- Sensationalism: Murder, Mayhem, Mudslinging, Scandals, and Disasters in 19th-Century Reporting ed. by David W. Bulla, David B. Sachsman
In their edited collection Sensationalism: Murder, Mayhem, Mudslinging, Scandals, and Disasters in 19th-Century Reporting, David W. Bulla and David B. Sachsman bring together a number of essays built upon papers delivered at the Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression. The fifth collection drawn from this symposium, the essays in this volume present both a broad introduction to the sensationalism of nineteenth-century periodicals and probing analyses of a few specific cases that offer insight into the cultural function of sensationalism.
Bulla and Sachsman’s introduction lays a solid historical foundation for the place of newspapers in America, where literacy rates were “extraordinarily high throughout the nineteenth century” and where newspapers were “fueled by the expansion of advertising that came as a result of the development of manufacturing” (xviii). With the rise of the penny press in the 1830s, the authors argue, sensationalism emerged as a way to titillate readers (and therefore sell newspapers), but also as a way to expose the problems obscured by genteel standards of propriety (and therefore to try to ameliorate them) (xxiv). [End Page 212] The volume then proceeds with four sections: “The Many Faces of Sensationalism”; “Mudslinging, Muckraking, Scandals, and Yellow Journalism”; “Murder, Mayhem, Stunts, Hoaxes, and Disasters”; and “Hatred.”
“The Many Faces of Sensationalism” begins with W. Joseph Campbell’s “Yellow Journalism: Why so Maligned and Misunderstood?” which traces a history of “yellow journalism” as a term and its continuing application. Campbell argues that the term’s negative connotations stem mostly from William Randolph Hearst’s competitors, who could not match the energy of the New York Journal’s reporting. Evaluated neutrally, Campbell argues, yellow journalism was often activist and oriented toward the public good. By contrast, Brian Gabrial’s essay, “‘Alarming Intelligence’: Sensationalism in Newspapers after the Raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and St. Albans, Vermont,” examines how coverage of these two events was sensationalized in a way to suggest forthcoming similar threats and to create a “moral panic” in the readership. Gabrial traces convincingly this rhetoric to the political agendas of each newspaper.
In the third essay, “‘What H. G. Knows About . . . ’: Cartoonist Thomas Nast’s 1872 Crusade against Presidential Candidate Horace Greeley,” Jennifer E. Moore, William E. Huntzicker, and Hazel Dicken-Garcia read Nast’s cartoons as evidence of the blurred line between fact and opinion in nineteenth-century newspapers. The following essay, “Publishing Violence as Art and News: Sensational Prints and Pictures in the 19th-Century Press,” Gregory A. Borchard, Stephen Bates, and Lawrence J. Mullen examine the way that the Civil War helped translate news into a visual medium and helped people become comfortable with visual depictions of violence. They trace the rise of images in news reporting and argue that images allowed the news to depict humanity with greater nuance (61–62).
“Sensational Journalism in the Mid-19th Century,” by David W. Bulla and Heather R. Haley, studies papers from three decades—1853, 1865, and 1873—and finds that “sensationalism generally intensified in terms of both the size of sensationalized news articles, as measured by the number of lines, and the strength of the rhetoric” (75). The authors find that sensationalized stories covered mostly crimes and accidents, and they argue that this “show[s] a conscious attempt by editors to cover societal problems and reflecting the dangers of urban environments in the nineteenth century” (94–95).
Section Two, “Mudslinging, Muckraking, Scandals, and Yellow Journalism” begins with Crompton Burton’s “‘Despicable Journalism’: Sensationalism and the American Presidency in the 19th Century,” which offers details of various presidents and their newspaper rivals. Crompton contends that studying the relationship between the press and the president can highlight changes in press history, such as the movement from “the partisan press to the penny press and from the sensational to the objective and crusading philosophies that would come to define the rise of the...