Steve Bannon's Rise Caps the Triumph of “Yellow Journalism” over Traditional Media

Much news on the Internet is very similar to the dangerous "yellow journalism" of history.

Much is being made about how the proliferation of fake news on Facebook and Google has contributed to the surprising 2016 Presidential election results. But that’s likely just a distraction from the larger news crisis. As many established news sources devolved into partisan mouthpieces, with focus on one-sided arguments or sensational character-driven and issue-free reporting, yellow journalism has taken hold in America. The last time the country had such a volatile combination of unreliable yellow press and tough-talking men in charge, the United States got itself into two unnecessary and costly wars, which it eventually won because it had an overwhelming military advantage. And this time, in the age of nuclear weapons and the Internet, where the majority of Americans now get their news, the consequences could be much worse.

What is “yellow press” or "yellow journalism"The terms go back to 1890s, when two newspapers were battling it out for control of the New York market. The conflict was waged between larger-than-life publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In one instance of their competition, Hearst’s “New York Journal” poached a cartoonist from Pulitzer’s “New York World”, who drew a very popular character known as the “Yellow Kid”. The fight over who gets the cartoonist and thus dramatically increase their paper’s circulation gave rise to the term “yellow journalism”.

To draw in more readers, Hearst and Pulitzer resorted to other methods like sensationalist headlines (which today we call “clickbait”), often misreporting or exaggerating the impact of events. The headlines would often try to scare the reader, while the content hit hard on emotion, fake interviews, pseudoscience, often offering some kind of anti-establishment fight, investing the reader with the plight of a supposed underdog.

In particular, both newspapers zeroed in on a conflict in Cuba, which was fighting for its independence from Spain. Both newspapers pushed the situation onto the American public in such dramatic, often untrue terms, that they were eventually seen as responsible once the U.S., led by the pro-business interventionist Republican President William McKinley, actually decided to fight Spain on behalf of the Cubans in 1898. The decision was spurred by the incident with the U.S. battleship “Maine," which mysteriously exploded in the Havana harbor. Hearst went so far as to claim the resulting war as his achievement, allegedly stating in a telegram “You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war!”  

Hearst's coverage of the USS Maine explosion. 1898.

The existence of the Hearst telegram has been debated by historians, but the competition between Hearst and Pulitzer and the resulting public hysteria was widely seen as a strong factor in the creation of the Spanish-American War of 1898, which led to U.S. having control of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The Filipinos then revolted against U.S. rule, spurring on an even more destructive Philippine-American War that lasted 3 years and saw 4,200 Americans die as well as 220,000 Filipinos (combatants and civilians).

Some historians since tried to lessen the supposed impact of the Hearst/Pulitzer rivalry, pointing out that the two battling newspapers were based in New York and it’s not a fact they could have influenced people across the country, including the decision-makers in Washington. This certainly isn’t much of an issue in the Internet age when news by major publishers can reach millions instantaneously.  

Pulitzer's take on the USS Maine explosion. 1898.

Lest you think the newspapers synonymous with yellow journalism were rightwing conspiracy outlets, both were actually Democratic and sympathetic towards immigrants and labor. In fact, the modern climate is dominated by internet sites from all sides of the political spectrum, who all use tactics very reminiscent of the yellow press. These sites feature large simple headlines, often of a clickbait variety, where they either exaggerate the scope of the news they are reporting or dramatize the supposed conflict in the story. And the stories that come out are often very biased, one-sided narratives, offering little of an alternative point of view and generally work to rile the public up (and get clicks).

Many have pointed the finger at the media for somehow failing the American public in the 2016 election, with conservatives claiming media bias in favor of Clinton and with liberals decrying the media’s inability to adequately warn them that a President Trump was actually possible (or could be prevented). But in reality, it’s possible to see 2016 not as a year when traditional media (tv and newspapers) failed, but as a year when Internet-based media took over, often employing tactics of questionable journalistic integrity.

"Yellow journalism" cartoon about the Spanish-American War of 1898, featuring Hearst and Pulitzer.

President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon of Breitbart News as his chief strategist has raised all manner of alarms in liberal circles. His rise represents the tremendous influence the conservative media company he ran for a number of years as the executive chairman has had on this election. It became a de-facto mouthpiece of the Trump campaign, telling stories that benefitted the candidate.

The criticism of Bannon is that his site gives voice to a number of ideologues of the so-called “alt-right” movement, which is often associated with racist, misogynist, homophobic and anti-semitic attitudes. Whether people with such views represent a minority of the site’s users and the movement’s overall constituency is hard to tell, but the fact is - Breitbart News (with 150 million views in July 2016) gives some of them an outlet, like the columns by the celebrated conservative troll icon Milo Yiannopoulos who has proudly declared himself to be living in a “post-fact era”. 

It's difficult to gauge if Bannon personally holds dangerous views, and while some have risen to his defense, he’s certainly being blamed by association. Interestingly, Breitbart's former boss and founder of Breitbart News, the late Andrew Breitbart, was involved in the creation of several internet juggernauts, including the other highly influential conservative news aggregator site Drudge Report, a strong Trump backer, and one of the most popular web portals in the world. The Drudge Report was actually the second most popular media site in the U.S. as of July 2016, with almost 1.5 billion page views, ahead of Google and New York Times. Curiously, Breitbart was also involved in the creation of the popular Huffington Post, the liberal alternative to the likes of Drudge Report and Breitbart News. Huffington Post is as rabidly leftist as the other sites are conservative. 

In this state of devalued journalistic integrity and sensationalist headlines that are more interested in Kardashian-like antics rather than serious reporting, as well as the spread of fake news, it’s hard to be optimistic about the role of the news media as a watchdog on the ambitions and mistruths perpetuated by self-serving politicians on all sides of the spectrum. And the particular rise of Steve Bannon to strategizing for the President poses many questions, as he also controls a burgeoning media outlet, which surely will continue to be at Trump's disposal.

Cover photo: Stephen K. Bannon reacts to a caller while hosting Brietbart News Daily on SiriusXM Patriot at Quicken Loans Arena on July 21, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.