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The New Freedom of the Press: Propaganda and Yellow Journalism

Coronavirus, scandal, and fear rule the airwaves in a new form of psychological warfare

Benjamin Sledge
Mar 19 · 9 min read

There’s a fantasy many writers entertain in the deep recesses of the mind. For those who pen fiction, it’s something like joining the ranks of famous novelists. We want to be the next Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, David Foster Wallace, or Cormac McCarthy. These larger-than-life authors are not only household names, but are winners or nominees of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer, however, isn’t reserved solely for fiction, but encompasses contributions to the public service sector and investigative journalism. Reporting that covered Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers are some of the most well-known moments in American history that benefitted the public. Just the nomination for a Pulitzer is a feat and seen as a prestigious honor. But that’s also what makes the award so strange. The prize is named after a man with an ethical reporting record equivalent to that of a tabloid rag.

The award is named after the news media giant, Joseph Pulitzer, after he made a large donation to Columbia University. Years before the Pulitzer Prize became the standard for journalistic integrity and success, however, Pulitzer used his newspaper to spread misinformation and fear. In 1883, Pulitzer sought to raise circulation of his newly purchased newspaper, the New York World. To accomplish his goal of attracting readers and garnering profit, he began publishing sensational stories focusing on crime, disaster, and scandal. His tactic worked so well, it attracted the interest of a rival newspaper, the New York Journal, run by William Randolph Hearst. Pulitzer and Hearst soon found themselves in a heated battle over circulation and sales, with the end goal being that of profit. By using tactics of sensationalism, fear mongering, and over-exaggeration of facts, their style of unethical principles in reporting became known as “yellow journalism.”

In the 1890s, tensions between the United States and Spain intensified over the Cuban revolutionary movement, which led Pulitzer and Hearst to double down on their yellow tactics. As Cuba had long been a Spanish colony, many in the U.S. called for the island’s independence. Pulitzer and Hearst seized the opportunity not to report on the conflict per se, but as an opportunity to sell more newspapers. The U.S. Office of the Historian reports that their efforts directly interfered with U.S. diplomacy and that during increasing tensions,

Historians originally credited Hearst and Pulitzer as driving forces behind the Spanish American War, but have since reported there were numerous factors at play that led to the conflict. However, they agree that the two men helped create a “climate conducive to the outbreak of international conflict.” Hearst is even quoted as saying, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war!”

By Leon Barritt — Cartoon by Leon Barritt, first published in “Vim”, v. 1, no. 2, 29 June 1898. Via Library of Congress website

Because of yellow journalism’s distortion and sensationalism on privacy and criminal trial, the public reacted with disgust. This prompted two lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, to publish “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review. The article is often considered the most influential of all law review articles and helped push privacy laws into effect. With time, yellow journalism declined because of the rise of trustworthy institutions and a journalistic code of ethics written in 1910 by W.E. Miller and adopted by the Kansas State Editorial Association.

Despite our past and course correction away from yellow journalism, today we are faced with this problem once more. War, scandal, Coronavirus, and social media dominate our news cycle with their sensational headlines and blatant agendas. No one knows what’s true or false, and we feel like pawns doing the dance of the dead as we’re controlled by media puppet masters.

But it isn’t just yellow journalism the media uses anymore. It’s psychological warfare.


When I attended the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in 2001, our cadre told us of a recent scandal involving members of the U.S. Army Psychological Operations (PSYOP) community. From 1998 to 1999, CNN and NPR employed members of the 4th Psychological Operations Group as interns under a “training with the industry” program. The European Press was the first to break the news, and the public backlash was swift. NPR issued a response stating they had terminated the interns by April 2000.

Screen capture from NPR

Unknown to most, the military trains PSYOP soldiers in different forms of propaganda — white, grey, and black. White propaganda is the most common form, which uses truth as psychological warfare. By using omissions and emphasis on key information, white propaganda can help dictate a favorable outcome. Grey propaganda (also sometimes referred to as political warfare) is mostly truthful and contains no information that can be “proved” incorrect, but sources are often not identified. They also skewer information toward bias. Black propaganda is inherently deceitful and contains lies. This tactic is rarely used, however.

A look at most media outlets will confirm that sensational headlines and fear mongering are tactics often employed, thus firmly planting their roots in yellow journalism. We even state the slogan, “if it bleeds, it leads” as the de facto baseline for reporting. But a closer look into the media’s reporting overwhelmingly shows most networks have thrown aside their journalistic code of ethics and embraced white and grey propaganda tactics. Here’s an example of white propaganda by use of omission and emphasis by CNN within the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.

In this report by CNN entitled, Trump, finally, takes the coronavirus emergency seriously, the author dedicates a section of his analysis to President Trump stating that the pandemic could last until July or August. What’s omitted however, is when the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci stepped in to clarify that the trajectory and economic impact of the outbreak could last until that timeframe, not the current restrictions. Despite the clarification, reports emerged omitting this key bit of information which further played into the panic and fears of the populace. Fox News, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Blaze, and major media outlets use these forms of propaganda daily, and often in support or opposition of political stances or agendas. The end goal is the same as that of our military in combat when using psychological operations — Persuade. Change. Influence — the motto of the United States Army Psychological Operations Command. Like Pulitzer and Hearst, the more eyeballs on a story, the more the revenue, especially during a crisis.

This is where the divide runs deep between our soldiers and media, however. Law prohibits PYSOP soldiers in all branches from targeting U.S. citizens with psychological operations within the borders of the United States (Executive Order S-1233, DOD Directive S-3321.1, and National Security Decision Directive 130). With the media, though? Everyone is fair game. It’s easy to say we have a due diligence to check our sources and be informed citizens — which I believe is vital — but that alone won’t combat the effect media outlets have on the populace. The media also has a due diligence and ethical standard to uphold that is sadly being pissed on while they laugh all the way to the bank, mislead the public, and work the populace into a frenzy that has led to — of all things — toilet paper shortages.

As bleak as this looks, however, the American populace has been here before. Long before Coronavirus, Facebook, and Fox News, we had Joseph Pulitzer, Williams Hearst, privacy invasions, and the Spanish flu. Because we fail to learn from history, we are repeating it.


I often quote the Roman senator and philosopher, Boethius, who once stated,

For most of us, the wheel of history seems to be crushing us under the spokes with a pandemic that has the potential to result in mass unemployment. In addition to a crippling pandemic, large monopolies like Facebook and Amazon pry into the private lives of citizens and give that information to media outlets — for a price — so they can target and influence readers. Like I said though, we’ve been here before and I hope that history will correct itself.

Last year, I read a book entitled Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism by Indian immigrant Bhu Srinivasan (The Economist named it book of the year in 2017). What I found most interesting in the author’s analysis was that capitalism worked like an operating system as opposed to an ideology. The same way that your iPhone runs on iOS, so too does much of the American landscape run on capitalistic principles. He points out that it’s not inherently an evil thing, but an underlying subconsciousness we buy into based on our history that leads us into both prosperity and inequality. What Mr. Srinivasan points out is that as monopolies emerge and inequality persists, the public outcry becomes larger and more vocal. The masses then ask the government to step in a regulate those that have taken advantage of the populace. He uses example after example in history ranging from the steam engine to the telegraph to Teddy Roosevelt — who stepped in as the “trust buster” for large monopolies.

This cycle happens each time new technologies emerge. With the telegraph, you had near instantaneous news coverage that once took days to months to receive. With the internet, however, it’s now light speed. Both technologies — past and present — have given yellow journalism a platform. Then, like now, the American populace had no legal tools for regulating what people could and could not say in the public domain. Slander, libel, and defamation ran rampant as they do today. We don’t hold media outlets responsible for the accuracy of what they print any longer either. We eat it up or outright reject it. In 1964, what finally turned the curve in reporting was when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times. A Montgomery, Alabama police commissioner charged the newspaper outlet with libel, when the New York Times unintentionally ran an ad that carried several factual inaccuracies by supporters of Martin Luther King Jr. that criticized the police in Montgomery, Alabama. The New York Times appealed to the Supreme Court after losing at the state level, and the court ruled in favor of the Times. What the Supreme Court established, though, was far more important. In their unanimous decision they defined an “actual malice” rule in press and gave it constitutional governance. What this meant was that the freedom of the press remained intact (as well as free speech) but that media outlets couldn’t be held liable unless they knowingly disseminated false information with bad intent.

The problem in the modern era, however, is that it’s difficult to prove actual malice by media outlets as they hide behind white and grey propaganda, all the while reporting facts, but leaving out key data that would make their analysis fair, balanced, and wholly truthful. An even larger problem is that they wield enough power, influence, and financial means to crush the voice of dissent. But this is where history and our action must come into play. The public outcry must become more vocal, especially considering the fear and paranoia so many media conglomerates have used to profit off a pandemic. It’s why we need new media outlets that value ethics and journalistic integrity. We need editors and CEOs who can put aside political ideology to report the whole truth, not just omitted truth. This is also why it’s vital that citizens step into the public forum, check the facts, and hold those in power responsible.

As an individual, our voice is silenced by the fear and propaganda of the media. United, we can implement change.

Benjamin Sledge

Written by

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic: https://blog.heartsupport.com

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