Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies

Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies

Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies

Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies


This offers a detailed and long-awaited reassessment of one of the most maligned periods in American journalism-the era of the yellow press. The study challenges and dismantles several prominent myths about the genre, finding that the yellow press did not foment-could not have fomented-the Spanish-American War in 1898, contrary to the arguments of many media historians. The study presents extensive evidence showing that the famous exchange of telegrams between the artist Frederic Remington and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst-in which Hearst is said to have vowed to "furnish the war" with Spain-almost certainly never took place. The study also presents the results of a systematic content analysis of seven leading U. S. newspapers at 10 year intervals throughout the 20th century and finds that some distinguishing features of the yellow press live on in American journalism.


Twentieth-century American journalism was born in a little-remembered burst of inspired self-promotion. It was born in a paroxysm of yellow journalism.

Ten seconds into the century, the first issue of the New York journal of 1 January 1901 fell from the newspaper's complex of fourteen highspeed presses. The first issue was rushed by automobile across pavements slippery with mud and rain to a waiting express train, reserved especially for the occasion. The newspaper was folded into an engraved silver case and carried aboard by Langdon Smith, a young reporter known for his vivid prose style. At speeds that reached eighty miles an hour, the special train raced through the darkness to Washington, D.C., and Smith's rendezvous with the president, William McKinley.

The president's personal secretary made no mention in his diary of the special delivery of the Journal that day, noting instead that the New Year's reception at the executive mansion had attracted 5,500 wellwishers and was said to have been “the most successful for many years.” But the Journal exulted: A banner headline spilled across the front page of the 2 January 1901 issue, asserting the Journal's distinction of having published “the first Twentieth Century newspaper … in this country,” and that the first issue had been delivered at considerable expense and effort directly to McKinley.

There was a lot of yellow journalism in Smith's turn-of-the-century run to Washington. The occasion illuminated the qualities that made the genre —of which the New York Journal was an archetype—both so irritating and so irresistible: Yellow journalism could be imaginative yet frivolous, aggressive yet self-indulgent. It advocated an ethos of activist journalism, yet did so in bursts of unabashed self-adulation.

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