who has spent much time reading through their newspapers of the late 19th century invariably comes away impressed with the aggressive and news-oriented approaches they took.

David Nasaw, author of a commendably even-handed biography of Hearst, pointed this out notably well, writing:

“Day after day, Hearst and his staff improved on their product. Their headlines were more provocative than anyone else’s, their drawings more lifelike … the writing throughout the paper outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded.”

Not only that, but Hearst was willing to spend lavishly to get the news. He, much more so than Pulitzer, was inclined to tap prominent writers, such as Mark Twain, and pay them well to cover important events for his New York Journal.

Hearst paid $3,000 to the novelist, playwright, and foreign correspondent Richard Harding Davis to spend a month for the Journal in Cuba in early 1897, writing reports about the Cuban rebellion that was the proximate cause of the Spanish-American War.

That sum is the equivalent today of more than $50,000.

Moreover, the yellow press of the late 19th century exerted a lasting and profound influence on American journalism history.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the genre “was much decried but its salient features often were emulated.”

Yellow journalism “was appealing and distinctive in its typography, in its lavish use of illustrations, in its aggressive newsgathering techniques,” I noted, adding:

“To a striking degree, features characteristic of the yellow press live on in American journalism, notably in the colorful layouts that characterize the formerly staid titles that used to disparage the yellow press—titles such as the New York Times and Washington Post.”

WJC

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