Journalism, according to G.K. Chesterton, ''largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.'' But through the ages, it has always been of interest and indeed of great importance, to receive news about local and global events. As news reporting became ever more important in everyday society, the reliability and accuracy of its content became increasingly vital. The local citizen had little chance to actually review each article for precision and so relied on the journalists for completeness and fairness. Whatever was written was taken as the gospel truth and it was up to the reporters, journalists, editors and their management to accurately report current events.
By the end of the 19th Century, the media, mainly in the form of newspapers and weekly magazines, had risen to a level of importance that few could have imagined in prior times. By the latter half of the 1800s the print media had grown in importance around the world to a social status that rivaled even government institutions. Journalism had risen to become the Fourth Power, commonly known as the Fourth Estate, a nongovernmental, private group of independent companies that had the ability to sway the general public in almost any direction they chose. Around the world, the power of the media had become as important as the greatest heads of state of any nation, and as such, needed to be brought under control of these same rulers lest they find themselves on the wrong end.
The term fourth estate is frequently attributed to the nineteenth century historian Carlyle, though he himself seems to have attributed it to Edmund Burke: Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact, .... Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. ..... Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.”
Most countries simply took over all media coverage of events. The easiest way to ensure that the media reports what you want is to feed them the stories they put in their newspapers and journals. In much of the First World, private enterprise was allowed to report independent of government. In some of those countries, such as France, political parties were allowed to set up their own newspapers and journals. The idea here is to allow each newspaper its own slant on purpose and to give the general public the open option of reading whichever slant they so desired. However, as the media grew more complex and radio and television came into the fore, this concept became increasingly difficult to continue.
In the US, the concept of a completely free and independent media was something that had been written into the Constitution itself. Our First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” We purposefully kept the hands of politicians out of the media. The idea was, keep journalistic reporting free and independent, and the masses will have the greatest chance of getting the correct information and using it accordingly. What our forefathers didn’t realize was that by keeping the press completely unregulated in its reporting, we could fall into a capitalistic trap of sensationalistic reporting for the sole purpose of selling more newspapers and earning a bigger paycheck at the end of the day. We had allowed ourselves to become the first victim of Yellow Journalism.
Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were two entrepreneurial newspaper owners who would forever be inextricably linked with the birth of Yellow Journalism. Both men owned newspapers, but not just any newspaper, they owned two of the most widely read and influential newspapers of the era in New York City. The Pulitzer name remains popular today because it is associated with the most prestigious award in American journalism. Yet many historians revile the award's benefactor with charges of irresponsible reporting and sensationalism. The Pulitzer name is most often linked in textbooks with that of Hearst, a Californian who assumed control of the Journal in 1895.
Hearst burst onto Park Row, the New York street lined with newspaper buildings, and immediately began to shake things up. Pulitzer already owned a major newspaper, The World. The ironic and tragic elements of the two men’s story cannot be ignored. The Journal, which was purchased by Hearst, was founded in 1882 by Albert Pulitzer, Joseph's brother. Albert sold the paper at a profit, and it continued with a modest circulation until Hearst moved to New York and purchased it. Surely, Hearst would have bought another paper had the Journal not been for sale, but Joseph had to live with the fact that the newspaper which became his chief competitor had originated within his own family. The two brothers became estranged over time, as Joseph considered his sibling rash and frivolous.
The irony does not end there; both Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst were outsiders when they came to New York. Their papers appealed to the same elements of the city that had previously been ignored by the press. Women, labor leaders, Democrats, immigrants and the poor found articles that held their interest and represented their political views.
Hearst's purchase of the Journal began one of the most dramatic periods of competition in journalistic history. He did not spare any expense in reaching his goal of increased circulation. He lowered the Journal's price to one cent, expanded the number of pages, and then dipped into his family's finances to support his bold moves. Much of his success came by imitation of Pulitzer. Hearst took the striking headlines of the World and made them larger and bolder. Trivial stories which compelled suspense and interest not only appeared on the front page of the Journal, they dominated it.
Early in 1896, Pulitzer began to pay serious attention to the newcomer. In January, Hearst enticed Richard Felton Outcault, the artist who drew the popular comic strip, "The Yellow Kid," to move to the Journal. The strip was named for the main character's colorful robes. Pulitzer's use of a color comic strip in the Sunday World was an innovation at the time. In addition to stealing Felton, Hearst managed in the same month to convince Pulitzer's entire Sunday staff to work for the Journal. The competition between Pulitzer and Hearst, each with his own brightly-colored comic strip, sealed their fates together and provided future historians with the convenient title of "yellow journalism."
Yellow journalism, in short, is biased opinion masquerading as objective fact. Moreover, the practice of yellow journalism involved sensationalism, distorted stories, and misleading images for the sole purpose of boosting newspaper sales and exciting public opinion. This new phenomenon would get its first real test very soon. At 9:40 on the evening of 15 February, 1898, a terrible explosion on board Maine shattered the stillness in Havana Harbor. Later investigations revealed that more than five tons of powder charges for the vessel's six and ten-inch guns ignited, virtually obliterating the forward third of the ship. The remaining wreckage rapidly settled to the bottom of the harbor. Most of Maine's crew were sleeping or resting in the enlisted quarters in the forward part of the ship when the explosion occurred. Two hundred and sixty-six men lost their lives as a result of the disaster: 260 died in the explosion or shortly thereafter, and six more died later from injuries.
Seizing upon the opportunity to capitalize on the growing spirit of American patriotism, Hearst and Pulitzer printed sensational anti-Spanish stories. They both blamed Spain directly for the sinking of the Maine. Graphic illustrations commissioned from some of the country's most-talented artists and stories written by premiere authors and journalists of the day were fodder for fueling the flames of war. Together, Hearst and Pulitzer created a frenzy among the American people by reporting the alleged brutality of the Spanish toward the Cuban rebels. (However, acts of outrage committed by the Cubans were seldom mentioned.) By the time the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, the pro-war press had roused national sentiment to the point that President McKinley feared his political party would suffer if he did not engage in war with Spain.
Historically, one of the most infamous incidents with regard to the influence that yellow journalism practices had on the Spanish-American War is a short dialogue between William Randolph Hearst and his hired illustrator/Cuban correspondent, Frederick Remington. Upon his arrival in Cuba in January of 1897, Remington noticed that none of massive reported battles were actually happening. He cabled to Hearst: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return." Supposedly, although he denied it afterwards, Hearst quickly wired back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
From the very beginning of the second Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule (in 1895), both the yellow press and the "honest" press rushed to send correspondents to document the elevating level of active hostility in Cuba. Regardless, only a small number actually made it to Cuba and among the rebels; the vast majority only made it as far as Florida, or, if they were lucky, the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, Cuba. They would usually simply make up their stories of "personal experience" or based them on slanted press releases from the Cuban Junta. The result of this was an endless supply of glorious Cuban victories in battles that never actually occurred, along with severely embellished stories of Spanish brutality and cruelty.
But wait there’s more.