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Joseph Pulitzer – the story of the founder of the Pulitzer Prizes, and the Father of Yellow Journalism

The top award of journalism is named after a man who is actually known as the origin of a dubious practice in journalism known as "yellow journalism"

The Pulitzer award, named after Joseph Pulitzer, is often considered to be one of the prestigious marks of recognition in the fields of journalism and literary arts. Since its launch in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize has come to be regarded as one of the foremost awards given to journalists for their excellence in journalism. It was established by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, who had made his fortune as a newspaper publisher, and the prize is administered by Columbia University.

However, there is a curious story behind the origin of these so-called awards recognising excellence in journalism. Ironically, the top award of journalism is named after a man who is actually known as the origin of a dubious practice in journalism known as “yellow journalism”, a sensationalist way of reporting using eye-catching headline rather than reports based on research.

Yellow Journalism refers to journalism and media houses that present little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. It includes exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.

The term originated in an event of competition over the New York City newspaper market between two major newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The goal of the two publishers was to create a sensation that would prompt people to buy copies of the paper. In other words, the motive of the reportage was ‘profit’.

Profit-war between publishing houses

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. Pulitzer owned a newspaper named New York World, whose circulation began breaking records in the early 1890s. Pulitzer had a knack of appealing to the masses through his publications.

Pulitzer was also very much active in the Democratic Party. Through his New York World, Pulitizer did some investigative reports and headline-chasing exploits. New York World was doing well after Pulitzer took it over, but he faced competition when William R Hearst, who was running the San Francisco Examiner, bought the New York Journal to enter the business in New York.

Hearst was impressed by the New York World, and had he modelled the reporting of San Francisco Examiner on the same line. So when he bought the New York Journal, he changed the approach of this paper also, which meant a great rivalry was started between the papers. The competition to outsell the other changed the way the stories being reported.

Initially, the term ‘yellow journalism’ had nothing to do with reporting, but instead derived from a popular cartoon strip about the life in New York’s slums called Hogan’s Alley, drawn by Richard F Outcault and published by New York World. Starting in 1895, Pulitzer printed the comic strip featuring a bald boy in a yellow nightshirt, entitled the “Yellow Kid”. The cartoon published in colour by Pulitzer’s New York World became extremely popular and increased the sales tremendously.

The Yellow Kid, dawn by Richard Felton Outcault

In 1896, in an effort to boost sales of his New York Journal, Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer to start a similar cartoon strip in his paper. After that, Pulitzer hired artist George Luks to continue drawing the cartoon for his paper using the same characters. This resulted in both the newspapers in the city having cartoon strips with yellow kids. This battle over the ‘Yellow Kid’ and a greater market share gave rise to the term yellow journalism, which led to the use of “yellow journalism” as a synonym for over-the-top sensationalism in the USA.

Yellow Journalism fueled the outbreak of the Spanish-American war

Once the term Yellow Journalism had been coined, it began to be used for the sensationalist style used by newspapers in their reporting. This was most prominent in the case of reporting on the developments in Cuba, a Spanish colony at that time. The Spanish-American war became the major highlight in the media and fueled the United States’ first media wars in the era of yellow journalism. The attention-grabbing report was evident in the media’s coverage of the Spanish-American War.

Hearst and Pulitzer started covering the Cuban struggle for independence with great emphasis, often highlighting the atrocities of the Spanish ruler, or how noble the revolutionaries were. They also sometimes printed overhyped reports about the revolution which were not true. Although short of facts and filled with hypes, such reports did well for both the papers as they were sold in great numbers.

The peak of yellow journalism came in the year 1898, when a US battleship named Maine sunk in Havana harbour. The US navy ship was sent to the Cuban coast as a display of US power and in conjunction with the planned visit of a Spanish ship to New York, an effort to defuse growing tensions between the United States and Spain.

On the night of February 15, an explosion broke the ship’s hull, and US ship Maine went down. The initial investigation by the colonial government of Cuba concluded that the explosion had occurred on board. However, Hearst and Pulitzer, who had for several years been selling papers by fanning anti-Spanish public opinion in the United States, published rumours of plots to sink the ship.

When a US naval investigation later stated that the explosion had come from a mine in the harbour, the proponents of yellow journalism seized upon it and called for war. By early May, the Spanish-American War had begun.

Pulitzer’s hysteria changed context of US foreign relations

The rise of yellow journalism helped to create a climate conducive to the outbreak of international conflict and the expansion of US influence overseas.

The yellow journalism of this period is significant to the history of US foreign relations in that its centrality to the history of the Spanish American War shows that the press had the power to capture the attention of a large readership and to influence the public reaction to international events. The sensational style of yellow journalism contributed to creating public support for the Spanish-American War, a war that would ultimately expand the global reach of the United States.

So, in retrospect, if Joseph Pulitzer can be considered as the father of the “yellow journalism” as he was the one who set the foundation of sensationalism and Hearst can be viewed as the one who set the course for the tabloids of the future.

Note: After it was pointed out by alert readers that parts of the article were copied verbatim from other websites, some content in this article has been re-written. An open-source article at the Historian website of the US govt has also been properly credited which was not done earlier by mistake. It may be noted that the content on the US govt website is available for use without any copyright, and the website says that the content of the site may be copied and distributed without permission.

Nevertheless, as a responsible media house, we have taken punitive action against the writers and editors involved in publishing this article. We will strive to not repeat such error in future.

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OpIndia Staff
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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