Yellow Journalism: The Press and America's Emergence as a World Power

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A case containing dismembered human remains surfaces in New York's East River in June 1897 and the publisher of the New York Journal-a young, devil-may-care millionaire named William Randolph Hearst-decides that his newspaper will "scoop" the city's police department by solving the heinous crime. Pulling out all the stops, Hearst launches more than a murder investigation: his newspaper's active intervention in the city's daily life, especially its underside, marked the birth of the Yellow Press.

Most notable among Hearst's competitors was The World, owned and managed by a Jewish immigrant named Joseph Pulitzer. In The Yellow Journalism, David R. Spencer describes how the evolving culture of Victorian journalism was shaped by the Yellow Press. He details how these two papers and others exploited scandal, corruption, and crime among New York's most influential citizens and its most desperate inhabitants-a policy that made this "journalism of action" remarkably effective, not just as a commercial force but also as an advocate for the city's poor and defenseless.

About the Author:
David R. Spencer is a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario

About the Author:
Geneva Overholser holds the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810123311
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2007
  • Series: Medill Visions of the American Press Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,014,296
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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By David R. Spencer
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2007

David R. Spencer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2331-1


When dismembered human remains floated to the surface of New York City's East River in June 1897, the publisher of The New York Journal, a young, devil-may-care college dropout named William Randolph Hearst, decided that his newspaper would beat the city's police department-the self-proclaimed "finest"-in discovering the culprit or culprits who had perpetrated this heinous crime. Pulling out all the stops, Hearst's Murder Squad, a group of investigative reporters, uncovered not only the identity of the murderer but also a sordid extramarital affair involving the guilty. The lurid descriptions of the untimely demise of a bathhouse masseur that appeared in The New York Journal pushed the limits of both credibility and social acceptability in those times. In a stroke of opportunism, the Yellow Press had been born.

For Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and scores of other editors and reporters across urban America who worked in the newspaper industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, crime reporting was a godsend. It tugged at the emotional heartstrings of readers, and its violence and often graphic descriptions of the fate of the deceased touched sensitive nerves in those who advocated quick dispatch for individuals accused of such misdeeds. As historian Joy Wiltenburg recently observed, "Representations of crime influence people's conceptions of their lives and communities far out of proportion of the actual incidence of criminal activity." Little has changed over the past century and a half. Crime reporting was not the only avenue traveled by what would soon be called the sensationalist press, but it was undoubtedly the trendsetter for tales involving political corruption, sexual deviance, and other forms of thuggish behavior. But as we shall see in the story to come, Hearst and Pulitzer were only following a tradition that had begun to take shape some three centuries previously. It was not a tradition that was consequence free.

In most respects, the owners and editors who perfected the Yellow Press were creatures of their time and space. They lived in one of the most technologically productive centuries in human history, one that accelerated the new, soon to be literate world that had been born with the invention of movable type. Although not the only catalyst that propelled the evolution of the press into a significant player in a free-market society, the role of technology cannot be ignored. The first major invention that later became incorporated in the nineteenth-century press was lithography, the creation of one Alois Senefelder in Germany in 1798. Although visual images were rare in the daily newspapers until the rise of the Yellow Press, they were frequently used in specialized magazines during the first half of the nineteenth century. Of course, not all publications followed the techniques laid down by lithographers, who used polished limestones with ink based in oil to create a publishable picture. However, the invention of lithography gave rise to the concept that visuals could be part and parcel of storytelling, which in the hands of the Yellow Press left little to the imagination. By the time that Hearst and Pulitzer went to circulation warfare in the late years of the century, American journalism was a battleground of both words and images.

By the 1870s, unlike the practice in the early years of the century, pictures were no longer produced by an engraver sitting at a desk and working his tools into a slab of virgin wood. News was being captured on celluloid film, the invention of a Rochester, New York, eccentric named George Eastman. Coupled with the invention of halftone reproduction, photography became a powerful addition to a Gilded Age journalist's arsenal. Hearst, Pulitzer, and their imitators all exploited photojournalism shamelessly in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Like many other inventions that came to light in the same period, photography had no single inventor. It was as much the creation of the Frenchmen Joseph Nicéphore Niepce and Louis Daguerre as it was of the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot. When Talbot published a collection of twenty-four pictures in his book The Pencil of Nature between 1844 and 1846, it would only be a short fifteen years before photographers were capturing the carnage of the War between the States almost as it happened.

Virtually every technological advance that American inventors could create finally found its way into the collection and distribution of news. We need not account for each one in detail, but let it be said that it is doubtful that Melville Stone of the Associated Press (AP) could have exerted the same influence on American publishers without having the telegraph in the AP's bag of goodies. It does not take a serious stretch of the imagination to realize the impact of Richard Hoe's rotary press when it entered the newspaper world in 1847. And to all these marvels of the century can be added the motion picture, the Linotype, paper production based on wood as opposed to rags, recorded sound, and the first static crackling of radio sound waves in precisely the same years as the Yellow Press rose in New York City.

But the rise of the Yellow Press must be seen as something well beyond the emergence of new technologies. As much as these inventions gave publishers and editors opportunities they could only dream of in the previous century, it was a set of ideas, philosophies, and concepts, deeply rooted in American life, that determined the behavior of the Yellow Press. In fact, the very role of the newspaper in the late nineteenth century came under a microscope both by those who were entertained and informed by the extravagances of the day and by those who were critically offended that such distaste could actually appear and flourish in one of the world's great democracies. It is a battle that continues to this very day.

The debates that would finally result in the First Amendment began, as did the use of sensationalism, long before the daily press became an economic linchpin in America's ever-growing urban environments. Frederick Siebert and his colleagues at the University of Illinois were convinced that the press in the Victorian age evolved from an essentially authoritarian model prevalent before the eighteenth century to one of virtually unlimited freedom to exercise what it saw fit, a condition that Siebert and his fellow authors called libertarianism. It was an age of great excess, one that eventually inspired new definitions of the press based on social responsibility that rose at the end of the Gilded Age in reaction to the Yellow Press.

Both the casual observer and the more clinically inclined scholar will recognize the influence of three major thinkers in Siebert's conceptions of the role of the press in late Victorian America. With no respect to order or influence, they are John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill. In rethinking Siebert's philosophical approach, media scholar John Nerone noted that none of the three could be accused of holding any form of rabid libertarian beliefs, although he observed that Mill is more often than not placed in that kind of ideological straitjacket. Certainly, one might be tempted to add Alexis de Tocqueville to the mix.

It is undoubtedly safe to say that John Milton had no conception of anything like the Yellow Press when he rose in the Puritan Parliament in 1644 to make a passionate plea against press licensing. Milton was far more interested in promoting spiritual salvation than defending freedom of the press. However, he was concerned with the kind of moral issues that appeared in print in his day and continue to the present age. His argument was based on the belief that practicing Christians needed to be exposed to various forms of theological impurities in order to distinguish between good and evil. Although theological issues did not appear with any great frequency in the press world of the late nineteenth century, readers of the Yellow Press were bombarded on a daily basis with graphic and ghastly tales of murder, incest, poverty, infidelity, corporate fraud, and any number of imagined or real evils. In concert with the reader of Milton's age, these consumers of news were often faced with real and parallel dilemmas of a moral nature.

As much as Milton saw the press in the role of social purifier, Thomas Jefferson believed that a free press, along with accessible public education, was critical for the health of a democratic society. Writing to Charles Yancey on January 6, 1816, Jefferson argued:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

Yet the press of Jefferson's day was still deeply entrenched in the process of paying homage to various political leaders and their organizations, if for no other reason than survival. Nonetheless, the groundwork was being laid for a press literally without borders.

In his most famous political treatise, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that "the time it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defense would be necessary for the liberty of the press as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government." Mill pointed to the great press prosecutions of 1858 as a symbol of a continuing political maturity in the press in Great Britain. Although disappointed that the government had swooped down on a number of journals that opened a dialogue on tyrannicide, the author was relieved that the discussions regarding those political institutions seen to be a part of the debate were not involved in the prosecutions. In addition, he was pleased that the government eventually decided to drop the case and leave the press to its own wiles.

In many ways preceding Mill but following Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville made many of the same arguments, placing the press at the center of a democratic society. Yes, freedom of speech was to be a treasured part of any liberal concept of the state, but de Tocqueville was also interested in examining the role that newspapers took in the establishment of communities. As he stated, "There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers." It is within this concept that the Yellow Press will be situated in this study.

Nonetheless, one must not overstate the importance of the press in creating associations. As historian David Paul Nord observed, the press does not create associations by itself. What it does is deliver the information to constituencies capable of using that information to build their own communities or, in modern parlance, interest groups. Pulitzer's appeal to newly arrived immigrants with at most a scattering of English is, in one sense, a good example of the interplay between the press and one of its constituencies. In many respects, the Yellow Press, as we shall observe in upcoming chapters, provided glowing examples of community constructions before moving from an approach based on conversation and the exchange of facts and ideas to what media theorist James Carey referred to as "a model of information," which, for him, was a far from positive move.

In many if not most ways, the Yellow Press was a classic example of the newspaper genre Frederick Siebert described as libertarian. In his rethinking of the Siebert concept, John Nerone noted that "the notion of the marketplace of ideas is central to libertarianism's model of political communication." It is lodged in the belief that the press can be an agent of change in which interest groups, political parties, and religious organizations can vent their beliefs in the press in the hope that other persons who share those concepts can create what we have previously noted as communities. The concept is based in the idea that readers are rational and can make rational choices. In every respect, the marketplace of ideas that drove the Yellow Press was not that different from the economic marketplace that drove late Victorian industrial society.

The press world of the late Victorian age was characterized not only by the vicious circulation wars undertaken by Hearst and Pulitzer but also by a further division in practice between elite editors and those in the Yellow Press, whose approach to journalism was not considered to be objective. James Carey saw these two positions as a conflict between what he termed a model of information and a model of conversation. And, as noted earlier, by the outbreak of World War I, the model of information dominated the practice of the daily press in America.

Carey's assessment of the behavior of the press can be seen in its need to conquer space and exercise control over the flow of information in the constituency it purports to serve. Carey called this concept, which I have simplified to a significant degree, the transmission model. Of course, this model is far from exclusive in dealing with the press in general and is not specifically targeted in Carey's thought to the Victorian press of the late 1890s. But to a large degree, it can work with the newspaper scholar in the never-ending attempt to rationalize both how the news was delivered and what news managed to get delivered. As Carey noted:

If one examined a newspaper under a transmission view of communication, one sees the medium as an instrument for disseminating news and knowledge, sometimes divertissement, in larger and larger packages over greater distances. Questions arise as to the effects of this on audiences: news as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt. Questions are also raised concerning the functions of news and the newspaper; does it maintain the integration of society or its maladaption? Does it function or misfunction to maintain stability or promote the instabilities of personalities?

As we shall see, these issues manifested themselves in various forms and actions as the nineteenth century progressed. But for now, we need only look to Carey's second mode of interpretation-that which he named a ritual view of communication, an idea more closely related to the concept of the press as a vehicle for conversation:

The ritual view of communication, though a minor thread in our national thought, is by far the older of these views-old enough in fact for dictionaries to list it under "archaic." In a ritual definition, communication is linked to terms such as "sharing," "participation," "association," "fellowship," and "the possession of a common faith," ... a ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of importing information but the representation of shared beliefs.

In the final analysis, Carey saw news as a form of culture that was created by the middle class beginning in the eighteenth century. The kind of news that emerged in the late nineteenth century was the inheritor of processes put in place by its predecessors. But in Carey's assessment, as the century passed, the ritual approach to news treated it not as pure information but as high drama. Unlike the transmission view of communication, news in the ritual sense does not relate events in the world as fact influenced by fact but as struggles between opposing forces and the actions that they take. Carey reminded us that this sits within a historical period in which participants were invited to become activists and take on social roles as an outgrowth of press agitation. As we will see, the Yellow Press came closer to a ritual interpretation than a transmission one, although its need to conquer the spaces in which it lived cannot and must not be dismissed as illegitimate.


Excerpted from THE YELLOW JOURNALISM by David R. Spencer
Copyright © 2007 by David R. Spencer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword   Geneva Overholser     ix
Preface     xiii
Introduction     1
The Inheritance     19
The New York Marketplace     53
Graphic Innovation     77
Fact and Fiction     95
The Spanish-American War and the Hearst Myth     123
The Correspondents     153
The Illustrators     205
Conclusion     225
Notes     231
Bibliography     249
Index     257
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