- Miriam Michelson’s Yellow Journalism and the Multi-Ethnic West
On 22 September 1897, aboard a steamship sailing out of Honolulu Harbor, twenty-seven-year-old Miriam Michelson gazed back at the horizon and committed to paper her quickly dimming impressions of the island paradise she was leaving behind. With a regionalist’s eye for the atmospheric, she described the landscape: the “mountains, veiled in tenderest green,” “the silver waterfalls,” “the extravagance of foliage and of flowers,” and “the glory of sunshine on the lava-created hills.” However, Michelson had not made the long trip from her home in San Francisco to Hawai’i to partake in the beauty of the tropics. Instead, as a special correspondent for the San Francisco Call, one of San Francisco’s leading dailies, Michelson was covering the Hawaiian Patriotic League’s petition against annexation by the US government. In Michelson’s view, the annexation of Hawai’i was a clear-cut case of racial imperialism (a “battle [of] the white man against the brown; might against right; strength against weakness”) that undermined America’s pride. Michelson’s interviews with the native population recorded unilateral opposition to the treaty that threatened their sovereignty and frustration that their protests were neither heard nor heeded. “Here in Hawai’i, the best beloved, the most richly endowed of all Mother Nature’s beautiful family, the old, old struggle for Anglo-Saxon supremacy is going on,” wrote Michelson. “The only new phase in the old drama is that this time a republic is masquerading in the despot’s role” (“Strangling” 1).
A week later, the San Francisco Call devoted the entire first two pages of its broadsheet to Michelson’s article, heralded by the dramatic headline “Strangling Hands Upon a Nation’s Throat.” Michelson’s reporting endeavored to represent the humanity of the native Hawaiians, countering the dominant view of annexationists who portrayed them as “heathens” in need of civilization. Her respectful descriptions of the Hawaiian people, for example, captured the elegance of the women in their “kid gloves” and “flowing trained gowns of black crepe” and the decorum of the crowds standing “with straight shoulders [End Page 182] splendidly thrown back and head[s] proudly poised” (1). With the aid of an interpreter, Michelson gave voice to the Hawaiian people, privileging their protests above her interviews with pro-annexation congressmen and other white proponents of manifest destiny. In gratitude for the reporter’s presence, a young Hawaiian girl slipped a lei over Michelson’s head, and Michelson took down her broken English: “No one comes to—to ask us. No one listens. No one cares. Your paper will speak for us—us Hawaiians. Our voice will be heard, too. We are poor—you un’stan? And we cannot talk your language very well. The white man have ever’thing on their side. But we are right and they are wrong” (1-2). Although the reporter insists on her impartiality, the article reads as an emotional appeal on behalf of the islanders, intended to stir up anti-annexation sentiment.
Michelson’s front-page story serves as an example of “yellow” or “new” journalism. The newspapers of Progressive Era America were notorious for sensationalizing events and for testing, if not outright violating, the journalist’s code of ethics in pursuit of a story or angle, usually with the goal of pushing certain editorial and political agendas.1 In Narrating the News: New Journalism and Literary Genre in Late Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers and Fiction (2005), Karen Roggenkamp demonstrates that the literary aesthetic of “new journalism,” which reached its apotheosis in the 1890s when Michelson was working as a reporter, was closely intertwined with the narrative and genre conventions of American fiction. According to Roggenkamp, “The big business of urban newspapers … depended for its success on the reporters’ narrative skills and their ability to mold information—sometimes factual and sometimes not—into dramatic and skillfully told tales” (xiv). To accomplish this goal, reporters used a variety of literary techniques, including inserting themselves as characters in their stories. Michelson, for example, employed the first person in her article, although not for the...