Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Yellow Press, the Fake News of 100 Years Ago (1907 Article)


The Yellow Press, the Fake News of 100 Years Ago (1907 Article) by Charles Whibley

IF all countries may boast the Press which they deserve, America’s desert is small indeed. No civilised country in the world has been content with newspapers so grossly contemptible as those which are read from New York to the Pacific Coast. The journals known as Yellow would be a disgrace to the Black Republic, and it is difficult to understand the state of mind which can tolerate them. Divorced completely from the world of truth and intelligence, they present nothing which an educated man would desire to read. They are said to be excluded from clubs and from respectable houses. But even if this prohibition were a fact, their proprietors need feel no regret. We are informed by the Yellowest of Editors that his burning words are read every day by five million men and women.

What, then, is the aspect and character of these Yellow Journals? As they are happily strange on our side the ocean, they need some description. They are ill-printed, over-illustrated sheets, whose end and aim are to inflame a jaded or insensitive palate. They seem to address the half-blind eye and the sluggish mind of the imbecile. The wholly unimportant information which they desire to impart is not conveyed in type of the ordinary shape and size. The “scare” headlines are set forth in letters three inches in height. It is as though the editors of these sheets are determined to exhaust your attention. They are not content to tell you that this or that inapposite event has taken place. They pant, they shriek, they yell. Their method represents the beating of a thousand big drums, the blare of unnumbered trumpets, the shouted blasphemies of a million raucous throats. And if, with all this noise dinning in your car, you are persuaded to read a Yellow sheet, which is commonly pink in colour, you are grievously disappointed. The thing is not even sensational. Its “scare” headlines do but arouse a curiosity which the “brightest and brainiest" reporter in the United States is not able to satisfy.

Of what happens in the great world you will find not a trace in the Yellow Journals. They betray no interest in politics, in literature, or in the fine arts. There is nothing of grave importance which can be converted into a “good story.” That a great man should perform a great task is immaterial. Noble deeds make no scandal, and are therefore not worth reporting. But if you can discover that the great man has a hidden vice, or an eccentric taste in boots or hats, there is "copy" ready to your hand. All things and all men must be reduced to a dead level of imbecility. The Yellow Press is not obscene-it has not the courage for that. Its proud boast is that it never prints a line that a father might not read to his daughter. It is merely personal and impertinent. No one's life is secure from its spies. No privacy is sacred. Mr Stead's famous ideal of an ear at every keyhole is magnificently realised in America. A hundred reporters are ready, at a moment's notice, to invade houses, to uncover secrets, to molest honest citizens with indiscreet questions. And if their victims are unwilling to respond, they pay for it with public insult and malicious invention. Those who will not bow to the common tyrant of the Press cannot complain if words are ascribed to them which they never uttered, if they are held guilty of deeds from which they would shrink in horror. Law and custom are alike powerless to fight this tyranny, which is the most ingenious and irksome form of blackmail yet invented.

The perfect newspaper, if such were possible, would present to its readers a succinct history of each day as it passes. It would weigh with a scrupulous hand the relative importance of events. It would give to each department of human activity no more than its just space. It would reduce scandal within the narrow limits which ought to confine it. Under its wise auspices murder, burglary, and suicide would be deposed from the eminence upon which idle curiosity has placed them. Those strange beings known as public men would be famous not for what their wives wear at somebody else’s “At Home,” but for their own virtues and attainments. The foolish actors and actresses, who now believe themselves the masters of the world, would slink away into entrefilets on a back page. The perfect newspaper, in brief, would resemble a Palace of Truth, in which deceit was impossible and vanity ridiculous. It would crush the hankerers after false reputations, it would hurl the imbecile from the mighty seats which they try to fill, and it would present an invaluable record to future generations.

What picture of its world does the Yellow Press present? A picture of colossal folly and unpardonable indiscretion. If there be a museum which preserves these screaming sheets, this is the sort of stuff which in two thousand years will puzzle the scholars: “Mrs Jones won’t admit Wedding,” “Millionaires Bet on a Snake Fight,” “Chicago Church Girl Accuses Millionaire,” “Athletics make John D. forget his Money.” These are a few pearls hastily strung together, and they show what jewels of intelligence are most highly prized by the Greatest Democracy on earth. Now and again the editor takes his readers into his confidence and asks them to interfere in the affairs of persons whom they will never know. Here, for instance, is a characteristic problem set by an editor whose knowledge of his public exceeds his respect for the decencies of life: “What Mrs Washington ought to do. Her husband Wall Street Broker. Got tired of Her and Deserted. But Mrs Washington, who still loves him dearly, Is determined to win him back. And here is the Advice of the Readers of this Journal.” Is it not monstrous—this interference with the privacy of common citizens? And yet this specimen has an air of dignity compared with the grosser exploits of the hired eavesdropper. Not long since there appeared in a Sunday paper a full list, with portraits and biographies, of all the ladies in New York who are habitual drunkards. From which it is clear that the law of libel has sunk into oblivion, and that the cowhide is no longer a useful weapon.

The disastrous effect upon the people of such a Press as I have described is obvious. It excites the nerves of the foolish, it presents a hideously false standard of life, it suggests that nobody is sacred for the omnipotent eavesdropper, and it preaches day after day at the top of its husky voice the gospel of snobbishness. But it is not merely the public manners which it degrades; it does its best to hamper the proper administration of the law. In America trial by journalism has long supplemented, and goes far to supplant, trial by jury. If a murder be committed its detection is not left to the officers of the police. A thousand reporters, cunning as monkeys, active as sleuth-hounds, are on the track. Whether it is the criminal that they pursue or an innocent man is indifferent to them. Heedless of injustice, they go in search of “copy.” They interrogate the friends of the victim, and they uncover the secrets of all the friends and relatives he may have possessed. They care not how they prejudice the public mind, or what wrong they do to innocent men. If they make a fair trial impossible, it matters not. They have given their tired readers a new sensation, they have stimulated gossip in a thousand tenement houses, and justice may fall in ruins so long as they sell another edition. And nobody protests against their unbridled licence, not even when they have made it an affair of the utmost difficulty and many weeks to empanel an unprejudiced jury.

The greatest opportunity of the Yellow Press came a brief year ago, when a Mr H. K. Thaw murdered an accomplished architect. The day after the murder the trial began in the newspapers, and it has been “run as a serial” ever since. The lives of the murderer and his victim were uncovered with the utmost effrontery. The character of the dead man was painted in the blackest colours by cowards, who knew that they were secure from punishment. The murderer’s friends and kinsmen were all compelled to pay their tribute to the demon of publicity. The people was presented with plans of the cell in which the man Thaw was imprisoned, while photographs of his wife and his mother were printed day after day that a silly mob might note the effect of anguish on the human countenance. And, not content with thus adorning the tale, the journals were eloquent in pointing the moral. Sentimental spinsters were invited to warn the lady typewriters of America that death and ruin inevitably overtake the wrongdoer. Stern-eyed clergymen thought well to anticipate justice in sermons addressed to erring youth. Finally, a plĂ©biscite decided, by 2 to 1, that Thaw should immediately be set free. And when you remember the arrogant tyranny of the Yellow Journals, you are surprised that at the mere sound of the people’s voice the prison doors did not instantly fly open.

You are told, as though it were no more than a simple truth, that the Yellow Press —-the journals owned by Mr Hearst — not merely made the Spanish-American War, but procured the assassination of Mr McKinley. The statement seems incredible, because it is difficult to believe that such stuff as these should have any influence either for good or evil. The idle gossip and flagrant scandal which are its daily food do not appear to be efficient leaders of opinion. But it is the Editorial columns which do the work of conviction, and they assume an air of gravity which may easily deceive the unwary. And their gravity is the natural accompaniment of scandal. There is but a slender difference between barbarity and sentimentalism. The same temper which delights in reading of murder and sudden death weeps with anguish at the mere hint of oppression. No cheek is so easily bedewed by the unnecessary tear as the cheek of the ruffian — and those who compose the “editorials” for Mr Hearst’s papers have cynically realised this truth. They rant and they cant and they argue, as though nothing but noble thoughts were permitted to lodge within the poor brains of their readers. Their favourite gospel is the gospel of Socialism. They tell the workers that the world is their inalienable inheritance, that skill and capital are the snares of the evil one, and that nothing is worth a reward save manual toil. They pretend for a moment to look with a kindly eye upon the Trusts, because, when all enterprises and industries are collected into a small compass, the people will have less trouble in laying hands upon them. In brief, they teach the supreme duty of plunder in all the staccato eloquence at their command. For the man whose thrift and energy have helped him to success they have nothing but contempt. They cannot think of the criminal without bursting into tears. And, while they lay upon the rich man the guilty burden of his wealth, they charge the community with the full responsibility for the convict’s misfortune. Such doctrines, insidiously taught, and read day after day by the degenerate and unrestrained, can only have one effect, and that effect, no doubt, the “editorials” of the Yellow Press will some day succeed in producing.

The result is, of course, revolution, and revolution is being carefully and insidiously prepared after the common fashion. Not a word is left unsaid that can flatter the criminal or encourage the thriftless. Those who are too idle to work but not too idle to read the Sunday papers are told that the wealth of the country is theirs, and it will be the fault of their own inaction, not of the Yellow Press, if they do not some day lay violent hands upon it. And when they are tired of politics the Yellow Editors turn to popular philosophy or cheap theology for the solace of their public. To men and women excited by the details of the last murder they discourse of the existence of God in short, crisp sentences, — and I know not which is worse, the triviality of the discourse or its inappositeness. They preface one of their most impassioned exhortations with the words: “If you read this, you will probably think you have wasted time.” This might with propriety stand for the motto of all the columns of all Mr Hearst’s journals, but here it is clearly used in the same hope which inspires the sandwichman to carry on his front the classic legend: “Please do not look on my back.” But what is dearest to the souls of these editors is a mean commonplace. One leader, which surely had a triumphant success, is headed, “What the Bartender Sees.” And the exordium is worthy so profound a speculation. “Did you ever stop to think,” murmurs the Yellow philosopher, “of all the strange beings that pass before him?" There’s profundity for you! There’s invention! Is it wonderful that five million men and women read these golden words, or others of a like currency, every day?

And politics, theology, and philosophy are all served up in the same thick sauce of sentiment. The “baby” seems to play a great part in the Yellow morality. One day you are told, “A baby can educate a man"; on another you read, “Last week’s baby will surely talk some day,” and you are amazed, as at a brilliant discovery. And you cannot but ask, To whom are these exhortations addressed? To children or to idiots? The grown men and women, even of Cook County, can hardly regard such poor twaddle as this with a serious eye. And what of the writers? How can they reconcile their lofty tone, which truly is above suspicion, with the shameful sensationalism of their news-columns? They know not the meaning of sincerity. If they believed that “last week’s baby would talk some day,” they would suppress their reporters. In short, they are either blind or cynical. From these alternatives there is no escape, and for their sakes, as well as for America’s, I hope they write with their tongue in their cheeks.

The style of the Yellow Journals is appropriate to their matter. The headlines live on and by the historic present, and the text is as bald as a paper of statistics. It is the big type that does the execution. The “story” itself, to use the slang of the newspaper, is seldom either humorous or picturesque. Bare facts and vulgar incidents are enough for the public, which cares as little for wit as for sane writing. One fact only can explain the imbecility of the Yellow Press: it is written for immigrants, who have but an imperfect knowledge of English, who prefer to see their news rather than to read it, and who, if they must read, can best understand words of one syllable and sentences of no more than five words.

For good or evil, America has the sole claim to the invention of the Yellow Press. It came, fully armed, from the head of its first proprietor. It owes nothing to Europe, nothing to the traditions of its own country. It grew out of nothing, and, let us hope, it will soon disappear into nothingness. The real Press of America was rather red than yellow. It had an energy and a character which still exist in some more reputable sheets, and which are the direct antithesis of Yellow sensationalism. The horsewhip and revolver were as necessary to its conduct as the pen and inkpot. If the editors of an older and wiser time insulted their enemies, they were ready to defend themselves, like men. They did not eavesdrop and betray. They would have scorned to reveal the secrets of private citizens, even though they did not refrain their hand from their rivals. Yet, with all their brutality, they were brave and honourable, and you cannot justly measure the degradation of the Yellow Press unless you cast your mind a little farther back and contemplate the achievement of another generation.

The tradition of journalism came to America from England. ‘The Sun,’ ‘The Tribune,’ and ‘The Post,’ as wise and trustworthy papers as may be found on the surface of the globe, are still conscious of their origin, though they possess added virtues of their own. ‘The New York Herald,’ as conducted by James Gordon Bennett the First, modeled its scurrilous energy upon the Press of our own eighteenth century. The influence of Junius and the pamphleteers was discernible in its columns, and many of its articles might have been signed by Wilkes himself. But there was something in ‘The Herald’ which you would seek in vain in Perry’s ‘Morning Chronicle' say, or ‘The North Briton,’ and that was the free-and-easy style of the backwoods. Gordon Bennett grasped as well as any one the value of news. He boarded vessels far out at sea that he might forestall his rivals. In some respects he was as “yellow” as his successor, whose great exploit of employing a man convicted of murder to report the trial of a murderer is not likely to be forgotten. On the other hand, he set before New York the history of Europe and of European thought with appreciation and exactitude. He knew the theatre of England and France more intimately than most of his contemporaries, and he did a great deal to encourage the art of acting in his own country. But above all things he was a fighter, both with pen and fist. He had something of the spirit which inspired the old mining-camp. “We never saw the man we feared,” he once said, “nor the woman we had not some liking for.” That healthy, if primitive, sentiment breathes in all his works. And his magnanimity was equal to his courage. “I have no objection to forgive enemies,” he wrote, “particularly after I have trampled them under my feet.” This principle guided his life and his journal, and, while it gave a superb dash of energy to his style, it put a wholesome fear into the hearts and heads of his antagonists.

One antagonist there was who knew neither fear nor forgetfulness, and he attacked Bennett again and again. Bennett returned his blows, and then made most admirable “copy” of the assault. The last encounter between the two is so plainly characteristic of Bennett’s style that I quote his description in his own words. “As I was leisurely pursuing my business yesterday in Wall Street,” wrote Bennett, “collecting the information which is daily disseminated in ‘The Herald,’ James Watson Webb came up to me, on the northern side of the street— said something which I could not hear distinctly, then pushed me down the stone steps leading to one of the brokers’ offices, and commenced fighting with a species of brutal and demoniac desperation characteristic of a fury. My damage is a scratch, about three-quarters of an inch in length, on the third finger of the left hand, which I received from the iron railing I was forced against, and three buttons torn from my vest, which my tailor will reinstate for six cents. His loss is a rent from top to bottom of a very beautiful black coat, which cost the ruflian $40, and a blow in the face which may have knocked down his throat some of his infernal teeth for all I know. Balance in my favour $39.94. As to intimidating me, or changing my course, the thing cannot be done. Neither Webb nor any other man shall, or can, intimidate me. . . . I maybe attacked, I may be assailed, I may be killed, I may be murdered, but I will never succumb.”

There speaks the true Gordon Bennett, and his voice, though it may be the voice of a ruffian, is also the voice of a man who is certainly courageous and is not without humour. It is not from such a tradition as that, that the Yellow Press emerged. It does not want much pluck to hang about and sneak secrets. It is the pure negation of humour to preach socialism in the name of the criminal and degenerate. And the Yellow Press owes its vices to none of its predecessors, but to its own inherent stupidity. To judge America by this product would be monstrous unfair, but it corresponds perforce to some baser quality in the cosmopolitans of the United States, and it cannot be overlooked. As it stands, it is the heaviest indictment of the popular taste that can be made. There is no vice so mean as impertinent curiosity, and it is upon this curiosity that the Yellow Press meanly lives and meanly thrives.

What is the remedy? There is none, unless time brings with it a natural reaction. It is as desperate a task to touch the Press as to change the Constitution. The odds against reform are too great. A law to check the exuberance of newspapers would never survive the attacks of the news-papers themselves. Nor is it only in America that reform is necessary. The Press of Europe, also, has strayed so far from its origins as to be a danger to the State. In their inception the newspapers were given freedom, that they might expose and check the corruption and dishonesty of politicians. It was thought that publicity was the best cure for intrigue. For a while the liberty of the Press seemed justified. It is justified no longer. The licence which it assumed has led to far worse evils than those which it was designed to prevent. In other words, the slave has become a tyrant, and where is the statesman who shall rid us of this tyranny? Failure alone can kill what lives only upon popular success, and it is the old-fashioned, self-respecting journals which are facing ruin. Prosperity is with the large circulations, and a large circulation is no test of merit. Success is made neither by honesty nor wisdom. The people will buy what flatters its vanity or appeals to its folly. And the Yellow Press will flourish, with its headlines and its vulgarity, until the mixed population of America has sufficiently mastered the art of life and the English tongue to demand something better wherewith to solace its leisure than scandal and imbecility. CHARLES WHIBLEY.

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