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The Yellow Journalism of the Culture War

The Yellow Journalism of the Culture War

It is shame William Randolph Hearst has been dead for nearly 70 years.

He would have loved modern media.

Hearst, the legendary publisher, whose feud with arch-enemy Joseph Pulitzer created the tactics that would forever be known as “yellow journalism”, would fit right in. The man was all about using technology to garner attention and turn a profit. When he led a team to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, they took portable printing presses so they could get copy out faster. He and Pulitzer began their careers at other newspapers, the latter in St. Louis and the former in San Francisco, before finding greater fame and fortune in New York City. In many ways, such expansion was the first form of national media. Both men used attention-grabbing headlines and graphics, including the transition from sketches to photography, to sell more papers.

The most famous, and apocryphal, example is the Remington-Hearst cables in which Hearst, having allegedly been told there was no war in Cuba, cabled back some version of “furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst himself denied this. The logic of there being no war, despite the fact he had already sent reporters to cover it, is ridiculous. There is virtually no evidence this happened. The anecdote originated years later from another of Hearst’s reporters, James Creelman, in a memoir that was mostly written to defend and enhance his own reputation as a reporter more interested in being the story than reporting it. As it turns out, Creelman is most famous now for telling a legendary story that wasn’t true in the first place to defend himself from charges he exaggerated. A modern “fake news” story if ever there was one.

What is true is the Spanish-American War portrayed in the papers was very different from the real facts on the ground. Headlines shouted about atrocities of the Spanish and the heroic struggle of the revolutionaries. Battles became embellished and disease, the real killer of the war, downplayed if reported on at all. Yellow journalism, though influential, did not alone start the events in motion that led to invasion in Cuba. The media did not cause the war — there were plenty of other forces pushing for that — but they did shape and mold public opinion, especially in how history has remembered the events. The Spanish-American War has many remembered facets; from Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, to “remember the Maine”, and even Guantanamo Bay. Of the nearly 4,000 casualties, only 379 of them were combat deaths, disease having felled most of the rest. By comparison, the Philippine Insurrection of the following years cost 4,234 American combat deaths alone. It is a number more comparable to the 4400 plus American combat losses in Iraq from 2003-2011. Though the Philippine conflict was a contemporaneous conflict, and far longer and bloodier, without relentless press coverage it was — and remains — virtually forgotten.

That disparity can mostly be placed on the yellow journalism of the day. The term actually came from a political cartoon, the creator of which both Pulitzer and Hearst hired at times in a bidding war. With the use of color in printing, the term was first used as a descriptor, then as a charge and a slur. Much like “fake news” today, the term yellow journalism, coined by the publishers themselves, was quickly used against them. Purposefully sensationalized headlines and graphics to appeal to emotion sold many papers.

Yellow Journalism

Yellow Kid in Hogan Alley cartoon

The cartoon that started the term, “Hogan’s Alley“, had designs on being social commentary in comedic form for the masses. It played to stereotypes of the day of the social, economic and racial issues of New York City. Often, the cartoon appealed to nationalism and reflected a hatred towards all foreigners. But it was also the beginning of the other side of mass media: monetization. It wasn’t only the bidding war for the comic that saw Hearst and Pulitzer realizing the value of content; it was also a revelation in marketing, of using the transmittal of ideas to not only engage a customer but keep them engaged as a revenue base.

The legacy of yellow journalism has many facets that apply today. Digital media, websites, blogs, and streaming video have become the influencers of the day just as papers of the Hearst era were. One very big difference: with technology and social media, everyone can now do what used to take a printing press and circulation to carry out. One tweet can inflame an online flash mob in mere moments. One piece of video can go viral in a heartbeat. What took Hearst and Pulitzer weeks of drumming up interest now takes seconds. The monetization possibilities are legion. Nearly everyone can, to an extent, be a “journalist” insofar as their ability to report on something as fact and broadcast it to the wider world.

Which brings us to the modern culture war. The crowds on all sides of the political spectrum get riled up about the issues of guns, abortion, privacy, church/state issues, and many more, depending on whose definition of culture war you want to use. These are very real conflicts, and crucial ones, as debate of those issues is important both to our country and to its people. But like the term yellow journalism, what was once a descriptive phrase has morphed into a cause all its own.

This past week saw two instances of “culture war” being used in reference to viral stories. Kanye West – rap superstar, marketing genius, and Kardashian spouse – set the social media world ablaze with tweeted praise for Candace Owen, then a tweet storm that some on the right took as an awakening. Tweeted thanks from President Trump did little to quell such sentiments, even after Kanye released a new musical track after several days of enhanced social media attention. Some on the right touted this as evidence that they were winning the culture war.

Then came the White House Correspondents Dinner. Comedian Michelle Fox’s blistering routine drove controversy even at an event known for its roasting of public figures. Social media lit up with opinions on all sides. Outrage at the routine, outrage at the hypocrisy, and outrage at the outrage was on display, depending on your point of view. Some on the right touted this as evidence they were clearly losing the culture war.

Thus the infinite possibilities of the culture war, in the new digitally driven yellow journalism. The ability to proclaim that one side is both winning and losing the conflict, depending on which emotion you want to elicit. Because it isn’t the actual war, real as it is, that matters. The real power, and monetization, is in controlling perceptions of what that war is. Much like Hearst and Pulitzer stirring up a foreign invasion to sell more papers, Kanye and the WHCA dinner do not really have anything at all to do with the pressing issues of the day. But they have everything to do with clicks, views, and ad revenue.

Outrage is big business, and stoking passions works as well at selling now as it did in 1897. Because it isn’t the method that is a problem. The problem is the people. Yellow journalism didn’t make the war happen, or create nationalism, or create the darkest tendencies of humanity to hate each other, any more than fake news, viral stories, or politicians do now. It did not change what was already in people’s hearts and minds; it just gave them a vehicle to project those feelings onto current events. Like it did then, internet culture warriors use sensationalism to manipulate what is already in people’s minds and hearts, and find ways to turn those unchecked feelings into monetized mediums.

In such an environment, each insult is not only taken to heart, but made into a blood-oath of eternal hatred toward the person making it. Misstating any fact is eternal proof of stupidity in the person making the mistake. One false fact invalidates the source forever. The more outraged the person is, the more engaged they are. The more they read, watch, and click, the more money made for the machine of culture war. Because like the paper barons of old, the real purpose of the online culture war is not the causes the true believers are fighting for. The real end-goal is the perpetual money machine that eternal aggrievement and outrage feeds. The more victimized you make people feel, the greater the outraged. The more outraged, the more engaged. And engaged people have an unquenchable thirst from more: more stories, more proof of righteous beliefs, more validation in their cause. Thanks to modern technology, everyone can participate in the yellow journalism culture war with their social media account, blog, or viewership.

The hard issues that face our nation and people will never be solved in a social media argument. One side will never out-outrage the other side into submission. No one will own their opposition to the point of surrender. No amount of adversaries’ tears will be enough to float the ship of state. Those things will garner many peoples’ money and attention. It might even make some folks famous and powerful.

But none of that will change a person’s mind, bring any two people to an understanding, or in any way further the future of our country. It will keep many of our people enslaved to the emotional manipulation of powerful folks who can profit from it. Some issues are unresolvable, but those are fewer than we think. The yellow journalism of the culture war makes many of those gaps seem wider than they are. The unnecessary flaming of our worst natures keep us farther apart than we otherwise would be.  And until we set aside the outrage machine and immediate gratification of the online culture war, there will be no progress in the real war for the future direction of this nation.


Staff Writer
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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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16 thoughts on “The Yellow Journalism of the Culture War

  1. Ross Douthat once remarked that there are useful and unuseful culture wars. Useful culture wars are ones where there are real policy issues at stake, things like abortion rights, LGBT rights, etc. Unuseful culture wars are the culture wars where there isn’t a real policy issue at stake because nothing can be really done. What unuseful culture wars do is rally the troops and get people’s blood boiling. Cultural appropriation debates are an example of an unuseful culture war. The NYT posted an article on how a young white teenager in the United States decided to wear a Cheongsam dress to her prom. The usual suspects were outraged at cultural appropriation. The Chinese in China were mainly mystified because the modern cheongsam was supposed to be a Chinese equivalent of a one piece dress from the West.

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  2. Do you consider this site to be run by powerful people? Do you think they produce this site solely for the big money it brings in? Do you think it’s impossible for anyone to be persuaded here? If “no” to any of those, where do you draw the line between good, passionate people and the Culture War Industrial Complex? Isn’t the unique trait of modern media that such a line can’t be drawn?

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    • Cultural War Industrial Complex is a good turn of phrase.
      I agree that line is very difficult to draw, but if you wish to persuade people, or at least honestly and respectfully engage them like the vast majority of folks here do, you must at least try. My argument is for discernment more than one of definition. And then once you divine who is trying to advance and advocate positions and those that just rage for attention, using some restraint in dealing with them.

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  3. Economics has this thing called “Scarcity Value“. Let’s go to the Wikipedia for the definition:

    Scarcity value is the economic factor that increases an item’s relative price based more upon its relatively low supply.

    This definition talks about items but, I’ll tell you what, it also applies to labor. My go-to example is usually the “Scribes” of the ancient world (see, for example, Jesus talking all the time about the “Scribes and Pharisees”). Again, from Wikipedia (I took the liberty of adding emphasis):

    A scribe is a person who serves as a professional copyist, especially one who made copies of manuscripts before the invention of automatic printing.

    The profession, previously widespread across cultures, lost most of its prominence and status with the advent of the printing press.

    In societies with low literacy rates, street-corner letter-writers (and readers) may still be found providing scribe service.

    What does this have to do with Hearst? Well, he was like one of the scribes in the ancient world. In a society with low literacy rates, you could wield power by being able to write a letter for someone else or read a letter to someone else.

    Hearst was a guy who had a printing press back when damn near nobody else had one. He benefited mightily from the scarcity premium.

    In today’s world? He might like the idea, but he’d quickly find himself to be yet another voice among multitudes in a place where everybody, freaking *EVERYBODY*, has a printing press. And he’d sink or swim on the quality of the memes he could produce and get other people to reproduce.

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    • Reading up on him, Hearst was a strange one. After this episode by the time WW1 rolled around he had transformed into a dogged isolationist.
      I like the angle of your point about scarcity. Maybe the issue isn’t that every has access, but that there’s a laziness of thought to actually utilize that access. The herd mentality is made stronger by the technology when I could be used to lessen it if only the desire and effort was there.

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  4. I was tinkering with a post similar to this. Now I don’t have to actually write it! :) I think the Culture War has been made worse by our current Age of Rage. This week saw two tempests in teapots: the prom dress and the white house correspondent’s dinner, which gave people what they so desperately need: something to be offended about. We have gotten to the point where being offended — for both Left and Right — is the ultimate badge of honor. And where do these offenses take place? Usually on the bloody field of the Culture War, where issues are less about facts and data and more about morals and customs.

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      • Do we know if it’s perpetual, though? The aspect of human nature that it appeals to is always going to be there, sure. But it’ll only be sustainable if the amount of outrage each story yields is consistent. It seems more like to me that each story yields more outrage or less outrage. The first will lead to something like civil war or anarchy. The second will lead to this kind of internet outrage going the way of pop-up ads. I’d also note that a decline in actual outrage per event wouldn’t necessarily show up in metrics like retweets or likes.

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        • Like most social trends it will be cyclical. At some point there will be pushback to the constant outrage. But that was the point of harkening back to that era; you are right the nature will always be there, the peak like we are having now will come and, hopefully soon, go.

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  5. I was very young, but remember the way the arguments played out during the Vietnam War. In particular, I remember my older hippy brother arguing with my parents, and hearing and seeing it play out among families all around my social circle.

    It was ugly, worse than today, a true civil war pitting families against themselves.

    There were books like None Dare Call It Treason, the equivalent of InfoWars, and whispered disdain among my friends parents about What Those Hippies Do at Pot Parties. And yeah, I heard the “Hippies Spitting on Returning GIs” stories recited with the solemn assurance of gospel.
    And yes, my brother’s longhaired friends really did say things like “Off The Pigs”, and he smirked as he told me how he marked a peace sign in the jello at the buffet he worked at, to piss off the Establishment types.

    We like to imagine that political disputes were settled like Firing Line debates, but forget that it was in that time when Buckley who threatened to punch Gore Vidal live on air. Or that students at Ivy League schools actually spoke seriously of revolution and the Weathermen actually died constructing a bomb.

    I’m not sure it can be much different. I do appreciate the idea of a Culture War Industrial Complex that sells newspapers and pagehits, but it isn’t just ginned up.

    Like the 1890s, or the 1930s or 1960s, America is undergoing serious cultural change with some groups ascending and other groups fading and we shouldn’t expect the primal potency of it to be any less than it ever was.

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    • I appreciate you thoughts, and I agree with most of what you point out. It is a cultural change, such grinding of tectonic plates is going to cause ripples. You are correct it isn’t ginned up, which is the analogy I was reaching for here; there was actual fighting and actual casualties then. The culture issues are very real, but I do think the ability to monetize them makes them worse, or at least appear worse, than they need be or are. Your point on the 60s/70s is well taken in that the perspective of outrage and “badness” of current issues needs context. We have, thankfully, not had a Kent state-type culture war moment but have careened close with Charlottesville, certain shootings, and others. Perhaps it a matter of time till we do (God forbid), but all the more reason to speak out for some restraint.

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    • There were books like None Dare Call It Treason, the equivalent of InfoWars, and whispered disdain among my friends parents about What Those Hippies Do at Pot Parties. And yeah, I heard the “Hippies Spitting on Returning GIs” stories recited with the solemn assurance of gospel.

      And of course it’s older than that. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was very much in the same vein. When you get right down to it, so was the Malleus Maleficarum.

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  6. The monetization possibilities are legion.

    This is what vexes me. The monetization of the Hearst era is fairly straightforward – sell more papers, get more money (and eventually pass it down to your good for nothing heirs)

    But who is actually making money these days? Kayne is already rich from ‘traditional’ entertainment business operations. The right wing outrageospehere may be profitable in some parts, (but then they wouldn’t be purging) the rest is being backed by sugar daddies (and mommies) just looking to immanentize the eschaton such as they see it. The left wing equivalents are all mostly hobbyists as far as I can tell. The ‘mainstream’ press is just hanging on, and some of the biggest names (e.g. Washington Post) are, again, effectively just some rich guy’s non outer space hobby.

    I imagine Facebook and Google earn some coin on all this, but again, as far as I can tell, that’s from not so benign neglect, vice conscious decisions to stir the pot.

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    • Good questions, lets go through them…
      Kayne is a perfect example of this actually. Yes he is already wealthy but look at who is promoting him-Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk. They were all three posing together at TMZ’s studio among other things. For Kanye, the attention and press is more important than the money, but for Kirk and Owens organization, Turning Point USA, as a 501c3 they live and die on fundraising, and Kirk and company have made it fundraising juggernaut. Something like Kanye is a walking goldmine. Last year mandatory filings arent available yet but previous years are and they pull in millions of dollars; and all that travel by Kirk, Owens, and others is of course vouchered by the org. Every tweet, event, media, all of it will be geared towards hitting the outrage notes then sliding in the sales pitch to get involved with TPUSA, which leads eventually to costs and earning revenue.
      Less well known bloggers and commenters make ad revenue on their Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages if they get enough audience going. You can google the howling that’s involved when YouTube “demonetizes” someones account for the effect this stream has on some folks.
      Then their are the “pro-am hybrids”. Think Diamond and Silk as this category, they present naturally as if they just fell out of the sky but they are coordinated, planned, and a business model based on the persona’s. Their mailing address on their official forms goes to pre-paid mailbox in a quick pack store 5 minutes from my house. It’s an act for revenue, thus their outrage that Facebook was “freezing” them out, that is their business model.
      There are lots of examples but you get the idea. And “mainstream press” is actually doing quite well, newspapers what you say is true but the news networks have year over year increases in revenue.

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    • Didn’t fit the narrative, as they would say today. Its a great story on its own, they could not solve the yellow fever riddle. Prevailing thought was quarantines and sanitation would cure it, but when it didn’t Walter Read and Carlos Findlay figured out it was the mosquitos causing it. They did this by deliberately infecting some service men. So once they figured that out, they knew to eradicate the conditions for the mosquitos and within a year problem solved, which was used to great effect building the panama canal also.

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