W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Commentary’

‘Yellow journalism’ turns 114

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 30, 2011 at 8:21 am

It is a little-recognized, never-celebrated anniversary in American journalism, granted.

Wardman of the Press

But tomorrow marks 114 years since the term “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, in the old New York Press, edited by the austere Ervin Wardman (left).

The phrase “the Yellow Journalism” appeared in a small headline on the editorial page of the Press on January 31, 1897. The phrase also appeared that day in the newspaper’s editorial page gossip column, “On the Tip of the Tongue.”

Yellow journalism” quickly caught on, as a sneer to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of the New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. By the end of March 1897, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.

In the decades since then, “yellow journalism” has become a widely popular if nebulous term — derisive shorthand for vaguely denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all kinds, real and imagined.

“It is,” as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “an evocative term that has been diffused internationally, in contexts as diverse as Greece and Nigeria, as Israel and India.”

Precisely how Wardman and the Press landed on the phrase “yellow journalism” isn’t clear.

The newspaper’s own, brief discussion of the term’s derivation was unhelpful and unrevealing: “We called them Yellow because they are Yellow,” it said in 1898 about the Journal and the World.

In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with decadent  literature, which may have been an inspiration to the Harvard-educated Wardman, a figure now largely lost to New York newspaper history.

Wardman was tall and stern-looking. He once was described as showing his “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.” He did little to conceal his contempt for Hearst and Hearst’s journalism.

His disdain was readily apparent in the columns of the Press, of which Wardman became editor in chief in 1896 at the age of 31. (The Press is long defunct; it is not to be confused with the contemporary alternative weekly of the same title.)

Wardman’s Press took to taunting Hearst, Hearst’s mother, and Hearst’s support for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. The New York Journal was virtually alone among New York newspapers in supporting Bryan’s “free silver” candidacy.

The Press disparaged Hearst, then 34, as a mama’s boy, as “Billy” and “little Willie.” It referred to the Journal as “our silverite, or silver-wrong, contemporary.”

The Press also experimented with pithy blasts on the editorial page to denounce “new journalism.”

“The ‘new journalism,’” the Press said in early January 1897 “continues to think up a varied assortment of new lies.”

Later in the month, the Press asked in a single-line editorial comment:

“Why not call it nude journalism?”

It clearly was a play on “new journalism” and meant to suggest the absence of “even the veneer of decency.”

Before long, Wardman and the Press seized upon the phrase “yellow-kid journalism,” which evoked the Hearst-Pulitzer rivalry over a popular cartoon character known as the “Yellow Kid.”

Both the Journal and the World at the time were publishing versions of the kid.

Yellow kid poster (Library of Congress)

At the end of January 1897, the phrase “yellow-kid journalism” was modified  to “the Yellow Journalism,” and the sneer was born.

After landing on that evocative pejorative, Wardman turned to it often, invoking the term in brief editorial comments and asides such as: “The Yellow Journalism is now so overripe that the little insects which light upon it quickly turn yellow, too.”

The diffusion of “yellow journalism” was sealed when the Journal embraced the term in mid-May 1898, during the Spanish-American War. With typical immodesty, the newspaper declared:

“… the sun in heaven is yellow—the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism.”


From an essay originally posted at Media Myth Alert January 31, 2010

Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post

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Fact-checking Keller on NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on January 28, 2011 at 11:57 am

'Publish it did'

In an article to be published Sunday, Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, rubs shoulders with a tenacious media myth linked to the newspaper’s reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion nearly 50 years ago.

I devote a chapter to the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth in my latest, mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The suppression myth has it that the Times, at the request of President John F. Kennedy, suppressed or emasculated its reporting about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, in the 10 days before the ill-fated assault, the Times published several detailed reports on its front page discussing an invasion and exiles’ calls to topple Fidel Castro. And, I note, there is no evidence that Kennedy either asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its pre-invasion reporting.

“The anecdote about the Times’ self-censorship is potent, compelling, instructive, and timeless,” I write in Getting It Wrong . “It also is apocryphal, a media-driven myth.”

Keller, though, repeats the myth in a lengthy article to run in the Times Sunday magazine about his newspaper’s dealings with Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks, which not long ago disclosed the contents of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.

Keller invokes the Bay of Pigs as an example of the newspaper’s having erred “on the side of keeping secrets.”

He writes:

“I’m the first to admit that news organizations, including this one, sometimes get things wrong. We can be overly credulous (as in some of the prewar reporting about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) or overly cynical about official claims and motives. We may err on the side of keeping secrets (President Kennedy reportedly wished, after the fact, that The Times had published what it knew about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion, which possibly would have helped avert a bloody debacle) or on the side of exposing them. We make the best judgments we can.”

Had Keller consulted the newspaper’s database of reporting about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he would have found that the Times reported in detail, if not always accurately, about the preparations to infiltrate a U.S.-trained brigade of Cuban exiles in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro.

The invasion failed, and the anti-Castro exiles were mostly killed or captured. The foreign policy debacle came less than three months into Kennedy’s presidency.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy. There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance about the Times report of April 7, 1961, a front-page article that lies at the heart of this media myth” (see image, above).

The report was filed from Miami by veteran Timesman Tad Szulc who, I write, “pieced together the outline of CIA-backed plans to attempt to topple Castro with an invasion force of Cuban exiles who had been trained in Guatemala.”

The invasion plans, Szulc found, were an open secret in Miami. “It was,” he was later to say, “the most open operation which you can imagine.”

On April 6, 1961, Szulc filed a dispatch to New York, reporting that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had been trained in a plan to overthrow Castro, that invasion plans were in their final stages, and that the operation had been organized and directed by the CIA.

Szulc’s dispatch report ran more than 1,000 words and, I write in Getting It Wrong, “set off a flurry of intense consultations among senior editors.” Their deliberations revolved around three elements: Szulc’s characterization that the invasion was imminent, the reference to the operation being CIA-directed, and the prominence the report should receive on the Times front page.

In the end, the references to the invasion’s imminence were dropped; it was more prediction than fact, as James Reston, the Times Washington bureau chief at time, pointed out. (The invasion was launched April 17, 1961, 11 days after Szulc filed his dispatch.)

The reference to CIA also was dropped, in favor of the more nebulous terms phrases, “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts. The then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that the decision was based on the reality the government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”

As for the report’s prominence, the decision was to publish Szulc’s story on the front page, beneath a single-column headline, instead of a four-column headline. Given that the invasion wasn’t deemed imminent, a four-column headline was difficult to justify.

I write in Getting It Wrong that although “the headline size was modified, Szulc’s report hardly can be said to have been played down. It certainly had not been spiked, diluted, or emasculated. Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made ‘perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.'”

As Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. … The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

But most important, as Salisbury pointed out, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold.

“Publish it did.”

As for Kennedy’s remark, that he wished the Times “had run everything on Cuba”: The comment was vague and self-serving, an attempt to deflect blame from his administration’s first-rate foreign policy disaster.

Besides, what was it that the Times supposedly held back? The president didn’t specify.

Nor does Keller.


Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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.[i] Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made “perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.” 

[i] Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and Kennedy adviser, claimed that Szulc’s story had been “emasculated” by Times editors. See “Rebuttal Is Made by Schlesinger,” New York Times (14 June 1966): 15.

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