Yellow Journalism: No Holds Barred

"Yellow press" was a term applied to the popular, frankly imperialistic newspapers of New York City, circa 1890s. Today, "yellow journalism" refers to lurid publications that emphasize the sensational side of news stories. The ideal of journalism was expressed in the late 18th century by Benjamin Rush, who wrote a friend who was starting a newspaper with several recommendations:

Avoid filling your paper with anecdotes of British vices and follies. What have the citizens of the United States to do with the duels, the elopements, the criminal consortings, the kept mistresses, the murders, the suicides, the thefts, the forgeries, the boxing matches, the wagers for eating, drinking, and walking, etc., etc., of the people of Great Britain? Such stuff, when circulated through our country by means of a newspaper, is calculated to destroy that delicacy in the mind which is one of the safeguards of the virtue of a young country.

Never publish an article in your paper that you would not wish your wife and daughter (if you have any) should read or understand.

The principles described were never much in evidence in American journalism, but a century after Rush wrote his letter, a particularly nasty spell of low journalism broke out.

In the 1890s, a bitter circulation war erupted between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. In an spiraling contest of outrageous journalism, the newspapers used all means to attract readers—heavy doses of murder and sex, banner headlines and colored supplements.

Pulitzer introduced the first comic strip, The Yellow Kid, drawn by Richard Outcault. The character became immensely popular and inspired the name for the sensationalist press of the era.

Both Hearst and Pulitzer played leading roles in molding American public opinion about the conflict between Spain and its Cuban colony. The papers reported Spanish atrocities in exaggerated detail, but neglected to mention Cuban misdeeds. Both repeatedly called for armed intervention, then later, all-out war.

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Slave ships brought it to America as far back as 1648-and over the centuries, yellow fever epidemics plagued the United States. Carried along the migh...