Yellow Journalism and the Threat to Democracy: Is There a Connection?

By: Theodore T. Hodge



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 5, 2006


Mr. John Morlu II has recently published two articles under the heading, “The Practice of Yellow Journalism is Putting Liberian Democracy at Risk” (parts 1 and 2). Mr. Morlu covers a lot of ground as he attempts to lecture and instruct his readers. I shall not attempt to prove or disprove Mr. Morlu’s assertions; the task would prove futile since I have neither expertise nor the slightest clue in most of what he so broadly covers. What I find troubling though, is Mr. Morlu’s confusion about the origins and meaning of the term yellow journalism”. He writes:

Thomas Jefferson and his followers used various media outlets as “fronts” to deride President Washington and Hamilton’s agenda. [Hamilton] realized that America democracy was at risk because newspapers were engaged in spreading lies on opposition politicians to the detriment of a stronger union.

So in his desire to clamp down on the media, Hamilton led the efforts to pass the Sedition Act, an Act that would punish a man or woman for writing lies against the government, or a government official.

When he became President, Jefferson was the first to use the Sedition Act against a New York journalist…”

One would have assumed by reading Mr. Morlu’s paper up to this point that he is attempting to give instructive lessons about the dangers of yellow journalism, specifically, its threats to the Liberian democracy and how America handled the same threat some time ago. Right? If that is the case, what has the topic to do with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton?

What has the Sedition Act to do with the topic of yellow journalism? What is the direct connection between the two topics? The short and correct answer is, nothing. I emphasize, absolutely nothing.

Here’s what we know: According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, “The US Sedition Act first outlawed conspiracies to ‘oppose any measure or measures of the government’”. The act made it illegal for anyone to express ‘any false, scandalous, and malicious writing’ against Congress or the president. It punished any spoken or published words that had ‘bad intent’ to ‘defame’ the government or to cause the ‘hatred’ of the people toward it.

It is important to note that Congress passed the Sedition Act and President Adams signed it into law on July 14, 1798. (It will become abundantly clear while the time frame is important to this discussion).

It is also a matter of record that a Vermont Republican Congressman, Matthew Lyon, not a New York journalist, became the first person to be put on trial under the Sedition Act. Like most Republicans, Lyon opposed going to war against France and objected to the land tax for war preparation. (Austin, Aleine. Matthew Lyon: “New Man” of the Democratic Revolution, 1749 – 1822).

The facts are, firstly, the US Sedition Act was not a measure against journalists, per se. It was a measure against citizens who exercised the willingness to criticize the government, specifically, the president and congress. Secondly, its first victim was a politician, a member of congress, not a journalist. And thirdly, the Sedition Act had nothing to do with yellow journalism, and here’s why:

Yellow Journalism is a term first coined during the famous newspaper wars between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer II.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the term yellow journalism refers to the “use of lurid features and sensationalized news in newspaper publishing to attract readers and increase circulation in the 1890’s.
What was the significance of the color yellow? A famous 19th Century cartoonist, R.F. Outcault, featured a cartoon called “The Yellow Kid”. It was first published in the New York World until Hearst, the competitor at the New York Journal hired him away to produce the strip in his paper. This comic strip happened to use new special non-smear yellow ink, and from of the popularity of the comic strip came the origin of the term. There is quite a bit more about the subject, but the intent is not to bore you.

The significant point here is all this big fuss about yellow journalism occurred in the 1890’s. Take note, that’s a full one hundred years after the Sedition Act and the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton mentioned by Mr. Morlu. The question is how could the Americans have solved the problems of yellow journalism a full century before the phenomenon arose? They didn’t and they couldn’t. Yellow Journalism may be a threat to Liberian Democracy as Mr. Morlu alleges, I’m not qualified to judge that. But Yellow Journalism never threatened American democracy; it was indeed a commercial war within the industry of journalism; that is the proper historical context. The analogy drawn by Mr. Morlu is a bit murky and at best misleading. The question is, is this simply a mistake or an intentional distortion of history? I wonder.
© 2006 by The Perspective

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