W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Evangelina Cisneros’

Nat Geo’s cartoonish treatment of Hearst v. Pulitzer

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War on June 9, 2015 at 9:31 am

National Geographic’s docudrama last night about the rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was, predictably, long on stereotype, highly selective, and misleading in its superficial treatment of its protagonists.

The show, one of eight installments in a not-so-acclaimed series called “American Genius,” was cartoonish in depicting Hearst as a callow and strutting rich kid, extravagant with money, and eager to imitate the techniques of the older and, at least according to National Geographic’s program, more virtuous Joseph Pulitzer.

Pulitzer bust

Pulitzer: Mean-spirited ways ignored

Hearst, the son of a millionaire miner turned U.S. senator, was 32 when he came to New York from California in 1895, a time when the city’s journalism had gone stagnant. Its leading publishers and editors were aging, infirm, or absentee. Or in Pulitzer’s case, all of the above.

Hearst promptly shook up New York’s journalism establishment, and earned its enmity in doing so.

But National Geographic offered little discussion about the seismic character of Hearst’s entry into New York, or how success in New York was crucial to his goal of building a lasting media empire.

Significantly, the docudrama failed to mention a key component in the supposed Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry: Pulitzer was almost entirely absent from New York journalism after 1891 — years before Hearst came to Gotham to acquire and run the New York Journal. The rivalry was not directly between the owners, but between their newspapers.

Likewise, the program made no mention at all about how Pulitzer tried to run his New York World remotely, through a steady stream of telegrams and letters sent to his editors and business managers from Maine, Georgia, Europe, or wherever the peripatetic Pulitzer sought comfort as his health worsened and his eyesight failed.

Similarly, there was no mention that Pulitzer was a harsh and mean-spirited taskmaster who often treated his senior staff like so many incompetents. He drove away talent as much as Hearst recruited it from the World. Or as National Geographic put it, stole from the World.

Perhaps most important of the program’s flaws was its silence about the activist concept that inspired and animated Hearst’s journalism in the mid- and late-1890s.

Contrary to the program’s frequent claims, Hearst was not so much an imitator of Pulitzer as the adapter of a theory of participatory journalism advanced by William T. Stead in Britain in the mid-1880s. “Government by journalism,” Stead called it, arguing that newspapers had a central role in guiding civic life, given their presumed capacity to frame and shape public opinion.

Hearst clearly borrowed from Stead’s “government by journalism” in pursuing a model his newspaper called the “journalism of action.” It was a breathtaking vision of participatory journalism that went well beyond the stunts (such as Nellie Bly’s race round the world in 1888) organized by Pulitzer’s newspaper.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “journalism of action” envisioned that newspapers should and could go beyond merely gathering, publishing, and commenting on the news. Instead, I noted, the “journalism of action” asserted that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

evangelina_oct10_trim

‘Jailbreaking journalism,’ 1897

There was no more dramatic or celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” than the case of “jailbreaking journalism” in 1897.

That was when Karl Decker, a reporter Hearst dispatched to Cuba, helped to organize the escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed in Havana for nearly 15 months, during the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and with the critical support of a clandestine smuggling network operating in Havana, Decker succeeded in early October 1897 in breaking Cisneros out of jail. She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of a Cuban-American banker, then smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City.

There, Hearst organized a rapturous welcome for Cisneros, who knew few words of English and seemed overwhelmed by the reception.

The National Geographic show had the Cisneros character speaking fairly fluent accented English. And it characterized the jailbreak superficially, as simply “a way [for Hearst] to get his readers interested in the rebels’ cause against Spain.” It was that, but much more: the rescue, the Journal declared, was “epochal,”  a “supreme achievement” of participatory journalism.

It proved to be the zenith of the “journalism of action,” a flamboyant if now little-remembered paradigm of newsgathering and newsmaking.

Interestingly, the small stable of experts National Geographic recruited for its show did not include the leading authorities on Hearst — biographers David Nasaw, author of The Chief, and Kenneth Whyte, who wrote The Uncrowned KingBoth books are outstanding.

Had it tapped such experts, the program might have sidestepped such inaccurate claims as Hearst’s having “had more money than God.” Hearst was wealthy, but his widowed mother imposed restraints on his spending, as Nasaw describes in some detail in The Chief.

Hearst’s resources were not unlimited, National Geographic’s claims notwithstanding.

In fact, representatives of the World and the Journal met to explore jointly raising prices, to rebuild revenues depleted by coverage of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

They were effectively blocked from doing so because Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, had lowered the price of his newspaper to one cent from three cents. No way would the World and the Journal leave the one-cent market to Ochs, who came to New York in 1896. So the World and the Journal kept their cover price at a penny, which meant long-term strains on resources and revenues.

About that, of course, the docudrama made no mention.

WJC

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‘News of World’ closure breaks link to 19th century yellow journalism

In 1897, Debunking, Year studies on July 10, 2011 at 12:04 am

The abrupt closure of Britain’s largest Sunday tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s raunchy, scandal-ridden News of the World, breaks a link to the yellow journalism that flared in urban America at the end of the 19th century.

Jail-breaking journalism

I’m not referring to the News of the World’s tabloid flamboyance, which certainly evoked the typographic boldness of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, a broadsheet that was the leading exemplar of American yellow journalism.

The link went deeper than appearances.

The News of the World was an heir to Hearst’s activist-oriented, participatory journalism — a self-engaging, self-promoting style of newspapering unheard of these days in the United States.

As I note in my book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst’s Journal at the end of the 19th century sought to set a standard for the American press, insisting, I write, “that newspapers were obliged to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

The year 1897 brought memorable evidence of Hearst’s style of activist journalism.

In the summer that year, Hearst deployed a phalanx of Journal reporters to solve the grisly case of headless torso murder in New York.

Later that year, a reporter for the Journal broke from jail in Havana a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. The Journal — and more than a few other U.S. newspapers — celebrated the breathtaking breach of international law.

For the Journal, the Cisneros jailbreak (see image, above) was “epochal” and represented the “supreme achievement” of its paradigm of activist journalism.

It acknowledged that freeing Cisneros had violated Spanish law and flouted international convention — and the Journal seemed delighted to have done so, saying:

“The Journal is quite aware of the rank illegality of its action. It knows very well that the whole proceeding is lawlessly out of tune with the prosaic and commercial nineteenth century. We shall not be surprised at international complications, nor at solemn and rebuking assurances that the age of knight errantry is dead. To that it can be answered that if innocent maidens are still imprisoned by tyrants, the knight errant is yet needed.”

That sort of willingness to wink at illegality was demonstrated by the News of the World well before it became swept up in a cellphone-voicemail hacking scandal that brought about its demise.

Final edition

The News of the World, which published its final issue today, had been for years one of the world’s most controversial titles, due in part to its activist-oriented undercover operations, ostensibly undertaken to bring drug dealers, fugitive financiers, and other criminals to justice.

As I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the targets of the News of the World often were “small-time celebrities and wayward sports figures dabbling in modest quantities of illegal drugs. The undercover methods were criticized as entrapment and dismissed as ‘a kind of investigative reporting without much investigating.'”

I also described a notorious case in 1999, in which reporters for News of the World “posed as wealthy Arabs and enticed a British earl to buy cocaine and share the drug with them. A detailed report about the peer’s conduct — he was depicted as drunkenly snorting cocaine with a £5 note — soon after was splashed across News of the World. He was arrested and convicted of selling drugs.

“But the presiding judge declined to send the peer to jail, citing the subterfuge of the News of the World. If not for the journalists’ sting, the judge observed, the crimes likely would not have been committed.”

Such outlandishness hinted at the tabloid’s more recent and more egregious misconduct of breaking into the cellular phone voicemail of hundreds of people, including members of Britain’s royal family and perhaps victims of the terror attack on London’s subway system July 2005.

Phone-hacking, of course, wasn’t an element in the repertoire of the yellow press of Hearst or of his mean-spirited rival, Joseph Pulitzer. Nor did they did bring on the war with Spain in 1898, as is often alleged.

But on occasion they turned to deception, misrepresentation, and self-motivated activism in pursuit of their lusty brand of big-time journalism.

WJC

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