In Defense of Yellow Journalism
The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, By Kenneth Whyte, Counterpoint (2009)
In 1898, during the buildup to the Spanish-American war, journalist and founder of The Nation, E.L. Godkin, wrote an excoriating review in the New York Evening Post, lambasting the yellow press for their coverage of the explosion aboard the USS Maine. “A yellow journal office is probably the nearest approach, in atmosphere, to hell, existing in any Christian state,” Godkin fumed, leveling his sights at the self-proclaimed sovereign of New York one-penny dailies: William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst, who bought the New York Journal in 1895, has long drawn this kind of fire. Historians, biographers, and, most famously, the filmmaker Orson Welles all have depicted Hearst as a sort of cross between Scrooge McDuck and Howard Hughes, a spoiled, ruthless, war-mongering megalomaniac who routinely sacrificed journalistic standards to the pursuit of driving up circulation. In his elegant and vivid biography, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, Kenneth Whyte strives to refute this characterization. By poring over trade journals and editions of the New York dailies of the time, Whyte paints a picture of Hearst as the finest newspapermen of the Gilded Age—and even well-behaved for his time and status. “As a willful, high-spirited son of privilege in a wide-open city, with a standing invitation to every conceivable indulgence, he was a poor excuse for a devil,” writes Whyte.
The Uncrowned King focuses on Hearst’s years at the helm of the Journal, tracing the young Californian’s path from a novice in the “bustling ink-soaked village” of Park Row to the head of a newspaper that boasted a million readers. Whyte’s biography is as much the story of the New York press at its pinnacle of influence as it is Hearst’s comparing the dailies’ coverage of the major events of the late 1890s and recounting, blow-by-blow, the circulation war between Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Upon his arrival to Manhattan, Hearst’s objective was to topple Pulitzer from his Park Row throne. Both men had a particularly virulent strain of workaholism: Hearst would often stay in his offices until 4 a.m., and Pulitzer continued to micromanage the World from abroad, even as his declining health prevented him from managing the paper in an official capacity. According to Whyte, Hearst managed to triumph over Pulitzer through sheer doggedness coupled with shrewd business and editorial decisions, as Whyte writes, “His was the paper with the strongest voice and the sparkling new features, the biggest names and brightest talent. His soup kitchens had the longest lines and his fireworks the loudest band.”
As the World and the Journal battled for the freshest coverage and most eye-grabbing headlines, both became targets of a moral campaign against the newly-anointed “yellow press,” described by Ervin Wardman of the New York Press as “occupying the same place as brothels.” Whyte points out that these accusations of the menace of yellow journalism—sentiments that echo through historical accounts today—are guilty of the same sensationalism and gaudy tones they accuse the yellow press of employing. “It was an age of sensation,” Whyte observes. “There was nothing the yellows could publish that their gray rivals wouldn’t touch.” The Journal’s factual shortcomings, incessant self-promotion, and splashy style—during the Spanish-American war, the typography grew so inflated that editions looked like “aggravated circus posters”—were par for the course.
Whyte’s analysis of the Journal’s reporting is thorough to a fault. Hearst occasionally gets left on the sidelines while Whyte recounts anecdotes about Gilded Age presses, and Whyte sometimes lingers too long quibbling with previous Hearst biographers. Nonetheless, Whyte’s pacing has a rhythmic clarity and his prose, lucid and snappy, often yields delicious morsels like his description of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald:
“He ruled his newspaper by ‘caprice and fear,’ firing perfectly good employees if he didn’t like their haircuts or if his dogs didn’t take to them…He would walk down the aisle of a world-class eatery, pulling the linen from each table just to hear the crockery smash on the floor. He rode his polo pony into the Newport Reading Room on a lark, and once threw a roll of banknotes into a fire because he did not like the way it was sitting in his pocket…He remained, throughout all this, an excellent newspapermen.”
Ultimately, Whyte’s basis for his reassessment of Hearst’s early career is his worth not as a media mogul or a man, but as a newspaperman and a journalist judged against the standards of his day and not ours. His type may have been showy, his stories focused on the unsavory, but Hearst had a nose for the news, and he sold a lot of newspapers. (“And what’s wrong with selling newspapers?” Whyte asks.) As the Journal wrote in its own defense, sensationalism “is always the cry of the newspaper to the rival which passes it.”