Defining "Yellow Journalism":
Competition with Hearst

William Randolph Hearst
The Pulitzer name remains popular today because it is associated with the most prestigious award in American journalism. Yet many historians revile the award's benefactor with charges of irresponsible reporting and sensationalism. The Pulitzer name is most often linked in textbooks with that of William Randolph Hearst, a Californian who assumed control of the Journal in 1895.

Hearst burst onto Park Row, the New York street lined with newspaper buildings, and immediately began to shake things up. The ironic and tragic elements of the story cannot be ignored. The Journal was founded in 1882 by Albert Pulitzer, Joseph's brother. Albert sold the paper at a profit, and it continued with a modest circulation until Hearst moved to New York and purchased it. Surely, Hearst would have bought another paper had the Journal not been for sale, but Joseph had to live with the fact that the newspaper which became his chief competitor had originated within his own family. The two brothers became estranged over time, as Joseph considered his sibling rash and frivolous.

The irony does not end there; both Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst were outsiders when they came to New York. Their papers appealed to the same elements of the city that had previously been ignored by the press. Women, labor leaders, Democrats, immigrants and the poor found articles that held their interest and represented their political views.

Hearst's purchase of the Journal began one of the most dramatic periods of competition in journalistic history. He did not spare any expense in reaching his goal of increased circulation. He lowered the Journal's price to one cent, expanded the number of pages, and then dipped into his family's finances to support his bold moves. Much of his success came by imitation of Pulitzer. Hearst took the striking headlines of the World and made them larger and bolder. Trivial stories which compelled suspense and interest not only appeared on the front page of the Journal, they dominated it.

Early in 1896, Pulitzer began to pay serious attention to the newcomer. In January, Hearst enticed Richard Felton Outcault, the artist who drew the popular comic strip, "The Yellow Kid," to move to the Journal. The strip was named for the main character's colorful robes. Pulitzer's use of a color comic strip in the Sunday World was an innovation at the time. In addition to stealing Felton, Hearst managed in the same month to convince Pulitzer's entire Sunday staff to work for the Journal.

This constituted a coup on Park Row, and a dash of poetic justice. Pulitzer, although he was an established veteran in 1886, had originally stolen many of his staff members from other papers when he came to New York. His code name for the audacious publisher, "Gush," only begins to describe the animosity he felt toward the upstart. Hearst, at thirty-three, almost seemed a younger version of the forty-eight year-old Pulitzer. However, Pulitzer was never a man to resign in defeat. He hired George B. Luks to continue producing "The Yellow Kid" at the World even though its creator had left. The competition between Pulitzer and Hearst, each with his own brightly-colored comic strip, sealed their fates together and provided future historians with the convenient title of "yellow journalism."

Rivalry in the newspaper business generally results in a more informed public. Editors are compelled to become more innovative, and reporters must perform more research to scoop their competitors. Unfortunately, the financial and emotional stakes were too high in 1896 for Pulitzer or Hearst to consider losing. Both men had to contend with their tremendous egos and a public whose appetite had been whetted for sensation. Newspaper readers were begging for a scandal, regardless of the consequences, and that is what the World and the Journal delivered.

The Cuban insurrection would become the event that lowered the World's reputation forever as it sunk to compete with Hearst's Journal. The Journal fervently declared its support for the local revolutionaries against the tyranny of their Spanish rulers. Hearst even refused to carry news from Spanish sources, declaring only rebel informants could be trusted. Such a basic breach of journalistic objectivity offended the more conservative newspapers, but it made for exciting reading. People flocked to the newsstands to read the Journal's rebel accounts, which described the conflict in the simple language of the Spanish villain and the Cuban hero. 23 

The World could have acted responsibly and depicted the clash accurately for its readers. However, the rising circulation rates of both the World and the Journal during this period of jingoism show that the drama made money for these newspapers, and the competition was too tight to throw the money away. Both papers lowered their standards so much that they routinely carried news items directly off the pages of their rivals.

Using an old journalistic trick, Hearst caught the World in the act. An article appeared in the Journal in 1898 describing the death of Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz, whose name was a refashioning of the phrase, "We pilfer the news." The next day, Pulitzer's paper carried the item, being bold enough to add specific dateline information to make the story appear authentic. 24  The Journal celebrated the gaffe for over a month while the World maintained a "pained silence"on its blunder. 25 

The explosion of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, ensured that the U.S. would not be content to watch the Cuban spectacle from the bleacher seats any more. Two hundred and sixty crew members died in the blast, and a Navy board of inquiry examined the cause of the explosion. Many New York newspapers, including the Times, Tribune, Herald and Evening Post, counseled patience and peace for the time being. However, both the World and the Journal jumped on the jingo bandwagon, concurrently publishing a "suppressed cable" that said the explosion was not an accident. 26  The cable was later discovered to have been manufactured. 27 

The effect of the rabble rousing by the two largest newspapers in New York cannot be underestimated. The World claimed to have sold five million copies the week after the Maine disaster. 28  The public clamor for President McKinley to declare war was enormous as a result of the tainted reports in the papers. And though the Spanish-American War proved "splendid" from a military standpoint, it did not hold up to contemporary moral scrutiny.

Unfortunately, the World would be linked forever in history with Hearst's Journal under the banner of "yellow journalism" for the role it played in exacerbating the conflict. However, the conscious disregard for the facts was an aberration for Pulitzer, and his later correspondence revealed that the episode haunted him for the rest of his life. (See appendix for Hearst photo and example of sensational World front page.)

Other examples of the World's conduct reveal the paper did not always appeal to the lowest denominator. In a case similar to Cuba, a situation in South America threatened to turn into an international war. The discovery of gold in a disputed border area between Venezuela and British Guiana in 1895 prompted the Venezuelan president to appeal to President Cleveland on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine. Many Americans resented the evidence of British imperialism, especially in the Western hemisphere. Cleveland delivered a fiery message to Congress denouncing the British policy and practically demanded that the U.S. be involved in the arbitration process.

Instead of blindly supporting Cleveland, for whom he had fought so diligently in the 1884 election, Pulitzer instructed his editors to write balanced accounts of the situation. In one editorial, the World questioned the words of the President directly:

Is the integrity of Venezuela 'essential to the integrity of our free institutions?' . . . There is no menace to the boundary line. It is not our frontier. It is none of our business. 29 

Pulitzer proved his genius for influencing the popular mood in a feat he dreamed up for the Christmas issue of the World. In an effort to quell the fighting mood in the U.S., he had the World office send hundreds of telegrams to British leaders asking them to cable collect with their statements of peaceful intent.

The responses ran on the front page. Portraits of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York accompanied a reproduction of their joint cable, which said in part, "[We] earnestly trust . . . the present crisis will be arranged in a manner satisfactory to both countries. . . ." The Christmas World included all the elements of a classic Pulitzer appeal to the masses. It grabbed readers' attention, educated them and then appealed to their emotions. The headline over the story read "PEACE AND GOOD WILL." 30