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The Yellow Kid And New Media

September 8, 2017 Frontpage No Comments


Anyone who has any appreciation for the history of the mass media will surely know about certain dates, events, men and women who made that history. And even the casual observers of history will at least recognize the names of Charles Dana, William Randolph Hearst, Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer, Nellie Bly, Edward R. Murrow, and of the penny press, KDKA, Revolutionary pamphleteers, and the Harvest of Shame.
But one name that does not roll easily off the tongue is that of Mickey Dugan, a cartoon character of R.F. Outcault, better known as the Yellow Kid. The kid appeared in a strip called Hogan’s Alley where he and a colorful ensemble of other characters lived in the tenements of New York City during the last decade of the nineteenth century. The wise-cracking kid’s head was shaved to counter a case of lice, a common phenomenon in the city’s ghettoes of the time.
It was the beginning of the Sunday color comic supplement and the kid’s bright yellow nightshirt made him a hit.
He made his first newspaper appearance February 17, 1895 in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. With his two buck teeth, bald head, big ears and the ever present oversized yellow nightshirt, the kid was the first successful comic strip figure whose popularity was so great that he increased the sales of the papers in which he appeared. He was also a one-man (or kid) merchandising giant: There were Yellow Kid playing cards, dolls, bottle openers, and even ice cream.
The kid’s popularity was so great that in 1896 William Randolph Hearst lured Outcault away from the World to his own New York Journal. Not to be outdone, Pulitzer hired another cartoonist, George B. Lukas, to draw a competing Yellow Kid, thus there were two rival Yellow Kids in New York papers, much to the chagrin of Hearst and Outcault (who also developed the Buster Brown character) when they found that a clerical error had prevented them from successfully copywriting the character of the kid.
The history of that time is filled with sensational journalism, exaggerated reporting, poorly researched stories, and very often made-up events written to lead the population to wrong conclusions — or, more appropriately, conclusions the newspaper editors wanted. The battle of the Yellow Kids, between Hurst and Pulitzer, represented this continuing decline in journalistic ethics, in which the World and the Journal had been most intimately involved.
For example, the story is told about Hearst who in trying to stir up support for war against Cuba sent the illustrator Frederic Remington there to send back feature stories about the rising threat of war. Remington wired Hearst that all was quiet. “There is no trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return.”
In reply, Hearst reportedly said, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Thus was born the term “yellow journalism.”
I started my career, not as an attorney, but as a journalist. I graduated from a Jesuit college with a degree in journalism and for my first years as an adult I worked as an editor and reporter for several Midwestern daily newspapers. I loved the news and the news business, and even as I transitioned into the legal arena I still maintained my love of the news and the news business.
But in recent years I’ve had to reconsider my love — not for the news — but for the news business. I see too many parallels between the time of the Yellow Kid and the times we live in now. I see too many professional journalists and professional journals give short-shrift to the truth in order to present their version of what is fact.
Now, to be somewhat fair to the unprofessional, it is clear that the technological revolution has had a major impact on this problem. Just as the advent of radio, and later television, changed the nature of the game for the print press, so did the emergence of 24-hour cable channels and the Internet.
Cable news changed the news cycle from the old print-only days of a 24 hour cycle, to the 12 hour and less cycle of radio and television, to an immediate cycle: If one candidate said something, an immediate reaction was demanded from the opponent. Speed, and sometimes entertainment, not accuracy became the byword and nasty things like facts got lost in the shuffle.
The Internet brought a whole host of new problems for the media, the most serious of which was the loss of the gatekeeper. News reporters always had to run their stories by an editor who could fact-check and change the story, if necessary. But independent reporters with their own websites had no fact-checking editors, and soon political organizations, business PR executives, and almost any group could build a web-based journal that could spew out their versions of the news, whereas before they suffered the same fate as reporters by submitting their press releases to a fact-checking editor.
But these technological advances only provide a partial absolution for the current sins of the media. The rest belongs to the men and women who populate it, for while many are good, honest people trying to do an honest job, others have contributed to the lowering of journalistic standards, if not deliberately, at least by acquiescence. As the Emmy-Award winning investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson said in a recent article in The Hill:
“Once-forbidden practices such as editorializing within straight news reports, and the inclusion of opinions as if fact, are not only tolerated; they are encouraged. We’ve exempted ourselves from the normal rules that used to govern us, and so the most egregious kinds of reporting errors are becoming more common. Formerly well-respected news organizations and experienced national journalists are making the sorts of mistakes that aren’t tolerated in journalism schools.”
There was once a hard and fast rule, at least in the newsrooms where I worked: Verify what your sources tell you. Obviously that is not being done right now. A perfect example of this is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a once respected civil rights organization, now a shill for left-leaning causes. The SPLC has published on its website a “hate map” purporting to list all the “hate” organizations in the nation. A quick look at the map will give the viewer a glance at some of the most notorious hate groups, neo-Nazis, KKK, skinheads, and the like.
But buried in there are also groups like the Family Research Council, The Traditional Values Coalition, Pacific Justice Institute, Alliance Defending Freedom, and others; the common thread being all stand for religious freedom and traditional family values and oppose same-sex marriage. In short, they don’t “hate” as much as they “disagree.” Yet multiple news organizations have, on the basis of the hate map, labeled these entities as hate groups without any further investigation.
And, of course, there is the constant drumbeat against President Trump. Now we all have to admit that Mr. Trump is sometimes not as articulate as he might be, and sometimes he uses hyperbole which confuses listeners, but more often he is simply misreported.
For example, shortly after he was inaugurated, The New York Times reported that at a CPAC speech he promised to throw undocumented immigrants “the hell out of the country.” Actually, a posted transcript of the speech showed what he actually said: “…gang members, drug dealers, and criminal aliens” were the ones he intended to throw out of the country.
To “mistakes” like this Attkisson writes, “When fact errors are exposed, there are rarely any visible consequences for the offender. In fact, if anything, these figures often seem to gain more prominence. Colleagues cheer on the editorializing and misreporting, and management rewards it. Many news organizations have come to resemble the fact-starved blogs they once took pains to remain separate from.”
The bottom line here is very simple. Like much of what is wrong with the world, society, and the political establishment, much of journalism has lost respect for the truth. No matter what is said and done — whether political, scientific, or religious — our polestar must always be the truth.
We’ve come a long way since that little street urchin the Yellow Kid was popular. And we have lost our way because we have lost our concept of truth. Bring back devotion to the truth and things like this can be righted.

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