AN ENTERPRISING GENRE
In reading the issues of the yellow journals, it is difficult to remain unimpressed by their zeal and their enterprise in obtaining confidential reports and documents. The Journal's scoops in this regard were notable.
They included obtaining and publishing in 1896 the text of an ill-fated arbitration treaty17 between the United States and Britain; disclosing in 1898 the contents of an indiscreet but exceedingly revealing private letter written by Spain's minister to the United States, in which he disparaged McKinley during the unfolding crisis over Cuba; and divulging in 1899 the text of the peace treaty18 that ended the war between the United States and Spain. Contemporaneous observers were known to congratulate the Journal for its "extraordinary" enterprise.19
Some of the Journal's most notable exclusives came close to home, in
its frequent crusades against graft, incompetence,20 and municipal corruption
in New York. The Ice Trust exposeés in 1900 offer a revealing
example of ferocity, and even the nonpartisan nature, of the newspaper's
The Journal in the spring that year disclosed the equity holding of Robert Van Wyck,21 the first mayor of the consolidated boroughs of New York City, in a company that controlled much of the sale and distribution of ice. At the turn of the twentieth century, ice was essential to the health and comfort of New Yorkers, especially to the tens of thousands of people crowded into tenements.
The Journal's revelations about the corrupt mayor came shortly after the company had doubled the price of ice to sixty cents per 100 pounds,22 and after the Journal had pursued Van Wyck on a mysterious trip to Maine, where he joined the Ice Trust's president23 in inspecting the company's plants.24
Although the Journal had vigorously supported Van Wyck's candidacy for mayor in the 1897 election,25 the newspaper turned on him relentlessly in the Ice Trust scandal, referring to him as a criminal official who should be prosecuted and removed from office. In the end, the price of ice was rolled back but Van Wyck escaped trial. The disclosures had, however, destroyed his political career and Van Wyck left office in disgrace in 1901.
Commentators in the early twentieth century were not in error in noting that the yellow press "had proved a fearless and efficient instrument for the exposure of public wrongdoing."26 The Ice Trust scandal was one of several anticorruption crusades.27
ACCOUNTING FOR THE MYTHS
So why, then, did such an intriguing and aggressive genre become the object of such abundant distortion, of such towering mythology? Why is "yellow journalism" little more than a sneering epithet for sensationalism and other failings of the news media? The reasons are several.
Its hearty indulgence in self-congratulation was no doubt a factor. Sell-promotion was a signal feature of yellow journalism and the Journal and its principal rival, the New York World, boasted ceaselessly about their reporting accomplishments, modest though they sometimes were. Their self-indulgence invited the loathing of rival newspapers, the editors of which were ever eager to malign the yellow press.
Indeed, as we shall see, the term "yellow journalism" emerged and spread from New York City amid an ill-fated campaign to ban the Journal and the World. For those editors, "yellow journalism" was an evocative term of reproach, a colorful way of excoriating-and marginalizing-the Journal and the World.
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17. "Full Text of the Venezuelan Treaty: Final Draft of the Arbitration Now Published for the First Time," New York Journal (6 December 1896): 1. The Journal congratulated itself for what it called "one of the most notable achievements of journalism in recent years." See "The Venezuelan Treaty," New York Journal (7 December 1896): 6.
18. "First Publication of Paris Protocols and Peace Treaty: The Journal Makes Public the Private Documents Recording the Proceedings of the Peace Commission," New York Journal (1 January 1899): 25.
19. "Extraordinary Example," Fourth Estate (24 November 1898): 4. For other occasions when Fourth Estate commended the Journal's enterprise, see "The Fiercest of Fights," Fourth Estate (25 March 1897): 6; "Enterprise Tells: The New York Journal's Notable Achievements," Fourth Estate (27 October 1900): 3; and "Print the News at Any Cost," Fourth Estate (8 June 1901): 8.
20. The Journal also inveighed against the disruption created by the reconstruction of water and sewer mains along New York City's Fifth Avenue in 1897. The newspaper's principal target was Charles Collis, the city's public works commissioner, whom the Journal assailed for his "wicked negligence." See "Good Work Accomplished by the Journal in the Public Interest," New York Journal (2 October 1897): 3.
21. Ice [rust Shareholders: Van Wyck, 8,000 Shares! Carroll, 5,000 Shares!" New York Journal (15 May 1900): 1. John F. Carroll was a Tammany Hall leader.
22. "Put an End to the Criminal Extortion of the Ice Trust," New York Journal (8 May 1900): 1.
23. See "Van Wyck in Maine with Ice Trust Man," New York Journal (4 May 1900): 4, and "Mayor Van Wyck Sees Ice Kings of Maine," (6 May 1900): 1. Van Wyck would not say why he was visiting the Ice Trust properties, reticence that no doubt fueled the Journal's suspicions.
24. "Van Wyck Inspects Properties of eIce Trust," New York Journal (5 May 1900): 1.
25. See, for example, "The Journal to Democrats," New York Journal (28 October 1897): 8, and "Great Triumph for Democrats," New York Journal (3 November 1897): 1.
26. Sydney Brooks, "The American Yellow Press," Fortnightly Review 96 (December 1911): 1136-1137.
27. For a discussion of the Journal's use of injunctions to thwart what it called "giveaways" and "grabs" by powerful corporations, see "The Development of a New Idea in Journalism," New York Journal (3 October 1897): 38-39.