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
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 –
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
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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