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'Yellow journalism': quaint concept in today's 'untidy' media world

Paul Eisenberg
Media Studies Center

05.19.98

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NEW YORK -- Room 521 in New York City's Regency Hotel may not evoke a strong memory for media audiences today. But Terry Raskyn will never forget the place where former flight attendant Suzen Johnson lured former football star Frank Gifford for sex before a hidden video camera.

At the time Raskyn, now news manager for ABC's News One, was employed by the company that owns the Globe, the supermarket tabloid that paid Johnson to seduce Gifford and set up the camera that would yield the 'sizzling' Globe photos. And this orchestrated meeting, Raskin says, was an "ethical break that signaled the beginning of the end" of her career at the Globe.

Although the Gifford case is an extreme, the desire to peddle scandal permeates today's media industry, Raskyn said Wednesday at a Newseum/NY forum on "Yellow Journalism."

"Scandal still sells," Raskyn said. "There is still an audience that wants to hear everything that could possibly go wrong in people's lives."

After the Globe's first few weeks of reporting on the JonBenet Ramsey and O.J. Simpson stories, subsequent weeks of coverage yielded big headlines that blew a grain of information way out of proportion -- "something the mainstreams have all done recently," Raskin said, with their coverage of the alleged White House sex scandal.

Scandal and the sensational sell, others at the forum agreed, but they stopped short of calling today's journalism yellow, a term used in a bygone era to mean sensationalistic.

Steven Cuozzo...
Photo by Jeffrey Pattit
Steven Cuozzo
"Today's media world is an untidy [cacophony] of voices and sounds, and no one has the kind of power in either print or broadcast to impose their will on a significant part of the population" as Hearst and Pulitzer did during the days of yellow journalism, said Steven Cuozzo, executive editor of the New York Post.

Dick Mooney, formerly of The New York Times editorial board, agreed that aspects of yellow journalism are "still around in one form or another." But "there are so many ways information is coming at us," from The New York Times to Matt Drudge, Mooney said, that hanging the label of yellow journalism on any one outlet would be inaccurate.

Cuozzo said, "Yellow journalism as we know it disappeared and evolved in the 20s, 30s and 40s," adding: "We're in a whole new media era, and [we can't use] a horse-and-buggy vocabulary" to explain today's media practices.

However, one medium does come perilously close to earning the yellow journalism label, Cuozzo said. "Local newscasts are a joke, from New York to California. They are laughable." Viewers, he said, mostly know better and work such programming as the 11 p.m. news into their entertainment regimen.

Cuozzo acknowledged that that regimen might include the Post. "What's the purpose of the big headline? If we have an especially bright headline, we can sell more papers [than the News] but [just] incrementally more. We're looking to sell more papers without being untrue to the nature of a newspaper that does have an entertainment dimension as well as a news dimension."

The difference between the supermarket tabloids and the mainstream, said Cuozzo, is that tabloids pay for stories. "We are not supermarket tabloids or tabloid TV, he says both of the Post and the News. "We're tabloids because we're tabloids. That's what we are. There are plenty of things wrong with both newspapers, but we add lots of news and information" to the mix.

New York, Cuozzo pointed out, has all sorts of local voices -- community newspapers, ethnic newspapers, magazines and at least 75 TV channels, none of them saying the same thing. Too much information may impose a burden on the consumer, he said, but it's better than the old days of Hearst and Pulitzer, "when we had fewer choices."

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