LINK #1: “Yellow” Journalism during the Progressive Era


            It is quite arguable that the Progressive era as we have come to know it could not have transpired as it did without the efforts of a group of journalists known alternately as “muckrakers” (for their tendency to dig about for their stories in the “dirt”, or muck, of the politics and economics of the time) or “yellow journalists” (after the color of the magazine pages on which their stories commonly were printed).  They can be thought of as the precursors of today’s “investigative journalists”, although most our contemporary practitioners of that “craft” don’t really do honor to the work of the original muckrakers.

            While much (but not all) of yellow journalism was concerned with exposing the often deplorable plight of the lower and working classes that was seen as resulting from the operations of the newly developed industrial capitalism, the writing was actually aimed, by and large, at the upper classes.  It was hoped by its proponents that the reform-minded style of reporting would appeal to the more charitable tendencies of the upper classes toward the poor.

            Magazines more than newspapers defined muckraking activities.  In the pages of such “yellow journals” as Atlantic, Harper’s, Century, Scribner’s, and McClure’s could be found the lengthy exposes of the leading practitioners of the craft: Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Gustavus Myers, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, David Graham Phillips.

            The extent to which the muckraking style of reporting served as the animating spirit of the Progressive movement perhaps can be gleaned best from the following, extended quote from S.S. McClure’s editorial in the January 1903 edition of the magazine that bore his name [quoted in Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (Knopf, 1955), pp. 203-204]:


            The chief themes of the muckraking magazines are stated here.  First is the progressive view of reality—evil-doing among the most respectable people is seen as the “real” character of American life; corruption is found on every side.  Second is the idea that mischief can be interpreted simply as a widespread breaking of the law…. Anglo-Saxon thinking emphasized governance by legal rules, as opposed to the widespread tendency among immigrants to interpret political reality in the light of personal relations.  If the laws are the right laws, and if they can be enforced by the right men, the Progressive believed, everything would be better.  He had a great and abiding faith in the appeal to such abstractions as the law and patriotism, and the efficacy of continued exhortation.  Third, there was the appeal to universal personal responsibility and the imputation of personal guilt.

            To understand the reform mentality, we must consider the vigor with which … a most important aspect of the Protestant personality came into play: its ethos of personal responsibility…. [I]t was the whole effect of the Protestant ethic to heighten the sense of personal responsibility as much as possible.  The more the muckrakers acquainted the Protestant Yankee with what was going on around him, the more guilty and troubled he felt…. The native ethos of mass participation in politics and citizenlike civic consciousness—so strange … to the immigrants—confirmed the idea that everyone was in some very serious sense responsible for everything.


            Thus there was a kind of moral fervor underlying the work of the muckrakers—and therefore of the entire Progressive movement.  As with most such ethical strains, however, the passion could only be maintained for so long before the public’s appetite for such journalistic fare was satisfied, and interests turned to other affairs.  During its (relatively) short life, however, yellow journalism sustained a critically important reformist initiative in the American political culture.


Link to Harper’s Weekly Yellow Journalism


Download Yellow Journalism pdf file


Return to HomePage

Go to The Great Society Reading

Go to The New Deal Reading

Go to The Progressive Reading