Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Significance of Yellow Journalism, by Lydia Kingsmill Commander



YELLOW journalism is outwardly distinguished by the flaring makeup of the paper, the striking headlines in startling type and the free use of illustrations; by the attention given to crime, sports, divorces and the tragic aspects of life in general; and by the constant appeal to the emotions in the presentation of the news. Human interest goes into every column; everything is a story and is told as such.

No papers were ever before, no others are now, so execrated and so beloved as are the yellow journals. But whether approved or condemned they must be considered, because of their tremendous influence. Their circulation figures are staggering. Not merely thousands, nor even hundreds of thousands, but millions of Americans read the yellow papers regularly. Therefore they cannot be ignored by anyone who would understand his age and his people.

The harshest criticism of yellow journalism is passed upon its method of obtaining circulation by indulging the low tastes of its readers. This is most reprehensible in the eyes of people of refined nature, who revolt at the details of crimes, despise prize-fights or horse-racing and loathe the exposure of family scandals.

But, after all, is not the difference between the readers and the critics of the yellow press one of cultivation, rather than of kind? The latter simply prefer scandal, crime and combat that deal with imaginary or historical characters. They are indifferent to the tragedy enacted yesterday in a slum tenement; but they follow with vivid interest the investigations of Sherlock Holmes; and thrill with the horror of Poe's tales or Balzac's gruesome stories or Stevenson's morbid, ghoulish, dual creature, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Is not the biography which stands preeminent in the opinion of the world - Boswell's Life of Johnson - a mass of petty, personal detail, a bundle of gossip? The high literary skill of the masterwriters makes yellow-journal subjects acceptable to the cultured few who turn with disgust from the crude newspaper of the multitude.

The very people who affect to despise the racing-reports of the yellow press attended in thousands the play of "Ben Hur," and in hundreds of thousands read the book; yet the whole interest of both centers around the chariot-race.

The Shakesperian tragedies and the Wagnerian operas, appreciation of which is supposed to unfailingly indicate a cultivated taste, are filled with battle, murder, tragedy and sudden death, such as would make first-class "copy" for the yellowest of journals.

Even the clergyman who denounces the sensationalism of the yellow press has possibly within the hour read aloud to an attentive and approving congregation a sanguinary chapter from the gory records of the Old Testament.

The public response to the yellow newspaper, the mighty circulation it rolls up, shows that it is just what the mass of people want. The finer a paper is the less it is in demand. This is a pity, but it is true; and the yellow journal looks the facts in the face, and appeals to people as they are. For the shortcomings of the yellow press we must blame the American people. As a whole we are interested in crime, scandal, prize-fights and horseracing. If we were not, the yellow journals would not be the most popular newspapers in the country.

But a sensational presentation of the news is not the only distinguishing characteristic of the yellow newspaper. If it were, there would be little to be said in its favor. The yellow journal, like the American people, though faulty in the extreme, has also its full share of virtues. It is vulgar and emotional; but it is kind and generous, active, wide-awake and progressive. It is bound to do many wrong things because it is doing something all the time. The only person who never does wrong is the one who never does anything. The man who never makes a mistake never makes anything else.

The yellow journal is not merely a newspaper; it is a living creature. It has a heart and conscience, as well as brains and strength. Other papers have opinions; it has feelings. It loves or hates, pities and protects or despises and exposes. Ordinary journalism talks; yellow journalism acts.

Each of the two great yellow papers of New York, the World and the Journal, has a colony of criminals in Sing Sing, offenders with whom the regular officers of the law either could not or would not deal, but whom the yellow press tracked and brought to justice. A few years ago a child was kidnapped and the police were powerless to find her. The Journal offered $2,000 reward and put its detective-reporters to work. The child was discovered and restored to her parents and the kidnappers, a husband and wife, are in penitentiary.

Quick-get-rich schemers, policy-kings, tricksters and thieves of every sort, as well as murderers, owe conviction and punishment to the activity and relentless pursuit of the yellow press. It would be impossible to enumerate a tenth of the crimes that have been exposed and criminals convicted by these papers. The law-breakers of New York fear yellow journalism far more than they do the police.

Yellow journalism guards the people's interests. Three summers ago the Ice-Trust had New York at its mercy, when ice meant life to hundreds, especially among the babes of the tenements. The price was raised to sixty cents a hundred and no five-cent pieces would be sold. This was annoying even to the well-to-do; but it brought suffering and death to the homes of the poor.

All the papers complained, but the Journal promptly began a lawsuit against the trust. Exposure, threats and legal action combined to destroy the ring, reduce the price of ice and restore to the poor the five-cent pieces which were all they could afford.

Two years ago gas was soaring in price and diminishing in supply while by some trickery meters measured incredible measurements. The World made a systematic examination, exposed the roguery, and cut the gas-bills of the city in two.

A few years since a scheme was put on foot to get possession of the New York city water-supply. It was a plausible plan; and in order to make it work reflections were cast upon the purity of the present sources. The two yellow papers were roused and vied with each other in exposing the treachery. They had investigations made by competent men and published sworn statements that convinced the people and threw the schemers out.

The activity of the Journal in its opposition to the Remsen gas-steal and its present suit against the Coal-Trust, which is bringing to light the unscrupulous and lawless methods of that oppressive combine, are present-day history.

Yellow journalism is a strong educational force. In the first place it teaches people to read regularly, who have never looked at print before. The great circulations of the yellow journals do not lessen those of other papers, but rather increase them; for the person who has learned to read one paper is apt to buy more.

In gathering the world's news, which is contemporanous history, the yellow journals are stopped by no trouble, staggered by no expense. The Journal has a wire to San Francisco which costs it $300 a day. Both papers keep representatives not only in the prominent cities and countries, as all modern newspapers must, but in the remote corners of the earth. The result is that they obtain the first and the most detailed news from everywhere, sometimes at almost unbelievable cost.

But in addition to the news, the yellow papers constantly record the progress of science, invention and exploration. Every new discovery is chronicled in language so simple that a child of ten or twelve can understand it. The most ignorant classes of the community are kept informed of the work of the leading inventors and the discoveries of the great biologists, chemists, travelers and astronomers. They know something of radium, N-rays and Sir William Ramsey's five new elements.

This puts the mass of the nation in touch with the highest work of the world, thus creating a public sentiment favorable to progress and encouraging the development of science. If there seem to be no relation between the achievements of our scientific men and the approval of the ignorant, it need only be remembered that a few centuries ago every effort to widen human knowledge was met with stern opposition; and the daring man who would add a new contribution to the sum of truth was apt to pay for his hardihood with his life. Gutenberg, Coster, Faust, Pfiester, Castaldi, Mentol and Valdfoghel were all persecuted by their generation because they invented type. That same type has so educated people that to-day X-rays and wireless telegraphy meet a warm and ready welcome. All progress is ultimately based on the intelligence of the majority.

Supplementing its, accounts of actual achievements, the Journal frequently gives, in simple language, the gist of valuable but abstractly-written books by great thinkers. Sometimes the editorial columns of that paper will contain a review of a new scientific or philosophical work of which the majority of people would never otherwise hear. Two summers ago it published serially the entire Life of Jefferson by Thomas E. Watson.

In the course of a year the World and the Journal publish articles from the majority of the leaders of thought in this country, and many from prominent foreigners. Almost every man and woman of note at some time contributes to the yellow press. It would be much easier to give a list of those who never write for these papers than to enumerate those who do.

These articles, which go to the people for a penny, or, in the Sunday edition, for five cents, are often secured at considerable expense. A recently-returned explorer was paid $300 by one of the yellow papers for a Sunday story of about eight hundred words. A much-coveted article from an eminent public man cost the same paper $450. $2,000 a year was offered to a prominent divine for a monthly sermonette of five hundred words; and one dollar a word promised to a famous American author for a thousand-word story. All this matter is given to the public at a price which does not pay for the white paper on which it is printed. It is education for the people, practically free.

Several years ago the Journal sent three boys, one from New York, one from San Francisco and one from Chicago, around the world by different routes, to see which would first make the circuit. The boys were selected by means of a literary and athletic contest in the schools of their respective cities, and each was accompanied on his trip by a reporter. Accounts of their travels were published daily and the countries through which they passed described, thus improving the geographical knowledge of all who followed them. To stimulate interest prizes were given to a boy and a girl in each the three cities who could first guess which contestant would win the race and tell most nearly at what time he would again reach his home. The prizes were trips, - one a ten-days' sojourn at the Buffalo exposition in care of a guardian, all expenses defrayed by the Journal.

Every year thousands of dollars are distributed by the yellow papers as rewards for the display of intelligence. Prizes for puzzles, for the best letter on some subject or the cleverest way of meeting some emergency are continually offered.

Nor is the physical side of education neglected. Exercises are described and illustrated, big prices being paid to specialists for the articles. Food, clothing, the care of children and of the sick, what to do in cold weather and what not to do when it is hot, the care of the hair, the hands and the complexion, all in turn receive the attention of the yellow journals and are discussed, - not in back columns tucked away, but on the editorial page as often as not. Everything is told the people that can help to make them comfortable, healthy, happy and intelligent.

Letters of inquiry on any subject receive careful attention. When necessary money as well as time is spent to acquire the information sought. Each of the yellow journals keeps open, from June till September, a number of " Information Bureaux," to give to the public, free of charge, all that can be known in regard to summer trips, hotels, cottages for rent, etc. Each paper publishes yearly an almanac which is a condensed encyclopaedia.

Morality also receives attention. Not another paper in New York would unite with the Journal in its present active attack on whiskey. For over a year past it has been publishing editorials and cartoons against liquor. For a long time it had a daily record of the crimes and evils traceable to drink, which were chronicled in the day's news. Naturally it has lost all its whiskey advertising, - worth $100,000 a year. Both the World and the Journal are strenuous opponents of cigarettes, at the cost of valuable advertising contracts. These papers continually deal editorially with the various vices of humanity, in language absolutely simple but so forceful that the most careless or hardened must be impressed.

The yellow journals are full of sympathy. They are like human beings, with big, kind hearts. Whenever and where-ever there is trouble they spring to the rescue. When the great Galveston flood brought devastation and death to a whole city, almost overnight the Hearst papers, in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, equipped three full trains with provisions, clothing, medicines, bandages, doctors and nurses and sent them flying across the country to the suffering survivors. The World sent a similar train from New York. Such help, in proportionate measure, has been despatched by either or both of the great yellow papers to the scene of every extensive catastrophe.

In the city the yellow journals are the constant resource of the unfortunate. If a child is stolen, a young girl lured from her home, a husband or wjfe deserts the family, or an aged relative wanders away, the police may fail to locate the missing one; but those bereaved turn, with child like faith, to the yellow journals, which seldom are unable to solve the mystery of the disappearance.

Those who suffer injustices and report their grievances to either of the yellow journals find a prompt and powerful friend. This is realized by the poor, who endure a thousand petty but bitter wrongs. My laundress recently told me of the oppression of one of her neighbors, by an overbearing landlord, and concluded with: "Do you think I'd stand that? Well, I wouldn't! I'd go right straight and tell the Journal!"

All summer long the World and the Journal rival each other in kindness to the poor. The World has a "Fresh-Air Fund," for sending little ones to the country. It receives contributions; but much of the money the paper itself supplies.

During the month of July the Journal gives free excursions to a nearby beach. About a hundred children are taken daily, always under the charge of responsible people. They get the trip, their mid-day meal, a bath in the ocean, a play on the sands and entrance to many of the amusement places with which beaches abound.

A year ago the same paper offered a two-weeks' vacation, at a beach or in the mountains, to the entire family having the largest number of children attending the public-schools of the city. Two families having an equal number (eight, I think) applied. The paper generously rose to the occasion and sent one family to the mountains and the other to the beach for a glorious fortnight.

Each December for several years the Journal has asked all children not expecting a visit from Santa Claus to send in word what toys they want. Every address and request is recorded. On Christmas day, from early morning till late at night the city is traversed by a score of great vans, each loaded with toys, in charge of a Santa Claus. Trip after trip is made and load after load of toys distributed. When all who have written have been supplied the vans drive up and down the poorest streets, bestowing Christmas cheer on every waif of the side-walk. It is because of such kindnesses that the people love the yellow journals and listen to their teachings.

The two principal educational forces in this country are the public-schools and the newspapers. With the young the schools deal more or less successfully. But among the mature we have great masses of people who are densely ignorant. Some have missed school through going to work in childhood; some live in states where the public-schools are very inefficient; and some are immigrants.

We have over two and a quarter millions of males of voting age, classified in the census as "illiterate." We have over a million and a half people above ten years of age who are unable to speak English. Over five millions of our male voters are foreign-born. There are, besides, over a million men of voting-age, who are foreigners yet unnaturalized. Altogether we have a foreign-born population of more than ten and a quarter millions; and it is being tremendously increased every year. Nearly a million immigrants came in last year, and no lessening of the tide is at present reported.

Nor is this foreign element homogeneous. All the principal countries of the world contribute to it. Russian Jews, Italians, Germans, Irish, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks and Assyrians alike come to the United States and amalgamate with the American nation. Some of our immigrants are intelligent, high-class people, the best their native lands can supply. But many are illiterate and crushed peasants, needing training of every sort. All require to be taught American ideas and ideals.

We have, too, an enormous native population on a very low level of intelligence. Many who can read and write, and thus escape the classification "illiterate," are still extremely ignorant. Yet, if men, they can vote and help to determine the destiny of the nation. Altogether the foreign and the ignorant comprise the bulk of the American people.

The principal problem that confronts us in our struggle to develop an American democracy, is the education and uplifting of this vast mass. We meet the question of enlightening children with our compulsory education acts; but we cannot force knowledge upon grown people.

Theories of every sort are constantly advanced; but the one institution that is successfully coping with this problem, day after day, and getting practical results, is the yellow journal. It gives the people what they want, - sensation, crime and vulgar sports, - thus inducing them to read. But having secured its audience, it teaches them, simply, clearly, patiently, the lessons they need.

Undeniably the yellow journals are not "nice" and "proper." But neither are the people they are intended to reach. When a new employee begins work on one of the yellow papers his first experience is apt to be an interview with the editor-in-chief, during which the tactics and purposes of the paper are explained to him.

"We don't think our paper is 'nice,'" says the editor. "But we do know it reaches the people. It is our intention to teach the people, and the first step is to get them to listen to us. We believe that it is better to raise a whole city one inch than to hoist a few men or women ten feet in the air."

That is the principle of yellow journalism. It appeals to two classes of people, - those who need it and those who understand it. There remain many who disapprove, either because they have a superficial acquaintance with the papers they criticise or because they judge everything in the world by its relation to themselves.

There are literary papers enough, but who in the tenements reads them? No one; for they are written only for the educated, in utter disregard of the great majority who most need instruction. Their very language puts them beyond the comprehension of any but the fairly educated.

The literary law of the yellow journals, on the contrary, is simplicity and vividness. To the World employes Mr. Pulitzer says: "Write every sentence so that the most ignorant man on the Bowery can understand it," and the primary mandate of the Journal is "Simplify!"

Thus, in the adult kindergarten of yellow journalism, the great underlying mass of the nation, formerly unconsidered and untaught, are prepared for the duties of American citizenship.

Lydia Kingsmill Commander.

New York, N. Y.

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