In the past decade, phrases like “click-bait” and “fake news” have become everyday parlance. To the untrained eye, media sources spinning stories and crafting misleading headlines may seem like modern phenomena. However, these practices have roots that go deep into American history. In the late 19th-century, two media moguls, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst went to great lengths to outsell their competitors in a crowded and cutthroat landscape. Their most popular tactic— over-the-top crime reporting and exciting headlines— adopted the moniker “yellow journalism,”
Pulitzer and Hearst’s intense rivalry changed the newspaper industry in a way that still echoes through the world today. Both men lived complex and impressive lives, and their legacies have lived on. Yet, the story of yellow journalism’s rise has become misunderstood in recent years. It’s been cited as the cause of the Spanish-American War and the start of fake news. At times, both men are derided for their lack of journalistic integrity. But, while these claims contain bits of truth, they’re about as trustworthy as the clickbaity headlines we see each day. In reality, the two men were incredible innovators whose impacts, positive and negative, affect the world that we live in today.
In the 1890s, Pulitzer and Hearst lived in the same city, operated in the same industry, supported the same political party, and catered to the same audience. The similarities of their careers and papers brought them together as competitors, but their early lives are full of contrasts.
Joseph Pulitzer, the older of the two, was born in Mako, Hungary, in 1847. Joseph’s father was one of the area’s most successful merchants, but Joseph did not live a life of luxury. His father died in 1857, and the Pulitzers went bankrupt. As a teenager, Joseph struggled to earn money for food. The American Civil War was brewing across the Atlantic Ocean, and the Union Army was paying Europeans to enlist in the fight. Joseph jumped on the opportunity, arriving in Boston in 1864 at the age of 17. He enrolled in the Lincoln Cavalry, based in New York, where he served in a German-speaking division for eight months.
After the war, Pulitzer floated around the north-east, searching for a steady living and struggling to hold down a job. In search of a new home, he traveled west to St. Louis with 75 cents in his pocket. St. Louis was one of the largest cities in the US and home to many German immigrants. When the local German-language newspaper had an opening for a reporter, Joseph got the job.
Pulitzer immediately showed his aptitude, becoming a key contributor and, eventually, a part-owner. Soon, his ambitions outstripped the small German daily, though, so he sold off his share and purchased a different paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At this time, in late 1978, Pulitzer put his own stamp on the media industry. When he bought the publication, the daily readership was below 4,000. By September of 1882, it was 22,000. This wasn’t a stroke of luck, though. Pulitzer’s paper combined sensationalized reporting with hard-hitting investigative journalism. He wasn’t afraid to go after some of the city’s most distinguished businessmen and politicians, exposing them for things like tax fraud and unscrupulous behavior. These journalistic offensives served Pulitzer’s two primary purposes, to grow readership and inspire change and equality. He saw his paper as playing an essential role in checking the government’s power.
With all of his success, Joseph Pulitzer remained hungry. While among the biggest fish in the St. Louis pond, he sought a way into the media ocean that was New York City. On a family trip to the big city in April of 1883, Pulitzer met with the gilded-age robber baron Jay Gould about purchasing his newspaper, the New York World. Gould’s paper was hemorrhaging money, but he drove a hard bargain. He sold the New York World to Pulitzer for 346,000 dollars, or about 9 million today.
At the time, the New York World had about 15,000 readers, placing it near the bottom of the rung. At its height, Pulitzer made it the most successful publication in the country, with more than 600,000 daily customers. Pulitzer employed the same tactics that had worked so well in St. Louis— provocative headlines and salacious exposés. Still, his fact-based crusades inspired real change in the city and endeared the paper to readers. As such, Pulitzer dominated New York for a time. However, that changed in 1895 when William Randolph Hearst burst onto the scene.
Hearst was born in California in 1863. The son of a San Francisco-based mining tycoon, Hearst’s early life was filled with the surety that his family had the money to make his dreams possible. Young William attended the county’s best schools. In the early 1880s, when Pulitzer was just making his move to New York, Hearst started college at Harvard. Though eventually expelled from the school for a series of vulgar pranks on administrators, it was at this time that Hearst became enraptured by Pulitzer. The New York World reflected many of Hearst’s political stances, and he reportedly sought to emulate Pulitzer and his stimulating style of reporting.
In 1887, Hearst convinced his father to grant him control of the San Francisco Examiner. The older Hearst acquired the paper as repayment for a massive gambling debt but, uninterested in running it himself, he gave it to William. Hearst mimicked the tactics that had made Pulitzer such a star. Hearst’s Examiner dedicated a quarter of all papers to covering crime, often in dramatic prose. But Hearst was by no means incapable of forging his own path. He had the foresight and taste to hire the nation’s greatest writers, like Mark Twain and Jack London. Unlike Pulitzer, Hearst had funding to hire whoever he wanted. While Pulitzer obsessed over the financial aspects of his business, Hearst relied on influxes of family wealth to prop up his spending. Hearst purchased newspapers throughout the country, dreaming of owning a nationwide chain that informed and influenced America.
Once again, the jewel in the media crown was New York. No newspaperman could call himself a success if he didn’t produce a popular daily in the Big Apple. So, Hearst purchased the New York Morning Journal in 1895. The heated rivalry between Hearst and Pulitzer had begun.
In 1895, both men were already famous for their hyperbolic reporting and dramatic headlines, but the competition stemmed from more than just word choice. The papers shared countless similarities. Both Hearst and Pulitzer were staunch supporters of liberal politics— they were pro-immigration and supported Democratic candidates. Of course, both vehemently opposed worker’s unions, but that was seen as a separate issue.
Pulitzer initially capitalized on this demographic by selling his paper for just two-cents, despite its considerable content. Most two-cent newspapers were only four pages long, but Pulitzer’s World was eight. This price point appealed to the immigrants that Pulitzer spoke for in his papers. The working class felt that their own lives were being covered in the New York World, and they could afford to buy it every day. Hearst responded by selling the New York Journal for just one cent per issue. The Journal shot up in readership, and Pulitzer was forced to match the low price.
The rivalry intensified when Hearst began hiring away many of Pulitzer’s best journalists. Part of this strategy was to offer more money, but, allegedly, Pulitzer’s newsroom was a difficult place to work. The boss expected employees to put in long hours to report the news and perfect their prose.
Both papers put tremendous effort into their Sunday editions, including printing some of the first colored comic strips. Pulitzer employed one of the world’s foremost cartoonists, Richard Outcault, whose most famous comic was called “The Yellow Kid.” The strip was considered a comedic masterclass, poking fun at the idiosyncratic world of New York City by placing young, debaucherous children in absurd circumstances. In 1896, Hearst lured Outcault away from the World, paying him to recreate a nearly identical cartoon for the Journal. Pulitzer found a new cartoonist, and both papers continued to publish Yellow Kid comics. Around this time, fellow newspapermen grew tired of their sensationalist competitors. They decried the excessiveness of “the Yellow Kid papers,” and, before long, this color-coded label stuck. The New York Journal and the New York World became emblems of Yellow Journalism.
But what exactly did Yellow Journalism look like? What were the characteristics that marked this form of reporting?
Modern journalists point to several features that distinguished the yellow papers. Some were simple, like bold front pages featuring color illustrations, daring layouts, and large headlines. These headlines often discussed less popular topics like sports and, more importantly, crime. Reporting on violence and destruction dominated the papers’ facades. In their writing, they relied heavily on unnamed sources, some of whom were paid to provide specific quotes. As The World and The Journal fought for the same customers, their battle became a tit for tat war, as each mogul attempted to outdo the other and to brag about it whenever possible.
Each newspaper started to not-so-subtly hint at their own superiority. On the front page of an 1896 edition of the New York Journal, a graphic in the corner boasts that each issue of the paper contained, on average, 20 more columns of reading material than the New York World. The World, on the other hand, published its daily circulation numbers and noting, of course, that their figures dwarfed the Journal’s.
The bloodiest battle between the two papers came in the buildup to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The two men, especially Hearst, have even been blamed for starting the war. While this claim is as absurd as Hearst’s headlines, there’s no question that both papers employed their shadiest tactics during this period. Hearst had become a war hawk in his days at the Journal. He understood the veracity of the statement, “If it bleeds, it leads.” When rebellion broke out in Cuba in 1895, based on the terrible treatment of Cubans by their Spanish overlords, Hearst vocally supported conflict with Spain. This sentiment has been exaggerated, though, by a popular tall tale.
One of Hearst’s journalists wrote in his memoir about an artist’s trip to Cuba before the war. The artist telegrammed Hearst to tell him that the situation was calm. Hearst responded, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The story was used as evidence of Hearst’s desire to lie to his readers if it meant more money. Not only did Hearst deny this story, but no evidence of the telegrams has ever been presented.
Hearst and Pulitzer frequently published Spanish atrocities on their front pages, which clearly contained outright fabrications about the conditions. Yet, while it’s true that both papers pushed for war, the argument that they led to the conflict is preposterous. Historians point out that President William McKinnley had actual intel on the situation and never read either Pulitzer’s or Hearst’s papers. In fact, while incredibly successful, the Journal and the World primarily served some of the least influential people in the nation. For all the people reading the few pro-war papers in New York, a much more powerful contingency read periodicals against the war.
Eventually, public opinion did shift, and McKinley declared war on Spain. Upon the invasion’s commencement, Hearst personally traveled to Cuba to cover the events. His writing was hailed as sober and straightforward, devoid of much of the melodrama that marked his papers. Later on, reporters celebrated both Pulitzer and Hearst for their role in exposing Spanish atrocities, even if their stories also contained falsehoods. Hearst and Pulitzer, however, may have regretted their decisions.
The buildup to the Spanish-American War was the height of the rivalry between the World and the Journal. The two newspapers spent fortunes attempting to outduel each other, leaving both in difficult financial circumstances when the war ended. Pulitzer was ashamed of his paper’s behavior during the clash and shifted the World back to its crusading roots. His paper’s reputation recovered and maintained its place for decades to come.
Pulitzer turned his focus to politics and philanthropy before his death in 1911. He was elected to the US Congress as a representative for New York and gave millions of dollars to universities to train the next generation of journalists. The two schools that he donated to, Columbia and Missouri, became some of the first journalism schools in the country and remain among the most prestigious in the world. His contribution to Columbia helped establish the Pulitzer Prize. Though formed after Joseph’s death, the award has become his most well-known legacy today, as one of the most esteemed prizes for journalists and writers.
Hearst, on the other hand, seemed not to learn his lesson. While he also focused more on politics, his paper made few changes. In 1901, two of his leading writers wrote columns suggesting the assassination of President McKinley. McKinley was shot later that year, and Hearst took much of the blame. The incident ruined his political ambitions and damaged the Journal’s reputation. Still, Hearst successfully achieved his goal of establishing a nationwide media empire, holding 28 papers in major cities in the 1920s.
When the Great Depression hit, Hearst and his companies were all but destroyed. His company was forcefully reorganized in 1937, and Hearst became little more than a high-ranking employee. Despite his successes, Hearst is perhaps best known for his failures. He shouldered more blame for Yellow Journalism’s reign than Pulitzer did. Today, he’s known for his role in criminalizing hemp and inspiring the main character in the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane.
Despite Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s efforts, perhaps the legacy of Yellow Journalism is most relevant today. The New York World and Journal proved that dramatic falsehoods helped sell papers. Readers knew that they were being served lies, but they willingly accepted them because it made for a more entertaining read. Today, many of the aspects of Yellow Journalism are once again in practice. “If it bleeds, it leads,” remains a familiar proverb, and news sources that focus on crime still attract more eyes.
Lies and misleading headlines have become troublingly familiar. Like in the days of Yellow Journalism, this content thrives in the political sphere. Each side claims that the other’s information is false. Whether or not that claim is valid, the prevalence of fake news makes it a tough argument to refute. If the problems with modern media can be blamed on Yellow Journalism, it’s clear that it’s been taken to an even higher level.
What do you think? Did Yellow Journalism deserve its infamous reputation? Do Hearst and Pulitzer deserve blame for current trends? What responsibility do readers have for consuming content that is sometimes overtly false or hyperbolic? Perhaps most importantly, what can we do to stem the tide of modern Yellow Journalism?