Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 15. Sensationalism; Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XX. Newspapers Since 1860

§ 15. Sensationalism; Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World

The most conspicuous and pervasive influence was the sensationalism introduced about 1880 and reaching its climax early in the present century. It was compounded of the practices first exemplified by Bennett and of all subsequent methods capable of appealing to popular curiosity and emotion, all carried to extremes. The example was set by Joseph Pulitzer, a brilliant journalist of Hungarian birth who in 1878 bought the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, put his methods into effect with marked success, and in 1883 carried his idea to New York, where he bought the moribund World from Jay Gould and in a few years made it the most profitable and the most widely imitated newspaper in the country. In the hands of Pulitzer the new journalism was much more than merely sensational. His purpose was to make his paper an organ for the expression of popular opinion, in order to achieve social and political reforms through giving expression to the democratic will. The programme he laid down in 1883 and followed vigorously was to advocate a tax on incomes, inheritances, luxuries, monopolies, and privileges, to reform the civil service, punish corruption, and otherwise equalize the distribution of opportunities and advantages. To that end he produced one of the most brilliant and forcible editorial pages in the country.

Journalistic practice was less influenced by the example of the editorial page of the World, however, than by the sensational selection and treatment of news. The tone of the paper was brisk and vivacious, the subject matter appealed to the emotions and interests of the largest number of people in the middle and lower classes. Wrongs of all sorts from which the people suffered were to be corrected by the exposure of startling examples. Naturally, having found the way to make a startling appeal through the recital of evil and misfortune, it was discovered that a similar appeal to any emotions produced much the same result, and yellow journalism was the inevitable sequel. The many papers which followed the example of Pulitzer lacked the fine purpose and the genius of their model, and therefore imitated only the blatancy, the vulgarity, the lack of restraint and of scruple which became an invariable part of the method.