It’s a little-recognized, never-celebrated anniversary in American journalism, granted.
But today marks the 113th year since the term “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, in the New York Press, edited by the austere Ervin Wardman.
The phrase “the Yellow Journalism” appeared in a small headline on the Press’ editorial page on January 31, 1897. The phrase also appeared that day in the Press’ editorial page gossip column, “On the Tip of the Tongue.”
“Yellow journalism” caught on quickly, as a way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and of Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World. By the end of March 1897, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.
In the decades since then, “yellow journalism” has become a widely popular sneer, a derisive shorthand for denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all kinds, real and imagined. “It is,” as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “an evocative term that has been diffused internationally, in contexts as diverse as Greece and Nigeria, as Israel and India.”
Precisely how Wardman and the Press landed on the phrase “yellow journalism” is not clear.
The newspaper’s own, brief discussion of the origins was vague and unrevealing: “We called them Yellow because they are Yellow,” it said in 1898 about the Journal and the World.
In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with depraved literature, which may have been an inspiration to the Harvard-educated Wardman, a figure largely lost to New York newspaper history.
Wardman was tall and stern-looking. He once was described as showing his “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.” He did little to conceal his disdain for Hearst and Hearst’s journalism.
His contempt was readily apparent in the columns of the Press, of which Wardman became editor in chief in 1896 at the age of 31. (The Press is long defunct; it is not to be confused with the contemporary alternative weekly by the same name.)
Wardman’s Press took to taunting Hearst, Hearst’s mother, and Hearst’s support for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. Hearst’s Journal was virtually alone among New York newspapers in supporting Bryan’s “free silver” candidacy.
The Press disparaged Hearst, then 34, as a mama’s boy, as “Billy” and “little Willie.” It referred to the Journal as “our silverite, or silver-wrong, contemporary.”
The Press also experimented with pithy if stilted turns of phrase to denounce “new journalism.”
“The ‘new journalism,’” the Press said in early January 1897 “continues to think up a varied assortment of new lies.”
Later in the month, the Press asked in a single-line editorial comment:
“Why not call it nude journalism?”
It clearly was a play on “new journalism” and meant to suggest the absence of “even the veneer of decency.”
Before long, Wardman and the Press seized upon the phrase “yellow-kid journalism,” which evoked the Hearst-Pulitzer rivalry over a popular cartoon character known as the “Yellow Kid.” Both the Journal and the World at the time were publishing versions of the kid.
At the end of January 1897, the phrase “yellow-kid journalism” was modified to “the Yellow Journalism,” and the sneer was born.
After landing on that sneering pejorative, Wardman turned to it often, invoking the term in brief editorial comments and asides such as: “The Yellow Journalism is now so overripe that the little insects which light upon it quickly turn yellow, too.”
The diffusion of “yellow journalism” was sealed when Hearst’s Journal embraced the term in mid-May 1898, during the Spanish-American War. With typical immodesty, it declared:
“… the sun in heaven is yellow—the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism.”