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.
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.