Saturday, July 25, 2015

Donald Trump, Yellow Journalism, and a Contest of Madmen for the Primacy of the Sewer


If this title caught your attention, you have come to right place. The art of headline writing is a lesson learned in Journalism 101 and a convention of 'yellow journalism' born in the Gilded Age. Yellow journalism is a derisive term that has become synonymous with sensationalism, pandering, and journalistic misconduct. When discussing the failings of contemporary journalism, the era of the yellow press is likely to be invoked. The criticisms are valid because the conventions of yellow journalism continue to live and thrive in the age of cable TV news.

My purpose in writing this post is to critique a column by Paul Janensch that appeared in the pages of our local newspaper: "Trump understands how to feed media to his advantage" [July 22, 2015]. Everyday we witness examples of cringe worthy headlines turned into newsworthy events. We understand how charlatans and shameless hacks play the media; but how many journalists ask the more pertinent question: Why does our media allow itself to be played? In his commentary, Janensch merely scratches the surface.

Yellow Journalism. The story of yellow journalism begins with publishing legend Joseph Pulitzer. An ambitious and aggressive newspaper entrepreneur, Pulitzer pioneered the use provocative headlines, pictures, games, and novelties to attract readers and build circulation. Yet, his motives were not entirely self-serving. Pulitzer also believed in journalism as a civic responsibility whose mission is to improve society. In an era marked by immigration, labor unrest, abuses of power, and injustice, Pulitzer transformed his newspaper into a leading voice of reform.

In short order, yellow journalism spread to Boston, Chicago, Denver, and beyond. The staid establishment tabloids of the era denounced the excesses of the yellow press, as evidenced in this 1906 commentary by Harper's Weekly:

"We may talk about the perils incident to the concentration of wealth, about the perils flowing from a disregard of fiduciary responsibility, about abuses of privilege, about exploiting the government for private advantage; but all these menaces, great as they are, are nothing compared with the deliberate, persistent, artful, purchased endeavor to pervert and vitiate the public judgment."

Sound familiar? Even in a bygone era, critics called attention to the power of media to shape public opinion, a concern still voiced more than a century later. All told, yellow journalism has been described as irritating yet irresistible, imaginative yet frivolous, aggressive yet self-indulgent, and activist but arrogant. The history of 'yellow journalism' informs our concerns about the failings of contemporary journalism:

What has changed since the Gilded Age?
Is modern mass media serving the public interest?
Should we be concerned?

Media Consolidation. In the Gilded Age, there were thousands of independently owned newspapers, and no tabloid had the market reach or power to influence national opinion. By mid century after a succession of wars, the focus of public attention shifted to national and world events. By 1975, two-thirds of all independently owned newspapers and one-third of all independently owned TV stations had vanished. Today, less than two-dozen companies control 75% of the print market, and only five companies dominate the cable news network segment – the same ones that own the top Internet news sites.

What has changed from the Gilded Age to the present? Media consolidation has concentrated power in the hands of very few players that now have the means to "pervert and vitiate the public judgment." In recent times, media conglomerates – grown too big to fail -- measure success in terms of ratings and audience share (which translate into advertising revenue).

Roger Ailes, chief architect of the Fox News stratagem, openly admits: He sees himself as a producer of ratings, not journalism; audience share is his only yardstick. Roger Ailes knows the conventions of yellow journalism. He also knows his audience better than most: Middle Americans with traditional values who dutifully practice their faith weekly in church pews and want their opinions shrink-wrapped on the nightly news.

Crosstalk. To avoid charges of promoting a partisan bias, news networks often interview opposing stakeholders to create an appearance of balance and objectivity. We know this formula all too well: He claims the sky is falling; she says the sky is blue. Which one tells the truth; who among them is the liar? All too often, the burden of unbundling fact from fiction is left to the viewer.

When broadcasters fail to check the veracity of competing claims (and all lie are treated as newsworthy events), deceptions are legitimized upon a national stage. Staged confrontations further antagonize an angry public already mired in partisanship. How polarized have we become as a nation? On any given day, read the opinion pages (and share your impressions here).

Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly are the 'yellow kids' of broadcast journalism. When we catch them in the act of dissembling, they reflexively lash out when criticized, or feign innocence by masquerading as entertainers, or defame and demonize their opponents. From the Gilded Age to the present, much has remained the same. When sensational headlines scream for attention, nothing succeeds like excess, and Donald Trump is the most consummate troll of all.

Should we be concerned? You betcha! We have long known how media can be played and manipulated – by paying journalists to promote an industry viewpoint; by hiring PR firms to feed stories to the press; by faking news with maliciously edited videotape; by using smear tactics to destroy reputations; by repeating hot-button weasel words to spread suspicion and fear; by leveraging the powers of government to shape public opinion; to sell a bogus war on flimsy evidence. We understand intuitively how often our networks have failed in their mission to report honest and trustworthy news -- leading us astray.

   Finally, consider the impact of the Citizens United decision that opened a new era of Super PACs and dark money from anonymous donors whose identities and motives are no longer transparent to the public.

In closing, I leave you with this thought. As Hannah Arendt once observed, a disciplined and well-funded minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government -- namely free speech and freedom of the press -- to undermine democracy itself.

(O)CT(O)PUS writes regularly for THE SWASH ZONE. Rational Nation USA, while acknowledging his contribution to our site, wishes to extend our appreciation to him for allowing us to publish the foregoing article in full.


  1. Ailes gets a lot of latitude from Murdoch, though. It's ironic, as FOX News doesn't get anywhere near the ratings of Fox network programming with decidedly liberal bents. You can see Murdoch squeezing the juice from both ends. I think Ailes is a true believer, though. A real nut. Ted Turner is sort of a combination of the two, but I don't think even he knows what he believes in. Another nut.

    There is plenty of excellent journalism going on all over the world right now. And people are becoming more media savvy. Conservative news-pundits were recently convinced they had the smoking gun to take down Planned Parenthood, a cause as righteous as punching an old lady in the face, and when they released it, people looked at it, saw it for what it was, and correctly ignored it. As with "BENGHAZI!," the story has no substance at all, and was in fact just plain sleazy. Though Yellow Journalism has never been as popularly consumed, let alone accepted, as many believe, it is very pervasive today and does cause a lot of division and problems.


  2. Basically humans are gullible. They tend to believe what they want to believe. A majority without ever verifying a reports veracity. A good "information" salesman identifying a groups fears and hopes can create the news they want to believe. Politicians like Trump know how to play this game well also.

    At the end of the day it's about rating, money, and concentrating power in the hands of the chosen few. The USA media plays a powerful role in this.


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