< Yellow Fever


Friday, April 03, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Last week, Slate’s press critic Jack Shafer wrote in praise of yellow journalism, quote: “I wish our better newspapers availed themselves of some of the techniques of yellow journalism. Yes, the journalism of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World from the 1980s. At its best it was terrific, at its worst it wasn't that bad.” In making the case that journalism in the Gilded Age was much better than its tawdry reputation, Shafer cites the book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, by American University Professor W. Joseph Campbell. Campbell says that Hearst described his own particular style of journalism as, quote, “journalism of action.”

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: He meant that newspapers had an obligation to do more than just comment on the passing scene of news and events in the world, but to actually engage in making society, making the city, making the country a better place.

BOB GARFIELD: Give me some examples of Hearst’s papers making a difference for good or for not so good.

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: In 1897, Hearst sent Karl Decker to Havana, ostensibly as a reporter for the newspaper, but he was actually under secret instructions to break out of jail and return and bring to the United States a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. And with the help of a smuggling network in Havana, as well as the help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, Decker succeeded in breaking her out of jail and smuggling her aboard a passenger steamer to New York City where she was greeted in a huge reception organized by Hearst.

BOB GARFIELD: Whoa! [LAUGHS] It’s kind of hard to imagine someone doing a jail breakout today.

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Keeping in mind that it was a very, very competitive time, and the yellow press thrived on that competition.

BOB GARFIELD: But didn't that very competitive pressure you were mentioning cause some of these papers to inflate lesser stories and non-stories and to cross the line from populism to demagoguery?

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: On occasion, that’s absolutely the case. On occasion, they were. But I think overall they had a pretty good sense of what the news was and largely went after it in a very aggressive and responsible manner. I know that sounds a little bit unusual to say that Hearst’s newspapers were largely responsible, but they had very good journalists working for them, and these guys were not, you know, hype-mongerers or anything like that, necessarily. I mean, on occasion they did go out of control and were a bit over the top, but overall, day in and day out, reading the yellow press, it’s really difficult to be unimpressed by the zeal and the enterprise that they demonstrated.

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the term “yellow journalism,” where does it come from?

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It has its origins in the outrage, if you will, of a New York City newspaper editor, Ervin Wardman, the editor of The New York Press, a now-defunct daily newspaper that was a rival of Hearst but a much smaller newspaper. And Wardman took exception to some of the excesses of yellow journalism – it wasn't called that yet. And he was searching in late 1896, early 1897, for a term by which he could use to denigrate the newspapers and the content of the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer. And he experimented with different phrases, including the term “nude journalism” as if the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer were lacking in any kind of morals. He tried that out for an issue or two. It really didn't catch on. Then he landed on the term, inspired in part by the appearance in Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s newspapers of a color comic in which the main character was the young little kid who was known as “The Yellow Kid.” He landed on the name “yellow kid journalism,” quickly shortened it to “yellow journalism” and the name caught on. And it was widely used, within weeks, across the country and has been with us ever since.

BOB GARFIELD: You know, if there were a responsibility-ometer, where would the Hearst in papers -- where would the needle be between one and ten?

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It would be, on a year-in and year-out basis, about an 8, maybe 8.5.

BOB GARFIELD: So net-net, do I take it that you throw in with Jack Shafer that the America broadsheet press could get a little yellower and we'd be none the worse for it?

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The energy and the effervescence of yellow journalism certainly, certainly could be adopted in many respects in daily American newspapers. I mean, a lot of newspapers today tend to be staid, boring, predictable, and those are the features that you would not typically associate with yellow journalism, as it was practiced 110 years ago.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay Joe, thank you.

W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: W. Joseph Campbell is a professor at American University’s School of Communication and author of Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.