Sensationalism in America’s Media

Sensationalism In America’s Media – by Stephen Lendman

Its history is long and sordid, dating back centuries elsewhere since the 1500s or earlier. In 19th century America, the penny press and yellow journalism featured it with regular coverage of crime, tragedy, gossip, and other ways to stimulate sales.

Newspaper editor Frederic Hudson published a history of American newspapers titled, “Journalism in the United States, from 1690 to 1872,” an authoritative text saying:

“The penny press arrived in New York on January 1, 1833, when Horatio David Shepard teamed up with Horace Greeley and Francis W. Story and issued the Morning Post.”

Both found fame and fortune in New York, but “the concept of bringing out a penny paper belonged exclusively to Shepard.”

In 1835, James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald featured local news and corruption, realizing “there was more….money to be made (from) gossip that interested bar-rooms, work-shops, race courses, and tenement houses (than) drawing rooms and libraries.”

As a result, penny papers featured vulgarity, cheapness, and spurious sensationalist accounts to spur sales, though later more significant information was reported.

Originating during the late 19th century Gilded Age circulation battles between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, yellow journalism first emerged.

Dictionaries define it variously as irresponsible and sensationalist reporting that distorts, exaggerates or misstates the truth. Its misinformation masquerades as fact to boost circulation, readership, or larger viewing audiences, as well as lie for state and corporate interests.

In 1941, Frank Luther Mott named its five main features:

(1) scare headlines, often on minor junk food news.

(2) lavish use of photos, pictures, or imaginary drawings.

(3) fake interviews, misleading headlines, pseudo-science, featuring paid-for-media “experts.”

(4) full-color Sunday supplements.

(5) sympathizing with the underdog against the system, a practice now reversed, mischaracterizing or wrongfully vilifying people; among many others – Casey Anthony, blackening her name unfairly. More on her below.

Reports feature overdramatized crime and vice, including murder, assault, robbery, vandalism, rape and sexual assault. Though styles changed over time, sensationalism remains common today, in tabloids, other publications, and infotainment television (masquerading as news) because it sells.

America’s dominant media, especially television, produce a daily diet of fiction portrayed as fact in their role as de facto thought-control gatekeepers, substituting managed and junk food food news for the real kind.

Sensationalist television content features:

— sensationalist story topics;

— embedded sensationalism;

— sensational photos, pictures or other graphics;

— individual case histories; and

— layperson interviews.

Sensationalist TV production features:

— various camera shots;

— decorative/deceptive editing techniques;

— music onsets;

— sound effects;

— eyewitnesses; and

— human face close-ups.

America’s media stress audience size and advertising revenue. Sensationalism sells, accomplishing both goals at the expense of real news, information and analysis.

America’s mainstream always lacked it, noticeably today, corrupted by bottom line priorities and support for wealth and power interests.

As a result, consumers suffer, dividing those who follow infotainment/junk food news from others seeking real journalism major print and broadcast media don’t provide.

No wonder famed comedian Ernie Kovacs (1919 – 1962) once explained why television is called a medium – because it’s neither rare or well done. He’d be horrified by today’s features, his time tame by comparison.

Among many others they include:

— OJ Simpson’s trial and acquittal;

— the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan affair;

— Joseph Lyle and Eric Galen Menendez conviction for killing their parents;

— the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky oval office dalliance, resulting in his lying about sex impeachment and acquittal – not his crimes of war and against humanity, besides numerous anti-labor, racist, lawless, and other destructive domestic and foreign policies, exceeding the worst of Reagan and GHW Bush;

— unjustly framing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, evidence showing his alleged victim got $100,000 to lie; why, of course, is key; it was to banish him twice over: as IMF head for a meaner, tougher Christine Lagarde and (perhaps) from France’s 2012 presidential election as Nicolas Sarkozy’s main opponent;

— “Weinergate” involving Rep. Anthony Weiner, using social media to send six or more women sexually explicit photos and messages over a three-year period before and after his marriage;

— numerous other high-profile political sex scandals; and

— Casey Anthony’s indictment, vilification, prosecution, and exoneration for murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter, despite obsessive media reports still pronouncing her guilty by accusation, television especially lynching her in the court of public opinion.

In June 2008, Anthony’s two-year old daughter Caylee disappeared. In July, her grandmother reported her missing. In December, her skeletal remains were found, cause of death undetermined. Anthony initially lied to police, claiming her nanny kidnapped her.

In October 2008, she was indicted for first degree murder. Prosecutors sought the death penalty. Throughout her ordeal, she maintained her innocence.

On May 9, her trial began. Los Angeles Times writer TL Stanley called it “a trial too juicy to resist.” Irresponsible journalists called it “the trial of the century.” CNN coverage featured it. Its Headline News (HLN) host Nancy Ann Grace led the media circus, lynching Anthony on air nightly.

A former Bush-appointed Georgia prosecutor, appellate courts cited her three times for “play(ing) fast and loose” with the rules. Time Warner’s HLN (a CNN spinoff) made her a demagogic zealot like Russ Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and other right-wing extremists, ginning up scandals, hate, and venom for ratings, as well as anointing themselves final right or wrong arbiters.

According to Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute’s broadcasting/online group senior faculty member:

“It’s just unforgivable the amount of vitriol that has come from her show (and) that has now permeated the entire channel. (It left) no room….for anything other than a guilty verdict” with comments like:

“I believe that Caylee’s body was in (Anthony’s) car trunk for a period of days.” When her trial began, she insulted her with epithets like “tot mom,” saying “all the adjectives were there. Trial of the decade. Trial of the century. First trial of the social media age….by all accounts the most fascinating trial the American public has ever witnessed,” downplaying CNN’s hatchet-job on OJ Simpson and others instead of letting due process and judicial fairness do their job, right or wrong.

Like other sensationalist journalist/commentators, Grace called Anthony’s case “our daily dialogue. The tragic story of Caylee’s death….is our national discourse….(We’re) riveted by the Casey Anthony story. Riveted because we know it already….The devil is dancing,” pronouncing her guilty by accusation nightly because America’s media say so, her in particular, as well as New York Times writer Frank Bruno.

On July 9, he headlined, “A Sordid Cast Around Casey Anthony,” claiming “in all likelihood (she) bore responsibility for her 2-year-old daughter’s death, but will never pay for that particular crime….”

However, at trial, he acknowledged that “there simply wasn’t enough lucid, specific proof that (she) murdered her little girl,” short of admitting jurors perhaps were right.

Not satisfied, Bruno added “she may not be stuck in jail, but she’ll be stuck with herself, and will serve (that) kind of life sentence….I suspect she’ll be tripped up anew by her narcissism, dishonesty and icy heart. They’ll doom her. They just don’t happen to be grounds for a murder conviction.”

On June 16, Time magazine writer John Cloud headlined, “How the Casey Anthony Murder Case Became the Social-Media Trial of the Century,” saying:

“….(V)irtually no one doubts that Anthony was involved in her child’s death. (She’s) a tenacious liar. (The) court of social-media opinion (is) enraged.” A typical Facebook message said: “think im gonna puke in my mouth over them trying to get an ‘aquittal shes GAULITY GAULITY GAULITY (sic)!!! Justice for Caylee.”

Like others, Cloud admitted an “astonishingly weak” case. At best, it presented “a ragbag of circumstantial bits of evidence….(Casey’s) fingerprints weren’t found on the body or on the duct tape over Caylee’s mouth or nose. No eyewitnesses ever saw Casey hurt Caylee,” and both mother and child were close.

In fact, Birmingham’s Cumberland School of Law Dean John Carroll said:

“(T)hey couldn’t prove when the child was killed, or who killed (her), or exactly how (she) was killed.”

Prosecutors had no case, but went to trial anyway. Jurors ruled on reason, not emotion, uncertain of Anthony’s guilt or if a crime, in fact, was committed.

Not America’s media, however, anointing themselves judge, jury and lynch mob in contrast to jurors and chief prosecutor Jeff Ashton admitting (post-trial) perhaps no one will ever know what happened to Caylee. Defense attorney Jack Crawford also observed that:

television commentators like Grace and others “were looking for the right vein to hook up the lethal injection needle….A lot of folks had her convicted, but the twelve people that mattered kept an open mind.”

On July 6, even Reuters said “the entire cable landscape – and now the broadcast news networks – seem to have to have gotten drunk” over Anthony’s trial. “Why does this get such coverage? Answer: Ratings, ratings, ratings.”

On July 5, New York Times writer Lizette Alvarez headlined, “Casey Anthony Not Guilty in Slaying of Daughter,” saying:

Anthony today “was found not guilty….of killing” her daughter Caylee. After six weeks of testimony, a jury of seven women and five men rejected (prosecutorial claims that she) dos(ed) her with chloroform, suffocating her with duct tape and dumping her body in a wooded area.”

She was convicted of lying to police, a misdemeanor, sentencing her to four years in prison. However, she’ll be released shortly based on time served (over three years in jail) with time off for good behavior.

On July 8, Orange County (FL) Corrections (OCC) announced her Sunday, July 17 release date, according to Public Information Officer Allen Moore.

However, don’t expect Grace or other media hacks to let up, at least not until they find others to vilify and destroy for ratings.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at

Also visit his blog site at and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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