Crusaders and Conservatives

by Jack Rooney

“Yellow Journalism” is a term thrown around with some frequency, even today, but it was not until reading this chapter that I was able to fully appreciate the term and understand where it came from. By “where it came from,” I mean the origin of the practice, not the term. The term came from cartoons that Pulitzer and Hearst ran in their papers, but the practice itself stems from an unparalleled combination of cultural, technological, and social factors.

This time period marked the beginning of a growing separation between people and their workplaces, leading to commutes that allowed them time to sit and read the newspaper. Women began to join this labor force as well, and those who remained home started buying most of their household goods instead of producing them themselves. This new consumption of goods required an information source on goods for sale, which newspaper advertising provided (p. 118). And as Pulitzer disintegrated the barriers between newspapers and advertisers, these advertisements became more elaborate and informative. Technological advancements such as the “halftone” process and the linotype made it possible for newspapers to reach a much wider audience and include pictures of the events reporters wrote about, making for a more robust and encompassing newspaper experience. People like Hearst, Pulitzer, and Ochs had a captive audience and a way to reach them all in new and innovative ways, so they took advantage of their circumstances.

Yellow journalism itself does not have the best of connotations, but in a historical context, the newspaper culture of this time helped greatly mold modern media. Sensationalism aside, Pulitzer was the first person to make a reporter a star (Nellie Bly), and although his crusades, exposes, and stunts may not have been the most ethical reporting, they enthralled readers and laid the foundation for what we now call “infotainment.”

It is worth noting, as well, that even if newspaper owners in this era did not produce the most objective and fair products, they used their power and influence to do what they felt would both produce the greatest profits and, to some extent, the greatest good. While some of their stories had airs of sensationalism, they often focused on uncovering public corruption, a deed which modern reporters still aim to carry out. And perhaps most directly related to today, “The Great Gray Lady” of the New York Times, and Adolph Ochs, set the standard for journalistic integrity, honesty, and integrity that remains today.