Yellow Journalism: The First ‘Fake News’?

William Randolph Hearst, 1904

I was reading a newspaper article about a divorce case in 1898 and was struck how it sounded like what editors call ‘purple prose’; or a flowery language that draws attention to itself.This type of writing was all the rage at the time, thanks to newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Hearst inherited the San Francisco Examiner from his father in the 1880s. In 1896, while Hearst was trying to develop a readership on the east coast, he sent his cracker-jack reporter, Ambrose Bierce to investigate and verbally flay in the press railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington.

Huntington — by then in his late 70s, had the misfortune of being one of the few men who built the transcontinental line and was still alive to testify about it to a newly formed Pacific Railway Commission. By the 1890s, the U.S. government was pushing for repayment of millions in bonds owed to them from the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad companies.Huntington was flagrantly avoiding paying the money back, using intimidation and bribery to buy off members of congress so that he could ‘delay’ the repayment for the bonds another 75 years.Along comes Bierce, who startled the readership with his acerbic and prolific abuse of Huntington in the press. Calling Huntington a ‘inflated old pigskin’, and ‘promoted peasant’, he never let up, even when Huntington, in a historic scene Bierce relayed to the press, offered to bribe him to keep his mouth shut. Bierce famously told Huntington: “My price is seventy-five million dollars …. you may hand it to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.”

A San Francisco Examiner cartoon caricature of Collis Huntington trying to avoid payment to the U.S. Government (1896).

Randolph Hearst acquired the New York Journal and competed with Joseph Pulitzer, who owned the New York World, to hold readers’ interest. To keep their fans loyal, reporters for both papers wrote in a form now dubbed ‘Yellow Journalism’. Stories were embellished, crime and scandal became front page news.Hearst was so good at attracting readers with titillating headlines he is even credited with instigating a war between the U.S. and Spain in 1898. During the Cuban War for independence from Spain, Hearst’s papers agitated for intervention and reporters wrote outright lies about incidents involving Americans in Cuba, including that they were being rounded up at sent to concentration camps by Spanish authorities. The public ate it up, newspaper sales sky-rocketed. It all came to a head when the U.S. sent the USS Maine to the shores of Cuba, a show of force from the U.S. to protect American citizens living in Cuba from Spanish atrocities as reported in the papers. When an explosion of unknown origin blew up the Maine, the public were outraged. President McKinley was drawn into a civil war he was reluctant to engage in.

If any of this sounds familiar its because things haven’t changed too much since 1895. The more scandalous the headline and prominent the figure involved the more likely a reader will click on the headline in today’s digital world. It’s about money, not integrity. It takes an educated populous to know the difference when discerning the sources and intention of the journalist.

Originally published at