The “Best of the Web” roundup yesterday accused the New York Times of practicing “yellow journalism” for suggesting that conservative activists and politicians bore collective responsibility for last weekend’s murderous rampage in Arizona.
“Best of the Web,” an online compilation prepared by the Wall Street Journal, assailed the Times for having “seized upon a horrific crime to demonize its political opponents,” for having “instigated” an uproar “with its yellow journalism.”
But to accuse the Times of “yellow journalism“?
Well, that’s absurd.
For starters, the “Best of the Web” item didn’t explain what it meant by “yellow journalism.”
The term is convenient but imprecise; it’s often invoked (though not entirely accurately) as a shorthand for the sensational treatment of the news.
More broadly, as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “yellow journalism” is an amorphous epithet that has been applied to all sorts of journalistic misconduct. It’s a term favored by letter-writers to newspapers who denounce bias, distortion, and other presumed misdeeds in journalism.
“Yellow journalism” also finds expression in international contexts, often emerging, for example, as a complaint about press performance in India.
This impressively dexterous term emerged in early 1897. That was when a New York newspaper editor named Ervin Wardman coined “yellow journalism” to disparage the flamboyant newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
Hearst claimed to practice “new journalism” but came to embrace Wardman’s term. In so doing, Hearst’s flagship New York Journal was typically immodest, likening itself to the sun–“the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is American journalism.”
“Yellow journalism” became a recognizable, even bold genre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the genre in its most developed and intense form was characterized by these features:
- the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
- a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
- the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
- bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
- a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
- a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.
And as I noted in Yellow Journalism, the genre as practiced more than a century ago “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired”—complaints of the sort that often are raised about contemporary American newspapers.
Interestingly, the New York Times established itself as the antithesis of yellow journalism of the late 1890s. It often condemned the excesses of the genre, especially those of Hearst’s Journal.
Under the ownership of Adolph Ochs, who acquired the newspaper in 1896, the Times nominally sought to position itself as a staid, impartial, fact-based model of journalism that eschewed extravagance and flamboyance in presenting the news.
And as I wrote in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–the Times under Ochs lacked the resources of Hearst’s Journal and seldom competed in expensive and far-flung newsgathering ventures. (Hearst spent lavishly to gather the news; in 1897, he paid Richard Harding Davis the contemporary equivalent of $50,000 to report from Cuba for a month on the uprising against Spanish colonial rule.)
The Times instead sought to position itself as the sober, moral counterweight to the Journal, and periodically challenged the wisdom and ethics of that newspaper’s forays into activist journalism—such as the case of jailbreaking journalism in 1897. That was when a reporter for the Journal organized the escape of a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros.
“Yellow journalism” has a long, varied, but not distinguished pedigree. It is to be sure a handy and supple pejorative.
But when invoked in criticism, definitional vagueness doesn’t cut it. “Yellow journalism” ought to be used with precision.
Recent and related:
- Fact-checking WaPo columnist on the ‘McKinley moment’
- Blaming assassination on political rhetoric: No new tactic
- On sensationalism and yellow journalism: Not synonymous
- Obama, journalism history, and ‘folks like Hearst’
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- Wikileaks and the Spanish-American War?
- Seeking antidotes to journalism’s junk food
Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to the post.