W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Pulitzer’

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2019

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2019 at 7:44 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2019 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here’s a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October, marked its 10th anniversary. The Washington Post figured in three of the year’s top posts.

Impeachment hearings prompt media references to heroic-journalist myth of Watergate (posted November 27): It doesn’t take much for journalists to conjure the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. It’s a trope that’s readily invoked but often too good to check out.

An almost-predictable by-product of the impeachment hearings conducted late in the year by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee were media references to the myth that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Among the references was that of the Post’s own managing editor, Cameron Barr, who declared in a speech in November at the University of Oxford that “Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by our coverage of the political scandal known as Watergate.”

Brought to pass?

The phrase means caused to happen, and the Post’s reporting did not cause Nixon’s resignation to happen.

For years, senior staff at the Post dismissed or scoffed at the mythical notion the newspaper’s reporting brought down Nixon. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the scandal’s seminal crime, the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

When asked about his “brought to pass” remarks at Oxford, Barr replied by parsing his words:

“You’ll note that I didn’t say that The Post brought down Nixon or took Nixon down or got Nixon – those mischaracterizations [sic] my colleagues have rejected and rightly so. As do you.

“I said The Post’s reporting brought it to pass, and my evidence for that is the historical record. We did our jobs as journalists, setting in motion other factors and forces that compelled him to step down.”

Nice try.

Not only did the Post’s reporting not bring to pass Nixon’s resignation, it’s quite a stretch to say that the Post’s reporting set in motion, or even much contributed to, the vastly more important investigations by subpoena-wielding federal authorities who did uncover the evidence that brought to pass Nixon’s resignation.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his classic essay about the news media and Watergate, “even in publicizing Watergate, the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

TV made all the difference in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly (posted September 29): The Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, made sweeping claims in late September that television had “made all the difference in 1954″ in exposing and bringing down the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. She further wrote that during the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, television had had a “disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Such interpretations may reassure journalists, reminding them of their presumed power and influence. Media-driven myths tend to have such an effect. But it’s exceedingly mediacentric to claim television was decisive in McCarthy’s fall or in Watergate’s outcome.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in raising challenges to McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch hunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that proved decisive.

Sullivan wrote in her column: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?’”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. But it hardly “shut down the senator.”

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

The hearing transcript show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch. McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch had belonged.

Television came late to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years, before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist, and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

And Pearson, for his work, was physically assaulted by McCarthy in December 1950.

Televised coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 was riveting. But the greatest contribution came from what Senate staffers learned: They found that Nixon had secretly made audio tapes of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Ultimately, when they were pried from Nixon’s possession, the tapes revealed that the president knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s unlikely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” Kutler said several years ago. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

Newspaper rant deplores “debasement of reality” but invokes prominent media myth (posted January 8): The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic early in the year in deploring what it termed “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” asseting that “lies” had become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was an over-the-top screed that appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It also extolled journalism, saying “more often than not” over the years, “reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

The allusion to “forcing a president’s resignation” was, of course, to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, which long ago became the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

In reality, forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

And as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, I wrote, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the recordings he secretly made of conversations at the Oval Office — a pivotal Watergate story that Woodward and Bernstein missed, by the way.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Fake news about fake news”: Enlisting media myth to condemn Trump’s national emergency (posted February 17): Early in the year, the Salt Lake Tribune turned editorially to the hoary media myth about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century. The Tribube invoked the myth as a way to condemn President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to add miles of barriers along the southern U.S.border, to stem illegal immigration.

“You want fake news?” the Tribune‘s editorial stated. “Here’s some fake news about fake news.”

In discussing Hearst’s debunked vow (which supposedly was contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Spanish-ruled Cuba in early 1897), the newspaper said:

“The story goes that when he was told by Frederick [sic] Remington, the already-famous illustrator he had sent to Cuba to document supposed battles there, that there were no battles to record, Hearst famously replied, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.’”

The Remington-Hearst exchange supposedly was done by cable. But the telegrams have never turned up. Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, apparently, never discussed it.

Had such messages been sent, moreover, Spanish authorities surely would have intercepted and denounced them as Yankee meddling.

Remington sketch of ‘Cuban war’ (New York Journal)

Not only that, but the “furnish the war” anecdote is illogical because war — the rebellion in Cuba against Spanish rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to the island. Remington was to draw sketches of the uprising. And he did.

Given the context — given the war in Cuba — it would have made no sense at all for Hearst to send a telegram, vowing to “furnish the war.”

The Tribune editorial acknowledged the Remington-Hearst tale is “thought to be apocryphal at best.” Even so, the newspaper said, the anecdote was “too good” not to turn to at “appropriate moments.”

Interesting argument.

But if it’s “apocryphal at best,” why would any news organization invoke the anecdote, given that media myths inevitably impugn and undermine the truth-telling objective of American journalism? Enlisting myth and falsehood scarcely makes an editorial argument more compelling. Or more coherent.

Not Hearst’s war

The Tribune’s editorial didn’t stop there. It also claimed that Hearst and the activistyellow journalism“ he practiced “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales.”

Hearst “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales”?

Hardly.

The war’s causes went far beyond newspaper content, however exaggerated, and centered on the humanitarian crisis resulting from Spain’s cruel tactics to put down the Cuban rebellion.

Of course, it’s far less complicated to blame the long ago war on Hearst and his flamboyant yellow journalism.

Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS (posted April 14): PBS aired in April an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism.

In the PBS treatment, Pulitzer’s talents and commitments seemed endlessly laudatory.

The documentary tells us that Pulitzer was an avid reader, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an accomplished chess player, an unstoppable workaholic. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, that Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri derailed his career or darkened his reputation.

But the effect of the documentary’s gushing wasn’t uplifting or inspiring.

It was misleading.

True, Pulitzer led a crowded, remarkable life. He did have a Midas-like touch — he became enormously wealthy as a newspaper publisher, and his riches allowed him to buy opulent homes and live out his infirmity-wracked final years aboard a luxury yacht.

Pulitzer the irritable (Library of Congress)

Pulitzer was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him.

The meaner, darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth.

In the end Pulitzer’s profound failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate.

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890, Pulitzer rarely visited the World building.

For years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control, from retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe. To his editors and managers, he regularly fired off telegrams and letters that were full of instructions, guidance, and reproach. This correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial component to Pulitzer’s personality.

The documentary-makers might well have plumbed the correspondence for its insights. And they might have considered how effectively, or poorly, Pulitzer ran his newspapers from afar, in what was a fin-de-siècle experiment in mobile, long-distance executive management.

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and remote-control management were not much explored.

The memory of Joseph Pulitzer has been boosted over the decades by a succession of exceptionally generous biographers.

To that lineup of adulation, the flattery of documentary-filmmakers can now be added.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2019:

Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on April 14, 2019 at 1:07 pm

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes, was the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

Now to that lineup of adulation, we can add the flattery of documentary-filmmakers.

PBS the other night aired an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism. Pulitzer’s talents and commitments, according to the PBS treatment, were exceptional and endlessly laudatory.

At various points in the program we’re told that Pulitzer was an avid reader, an accomplished chess player, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an unstoppable workaholic who devoted day and night to the office. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri could derail his career.

The effect of all the gushing wasn’t exactly stirring or uplifting. It was misleading.

True, Pulitzer led a crowded, remarkable life. He did have a Midas-like touch — he became enormously wealthy as a newspaper champion of the poor, and his riches allowed him to buy opulent homes and live out his infirmity-wracked final years aboard a luxury yacht.

Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his four three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth. In the end Pulitzer’s failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate in a program that may have been intended  as a tonic and reminder to contemporary American journalism.

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890 Pulitzer pursued a peripatetic life, traveling constantly in search of relief as his health declined. He suffered nervous ailments and depression. He was acutely sensitive to noise. He went blind. Pulitzer seldom returned to the World.

And yet for years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control. From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe, Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of  telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer.

The documentary-makers might have plumbed that correspondence for its insights. They might have considered how effectively, or poorly, Pulitzer ran his newspapers from afar, in a fin-de-siècle experiment in mobile, long-distance executive management.

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored. The topic is not unimportant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

Among the antecedents was the emergence in New York City journalism of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy miner’s son who was just 32-years-old in 1895 when he bought the moribund New York Journal and promptly challenged Pulitzer’s dominant but declining World.

Hearst’s arrival, as I discussed in my book, 1897: The Year that Defined American Journalism, was “a seismic event in the city’s journalism.”

The impression left by PBS was that Hearst came to New York from newspapering success in San Francisco to take on Pulitzer, mano-a-mano. But that was more effect than guiding objective. As Kenneth Whyte made clear in his outstanding biography, The Uncrowned King, Hearst recognized that success in New York was vital to his establishing and securing a media empire. His interests went beyond besting Pulitzer and the World.

Hearst, under the pen of Homer Davenport

Hearst, as drawn by Homer Davenport

Pulitzer’s correspondence showed that he was well aware of Hearst and his Journal, which offered aggressive, colorful journalism for a penny. The World sold for two cents.

While the PBS documentary makes no mention of this, the challenge of Hearst’s Journal prompted Pulitzer to halve the price of the World — an ill-advised move that disrupted the newspaper‘s revenue stream.

By 1897, Pulitzer was remotely ordering up staff reductions and cost-cutting measures. In May that year, for example, Pulitzer told the World’s general manager:

“I want a radical reduction of expenses from beginning to end of every department, wherever it is reasonable and feasable[sic]. … Retrenchment should be based upon the idea of absolute necessity. Unless you do something neither morning nor the evening [editions] can pay expenses the next three months. … There is a lot of deadwood on the payroll anyhow.”

War with Spain further battered the newspaper’s bottom line. That conflict was brief but enormously expensive to cover. While readership surged, advertising revenues dropped off, and newsprint prices climbed. (Hearst’s Journal figured its war-reporting expenses exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent today of almost $23 million. The World‘s expenses were likely less than that, but were substantial in any case.)

PBS seemed keen to excuse Pulitzer for the newspaper’s overheated coverage of the runup to the war, especially its graphic and at times exaggerated reporting of the destruction of the USS Maine.

For reasons that remain disputed, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor in mid-February 1898, killing 266 American sailors. It was a triggering event for the Spanish-American War, which was waged in theaters in the Caribbean and in Asia and ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba and the Philippines.

To his “great credit,” we’re told by one of the experts PBS interviewed, Pulitzer “later regretted his role in that episode.” Hearst, we’re also told, entertained no second thoughts. The apologia was emblematic of the program’s eagerness to look beyond Pulitzer’s failings and flaws.

Commendably, the treatment of the Spanish-American War veered clear of the hoary media myth that sensational newspaper reporting whipped up public opinion to such an extent that the conflict became inevitable.

But the documentary did present a clichéd description of “yellow journalism,” calling it “overheated, entertaining, and often inaccurate news reporting.”

In fact, “yellow journalism” was a genre of urban American journalism characterized by bold typography, frequent use of multicolumn headlines, generous use of illustrations, a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.

Shorthand for sensationalism “yellow journalism” was not.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Addressing ‘fake news,’ stirring up media myths

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on December 11, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Mainstream media have been beside themselves of late, lamenting and fretting about a supposed  surge of “fake news,” in which dubious tales circulated online pollute and corrupt popular discourse.

span-am war_journal

Not to blame: The yellow press and war with Spain

In their hand-wringing assessments, news outlets also have stirred up references to hoary media-driven myths, which can be thought of as variants of fake news, only more prominent and entrenched. Despite their thorough debunking, media myths often are recited as if they were true.

As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, media myths are memorable tales about and/or by the news that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

For an example of a news outlet stirring up a media myth while ruminating about “fake news,” consider the essay published the other day in the Washington Times. “Fake news,” it declared, is nothing new.

Sure enough. But the essay soon dialed up a media myth, declaring:

“Candidates for public office routinely make statements divorced from truth. Was it ‘fake’ news for 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon to maintain he had a ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War when he had no such thing?”

But Nixon made no such claim: He did not “maintain” or otherwise declare during his campaign in 1968 that he had such a plan.

In fact, candidate Nixon disavowed such a notion during the 1968 primary season. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon in 1968 may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind. But he did not make such a claim a plank or component of his campaign. That is clear in reviewing the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as touting or otherwise saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon made such a “secret plan” claim during the campaign, the country’s leading daily newspapers surely would have publicized it.

But despite the evidence that can be arrayed to debunk it, the notion that Nixon possessed a  “secret plan” can be simply too delicious — and too Nixonian in its supposed duplicity — to resist retelling.  As William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, once observed:

“Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the non-quotation [about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’] never seems to go away ….”

Another tenacious media myth is that sensational yellow journalism forced the United States into war in 1898 over Spain’s rule of Cuba.

That dubious interpretation has long been rejected by serious historians of the period. But it was invoked the other day in an segment on Public Radio International’s “The World” program.

The show’s resident history authority, Christopher Woolf, claimed that sensational reporting in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal about the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898 fired up American public opinion which, in turn, prompted Congress to declare war on Spain in April 1898.

It’s a tired syllogism that erroneously blames yellow journalism for a conflict that had far deeper and far more substantial causes, as I discussed in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Essentially, the syllogism founders on the absence of evidence that Hearst’s Journal exerted decisive influence on public opinion, or on the administration of President William McKinley, in the run-up to war.

As I point out in Yellow Journalism, an impressive body of research had been compiled over the years, indicating that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, or ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow press — the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer — in the run-up to the war.

Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, many newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses.

Not only that, but top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the Hearst and Pulitzer papers. Officials certainly didn’t turn to the yellow press for guidance in shaping policy.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

The yellow press, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century observed, did not “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

Those differences stemmed from Spain’s harsh and futile measures to put down a rebellion on Cuba that began in February 1895 — measures that gave rise to a humanitarian crisis on the island. Thousands of Cuban non-combattants — women, children, and old men — were herded into garrison towns in a policy the Spanish called “reconcentration.” The objective was to deprive the Cuban rebels of support of the citizenry; the upshot of the policy was that non-combattants suffered immensely from hunger and disease.

Far more than the content of Hearst’s Journal, the humanitarian crisis caused by reconcentration prompted the United States to go to war with Spain in 1898.

But of course, it’s more delicious, and simplistic, to blame the supposed war-mongering newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on August 22, 2016 at 7:33 am

One of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War was “The Terror of War,” better known as “Napalm Girl.”

The image showed a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant bombing raid near their village, Trang Bang. At the center of the photograph was a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc who was badly burned in the napalm attack.

'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The photograph was taken June 8, 1972, by an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and much acclaim in the years since then.

It also has given rise to enduring media myths — notably that Ut’s photograph showed the effects of a U.S. bombing raid at Trang Bang, northwest of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

That myth of the “Napalm Girl” was invoked yesterday in a 900-word profile of Ut in the Los Angeles Times. The article referred in its opening paragraph to Kim Phuc, saying she had been “scorched by American napalm.”

In fact, the aerial napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see right), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

The New York Times reported on June 9, 1972, that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm right on his troops and a cluster of civilians.” The Chicago Tribune told of “napalm dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider [warplane] diving onto the wrong target.”

Christopher Wain of Britain ITN television network wrote in a dispatch from Trang Bang for the United Press International news service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years. Early this month, for example, a columnist for USAToday referred to Ut’s photograph and said it showed “a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing her village after U.S. forces bombed it with napalm….”

The making of the myth can be traced to the hapless campaign in 1972 of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president.

In a televised speech in October 1972, McGovern invoked the image of “the little South Vietnamese girl, Kim, fleeing in terror” and “running naked into the lens of that camera.

“That picture ought to break the heart of every American,” McGovern said. “How can we rest with the grim knowledge that the burning napalm that splashed over little Kim and countless thousands of other children was dropped in the name of America?”

How he determined that Kim Phuc was representative of “countless thousands of other children” sprayed by napalm, McGovern did not say.

But his claim that the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America” insinuated U.S. responsibility for the errant attack — which misstated what had happened at Trang Bang. The aerial attack was carried out by South Vietnamese forces to roust communist troops from bunkers at the outskirts of the village.

The fighting there was an all-Vietnamese encounter.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

No, ‘Salon’ — Hearst’s yellow journalism didn’t cause war with Spain

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2015 at 2:29 pm

In a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Salon indulges in the hoary media myth that Hearst’s “yellow journalism” provoked war with Spain in 1898.

Salon’s essay was posted today beneath the headline: “Donald Trump’s third-rate ego monument: The billionaire wanna-be president who makes Trump look like a chump.”

Wasn't Heast's war

Wasn’t Heast’s war

As the headline suggests, the essay is no subtle or thoughtful treatment of Hearst. It reflects none of the sophistication and insight of Hearst’s most recent and skilled biographers, David Nasaw (who wrote The Chief in 2000) and Kenneth Whyte (author of The Uncrowned King in 2008).

Significantly, the Salon essay errs in claiming that Hearst’s flamboyant journalism of the late 19th century brought on the Spanish-American War, declaring:

“Headline grabbing was, literally, Hearst’s business. His combustible personality had already been responsible for the ‘yellow journalism’ that got the U.S. into war in Cuba in 1898. Trump hasn’t done that yet.”

Before unpacking that mythical claim, let’s briefly consider the defining features of Hearst’s journalism of the late 1890s — and how and why it came to be called “yellow journalism.”

Hearst, who was 32 when he came to New York City from San Francisco in 1895 and acquired a moribund daily, the Journal, infused his journalism with self-promotion, as did many fin-de-siecle American newspapers.

What set Hearst apart from his many competitors in New York was a willingness to spend generously in news-gathering and an inclination to go bold in news-presentation: His Journal was typographically more engaging and experimental than its staid rival newspapers.

Jail-breaking journalism

Activist, and bold in presentation

Moreover, Hearstian journalism of the late 1890s was animated by activism — by a notion that newspapers had an obligation to do more than comment and criticize, but to inject themselves in the issues of the day and try to correct the wrongs in public life, to fill the voids created by government inaction or incompetence.

The “journalism of action,” it was called. And it borrowed from “government by journalism,” which William T. Stead advanced in Britain in the 1880s.

Hearst’s “journalism of action,” as I pointed out in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, was “a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering and publishing the news.”

The most dramatic and celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” was the jailbreak in Havana in 1897 that freed a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. A reporter for Hearst’s Journal organized the escape of Cisneros, who was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer to New York, where Hearst organized a rapturous reception for her in midtown Manhattan.

Hearst shook up New York City journalism, and his foes chafed at his aggressive brand of journalism. Some of them openly hoped that the young publisher would spend himself into bankruptcy. In early 1897, one of the rivals came up with “yellow journalism” as a jeering rejection of what Hearst was then calling “the new journalism.” The sneer “yellow journalism” stuck; even Hearst’s Journal came to embrace the term.

But by no means did “yellow journalism” cause, foment, or otherwise bring about the war in 1898, a brief conflict that confirmed America as a global power.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

“The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even” Hearst’s Journal.

Assertions that the yellow press caused the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, where an islandwide rebellion had flared in early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the armed challenge to Spanish rule, Madrid sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and its generals imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” by which thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — were herded into garrison towns so they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The “reconcentration” policy gave rise to much suffering and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation, creating a humanitarian disaster on Cuba that “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” as I wrote in Yellow Journalism.

The desperate conditions on Cuba in 1897 and early 1898 were frequent topics of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, Hearst’s Journal. His newspaper reported on “reconcentration” but in no way created the policy’s devastating effects.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by the “reconcentration” policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, were pivotal in the American decision to go to war over Cuba in 1898; the content of the yellow press was irrelevant.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“If the yellow press did foment the war, researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time. But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the [William] McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor. It was regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain.”

A few years after the war, the Journal pointedly scoffed at claims that it fomented the war in a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits. “Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal noted in 1902, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.

WJC

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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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No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Media-driven myths can be tenacious because they offer simplified, easy-to-grasp versions of complex events of the past.

That’s why, for example, the Watergate myth — that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is so hardy. It’s easy to grasp and easy to retell.

Not to blame: Hearst's 'Evening Journal'

Hearst’s Evening Journal

So it is with the Spanish-American War, a brief conflict in 1898 that confirmed the United States as a global power.

The media myth of the Spanish-American War — the simplified but inaccurate account of the conflict’s origins — is that it was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

But the notion is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the hoary myth made an appearance at Politico Magazine the other day, in a commentary titled “The Neocon Surge.”

The commentary said prominent neoconservatives “are going into overdrive to pin the blame for the collapse of Iraq on anyone other than themselves.” And it called out the scholar Robert Kagan, saying he had “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

What especially interests Media Myth Alert is not resurgent neoconservatism but the claim that the Spanish-American War was a “product” of Hearst’s yellow press, a claim Politico vaguely attributed to “most historians.”

Politico is wrong on both counts.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, which had been the scene of an islandwide rebellion since early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst. The yellow press reported on but it did not create the terrible effects of Spain’s disastrous “reconcentration” policy.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by that policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898 — not the content of the yellow press, and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it.

Warmonger?

Young Hearst: No warmonger

Almost always unaddressed in claims that Hearst fomented the war is any discussion about how his newspapers’ content accomplished the trick: By what mechanism was newspaper content transformed into policy and military action?

It’s left unaddressed because there was no such mechanism.

The mechanism wasn’t an agenda-setting function: Hearst’s newspapers, attention-grabbing though they were, did not set the news agenda for the other 2,000 or so daily newspapers in the United States in the late 1890s.

A significant body of research compiled over the years indicates that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, and ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow journals in the run-up to the war. Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses and flamboyance.

Moreover, top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the yellow press. They certainly didn’t turn to it for guidance in policymaking. As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, diary entries of White House officials disparaged the yellow press as a nuisance but gave it no credit as a factor in developing or shaping policy.

The content of the yellow press, I further noted, was “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” over conditions on Cuba, negotiations that preceded the declaration of war.

At most, Hearst’s newspapers were irritants to policymakers in Washington. They did not, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century has correctly observed, “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

WJC

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‘They even started wars’: Nonsense in the Economist’s holiday double issue

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 22, 2012 at 6:19 am

One of the year-end delights in print media is the Economist’s holiday season double issue, a lode of offbeat features and whimsical takes on the news.

Economist double issue_2012This year’s edition is no exception. The “Christmas Specials” in the  Economist’s double issue consider such topics as Japan’s Citizen Kane and offer long ruminations about hell.

The “Christmas Specials” also include an account about the Internet-borne resurgence of cartooning — an account that serves up the hoary media myth of yellow journalism, declaring:

“In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: ‘yellow journalism.’

“Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars.”

They even started wars?

Uh-uh.

The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer certainly reported closely about the Spanish-American War of 1898. But no serious historian believes their newspapers were important factors in bringing about the conflict.

But simply put, the yellow press did not create, nor was responsible for, the irreconcilable differences led to war between the United States and Spain.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

The convergence of forces that gave rise to the war — which lasted 114 days and ended with Spain’s utter defeat in the Caribbean and the Philippines — can be traced to the rebellion on Cuba that began in 1895.

The Cuban uprising challenged Spanish rule of the island and by early 1898 had settled into a vicious stalemate. The Spanish military occupied most Cuba’s urban centers; the Cuban rebels controlled the countryside.

In an ill-considered attempt to deprive the rebels of food and logistical support, Spanish had ordered Cuban non-combattants — women, children, old men — into garrison towns where, by the tens of thousands, they fell victim to disease and malnutrition.

The Spanish policy, known as reconcentración, or reconcentration, was, I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “emblematic of the severity of Spain’s efforts to quell the rebellion.”

Not only was the rebellion stalemated by early 1898; a human rights disaster had taken shape in Cuba. The horrors of reconcentración drew wide attention, and condemnation, in the United States.

Reconcentration images

Horrors of reconcentración

The reconcentración policy, along with Spain’s inability to quell the rebellion by negotiation or military force, were the proximate causes of the war that began in April 1898.

As I point out in Yellow Journalism:

“To indict the yellow press for instigating the Spanish-American War is fundamentally to misread the evidence and thus do disservice to the broader understanding of a much-misunderstood conflict. ”

Alas, the holiday season number is not the first time the Economist has fallen for the media myth of yellow journalism.

In July 2011, the magazine declared, without attribution, that “William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report.”

WJC

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Online at BBC News: Recalling the derivation of ‘All the news that’s fit to print’

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on February 11, 2012 at 12:10 am

The most famous seven words in American journalism — “All the news that’s fit to print” — took a permanent place 115 years ago yesterday in the upper left corner, or left “ear,” of the New York Times masthead.

On front page for 115 years

And I recalled that occasion in a piece for the BBC News online site, writing:

“The motto appeared on the Times’ front page without notice, commentary, or fanfare. In the years since, the phrase has been admired as a timeless statement of purpose, interpreted as a ‘war cry’ for honest journalism, and scoffed at as pretentious, overweening, and impossibly vague.

“Even the Times hasn’t been entirely consistent in its embrace and interpretation of those seven words. In 1901, at the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Times referred to ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ as its ‘covenant. In 2001, a Times article commemorating the newspaper’s 150th anniversary said of the motto:

“’What, exactly, does it mean? You decide. The phrase has been debated, and endlessly parodied, both inside and outside the Times for more than a century.’

“On occasion, the motto has been taken far too seriously, as in 1960 when Wright Patman, a U.S. congressman from Texas, asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ amounted to false and misleading advertising.

“’Surely this questionable claim has a tendency to make the public believe, and probably does make the public believe, that the New York Times is superior to other newspapers,’ Patman wrote.

“The Trade Commission declined to investigate, saying: ‘We do not believe there are any apparent objective standards by which to measure whether “news” is or is not “fit to print.”’

“No matter how it’s interpreted, the motto certainly is remarkable in its permanence. One-hundred fifteen years on the front page has invested the motto with a certain gravitas. It often has been associated with fairness, restraint, and impartiality — objectives that nominally define mainstream American journalism.

“A commentary in the Wall Street Journal in 2001 addressed those sentiments, describing the motto as the ‘leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.

“Interestingly, the ‘leitmotif’ of American journalism had its origins in marketing and advertising.

“’All the news that’s fit to print’ first appeared on an illuminated advertising sign, spelled out in red lights above New York’s Madison Square in early October 1896. That was about six weeks after Adolph S. Ochs had acquired the newspaper in bankruptcy court.

“Ochs, patriarch of the family that still controls and publishes the Times, had come to New York from Tennessee. His task was to differentiate the Times from its larger, aggressive, and wealthier rivals — notably the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. It was a tall order, given the beleaguered status of the Times in New York’s crowded newspaper market.

“Ochs possessed a keen sense of promotion and turned to a number of techniques to call attention to the Times. The illuminated sign at Madison Square was one. An even more successful promotion was a contest inviting readers to propose a better motto.

“In late October 1896, the Times announced it was offering $100 for the phrase of ten words or fewer that ‘more aptly’ captured the newspaper’s ‘distinguishing characteristics’ than ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’

“Hundreds of entries poured in. …  As the contest unfolded in the fall of 1896, the Times amended the rules, making clear it would not abandon ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ but would still pay $100 for the best suggestion. And entries kept coming in.

“A committee of Times staff narrowed the field to 150, which in turn was winnowed to four by the motto contest judge, Richard W. Gilder, editor of The Century magazine. The finalists were:

  • “Always decent; never dull”
  • “The news of the day; not the rubbish”
  • “A decent newspaper for decent people”
  • “All the world’s news, but not a School for Scandal”

“The latter entry, Gilder determined, was the best of the lot, and the Times paid the prize money to the author of the phrase, D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut.

“What exactly prompted Ochs to move ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to the front page 115 years ago is not entirely clear. But his intent was unmistakable — to throw down a challenge to the yellow press, a challenge that Ochs ultimately won. The Times has long outlived the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

“So the motto lives on as a reminder, as a daily rebuke to the flamboyant extremes of fin-de-siècle American journalism that helped inspire ‘All the news that’s fit to print.'”

WJC

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‘Yellow journalism’: The back story to a sneer, 115 years on

In 1897, Anniversaries, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 31, 2012 at 6:35 am

Wardman: Gave us 'yellow journalism'

Yellow journalism” is a disparaging epithet often invoked in journalism, even though its derivation is little known.

This is the back story to a sneer that trips easily off the tongue with scorn and condescension.

The first verified use of the term was 115 years ago today, when “yellow journalism” appeared in the old New York Press.

The phrase “the Yellow Journalism” appeared in a small headline on the Press’ editorial page 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” was quickly embraced in American newspapering, as a way to disparage and denigrate the freewheeling practices of William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal as well as Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World.

Within weeks of the first use of the term, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.

In the 115 years since then, “yellow journalism” has turned into a derisive if vague shorthand for denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all kinds.

“It is,” I wrote 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.”

I also noted that yellow journalism emerged in “a lusty, fiercely competitive, and intolerant time, when newspapers routinely traded brickbats and insults” and even threats.

Just how Wardman and the Press came up with “yellow journalism” is not clear.

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

In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with depraved literature, which may have been an inspiration to Wardman, an austere figure largely lost to New York newspaper history. (The New York Times said in 1923 in its obituary of Wardman: “Like many another anonymous worker in journalism, his name was not often conspicuously before the public, and he was content to sink his personality in that of the papers which he served.”)

Wardman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in three years at Harvard University, once was described as showing “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.” He did little to conceal his contempt for Hearst and Hearst’s flamboyant style of journalism.

Disdain routinely spilled into the columns of the Press, of which Wardman became editor in chief in 1896 at the age of 31. (The Press ceased publication in 1916.)

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

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

The Press also experimented with pithy if stilted turns of phrase to denounce “new journalism,” Hearst’s preferred term to characterize his style of newspapering.

“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 was meant to suggest the absence of “even the veneer of decency.”

It wasn’t long before 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.

The Yellow Kid (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.

Wardman turned often to this delicious pejorative, invoking it in a number of brief editorial comments 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 confirmed when Hearst’s Journal embraced the term in mid-May 1898, during the Spanish-American War. With typical immodesty, it declared:

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

WJC

Adapted from an essay posted in 2010 at Media Myth Alert.

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