From BackStory to You
‘Tis the season for giving. Whether it’s the latest gadget or the coziest sweater, many Americans are spending the month of December searching for that perfect gift. But throughout American history, gift giving has taken on many different forms. And the act of giving and receiving has allowed bonds to form across social, political, and cultural divides.
On this episode of BackStory, Brian, Joanne and Nathan bring you two very different stories of giving and receiving. One starts in Ireland, and the other looks at a time when lending a helping hand resulted in more harm than good.
Fair and Unbiased
This year, the Pulitzer Prizes celebrates one hundred years of recognizing excellence and integrity in newspaper journalism and, more recently, other forms of media. However, prize founder Joseph Pulitzer wasn’t exactly known for honorable work during his lifetime. In fact, Pulitzer was a pioneer of yellow journalism.
Early American Newspapers and Bias
Eighteenth century newspapers mostly featured advertisements, including ads for runaway slaves and servants, and letters submitted by locals. According to Peter Onuf, BackStory co-host and history professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, papers became more politicized during the Revolution when editors “increasingly identified with political parties.” By the nineteenth century, many newspapers had partisan editors at the helm.
In the 1800s, newspapers were mainly the megaphones of political parties. A blog post by late University of Wisconsin-Madison professor James L. Baughman noted that political parties “actually subsidized the operations of many newspapers” and that wasn’t a good thing. In fact, the government contracts awarded to journalism outfits ensured that they “had a real interest in who got elected,” said Onuf. This type of bias gave way to yellow journalism, a form of reporting more focused on sensationalism than facts.
Yellow Journalism and the Rise of Joseph Pulitzer
One of the best examples of yellow journalism is the 1898 coverage of the Maine explosion. The USS Maine was an American battleship deployed to the harbor in Havana, Cuba as a display of U.S. power. According to the U.S. State Department, “On the night of February 15, an explosion tore through the ship’s hull, and the Maine went down.”
Initial reports of the Maine’s destruction indicated that the explosion had come from onboard the ship. However, a later naval investigation stated the source of the explosion was a mine in the harbor. It was the latter report that Joseph Pulitzer clung to and used when reporting the tragedy on the front page of his newspaper, “The World.”
Pulitzer was born to wealth (or at least comfort depending on what story you read) in Hungary in 1847 and came to the U.S. during the Civil War, according to his Pulitzer Prizes bio. Pulitzer’s was a riches-to-rags-to-riches story since his early days in this country involved a brief stint of homelessness and starting at the bottom of a German daily called “Westliche Post.” During his early years as a writer, he was known for exposing corruption.
By 1878, Pulitzer was owner of the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” and by 1883, he’d negotiated purchase of “The New York World.” This made him a well-established player in the game, like fellow publisher William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst and Pulitzer had used their publications to fuel anti-Spanish sentiment for years. Both publishers seized upon the sinking of the Maine as an opportunity to further their goals. As you can see in the headline from Pulitzer’s paper, the facts of the Maine’s destruction weren’t the focal point of the story.
Has Bias and Yellow Journalism Disappeared?
Anyone who has been to journalism school will tell you that a journalist is taught to be fair and unbiased. Part of how writer’s accomplish this is by:
- having multiple sources
- attributing those sources
- the writer not being a part of the story
Mostly, these methods work, but sometimes they don’t.
BackStory researcher Melissa Gismondi, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, believes that if we “take yellow journalism to mean journalism based on sensation and without evidence,” then that style of journalism didn’t end after its Golden Age heyday. She cites the “Massie Affair” as an example.
In 1932, Thalia Massie, a wealthy white woman living in Hawaii, was kidnapped, beaten and raped. When the press covered the crime, they used words like “white woman of refinement and culture” to describe Massie and “thugs,” “degenerates,” and “fiends” to describe the five men accused of the crime who were of Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese-Hawaiian descent. Gismondi points out that this “shows the profound racial, gender, and class anxieties in the new, overseas American empire, as well as the tremendous power that journalists have to shape trials and the public response to them.”
Awarding Excellence and Integrity in Media
In Joseph Pulitzer’s 1904 will, he created the structure for the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1912, the year after his death, the Columbia School of Journalism was established and Pulitzer Prizes were first distributed in 1917.
It may seem odd that a man who used scandal to sell newspapers created an award recognizing the opposite. Onuf suspects the move may have been a “quest for posthumous respectability.”
Though there have been a few controversies surrounding the prize – mostly for making or not making the award to certain individuals – more journalism awards have gone to “exposure of corruption than to any other subject” according to the Pulitzer Prizes website. It looks like Pulitzer found respect after all.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
As the Zika virus spreads across the Americas, it’s worth looking at how the U.S. has responded to past epidemics. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys consider the impact of smallpox on New York City’s 19th century immigrant communities, and explore the rampant spread of diseases in the wake of the Civil War and the first World War.
American Exodus 
With Donald Trump vowing to keep undocumented Mexicans out of the U.S. with a wall and Hillary Clinton promising the same immigrants a path to citizenship, immigration was a big issue in the 2016 presidential election. But what about the flip side – emigration?
In this episode of BackStory, we ask who’s chosen to leave the U.S. and what parts of their American identities they took with them – from the Loyalists who fled to Canada in the wake of the American Revolution, and the free blacks who sailed to Liberia in search of true freedom, to the Depression-era refugees who moved to the Soviet Union.
Tens of thousands of refugees have been arriving in Western Europe, fleeing civil war and unrest in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the migrants making these perilous border crossings are children. This is hardly the first time minors have made such treacherous journeys. This week, BackStory revisits our episode on the many paths of child migrants in our own country. Some were thought of as innocents to be saved, whether from the Nazi bombing of London or from overcrowded urban orphanages. Others were hailed as pint-sized heroes of the Cold War, or scorned as child savages in need of civilizing — a justification once used to tear Indian children away from their families.
Bridge for Sale 
America has a long and colorful history of confidence men and counterfeiters. On this episode of BackStory, we go back to the time when fake money and fly-by-night banks dominated the economy, and uncover the origins of the lie detector test, known as “the truth compelling machine.” We’ll also try to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.
Summer vacation is drawing to a close, and for many Americans that means heading to the mall for some back-to-school shopping. What better time to revisit our show on the history of American fashion? In this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore what self-presentation says about our society and culture, and how fashion has reflected moments and movements in American history. When do fashion statements become political statements? Does fashion evolve, or does it simply revolve? And does the United States have a unique style? Just some of the questions BackStory poses on its history of fashion in America…
In God We Trust?
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment forms the basis for the separation of church and state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Yet, throughout American history, this principle hasn’t stopped Americans from using religious differences to draw boundaries around who is and isn’t American. Joanne digs into the BackStory archives to bring you a selection of segments that look at religious identity in America and how faiths, cultures and rituals adapted to American life.