W. Joseph Campbell

Obama, journalism history, and ‘folks like Hearst’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on September 29, 2010 at 9:45 am

President Obama stirred a fair amount of comment and criticism by declaring in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine that Fox News pursues a point of view that’s “ultimately destructive” to the country’s “long-term growth.”

As if Fox News, or any news organization, had such power.

And Obama offered another comment that signaled a less-than-profound grasp of American journalism history.

Media baron W.R. Hearst

That came when he invoked William Randolph Hearst, the much-misunderstood practitioner of activist yellow journalism who came to prominence in the 1890s. Obama said:

“We’ve got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated. The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints.”

Hearst, though, was something of an exception among newspaper publishers; there haven’t been many “folks like Hearst” in American journalism. Certainly not in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most innovative period of Hearst’s years as a press baron.

Hearst arrived in New York City from San Francisco in 1895 and promptly shook a media landscape dominated by the likes of James Gordon Bennett Jr., the often-absent owner of the New York Herald; Joseph Pulitzer, the ailing and churlish proprietor of the New York World, and Charles A. Dana, the prickly force behind the New York Sun.

They all were past their prime, and their newspapers were in decline.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst’s entry into New York City journalism was something of “a seismic event.”

By late 1897, he had developed and began pursuing a robust and fairly progressive view of journalism, maintaining that newspapers had a duty and obligation to inject themselves conspicuously into public life, to fill the void left by government inaction and incompetence.

Hearst called this the “journalism of action” or the “journalism that acts.” It was journalism with a social conscience.

His New York Journal insisted in editorials that a newspaper’s duty should not be “confined to exhortation.”

Instead, the Journal declared, when “things are going wrong” the newspaper should step in and “set them right, if possible.”

Hearst’s “journalism of action” embraced an element of what we would recognize as consumer protection. In the aftermath of a snowstorm that swept New York late in January 1897, the Journal set up a relief effort, saying, “The time has come to help the poor who starve, who freeze. Charity’s hand is almost empty.”

There was no more stunning manifestation of Hearst’s activist vision of journalism than the jailbreak his Journal pulled off in Havana in October 1897, freeing a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros.

She had been jailed without trial for more than a year in a prison for women. Spanish authorities who then ruled Cuba spurned Hearst’s editorial campaign for Cisneros’ release.

In late August 1897 he sent Karl Decker, a reporter in the Journal‘s Washington bureau, to Havana, with instructions to win Cisneros’ freedom. And with the quiet help of U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and the vital assistance of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker broke Cisneros from prison.


She soon was smuggled out of Cuba and welcomed to New York City in a delirious reception organized by Hearst and the Journal.

It was American journalism’s greatest escape narrative. And it demonstrated the breathtaking scope and potential of the “journalism of action.”

Freeing Cisneros, the Journal declared, was “epochal” and a “supreme achievement of the journalism of action.” (Illicit “jail-breaking journalism” was more like it, scoffed the Chicago Times-Herald.)

Eventually, though, Hearst’s interest in developing the “journalism of action” was supplanted by his soaring, and mostly unfulfilled, political ambitions.

In 1902, Hearst was elected to the first of two terms in Congress.

He sought, but lost, the Democratic nomination for president in 1904. He lost the New York gubernatorial race in 1906. And he twice ran unsuccessfully for New York City mayor.

What’s more, I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “Hearst never completely shook the reputation of a spoiled little rich kid, and the ‘journalism of action’ surely suffered because of his personality.”

In his comment about “folks like Hearst,” Obama also seemed to embrace a version of the “golden age” fallacy, that there was a time in American journalism when newspapers were paragons of objectivity.

That’s a myth, really.

“Objectivity”–or what Richard Taflinger of Washington State University has succinctly termed “the detached and unprejudiced gathering and dissemination of news”–is a normative value or ambition in American journalism.

But it has never been practiced on anything approaching a sustained basis.


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My many thanks to fivefeetoffury and to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post.

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