W. Joseph Campbell

About that Hearst quote on public’s fondness for entertainment

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 20, 2015 at 6:45 am

“It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information.”

Hearst before the war

Hearst in caricature, 1896

So declared New York Journal in a lengthy editorial (see below) published November 8, 1896, at the first anniversary of William Randolph Hearst’s taking over the once-moribund daily.

During that period, the editorial claimed, the Journal made enormous circulation gains — from 77,230 to 417,821, daily, and from 54,308 to 351,751, Sunday.

“What has been done in one year,” the Journal declared, “is a promise of what will be done in the next.”

The first-anniversary editorial and its self-congratulatory tone have long been forgotten. But its claim that the public is “more fond of entertainment than it is of information” has lived on as evidence of Hearst’s supposed inclination to treat his newspapers as platforms of frivolity and exaggeration.

Such characterizations are to be found in more than a few books that address or refer to Hearstian journalism.

For example, Gerald Baldasty presented the fragment “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” as a stand-alone sentence in E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers. So, too, did Louis Pizzitola in Hearst Over Hollywood. Donald A. Ritchie included the excerpt in American Journalists: Getting the Story, as did both George Sullivan in Journalists at Risk: Reporting America’s Wars and Samantha Barbas in her biography about Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

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The first-anniversary editorial

Michael Schudson included the full quotation in Discovering the News, and cited as his source W.A. Swanberg, who excerpted  a few passages from the Journal’s first-anniversary editorial in Citizen Hearst, a notably dreadful biography.

The first-anniversary editorial, which carried the headline “One Year’s Progress,” was unsigned; so it may not have been Hearst’s writing at all (but in that case, he surely would have approved its content before publication).

What’s more important is that the editorial was no endorsement of news-as-entertainment, no embrace of the primacy of superficial and trivial content. To describe it as such is to misrepresent and err: Hearst, or whoever wrote the editorial, was not extolling frivolity in his newspapers.

Far from it.

The editorial staked a claim to seriousness of purpose. It did not diminish the importance of news and newsgathering but rather embraced those aims, as these excerpts make clear (my additional commentary is italicized):

  • “The Journal has made it its business to reach out for news wherever it is to be had, considering neither precedent, difficulty, nor cost.” Indeed, a little-recognized hallmark of Hearst’s journalism of the mid- and late-1890s was his willingness to devote substantial sums to cover far-flung news events.
  • “When the ordinary news channels are blocked or inadequate, the Journal dispatches it own correspondents to the points, however distant, where the news is to be obtained, and even presses monarchs and statesmen into its service. And these dignitaries are often gracefully obliging.” The “dignitaries” sometimes would reply with a few sentences to the Journal’s cabled requests for comment about political or military developments abroad.
  • “The Cuban War [the rebellion that began in 1895 and gave rise to the Spanish-American War of 1898] … engaged the lively interest of the people of the United States. So the Journal sent correspondents to the island, among them Mr. Murat Halstead [then a 66-year-old eminence grise among American journalists] and General Bradley Johnson [formerly a Confederate field officer]. This paper was the first to get a reporter through the lines to the [Cuban] insurgents and give their side a hearing.” In December 1896, the Journal recruited the writer Richard Harding Davis and the artist Frederic Remington  to go to Cuba and meet up with the insurgents. The intended rendezvous never happened, but the assignment did give rise to the apocryphal tale of Hearst’s vowing to Remington that he would “furnish the war” with Spain.

The editorial’s most-quoted passage — that “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” — was preceded by a prideful recitation of the Journal’s enterprise during the previous 12 months. That portion of the editorial read:

“At the Czar’s coronation [in May 1896] the Journal was specially represented in Moscow by Mr. Richard Harding Davis. Mr. Julian Ralph [who reported from abroad for many years] is our resident correspondent in London. Edgar Saltus, Stephen Crane, Julian Hawthorne, Edward W. Townsend and other authors of fame act as reporters or contributors when the need arises. No other journal in the United States includes in its staff a tenth of the number of writers of reputation and talent. It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information. In short, during the past year we have been publishing a first-rate, all-round newspaper that has given a history of the world’s most important events each day ….”

So the context for the popular passage about the public’s fondness for entertainment is in fact an unambiguous statement about the importance of reporting the news with skill and talent.

Although it is impossible to know for sure, the editorial writer may have invoked “entertainment” not in the word’s light-hearted sense but to suggest the pleasure readers derived from the works of some of the leading authors of the late 19th century. Such an interpretation certainly offers itself, given the editorial’s context and content.

But why is any of this of importance now?

After all, the quotation isn’t as well-known, or invoked as often, as “furnish the war.” But it still resonates and still circulates — as suggested by the sneering essay published a month ago by Salon.

The essay was, as I noted then, “a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.” It closed with a slightly altered version of the passage from the Journal’s editorial:

“Said William Randolph Hearst: ‘The public is even more fond of entertainment than information.’ Boy, was he right.”

So the quotation has currency, serving as inaccurate shorthand for the superficial character of Hearst’s journalism. But the Journal of the mid- and late-1890s wasn’t that.

It was flamboyant and indulged heartily in self-promotion. It inspired “yellow journalism,” a sneer coined in 1897 by an embittered rival editor in New York City.

But Hearst’s journalism also was aggressive, searching, and fairly well-funded. As Hearst’s most even-handed biographer, David Nasaw, wrote in his 2000 work, The Chief:

““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 [was] outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded.”

Nasaw was referring to the Journal of 1895-96.

In months that followed, the newspaper became even more assertive and exceptional as it staked out and pursued an activist model of participatory journalism. The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigmsthe “journalism of action” emphasized agency and engagement and sought to expand the norms of newsgathering.

The Journal argued that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence,” as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

The “journalism of action” did not valorize a light-hearted approach to the news. Rather, the Journal said, the “journalism of action” represented “the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.”

WJC

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