History & Culture

Historic Yellow Journalism – Here Again


Of our children, we expect much, of journalists and politicians less. In the case of journalists, we are getting accustomed to spleen-venting activism, growing loss of objectivity – any pretense to objectivity.

That is disappointing, but history suggests not unique. We are going back to “yellow journalism,” the loss of ethical standards, a tightfisted race to the bottom.

This week, Fox News reported that many reporters are throwing the towel in, consciously taking the low road, content to trade “fairness and objectivity” for “opinion” and political activism. Sad but true – yellow journalism is roaring back. See, More journalists admit and embrace bias, dismissing ‘fairness’ in new era of media.

Historically, Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, Walter Lipman, Ernie Pyle, and Dick Tragaskgar (last two WWII correspondents) taught quality. Americans revered them. Those figures are now anomalies, anachronisms, increasingly quaint. Ethics and accuracy are out.

Context is important and mildly comforting. America has experienced dark periods when journalistic ethics fell off and survived. They are worth reviewing, which may help inform us now.

The term “yellow journalism” emerged in the late 1800s. It was not a racial slur, reference to missed sunsets or cowardice, but to a yellow-clad cartoon. Why did a cartoon become an insult? Because a publisher, Joseph Pulitzer at the New York World, converted news into entertainment.

One hundred years earlier, Thomas Jefferson, who believed in a free press, disdained news as entertainment, worried the blend would erode the Republic. He decried “news writers … without any regard to truth,” misleading “the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs in a newspaper.” Wisdom indeed!

Jefferson wrote: “I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordure’s are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food.” By food, Jefferson meant truth, facts.

Well, by the late 1800s, Pulitzer was all about yellow. He carried a cartoon – along with racy, gory, and sensational headlines, crime stories, morality plays, and even nudity, causing others to cry foul. He was not done. Beyond entertainment, he supported “progressive” policies and the Democratic Party. Yes, it all began back then. There was media partisan, a party-centric media.

While some took the high road, like Charles Dana of the New York Sun, saying news as entertainment was unserious, lacked “judgment” and “staying power,” others followed Pulitzer. Another who paired entertainment and news was Willian Randolph Hearst, who bought the San Francisco Examiner and then the New York Journal to give Pulitzer a run for his money.

Hearst got under Pulitzer’s skin, combining glitz, gab, and gossip with hard news. Before antitrust laws, Pulitzer dropped his paper to a penny, leading Hearst to raid Pulitzer’s staff. Ethics, it seems, were not very high back then, either.

Bottom line:

The media has always struggled to present facts and maintain credibility while competing for readership, which has led them to indulge in edgy entertainment and partisanship.

Maybe mainstream media – which trumpet personal bylines, faces on camera and mic, ego and entertainment – will inevitably mix of truth and trash, accuracy and social pandering. In any event, here are facts that slice through decades, going back to the dawn of professional journalism.

First, the most respected journalists are always those who report truth, like Ernie Pyle on the front lines in Europe and killed at Iwo Jima, Dick Tragaskcar in both theaters, and seriously wounded in Europe, Walter Cronkite reporting our moon landings and Apollo’s 13’s miracle.

Second, crass attacks and lowlife entertainment – from glitz and garbage to trashing political leaders – has always reflected poorly on those doing the deed. Few recall the rude, crude, classless reporters – except as bottom dwellers, not worthy of a passing shrug.

Third, we have all survived – as a nation of entertained but discerning readers and viewers – for more than 200 years. We have an innate ability to distinguish junk from real news, the fake from facts, funning, folly, and fiction from the deadly serious.

Finally, journalism goes through phases, racing to the bottom in one era, bouncing back in another. Who knew Pulitzer, Dana, Hearst wrestled these issues? Or would it be succeeded by Pyle, Tragaskar, and Cronkite? Who knew round-the-clock CNN would produce Fox or that social media would rise on the backs of a brash New Yorker daring run for president?

In short, we should keep pushing the media to be credible, responsible, factual, accurate, and honest, but recognize their reputation is a spotty one, liberally sprinkled with dark interludes.

No surprise that this week Fox News reports “a growing number of prominent journalists have declared once-bedrock press principles like fairness and objectivity to be outdated and unnecessary since the Donald Trump era rocked American politics,” and “while some observers appreciate the honesty, others feel blending opinion and reporting” is “dangerous.”

In the media, expect the ball to bounce, ethics to come and go. Stay on guard. Contradictions abound. That is the beauty of the First Amendment and free press, I guess. We are taught to read with a jaundiced eye. They call it “yellow journalism,” and we are here again.

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1 year ago

Remember, most of the Media is controlled and owned by powers/families that desire this country’s downfall. Very little truth will be reported by major news sources.

Gunny Joe
1 year ago

Sir, Ernie Pyle was KIA, on the island of Lejima, (called Ie Shima by Americans), during the battle of Okinawa, not the battle of Iwo Jima. There is a monument on the approximate location of his death. Mr. Walter Cronkite was not on our side, as most then, and I would say all today, report what will keep their high paying job! A very small number try to report the facts, I.e. what, when, where, and who. Then will state when they are giving their opinion. I don’t trust the news media, of any form, they, even the ones that try do not live in the trenches. I think you must live life as or as close to the source to report that life’s facts. My old grand Pappy, taught me to believe half of what you hear, none of what you read, have a open questing mind if possible find the facts for your self. Have I always done that? HELL no I was as motivated to surviving as the next person, but tried to fallow that teaching and still do to day. This has taken bout a hour longer, looking up facts about Mr.Pyle and Okinawa, though I have been stationed there about 3 or 4 different times. BT

Diana Erbio
1 year ago

Ironic that the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism and a Journalism school at Columbia University was established with funds and instructions left in the will of Joseph Pulitzer who established “yellow journalism” the pairing of entertainment and news…few know this history of Pulitzer’s role in lowering the standards of journalism…more journalists and historians should report on that…

Texas Resister 64
1 year ago

Ernie Pyle died on Okinawa, quite late in the war.

1 year ago

Refer to Gunny Joe’s reply above.

J. Farley
1 year ago

While I agree with most of what the writer wrote, I don’t believe that Walter Cronkite was a fair and balanced reporter, I believe that he was the beginning of the lefts forcing their point of view in covering the news, while not as radical as todays reporters, he was no conservative.
The news media in the last 30 to 35 years has continually sunk to the bottom of the swamp. with 90% that cannot be trusted, if I was in a position to ever again give an interview to the media I would be very selective to who I gave interview too and limit what I said, so that, it would be hard to twist the facts. I had a reporter in the early 80s that would give me the story they were writing to check the facts not to slant the news, but make it factual correct, they may not say what I liked but it was factual, and by the end of the 80s it was not about facts it was about a hit job.
I know what the wrath of a lying media is, and have no trust or faith that we are hearing the news as it is, but rather what they want it to be, I never, never, never watch the network news or papers, and only watch the local news so as too glean out what I know to be true.
God help America !!!!!!!!!!!

1 year ago
Reply to  J. Farley

Walter Cronkite fell off the wagon during the Kennedy/Johnson Administrations and sealed his anti-Americanism with the Vietnam War. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism produces some of the very worst newspeople..

1 year ago

Please do not include Walter Cronkite as an example of an objective newsman.
He had a lot of blood on his hands by his dishonest reporting about the Vietnam war. Especially about the TET offensive. He was a danger to anti Communism and his bad legacy lives after him.

J. Farley
1 year ago
Reply to  Honey

You expressed my views on Walter Cronkite, he was not pro-American, and very Anti-Republican !!!!!!!!!!!

David Spade
1 year ago

The writer was correct about the race to the bottom for the so-called journalists. There are no standards, this is Marxist-centered blogging being called journalism, and the writers and editors hate America. The people know that, our enemies know that, and the advertisers should understand that hate-filled journalism should not draw their valuable dollars. Most Americans with conservative values do not listen or read the Marxist garbage put out by the lame stream media. Americans who regularly watch the Communist News Network (CNN) do themselves a great disservice by never hearing the balanced side of the news.

1 year ago

We have been on this down slope media ride for a while now. The “news” takes a back seat to true investigative reporting and the “reporter” is the focal point. James Bond-Tomorrow Never Dies. The media mogul plans to make his own news. The ultimate media grab.

1 year ago

Excellent article! I love the historical aspect which definitely gives context and perspective. The longer we live and endure the more we need this to keep a balanced understanding. Don’t give up. Pray. God uses even the most vile circumstances for good for those who are called to His purposes.

1 year ago

There is not a news commentator alive who can report only the facts without coloring them with his/her own bias.

Michael R Brunetti
1 year ago

General Sherman hated reporters. He is credited with saying “If we hanged every reporter right now, there would be news from Hell before breakfast.” Sometimes I think he was right.

Todd Wagner
1 year ago

MSM died decades ago! Such a disservice to this great REPUBLIC.

John Bonds
1 year ago

Believe half of what you see, none of what you read or hear. Ifr you want the truth, you have to search it out.

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