September 16, 2009

The Return of Yellow Journalism

Just a few quick thoughts late in the evening.

In the 1970s, American History texts included a brief section on the "yellow journalism" of the nineteenth century. I wonder what today's textbooks have.

Tonight, I thought on how we have yellow journalism once again.

I've thought of this a few times lately, but tonight it hit me that sensationalism is really the norm, the way things naturally would be in most times and places.

The exceptional period was a time those of us over 35 knew when mainstream news was studied, careful. Then, yellow journalism was the fringe, and not more than a small fringe. Unlike today. But not so long ago.

I remember when I was exhaustively reading The Economist, The New York Times, The Atlantic, etc., in my early 20s, that there were plenty of slow stories, that when I needed a break, something more lively and entertaining, I read novels.

I think much of America, even if it got its fill of thinking with only the Evening News, looked to fiction for entertainment.

But that isn't necessary now for many people.

Even when I perused the local papers of many cities I visited in my 20s, I saw little or no sensationalism. In these papers I found more parochial, pedestrian concerns, yes, some lack of perspective, narrowness, etc., but not suggestive headlines that played with paranoid ideas such as "government takeover" to capture attention.

Sure, there were the standard American fringe elements worried about "socialism"/"government takeover"/etc., but they had societies or newsletters or odd books. They didn't color the headlines of any mainstream news organization.

There were mainstream strains of thought worried about government expansion, poverty, war, etc., but they were expressed in what was clearly commentary or a viewpoint, or a book. William F. Buckley, Jr., whom I read around age 12, appeared as commentary, and seemed reasoned...or at least rational.

In those days, the 70s through the 90s, the days without much yellow journalism, I think it was economically viable to focus news reporting on a sensible, careful view.

Making a mistake was actually a big deal, then.

If a mainstream news organization had made a major mistake about any report that had political consequences, it would have been a very big deal, and resulted in a major examination. In fact, such public examinations happened.


In the days of nineteenth century America, when publishing was cheap, it was economically inevitable to have yellow journalism I think. You could offer sensational, attention grabbing stuff, with little real effort -- just by applying the same ideas, a single broad narrative, over and over and over.

Just apply the same ideas over and over, no matter what's going on the world.

Use the same narrative, regardless of whether the new characters fit the molds at all.

Force them into the old molds and spin the same old story, over and over.

This style flourishes today.

This lack of investigation lowers costs. Barriers to entry are low.


Is cost the whole story? It is much of the story. Advertising, revenue, is the rest.

Sure, there were 1980s era yellow journals, such as the National Enquirer, but most people choose to buy and peruse the local city newspaper. The TV networks were major capital investments, gigantic, with limited competition.

I think that uncrowded field is one key.

For a long while the conditions were of this set:

a) Publishing and broadcasting were moderately expensive
b) Services like AP and syndication allowed local papers to print many national stories without the resources to do the first-hand work
c) Advertisers wished to reach a wide audience, and in most cities only the main local paper could reach the broad audience, so most of the money flowed to a main paper in most cities
d) Local competition was quite low in most places, in part due to overhead expenses

In short, yellow journalism in the 1980s had a limited economic niche where it could survive due to high costs and advertising concentration. Just a few magazines like National Enquirer were enough to fill much of that niche.

The mainstream networks were a competition among giants to be the most insightful yet comforting.

But the broad background conditions have changed.

a) Publishing and distributing is now quite cheap again -- witness online-only papers/sites
b) Advertising is dispersed
c) Competition for readers/viewers is intense

Once again, sensationalism can make ends meet, or even be profitable.

That's why it will be no real surprise to me if tomorrow I learn the President is purported to be an actual extraterrestrial, that your family are mobsters, everything about the sex life of another governor, that the administration is going to unleash terrorists in our backyards or local parks, that communists control the government, that a cabal runs the world economy, that secret plans are in motion...

No comments:

Post a Comment