The nation is gearing up for a presidential election, and the press is as happy as a tornado in a trailer park, reporting on a field of candidates that could have stepped out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Not content with simply reporting the facts, several journalists still feel the need to exaggerate, to confabulate, or to embroider their stories—in short, to lie.
Selling newspapers—or airtime—with exaggerations or lies is certainly not new in America, nor is there any proof that the stories of today are any more exaggerated that those of the last decades of the 19th century—the age of the birth of yellow journalism.
The term "yellow journalism" actually comes from a battle between two New York newspapers, The Journal American of William Randolph Hearst and The World of Joseph Pulitzer. Both men would stop at nothing to sell their newspapers, with each competing with the other for the most fantastic story. Strangely, this name for type of journalism comes from something they shared: The Yellow Kid.
The Yellow Kid was the main character in a cartoon strip called Hogan's Alley, drawn by Richard Outcault. The Yellow Kid was a young boy with jug ears, two buck teeth, beady blue eyes, and a yellow nightdress. Living on the wrong side of the tracks, the Yellow Kid could ridicule and satirize the changing world of a city poised to enter the new century. This comic strip set the standard style still used today—it was showcased in a Sunday supplement to the paper, its conversations appeared as text in balloons above the characters and most of its humor was based on social commentary. While you may never have heard of The Yellow Kid, you probably are at least remotely familiar with Outcault's other creation, Buster Brown.
While it is little remembered today, the Yellow Kid was very popular, and the two newspapers that carried the strip were called "The Yellow Kid papers", which over time was shortened to "The Yellow Papers"—something that eventually gave rise to the term, "Yellow Journalism".
Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer invented this type of journalism, however. In the last half of the 19th century, journalists all over the country spiced up their stories, inflated the facts, and in many cases, just lied from boredom or to sell their papers. Working as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain invented a California massacre—most likely just for the fun of it.
In Texas, there was a series of exaggerated stories that may be responsible for the very survival of Fort Worth and eventually gave the city the nickname, Panther City, which is still used today.
Shortly after the Civil War, B. B. Paddock, a Confederate officer, set up a law practice in Fort Worth, despite there being no record of his ever having spent a single day in any school. (To be fair, neither an education nor intelligence seems to have been a prerequisite for practicing law in those days.) In any case, Paddock relatively quickly abandoned the law and became the editor of the Fort Worth Democrat.
As the editor, Paddock worked passionately to develop the city and to attract investors. This passion eventually led him to publish a map of Fort Worth that showed no fewer than nine railroad lines leading into the city. In fact, no such line came within 30 miles of the town. Rival newspaper editors ridiculed Paddock by calling his creation the Tarantula Map.
Nevertheless, the map did help attract the interest of T&P Railroad, who planned to build a line to the city. Rapidly, the population of the town grew to 4,000, there was a general building boom, and... inevitably, a bust. The banking firm backing the railroad went bankrupt, local business failed, and a mass exodus brought the population of the town down to 1,000. The very existence of Fort Worth was in question.
One morning, a local citizen pointed at some scratches in the main thoroughfare and declared that a panther had spent the night asleep there, completely unmolested in the middle of a city more dead than alive. A lawyer (probably one who met the above requirements), on hearing the story, recounted the tale in a letter to a Dallas newspaper, that referred to the nearby city as Pantherville. (It is interesting to note that, even then, there was a rivalry between the two cities.)
Undaunted, B. B. Paddock adopted the image of a panther on the masthead of his paper and continued to push for investment. Eventually, Paddock was successful: the T&P Railroad did come to Fort Worth and prosperity returned. Sadly, while Paddock is all but forgotten in the town today, the panther lives on. Fort Worth is proud of her nickname of "Panther City", as reflected in the names of many local businesses. Today, even the badges of the city police proudly bear the image of a panther.
Speaking of wild animals in city streets: an earlier newspaper hoax might be the most outrageous example of the 19th century "creative journalism", the true forerunner of yellow journalism.
On Sunday morning, November 8, 1874, the people of New York were startled to read a story on the front page of the Herald: "A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death", which detailed a grisly accident at the Central Park zoo. A rhinoceros escaped from his cage, killing his keeper and panicking the rest of the zookeepers, who quickly took flight from the zoo, allowing several other animals to escape in the wooded park.
Lions, tigers, a polar bear, and a panther were among the animals that roamed the park, killing, trampling, maiming, and even devouring the unsuspecting pedestrians strolling through the gardens. Local hospitals were kept busy tending to the dead and dying New Yorkers, many of them prominent citizens.
Slowly, the terrorized citizens fought back—a group of Swedish immigrants shot a lion that was saturated in the blood of its victims, the rhino was chased until it fell into an open sewer excavation, and the polar bear was pursued until it found refuge in the Central Park reservoir.
Mayor Havemeyer ordered the city's citizens to stay off the streets until the crisis was over. Later editions of the Herald explained how the state's governor, John Adams Dix, a hero of the Civil War, had tracked and killed the escaped Bengal tiger. The same edition listed other animals that had escaped from the zoo, including snakes, sheep, monkeys, and a white-haired porcupine—and included perhaps the most gruesome story yet: a graphic account of a grizzly bear's devouring an elderly woman inside the Church of St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue.
Unfortunately, few people read to the very end of the story, where the closing paragraphs explained that the story was false, but could one day be true if the city did not allocate enough funds to renovate and repair the Central Park Zoo. The story was the brainchild of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich and powerful (and crazier than a bucket of frogs) owner and editor of the Herald—the largest and most influential newspaper of the world.
Bennet had built his newspaper on sensation and good writing. Though he regularly featured the works of the best writers in America—men like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane—Bennet did not hesitate to create news when necessary. It was Bennet who sent Stanley to locate Livingston in Africa. The dispatches from Stanley, prominently published in the Herald, were carefully edited to hide the fact that Livingston was neither lost nor in need of "locating"!
Now, Bennet had fabricated a story that aimed to push the city into improving a zoo, and establishing an organized emergency plan for the city. He was successful in both—the latter idea proved necessary after thousands of New Yorkers, believing the story to be true, rushed the piers and demanded transportation off the island. Thousands more, stayed home in terror, while a few hardier souls carried rifles into the wooded park in search of escaped animals.
While Bennet's bogus zoo escape is all but forgotten today, several times in the last two weeks—while watching the latest manufactured political news on television—I have been reminded of the event. Surely, a few of the politicians currently running for president should be rounded up and put back into their cages.