The return of yellow journalism

Steven Greenhut:

In my optimistic days as a young journalist, I believed that if only the public had access to more information the nation would enter a golden age of better government and more-thoughtful political debates. This was before the internet, cable news, and talk radio came into bloom—when newspaper and TV gatekeepers controlled what we’d read and hear.

Everything I had dreamed about has come true beyond my wildest imagination. Any American can now read the widest range of opinions. In the past, it was nearly impossible to access underlying source documents. Now anyone with a phone can find a trove of legislation, court rulings, studies, and rulemakings. We can watch hearings on YouTube.

Instead of entering a golden age of reasoned public policy, we are descending into a dark age of sensationalism and misinformation. Laugh at my naïveté, but I’ve finally learned that Americans prefer ad hominem attacks and conspiracy-mongering to reading municipal budgets and weighing arguments in amicus briefs. So much for the democratization of news.

Such trends have been obvious for years, but the situation may have reached its apogee in the past week. For instance, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who hosts the nation’s most-popular cable news show, praised right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones by calling him “one of the most popular journalists on the right.”

“Yes, journalist,” Carlson added. “Jones is often mocked for his flamboyance, but the truth is, he has been a far better guide to reality in recent years—in other words a far better journalist—than, say, NBC News national security correspondent Ken Dilanian or Margaret Brennan of CBS.” Criticizing Jones for his flamboyance, by the way, is like chiding Hannibal Lecter for his unique culinary tastes.

Maybe Carlson was just trolling the media, but he has millions of devoted viewers—many of whom take his pronouncements seriously. Last month, a Connecticut judge ruled against Jones in the remaining defamation suits regarding the Infowars host’s, er, flamboyant depiction of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators.

“Jones for years spread bogus theories that the shooting…was part of government-led plot to confiscate Americans’ firearms and that the victims’ families were ‘actors’ in on the scheme,” The New York Times reported. Some of Jones’ followers “accosted the families on the streets.” Ultimately, he admitted the shooting actually happened, but the damage was done.

Jones has also postulated a variety of theories on his show, including the idea that the federal government is putting chemicals in the water that turn frogs gay (evidence of the Pentagon’s “gay bomb,” as CNBC reported). His own attorney once described him as a “performance artist”—but I had always figured that free citizens with access to information could distinguish truth from a charade.

“There was a time…when Alex Jones would have been far too toxic and deranged a figure for any influential member of the right to embrace,” wrote Peter Wehner in The Atlantic. Yet Carlson’s praise of Jones “is the kind of tactic that propagandists…have employed so well: making claims that are so brazen, so outrageous, so untrue that they are disorienting, aimed at destroying critical thinking.”

The week’s other big media scandal involved TV anchor Chris Cuomo, who finally was dumped by CNN after, as The New York Times reported, “testimony and text messages released by the New York attorney general revealed a more intimate and engaged role in his brother’s political affairs than the network said it had previously known.”

I had always found it tawdry watching the TV “journalist” do puff interviews with his older brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during the COVID crisis. But the younger Cuomo committed a major journalistic no-no by actively advising and doing flak for Gov. Cuomo during the disgraced governor’s on the air.

Perhaps we’re just seeing a return to the days of “yellow journalism.” The term springs from a popular color cartoon (the Yellow Kid) published in The New York World in the late 1890s, but came to refer to a sensationalistic, profit-driven news approach. According to the federal Office of the Historian, such coverage had dire consequences by stoking pro-war sentiments after the sinking of the Maine.

You don’t need me to describe the ill effects of a world where viewers can’t distinguish Walter Cronkite from Alex Jones, but here we are. I admit that I didn’t see it coming.

Independent of whether Chris Cuomo or anyone, such as Carlson, deserves to be called a “journalist’ when such a person is actually a commentator, I suppose one school of thought could be that visible bias is preferable to invisible bias, where the reader, listener or viewer isn’t aware of which journalist is shilling for which side. I’m not sure when the trend of journalists seeking to curry favor with power instead of reporting the news began; I suspect it began well before people think it did.

I’m also not sure when the trend of people being interested only in reinforcement of their own views began. We’re certainly in that era now, possibly forever.

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