About the Author: Johnny Roy, PhD has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 9 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has actively been involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 4 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam. Dr. Roy has recently worked with the Ohio Department of Education to help revise the states Model Curriculum for American History.
Yellow journalism was a label given to a brand of newspaper reporting in the mid to late 1890s that embraced dramatic headlines and exaggerated storylines about crime, corruption, sex, and scandal in order to increase circulation numbers and revenue.
Yellow journalism is remembered for two reasons. The first, it marks a new era of public distrust of newspapers (and later television media) because of the sensational and partisan reporting of events. Second, and most importantly, yellow journalism demonstrated the ability to influence public opinion regardless of the accuracy of the story; it was shown to be quite powerful. In fact, the two most powerful newspapers in the country were located in New York: The New York Journal (owned by William Randolph Hearst) and the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer−like the Pulitzer Prize for Writing). These publications were so powerful in their influence that Hearst’s New York Journal and Pulitzer’s New York World have historically been credited with swaying public opinion and, ultimately, President McKinley to commit the United States to intervene in Cuba; thus entering the United States into the Spanish American War in April 1898. How did two newspapers in New York catalyze a war between America and Spain? Keep reading below.
A Need for Information
After Reconstruction (1877), a great wave of European immigrants flooded into the country seeking to capitalize on all the jobs created by the Second Industrial Revolution. These new ethnic groups overwhelmed cities to the point where municipal services lacked in the majority of neighborhoods, areas like Five Points, New York, where the masses huddled in tenement houses with little to no city services such as sanitation or transportation. As immigrants went without necessary services, political machines (like Tammany Hall) emerged that promised immigrants jobs and services in exchange for political support; these political machines would become incredibly corrupted, but the general public had no idea about the extent of corruption of these new political machines. It was during this time that William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer began to redefine the role of newspapers in American Life.
Yellow journalism began by exposing corrupt politicians during the late 19th century.
Known as patronage, these political machines used their increasing stranglehold on local and state politics to benefit financially from their consolidated power; this practice was known as graft. Unbeknownst to the general public was the far-reaching influence and corruption that had gripped local politics. The media began to publish exposés on corruption and crimes that were occurring in the city. As these stories gained traction and increased local circulations of papers like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the stories began to become more sensationalized and more concentrated on exposing corruption. The public clamored for more sensational reporting. Hearst and Pulitzer would give it to them. Additionally, Pulitzer also catered to different segments of society by covering sports, including more pictures, comic strips, and advertisements in his newspapers.
As these stories gained traction and increased local circulations of papers like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the stories began to become more sensationalized and more concentrated on exposing corruption.
Sensational and Transforming
Hearst and Pulitzer found that the more sensational a story, the more newspaper they sold−whether or not all the information was accurate.
Hearst and Pulitzer found that the more sensational a story, the more newspaper they sold−whether or not all the information was accurate. This led to a war between Hearst and Pulitzer to be the first, the loudest, and the most sensational newspaper. It was a vicious competition that provided the public with more information than ever before.
Hearst and Pulitzer were not the only businessmen changing the country by meeting the demands of their customers. Businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller led the way to increased economic dominance through the creation of monopolies in steel, finance, and oil (Standard Oil) by utilizing horizontal and vertical integration to dominate their respective industries. Innovations in technology, as well as business structures, fueled the Second Industrial Revolution and pushed the American economy into an era of unrivaled economic prosperity.
Hearst and Pulitzer were not the only businessmen changing the country by meeting the demands of their customers.
Imperialism is Good for Business
With the growth of America’s economic position in the world, the country began to look outward and embrace a new form of American Imperialism. Breaking from its traditional isolationist roots, America hesitantly embraced its role as an emerging world power. Alfred T. Mahan’s book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890), promoted the idea of American imperialism in Africa and Asia and called for a build-up of American naval forces in order to protect her interests. Winning widespread support from groups who became known as navalists, America pushed her economic, cultural, and political interests around the world. Looking beyond the North American continent, America embraced the concept of the White Man’s Burden to spread the perceived superiority of Judeo-Christian values and democratic political systems to the commonly perceived, less developed people of the world. This would, ultimately, bring the United States into conflict with other imperialistic powers of the time, and such sensational drama would need to covered by the newspapers.
Imperialism, ultimately, bring the United States into conflict with other imperialistic powers of the time, and such sensational
“You furnish the pictures; I will furnish the war”−William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst entered the newspaper business after receiving control of The San Francisco Examiner from his father in 1887. Wanting to create a national media empire, Hearst knew he would need to gain a foothold in New York. Purchasing the New York Journal in 1895, Hearst found himself in direct competition with Pulitzer and his New York World. Pulitzer had grown his circulation from 20K to 100K in one year and by the end of the 1890s, his paper was reaching one million readers annually. Pulitzer embraced a style of reporting that sensationalized stories, focusing on crime and corruption which grabbed the public’s attention. Hearst embraced this style of reporting and took it a step further by using innuendo, sex, and fabrication to entice readers to his paper. A bitter circulation battle between the two publishers emerged and from the yellow ink used to draw comic character “The Kid,” yellow journalism was born.
Pulitzer embraced a style of reporting that sensationalized stories, focusing on crime and corruption which grabbed the public’s attention. Hearst embraced this style of reporting and took it a step further by using innuendo, sex, and fabrication to entice readers to his paper.
The Hawks Eye a War
A noted war hawk and progressive, Hearst seized upon the turmoil occurring in the Caribbean and played upon the sympathies of the American people.
A noted war hawk and progressive, Hearst seized upon the turmoil occurring in the Caribbean and played upon the sympathies of the American people. Cubans had long sought their independence from Spain and the United States had long coveted the island just 90 miles from the coast of Florida. Knowing that an international conflict would drive up circulation numbers, Hearst began to use his media empire to advance an anti-Spanish sentiment as the declining imperialistic power desperately clung to its crumbling international empire. By publishing stories of Spanish atrocities being committed against the Cuban people, Hearst played upon the sympathies of the American people. Anti-Spanish sentiment in the country fueled a growing disdain for a Spanish presence in the Caribbean and, ultimately, the Western Hemisphere. In 1895, José Martí returned to Cuba in order to help Cuban rebels fight for independence from Spain, a cause he had dedicated his life to. With the help of dramatized stories of the Cuban fight, American public opinion began to turn to the embattled people of Cuba. Elected in 1897, President McKinley wanted Spain out of Cuba and out of the Western Hemisphere.
A Sinking Ship
Intending to protect American citizens in Cuba, President McKinley sent the USS Maine to Havana Harbor. However, in February 1898, the USS Maine suffered an explosion and sunk in the harbor killing 250 of 355 sailors on board. Hearst and Pulitzer were quick to blame the Spanish with stories of “Spanish Murderers” and calls for action. Public opinion shifted to war. Knowing that a war would boost circulation numbers, the New York papers published banner headlines calling for war and continued to blame the Spanish for the destruction of the USS Maine even though no official cause had been determined. The battle cry “Remember the Maine” became a national mantra and in April of 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. While not being a direct cause of the United States declaration of war, Hearst and Pulitzer’s use of yellow journalism definitely contributed to swaying public opinion which, ultimately, President McKinley and the Congress succumbed to with a declaration of war.
Knowing that a war would boost circulation numbers, the New York papers published banner headlines calling for war and continued to blame the Spanish for the destruction of the USS Maine even though no official cause had been determined.
Legacy of Yellow Journalism
The legacy of yellow journalism is two-fold. First, the ability to influence public opinion regardless of the accuracy of the story was shown to be quite powerful. Banner headlines and sensationalized stories were read by millions and while not all believed what they read, enough did for them to be effective. This realization led to the development of targeted advertising campaigns, both commercial and political throughout the 20th century. Second, was a growing mistrust of the newspaper media (and later television media) by the American public as the newspapers became more sensationalized and partisan (politically one-sided). The birth of tabloid journalism became an off-shoot arm of more mainstream newspapers. The public’s thirst for scandal grew as the stories, and scandal, increased. Such success in capturing the public’s attention laid a popular blueprint of success for newspapers and all media publications in the next century.