The biggest smear job ever done by journalists in the 20th century was not against a person, but against a type of journalism — “Yellow Journalism.” Even today, that phrase still brings to mind newspapers’ unethical and unprofessional practices in the early 1900’s, especially scandal-mongering, unfair attacks on individuals, sensationalism, and hyper-nationalism. The movie “Citizen Kane” was part of that smear campaign, with Orson Wells playing a morally-bankrupt publisher who was a caricature of William Randolph Hearst.
But with a century of hindsight, we now see that “Yellow Journalism” was actually a historical high point in news, a golden age that was better than any journalism since. We can also see that the smearing of this movement was, in fact, a successful and semi-permanent power grab by elites that allowed them, and not the people, to control news for a century.
Yellow Journalism appeared after a 19th century in which newspapers only got better and better. Following the press freedoms won in the American Revolution, the country exploded with a multitude of newspapers catering to a variety of interests and tastes. At first, newspapers were only affordable to the upper classes, so news focused on serious topics appealing to the “respectable public,” like business and government. But with new steam engine-driven printing presses, prices per copy dropped to as low as a penny and the downscale became news readers, too. Newspapers immediately emerged that catered to their “low-brow” tastes, offering human interest stories and sensational and titillating material to satisfy prurient interests — stories about crime, sex, violence, drunkenness, and rowdy and bawdy behavior.
A few years later, the invention of the telegraph created a dilemma. The addition of fresh, breaking news and a wider variety of news from throughout the U.S. added a sense of excitement to newspapers. It also made news much more competitive in terms of news content and cover price. Newspapers needed higher and higher circulations to achieve the volumes required to remain cost competitive, but they were afraid they would lose their audiences if they combined in the same papers the upscale serious news together with low-brow news for the downscale.
Publisher Joseph Pulitzer famously solved this dilemma by developing a formula that came to be known as “Yellow Journalism.” His papers covered the stories that the “respectable public” most wanted, but told them in sensational and titillating ways so they also appealed to the non-elites. Publisher William Randolph Hearst copied Pulitzer’s formula, then he and Pulitzer both bought newspapers in New York and slugged it out in one of the most interesting and competitive business battles in American history.
This journalism style was pejoratively dubbed “yellow” because of Hearst’s over-the-top, competition-driven attempt to hire away the artist of Pulitzer’s popular “Yellow Kid” cartoon. But even though this style of journalism was mocked, it had become well-accepted and respected, accounting for about a third of all metro papers across the country. It met the needs of news consumers better than any journalism before or since.
While Yellow Journalism was a big hit with the public, it did not sit well with elites who had previously held the power to decide what the news should be — a power they did not want to relinquish to the masses. Nor did it sit well with snobby readers and journalists, who thought this downscale news was beneath them.
Consequently, there was a revenge of the elites, and they seized control of news for a century. The New York Times rallied the troops with their motto “All the news that’s fit to print,” a clear slap at the tastes of the unwashed masses. Journalism schools were established that attempted to transform newspapers from businesses seeking to meet the needs and demands of their readers into something they can never be – purveyors of absolute truths, free from bias, through the use of objective, scientific reporting methods. The elites locked-in their control of news by transforming the Associated Press into a cartel. It protected member newspapers from would-be competitors while establishing economic disincentives for any paper to publish anything other than a single set of national, center-left stories, as we still see today. What the consumer wanted no longer mattered, and what downscale readers wanted was disdained.
In this century, the Internet is dismantling all this, removing elites as news filterers.
Just like the epic Pulitzer-Hearst battle, online news sites will be engaging in fierce competition to give the public what it wants. But unlike those days, the economics of the Internet will allow unlimited fragmentation – so the upscale, downscale, and all other segments can have news of their own. We are finally leaving journalism’s “dark ages.” Journalism will improve from where Yellow Journalism left off.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He is employed by Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.” He holds an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan.