The term “yellow journalism” refers to sensational or exaggerated news reporting that inflames emotions. It can also refer to media coverage that subverts freedom principles. Some of today’s news fits this description.
You can’t keep liberty without accurate information. With false reporting, good seems bad and bad gains favor. You don’t know who to vote for, what to support, or why. Bogus facts distort our perception of friend and foe and we lose hope if we are falsely told the fight is already lost. Greased by the misconceptions of a biased media, the truth becomes too slippery to maintain and slides from our grasp.
As an example, yellow journalism of two centuries ago worked against Thomas Jefferson’s reputation. Just after the 19th century dawned, newspaper reporter John Callender, “one of the most notorious scandal-mongers and character assassins in American history”, according to historian Dumas Malone, accused Jefferson of fathering at least one illegitimate child by his slave, Sally Hemings. The falsehood stuck. Jefferson never refuted the lie publicly; he said his enemies wouldn’t believe him and his friends already did.
In 1999, these accusations against Jefferson re-surfaced, driven by political mischief. President Clinton was under attack for the Monica Lewinsky debacle. To deflect criticism, Clinton supporter and historian Joseph Ellis reported that Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Heming’s children had been proven through DNA research. The message was, “This is just what powerful men do.”
The story made headlines. Eight weeks later a quiet retraction was issued. There was no proof of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity, nor would there be. Proof requires DNA from a direct male heir and Jefferson’s only son died at childbirth. DNA from his uncle, Field Jefferson, was used in the tests, instead, and proved, not that Thomas fathered the child, but that one of ten possible Jefferson men was the father. Thomas’s brother, Randolph, who visited Thomas at Monticello during the appropriate time, cavorted at night with the slaves and Sally’s family claimed he fathered the child. A panel of noted historians from prestigious universities has since exonerated Thomas Jefferson.
The retraction to the original article by Ellis, with its false claims, was buried by the media; it received only minute press coverage, leaving the stain of yellow journalism on the integrity of an exceptional, innocent patriot. What a travesty!
Yellow journalism is still active. While the media is responsible to report events, it errs when it politicizes, inflames, or reports only one side of the issue. The media established saint and sinner in the Martin/Zimmerman case two years ago and a similar thing appears to be in progress in Ferguson, Missouri with the Brown/Wilson case. The pattern brings well-known figures to the area of a black person’s shooting. Accusations of racial bias, trumpeted in advance of or despite the facts as they emerge, are splayed across media headlines. Public emotions, fanned by media attention, convicted George Zimmerman and are poised to convict Officer Wilson, as well, without regard to due process of law. This reeks of deliberate racial conflict. Why is skin color even an issue in this reporting? We mourn the death, independent of ethnicity.
Why is it that a white against black incident creates chaos, yet a black against white attack is ignored? Do we have national outrage and microscopic media attention from anything but the conservative press when black men beat two men in Mississippi last week, several states away, in retaliation for their premature verdict against Officer Wilson? Young blacks randomly attacked white people in a McDonald’s in Baltimore in May of this year and police called it a “prank”, according to topconservativenews.com. What about the attack on a white family by a group of blacks in Savannah GA, also in May, as reported in New American? In that incident police showed up 25 minutes later, while the mob was still there, and the family saw no action taken. Where is the media outrage? Where are the national leaders converging on the scene?
The media is powerful. It can energize or tranquilize, inflame or pacify, educate or debauch. It reshuffles our fundamental principles as much by what it does not report as by what it does. In the process, the Constitution’s freedom of speech takes a hit. The Washington Times reported on the book “Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind” by Tim Groseclose of the University of California, Los Angeles. It said media bias substantially changes views and is “more significant, complex and pernicious than people realize.”
We need the press, the airwaves and the ether. Without them we are in the dark about events; without them we cannot remain free. When the media does its rightful job, it tells both sides of the story fairly. It protects those whose only avenue for justice and assistance may be an appeal through mass communication, but it does so with integrity and without a hidden agenda. An ethical media is a powerful source for good—one that we have some control over. When you see honest reporting, thank those responsible; when you see yellow journalism, ask that it stop. Media moguls listen to public opinion. Make your voice heard to create an ethical media.