The Psychology of the Yellow Journal


In the misfortune of our best friends we always find something which is not displeasing to us.--LA ROCHEFOUCAULD

WHATEVER definition or characterization of the yellow journal we may finally determine upon, we must recognize first of all that in its sensational elements we have to do with something which, though it does not appeal to what we are accustomed to call the better part of ourselves, appeals nevertheless to something lying very deep down in us, something of the nature of impulse or appetite, and almost as blindly elemental as hunger itself. An appetite of this nature, at once so powerful, so unanalyzable in consciousness, and so little amenable to intellectual oversight, may be assumed, from what we know of the laws of mental development, to have a very early origin, and to have been originally a trait of service to the species which it characterizes.

Are We by Nature Bloodthirsty?

On the origin and nature of the elemental instincts, and on the nature of the instinct with which we are here particularly concerned, one of the most eminent of American psychologists, Professor William James, says:

" We the lineal representatives of the successful enactors of one scene of slaughter after another, must, whatever more pacific virtues we may also possess, still carry about with us, ready to burst at any moment into flame, the smouldering and sinister traits of character by means of which they lived through many massacres, harming others, but themselves unharmed.... If evolution and the survival of the fittest be true at all, the destruction of prey and of human rivals must have been among the most important of man's primitive functions, the fighting instinct must have become ingrained. Certain perceptions must immediately, and without the intervention of inferences and ideas, have prompted emotions and motor discharges, and both the latter must, from the nature of the case, have been very violent and therefore, when unchecked, of an intensely pleasurable kind. It is just because bloodthirstiness is such a primitive part of us that it is so hard to eradicate, especially where a fight or a hunt is promised as a part of the fun."

We may as well confess that human nature in this aspect is not a pretty thing. Man is the "social animal" of Aristotle in only a secondary sense. An animal "red in tooth and claw with ravin" has necessarily a disposition deeply imprinted with the traits of anger, hate, fear, and-exultation in disaster to others. And even when it is no longer a question of slaughter, social life itself has been a conflict fierce enough, a war of each against all, where a man's well-being is not compassed without regard to the defeat and death of others.

The Hate Attitude in Men

Two main influences have combined to temper and socialize this disposition of man --the affections growing up with marriage and children, and the comradeship which arises among men in prosecuting vital interests in common. That which makes the history of tribal society so interesting, in fact, is that in this stage of society was worked out the problem of bringing together in considerable numbers men of predaceous dispositions, who suppressed to some extent their native sinister traits, in view of the advantages of living in combination against a hostile outside world, and of preying upon it more successfully in common.

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In connection with this protective association of men of common blood there grew up a body of sentiment and practice which was regarded as moral because it conduced to the welfare of the group. At the same time nothing was relaxed of the hate attitude toward those not in the combination -- that is, toward extra-tribal life. They were at war with all with whom they had not concluded a treaty of peace. The explanation of sympathy in the tribal group is, therefore, not that the instincts were eradicated, but that the ally, the blood-brother, became, psychologically speaking, a part of one's self, and injury to him was injury to self.

The Savage Instincts of Children

This status of morality exists practically unchanged down to the present day. In historical times the whole machinery of public opinion, church, state and education has been turned toward the development of altruistic instead of egoistic sentiments in men, but this is only imperfectly accomplished, and the old instincts still slumber. The efforts of society are not transmitted, either, by any process of heredity except social heredity, and you must begin all over again with the child, tediously inculcating the law and the gospel. Beneath an amicable exterior there always lurks the hunting pattern of interest. A murder trial, a street or ring fight, a slanderous bit of gossip, a game in which you have a competitor to beat, and theatrical representations (which, whatever else may be said of them, are conspicuously redactions of conflict situations), are fascinating because they revive the elemental emotions.

Pleasurable Shocks

In the light of these facts it becomes plain that the yellow journal owes its existence to the persistence in men of primitive emotions of an essentially anti-social character, to the fact that emotions are pleasurable, no matter what their origin, and that people will pay to experience shock.

Pleasurable shocks may be classified with some reference to their social significance. We have, first, the emotional interest of the reflex type represented by the whole gamut of competitive games from marbles to chess, which are pleasant, recreative and valuable -- to the child, in developing a normal organism, and to the adult (in a society where the division of labor prevails), in taking the strain off certain overworked nerve centers and equilibrating the organism. A second form of shock is associated with horrors, misfortunes, detractions and slanders. Railroad wrecks, fires, murders and domestic scandals are types of this interest, which, as in games, is primarily of the nature of a blind reflex. Artistic presentations, of which tragedy is an example, are conflict situations of a generalized and reflective type, presented with such technique and perspective as to give an added significance to life. Scientific and business "pursuits" are really of the hunting pattern of interest, involving the same emotional strains as the chase, though the emotion is subordinated to the reflective processes involved. And finally there are emotional states produced by stimulants, which seem to owe their power to arouse pleasurable emotions to the fact that they act chemically or mechanically on centers ordinarily aroused by the presentation of external situations through the organs of sense. They play on emotional centers without reference to use or value.

Our Interest in Disasters

The yellow feature of journalism falls largely in the second class above, depending on the interest attaching to the disastrous. If a yellow sheet be analyzed, it will be found that it handles events and persons from the pain or disaster standpoint. The event itself is of no significance. The loss of life, the loss of happiness, the loss of property, the loss of reputation, death and detraction, is the whole story. In a word, it is an appeal to the hate reflex.

But the yellow press does not stop with the singling out and over-emphasis of situations of the fear and hate type. It distorts incidents and situations so that they will correspond to the most crude and brutal conditions of consciousness and desire. It perverts facts and manufactures stories purporting to be true, for the sake of producing an emotional shock greater than would follow on the presentation of the exact truth. Following the method of the artist and caricaturist, the experts of the yellow press produce an essential untruth by isolating and over-emphasizing certain features of the original without getting clean away from the copy.. By this principle an

( 493) individual or institution is isolated for intensive and unremitting attention. Some incident first brings a man into notice -- a statement, not intelligible out of its context, jocularly meant, or jocularly or mischievously handled by the press, and the man is marked. If his position is such that the misrepresentation may injure him, so much the better; that is the ideal disaster situation.

"Playing Up" a Murder

Such also is the sinister disposition of mankind that merely repeated and unhonorific direction of attention to a man will make him ridiculous. Then when he is brought into contempt he has absolutely no redress, because the journals that discredited him, and through which alone he could be rehabilitated, have no interest in restoring his reputation, but the contrary; and he is thus irredeemably and hilariously damned, without an offense and without a hearing. Similarly, an incident -- a murder trial or a scandal -- is singled out and by iteration and isolation made the most important in the world for the time being. In the so-called "silly season" incidents of the most trivial nature are handled as if the destinies of nations hung on them, and it is a "bad quarter of an hour" for the yellow press when a murder trial is not on. These newspapers have thus become the organized and capitalized expression of gossip.

The yellow journal does not differ from certain legitimate forms of art in the material employed, but only in its manner of handling the materials. Love, hate, fear, despair, intrigue, sentiment, adventure, and the marvelous, are the subjects of art as well as of the yellow journal; but art in the proper sense, as I have pointed out, handles its materials from a generalized or ideal standpoint, and with some conscious reference to the significance of the type of action. On the other hand, to reflect or mimic the elemental emotions and secure a shock unmodified by any conscious oversight, is a character both of the yellow journal and of that which we, for lack of a more definite terminology,. are accustomed to call low forms of art. In this sense, there is, of course, yellow art as well as yellow journalism, and the yellow journalism is worse than the yellow art only in regard to those numerous cases where fictions are presented as realities~ feature of the yellow journal to which I shall refer again presently. Both yellow journalism and yellow art represent, in reality, the artistic aspect of the drink habit.

Scandal-mongers as Reformers

The yellow press has also a remarkable and mock-moral attitude toward those who view the horrible through any other medium than its columns. It periodically exposes the nickel theater, the film show and the penny picture slot, and in this connection steals from its vaudeville rivals their most shocking features and presents them to its readers under the pretext of inaugurating a reform. It is terribly hard on the ladies who attend murder trials, while presenting in the same issue the most sickening details of the murder. It is down on all morbid interests unless it has the expression of them, and its view seems to be that nothing is indecent so long as it is printed.

Is the Public Just a Great Baby?

The great hold that the yellow journal has on the masses is to be explained by the fact that the popular mind is essentially childish. There has always been in the populace, as in the child, a greedy interest in materials representing the elemental emotions, with no necessary regard to their artistic presentation. Primitive epic and ballad literature, stories of adventure, fable, gossip, and the modern cheap magazine are expressions of this interest. Children and the masses love stories and always more stories, and when one is finished, they say, "Now, tell another." In this sense, at least, the remark of Dr. Chalmers is true, that "the public is just a great baby." In democratic America, with its free schools and immigrants, we have a great population that has really just learned to read, and which, though lettered, is childish,. or, that which amounts to the same thing from the psychological standpoint -- --savage; and to these the yellow journal gives endless stories, both real and make-believe.

The methods of the yellow journals and their hold on the masses cannot be completely understood, either, unless we regard the cheapness with which this mass of material is furnished to the reader. Most, if not all, of the great dailies live on their advertisements rather than their subscrip-

( 494)-tions. In fact, the publisher may lose money on every copy he sells, but more than make it up off the advertiser. Selling a paper below the cost of printing is a stroke of Yankee ingenuity to bring the advertisements of the great stores to the attention of the maximum number of prospective buyers. The masses want shocks of the most primitive character, and even the very poor can afford them at the rate of a nickel a pound. Therefore in following the policy of getting into the maximum number of homes, the yellow journal has also developed the policy of adapting its appeals to that class of the population which is at once the most ignorant, childish and numerous.

Wherein the Immorality Lies

Of course the yellow journal is an immorality, and its immorality lies in the fact that it is unfavorable to the development of what may be called the control or adjustment of society. Civilization as over against savagery, and human life as over against animal life, for the matter of that, depends upon a greater control both of the members of the group and of the resources of the environment. Cannibalism, stealing, false-witness, poisoning, murder, treachery, etc., are immoral because they are irreconcilable with the sympathetic cooperation between members of the group by which forces of nature are controlled and exploited and the assaults of outsiders resisted.

In securing this adjustment, the race has developed and made use of many inventions. Thus, language is a powerful instrument of control because through it knowledge, tradition, standpoint, ideals, stimulations, copies, are transmitted and increased. Forms of government are aids to control by providing safety and fair play within the group and organized resistance to invasions from without. Religion assists control, reinforcing by a supernatural sanction those modes of behavior that by experience and practice have been determined as moral, i.e., socially advantageous. Art is an aid to control by diffusing admirable copies for imitation with the least resistance and maximum contagion. Marriage is a form of control, benefiting society because children are better bred and trained by the cooperation of parents. Medicine is an element in control by keeping the human machinery in working order or repairing it. Liberty is favorable to control, because with it the individual has an opportunity to develop ideas and values by following his own bent, which he would not develop under repression. Mechanical invention is an element of tremendous importance in control, by utilizing new forces or old forces in different ways and making them do work, thus squeezing out of nature values not before suspected, not within reach, or not commonly enjoyed. And if we should single out and make a catalogue of that which we are accustomed to call laudable and virtuous conditions and actions, we should see that they can all be stated from the control standpoint. It is plain also that we shall have an ideal state of society only when we have secured a perfect adjustment of the external and internal conditions of life -- right relations between the members of society and a control of external nature that will furnish a maximum of benefit and happiness to mankind.

The degree of control that we possess as a society has been secured through the human mind. The mind is an organ of manipulation and adjustment. It operates through that which we call knowledge. This in turn is based on memory, and the ability to compare a present situation with similar past situations, and revise our judgments and actions in view of the past experience. By this means the world at large is manipulated more successfully as time goes on. This is the sense in which knowledge is power.

The possession of language and the association of men in large numbers give opportunity for the transfer of knowledge through suggestion and imitation, and the mind of the individual and the social mind are built up not only out of the experiences of the individual but out of the experiences of the whole group, and finally out of the experiences of all past and contemporaneous groups of whose activities record is kept in print or story. . Knowledge thus becomes the great force in control, and these societies are the most successful and prosperous in which the knowledge is most disseminated, most reliable and most intensive.

Old-time Faith in the Printed Page

The two main agents for the dissemination of knowledge are, of course, speech and printing. But while speech is a more imme-

( 495)-diate agent of communication, printing has the distinction of being associated with the more generalized, more well-considered and more intellectual operations of the mind. Through it the experiences of an indefinite past are preserved and made available; through it, also, we are brought into relation with the knowledge of men in distant places and inaccessible to conversation, and who, indeed, express the results of the pursuit of truth in print rather than in conversation.

If, then, truth and the knowledge of truth are so valued and the machinery for securing them in advanced societies is so elaborate and so virtuously defended, how are we to explain the existence and popularity of the most highly elaborated organ of untruth ever developed in the history of a society ? The explanation seems to lie along two lines: (I) in the existence of an invincible appetite for sensation in human nature, and the failure of society up to the present point to substitute social for antisocial feeling in the popular mind; and (2) in the fact that the art of printing is so ennobled by its historical association with the pursuit of truth and with the interests of humanity, that we have been slow to perceive and credit the essential viciousness of the operations of the yellow press. The traditions of the press are so fine and printing is so deliberate an act that we have a persistent faith in the printed page; and even after we have been repeatedly deceived we still find it difficult to believe that anything printed in the papers can be untrue. But our faith is departing. At present we believe nothing that we see in the dailies, or at any rate we do not believe it absolutely, we are inclined to believe the weeklies, we will venture to form a judgment on the basis of statements appearing in the monthlies, while our old credulity in the bound volume remains unshaken.

Fiction Under the Guise of Fact

To a thinking animal like man whose way of life depends on the correctness of his inferences, misrepresentation is irritating enough under any circumstances, and particularly vexatious when it happens on a scale that affects the judgments of whole communities, and by an organ in which we have come to repose so much trust. We recognize that fairy tales are all right in their place, and fiction is all right in its was because they do not really get into the stream of our consciousness in such a way as to affect our judgments of truth; we frankly acknowledge that they are play or art interests, and think no more about it. It is facts, or what we regard as facts, that enter into the formation of our judgments, and when masses of fiction are systematically presented to us as truth, our view of the world must be frightfully out of focus.

One difference between a history and a publication of the almanac or chronicle type is that the almanac is the record of certain facts, while the history gives an interpretation of facts as well; It is now well recognized that the historical method has advantages over that of the almanac, but it would better serve the purposes of knowledge to have newspapers on the almanac principle than those that misrepresent truth, destroy perspective and give us fiction under the guise of fact.

Men Who Shun the Daily Press

It is not surprising, therefore, that the daily press, with some conspicuous exceptions, has become almost a negligible quantity from the scientific standpoint. Scientific men not only neglect it but shun it -- get away from it as fast as possible, when it comes to a question of any active association with it, because they think of it as an organ of untruth and detraction, bent on turning knowledge into ridicule -- and their experiences justify this feeling.

The occupation of the scientist is the discovery of truth, and for the most part his interest stops there. He furnishes the general ideas, but leaves their useful application in various fields to others. The press should, therefore, represent the work of the scientist to the public in a complete and fair way, thereby multiplying invention. As the case stands, however, the yellow section of the press amuses or inflames the public by misrepresentation of the thinker and thus conspires to render knowledge esoteric and sterile.

Agents of Vice and Crime

I do not wish to represent this condition as too serious, because other channels than the daily press are employed for the promulgation of knowledge, nor do

( 496) I attach too much importance to the researches of schoolmen, but when a daily paper fails to reflect accurately the general facts and experiences of life and thus to serve as a medium of legitimate thought, it is missing the greatest opportunity in the world. And the yellow journal is not only missing this opportunity to serve legitimate thought -- it is a positive agent of vice and crime. The condition of morality, as well as of mental life, in a community depends on the prevailing copies. A people is profoundly influenced by whatever is persistently brought to its attention. A good illustration of this is the fact that an article in commerce -- a food, a luxury, a medicine or a stimulant -- can always be sold in immense quantities if it be persistently and largely advertised. In the same way the yellow journal by an advertisement of crime, vice and vulgarity, on a scale unexampled in commercial advertising and in a way that amounts to approval and even applause, becomes one of the forces making for immorality. It is not possible to fix a legal responsibility here any more than it is possible to trace definitely the increased sales of a cigar to the bill-boards advertising it, but journalistic advertising gets results, and no less surely when the display is a part of the reading matter than when it is in the paid advertising columns.

An Eleventh Commandment

The difference between civilization and savagery and between vulgarity and culture is not profound. The ground-patterns of human nature are ever where pretty much the same. Civilization simply works on slightly improved models; it has more sense of responsibility, more prevision, more organized and general action, more thrift and more capital, more protection and toleration, and a more scientific and truthful spirit. But it is not an easy system to work, and it is not yet working perfectly. It requires watching, and it cannot well afford to tolerate noxious influences. Our failure up to the present time to regard the yellow press as an immorality and take steps to exterminate it is due partly, as I have pointed out, to the fact that we have been reluctant to lose our faith in the printed page, and partly to the slowness with which we carry our generalizations into practice. Moral exactions never, in point of fact, reflect the most advanced states of consciousness. Our practices run behind our judgments by a generation or two, but that we do slowly and surely carry our generalizations into practice is indicated by the fact that society has since the beginning been constantly changing the content of its commandments, and practices which at one time were not the objects of moral judgment (slavery, polygamy, blood-vengeance) have come to be classed as immoral. At the present moment there is a focus of consciousness containing commandments in the making. In it are located questions of political graft, monopolistic manipulation, the tyranny of labor, patent medicine fakes, impure foods, the race question, the woman question, and the question of the yellow journal. These are now being agitated and revalued by public opinion and the legitimate press, and when we have made our reconstruction we shall have some new commandments and some new crimes; and among them will be: THOU SHALT NOT HAVE THE PERVERSION OF TRUTH FOR A GAINFUL OCCUPATION.

Half Horse and Half Alligator

But while the yellow journal is deplorable and mischievous, it is only fair to recognize that it is not altogether bad. It is part good and part bad. Like the hunters of Kentucky in the old song, it is " half a horse and half an alligator." Its badness, as I have pointed out, corresponds with the instinctive badness of human nature, and it is as good as its particular readers want it to be. It is, however, more criminal than its readers, because it is more intelligent, and consciously employs a high order of intelligence for an immoral purpose. But it is at bottom ashamed of itself, and even now its editorial pages are denying its sensational features. Is it possible that it is beginning to aid in its own reformation, and that, like Sir Condy Rackrent in Miss Edgeworth's story, it may even survive its own wake and assist at its own obsequies?Image of Universal Good Will staring down at a huddled mass of men reading papers

(Professor Thomas has in preparation for THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE a series of articles on women in which he will present fresh and interesting material on the adventitious character of woman, the psychology of woman's dress, the psychology of fashion, the new science of eugenics, the mind of woman, occupations suitable for woman, and so on)


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