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January 12, 2011

Is today's media engaged in "yellow journalism"?

Many would be quick to say - "of course they are"; however I'm going to argue that what we're seeing now is a somewhat different and more dangerous beast than traditional yellow journalism.

The term "yellow" originally derived from a character known as the "Yellow Kid" in an old comic, Hogan's Alley, that ran in Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World, starting in the late 1800's.

It is rather ironic that the vaunted Pulitzer prize is named after one of the USA's earliest practitioners of yellow journalism in the daily format. Of course, Hearst is probably more often associated with yellow journalism due to his jingoistic promoting of the Spanish American war, but Pulitzer was his contemporary and equal when it came to being ummm..."challenged" ethically. In that era of the "robber barons", the newspapers purporting to expose their excesses were equally guilty of their own excesses and ummm...integrity lapses.

The one thing that clearly distinguished the early vanguard of yellow journalism from media today is the perspective it took. The Pulitzer and Hearst types were shameless self-promoters and didn't hide anonymously behind a corporate facade.

They also appear to have understood their markets rather well compared to today's media, hence their bent towards amorphous populist approaches, rather than hard political ideology in any particular direction. The targets of their political attacks and scandal reporting were all over the map. It would be hard to say they were clearly protecting any political party as a matter of corporate policy.

With the public's trust in the media today falling off a cliff, its hard to make a viable case that today's media actually understands its market as well as the early practicioners of yellow journalism did. As jingoistic and incredible as much of the Pulitzer and Hearst reportage was, the buying public bought into it. In Hearst's case, they bought in enough to push the nation into a war.

Today, we appear to have a somewhat different, and far more sinister, situation where media protection and promotion of particular political agendas seems to have supplanted the more benign populist angle of old style yellow journalism.

Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. What I believe has developed, or is developing today, could be termed the political-media complex, a defacto political-media oligarchy; the media effectively acts as the propaganda arm of established political parties. The populist perspective has largely vanished, or is present only in token form, replaced by propaganda provided pretty much verbatim from the political parties.

Traditional yellow journalism was never joined at the hip with governing entities in this manner we see today. This is a fundamentally new beast entirely, even though it may exhibit certain superficial characteristics of 100 year old yellow journalism.

The challenger to this media-political oligarchy is of course the internet where consumers of information can get any (or multiple) angles, including foreign, on events/news they choose, not just predigested talking points straight from the RNC or DNC.

If you want the deranged perspective you can find it without having to go to Harvard Square and spend time listening to the disjoint ramblings of a loon discoursing atop a milk crate. If you want thoughtful and non-partisan analysis, its here. If you want politically slanted rants, they're here. If you want actual text of legislation under consideration rather than media distillations, or having to wait for it to pass to see what's in it, you can find it here.

Even better, is the fact that any reasonably competent information consumer can research multiple aspects and original texts on some issue within minutes rather than the months of snail mail and wearing out the shoe leather it might have taken only 15 years ago. The disproof of inept lies and shoddy fabrications is now almost instantaneous, although the unmasking clever high quality frauds might take a week. As the power of the media-political complex increases, the forces that can counteract abuses of that power have increased even faster. An army of Davids is watching them 7x24, and they don't like it one bit.

The old yellow journalists were a much more diverse bunch than today's lockstep media. Their targets were all over the map and political spectrum. Maybe its time to stop using "yellow journalism" as a derogatory term? As I see it, it was a (generally) more honorable and public interest focused activity than the bullshit we're seeing from the media-political complex today.


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posted by Purp at 05:01 AM

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