Resolute Square

The Ronna McDaniel Story

Teri Kanefield; "History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. In our current media disruption, as in the late nineteenth century, sensationalism is emphasized over facts."
Published:April 4, 2024

*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

The announcement that NBC / MSNBC hired former RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel as a contributor prompted an “open revolt” by MSNBC “stars,” who went directly to their TV and social media audiences to denounce the hiring because (among other things) McDaniel supported Trump’s lie that the election was stolen.

In response to the revolt, the network executives changed course and fired McDaniel. One of my readers said this:

It was good to see that at least some of MSNBC’s on-air talent still has enough journalistic integrity to risk their careers over this and put their foot down.
MSNBC’S executives? Not so much.

Indeed, the standard response on left-leaning social media is that the MSNBC hosts acted with integrity, thereby earning approval and support from their audiences.

Because I spent much time over the past 5 years tamping down misinformation and conspiracy theories originating from MSNBC legal experts and contributors, I had to take some time to think about the “journalistic integrity” part. In fact (ironically) as the story about McDaniel was unfolding, I was watching in dismay as yet another left-wing conspiracy theory emanated from the MSNBC legal pundits.

I therefore spent some time thinking about the McDaniel hiring debacle and came up with a different take. While I agree that the NBC and MSNBC executives made a mistake, I locate the mistake in a different place.

Stick with me here. It will a few pages for me to make my case because I need to bring in some scholarly work on the nature of cable news shows.

Recall from Part II of the Information-Outrage Cycle that the MSNBC (and CNN) Business Model is to hire Partisan Pundits who Offer Emotionally Evocative Performances

Dannagal Goldwaithe Young, a professor of communication and political science, describes the partisan pundit:

The phenomenon of the “partisan pundit” is a useful television (especially cable) news routine that embraces the conflict frame while offering emotionally evocative performances of partisan identity.

Pundits are talking heads who appear on the news not to “report” news but to talk about the news.

Cable news programs frequently assemble panels of pundits (for example, journalists, experts, and partisan commentators) who argue about the topic, tie that topic to broad themes in the culture war, and typically do so with the “in your face” interpersonal conflict style that increases viewer engagement while also increasing viewers’ hostility toward the other side.

Essentially what happens on cable news shows is that experts with differing views argue it out. Young suggests that the panels succeed when they “erupt.”

Given this, it was not unreasonable (although mistaken for reasons I’ll explain) for NBC and MSNBC executives to think that having McDaniel on the panels would help with those eruptions and thereby increase viewer engagement.

According to political scientist Jeffrey Berry and sociologist Sarah Sobieraj, the outrage industry, which includes talk radio, cable news shows, and political blogs, is a for-profit genre that is loosely based on fact but is mostly spin, hype, opinions, panic-inducing speculation, and constructed narratives.

Outrage discourse, as a rule, ignores complexity and nuance. It is not about conveying accurate information or stimulating meaningful discourse. In the words of the authors:

“Outrage sidesteps the messy nuances of complex political issues in favor of melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery, and hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom.
Outrage talk is not rational discourse. . . instead, it takes the form of a verbal competition, political theater with a scorecard.” (p. 6 – 7)

This is harsh, so I’ll offer some examples from this past week to illustrate.

The authors dispel the popular notion that the Outrage Industry is a result of our polarization. On the contrary, it has exacerbated polarization.

Young describes the characteristics of TV pundits:

Intellectual humility is the extent to which people are open to the possibility that they might be wrong. Partisan pundit panels are characterized by performances of intellectual arrogance or “I am not listening because I just want to show I’m right.” Intellectual arrogance plays well on television, whereas intellectual humility does not. In fact, we rarely see intellectual humility modeled in our mediated political world. When we do, it’s from the occasional appearance of scientists—people trained to never prove things or remove themselves from doubt. They don’t speak in absolutes or forevers. They speak with caveats and conditions and often answer with “Time will tell” and “for now this seems to be the case.”

Partisan pundits offer emotionally laden hot takes to whatever news is breaking. The problems are obvious: The moment we learn of an important event, we don’t yet have all the information. After a disaster like the collapse of a bridge, it can take days for authorities to uncover all the facts. If partisan pundits offer quick responses without nuance and then refuse to admit their first take may have been wrong, we have fertile grounds for the spread of bad information.

Important Note: Not all legal pundits on MSNBC and CNN news shows offer hotheaded and wrong opinions. There are also smart and reasonable takes. If all the legal experts were hotheads, the programs would have no credibility. Too often, though, the emotionally evocative responses are most memorable partly because they are evocative and partly because they come first: The smart reasonable can take more time and first impressions are hard to dispel.

The partisan pundit model causes people to be less informed and angrier: The way cable news talk shows present “news,” the facts get lost in an avalanche of opinions, speculation, and conjecture. Because opinions, speculation, and conjecture are often calibrated to create a strong emotional reaction in the viewer, viewers can be left both outraged and confused about the facts.

Here is an example from this past week. On March 25, we learned that an appellate court reduced Trump’s bond from $450 million to $175 million.

This was the response from MSNBC legal expert Tristan Snell:

Here was his post on Twitter:

This is from Glenn Kirschner, who regularly appears on MSNBC:

(He seems, from this, to be implying that there is a nefarious connection between Trump’s boast on social media and the court reducing the bond.)

Yes, I know that a number of well-known pundits explained that what the court did was not uncommon, and that it wasn’t necessarily bad for the attorney general. But as Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen explained, “angry, polarizing, divisive content” gets more engagement. I suggest that it is also more likely what viewers will remember.

The reach of MSNBC contributors goes beyond the approximately 1.22 million people who tune in to MSNBC daily. The contributors also spend time building and cultivating an audience on social media platforms as well. Glenn Kirschner has almost 750K followers on Twitter and more than 600K subscribers on YouTube. Tristan Snell has almost 500K followers on Twitter.This is an example of what circulated on social media the day Kirschner and Snell were giving their hot takes:

Jon B. Wolfsthal is not a lawyer. His post is filled with inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and flawed logic, but it got a lot of engagement. His post has 27K “likes.” His Twitter account has a “subscribe” button, which means that for $3 per month, you can subscribe to his account. I am not sure what you get for $3, but if he can attract enough subscribers, he can make decent money. 5,000 subscribers = $15,000 per month for tweeting.

The MSNBC and CNN Business Model Thus Creates Fertile Ground for Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories

Here is Prof. Young’s definition of a conspiracy theory:

Conspiracy theories attempt to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors. They assume that powerful people operating in the shadows are bad actors deliberately keeping the public in the dark. (p. 42.)

Here is the pattern she describes:

  1. People face a situation that is confusing or seems incomprehensible.
  2. They look for a way to assign blame.
  3. They grasp onto an easy-to-understand theory that assigns blame.
  4. The theory will be reinforced if people in their community and people they identify with (or look to as an authority) also hold the theory.
  5. Holding a conspiracy theory gives them a renewed sense of energy. Instead of feeling out of control, they have an explanation.
  6. Fueled by anger, they become defiant—but they have a direction. They feel they have agency. They can get behind a banner. They feel back in control.

A recent example of a right-wing conspiracy theory

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed, right-wing commentators immediately blamed minorities and immigrants, like this:

Anthony Sabatini is a Republican candidate for office. “DEI” stands for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” For Republicans, it is shorthand for, “If you hire minorities you are hiring people unqualified and there will be disasters.”

This obviously fits the definition of a conspiracy theory: A shocking event seemed incomprehensible. Bartiromo and Sabatini responded by looking for a way to assign blame.

Notice that a conspiracy theory doesn’t have to be unhinged. It doesn’t have to involve presidents returning from the dead or microchips planted in vaccines. It simply needs to assign blame for a confusing situation.

A Recent Example of a Left-Wing Conspiracy Theory 

I’ll start with the facts that led to a situation that threw partisan pundits into a spin.

  1. On April 4, 2023, Manhattan Attorney General Bragg announced a 34-count felony indictment against Trump for crimes related to paying hush money before the 2016 election.Trump’s trial was scheduled to begin March 25, 2024.On March 8: Trump, through his lawyers, filed a motion alleging that he received a last-minute discovery dump. Specifically, he said this:The Prosecution has engaged in widespread misconduct as part of a desperate effort to improve its position at the potential trial on the false and unsupported charges in the Indictment. These improper and unethical actions violated the automatic discovery provisions of CPL § 245.20. Recently, this misconduct has included:Attempts to suppress voluminous exculpatory evidence relating to Michael Cohen at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (the “USAO-SDNY”), which the USAO-SDNY just started to produce on March 4, 2024;
  2. An untimely document production on March 4, 2024;

Basically Trump claimed that 10,000 new documents were dumped on him at the last minute as part of a “strategy to hide the truth.”

On March 14: Bragg confirmed that his office had received the documents from the Southern District of New York. Bragg agreed to a 30 day extension to evaluate the documents and get to the bottom of Trump’s claims.

Also on March 14: The Court agreed to a 30-day delay to assess what had happened. The court ordered a hearing on March 25.

To emphasize: As of March 14, nobody knew what was in those documents or why they were transmitted at the last minute.

Factual reporting would look like this:

The court agreed to a 30-day delay in the trial to assess Trump’s claims. We should have answers on March 25.

Cable news shows have hours to fill. Facts will not fill those hours, so the legal experts and contributors appeared on screen and responded by looking for a way to assign blame, like this:

Andrew Weissman appeared on MSNBC. (You can see the clip here.) The host asks Weissmann “What is going on?” Of course, he doesn’t know. But he speaks firmly and decisively when he says, “At the very least this is a massive screw-up on the part of the Southern District of New York Prosecutors.” He accuses the SDNY prosecutors of “poor judgment.”

Law professor Melissa Murray blamed Merrick Garland for the screw-up:

Laurence Tribe tells us that this is “Strike Two for the SDNY” and then adds that “it is as though AG Garland doesn’t give a shit.”

Norm Eisen went on CNN and said this wasn’t Bragg’s fault, it was the fault of the SDNY:

Laurence Tribe agrees with Norm Eisen: It was not Bragg’s fault. It was the SDNY. Then Tribe reminds us that Garland is head of the DOJ (He also calls him a name: “Mr. Speedy.”)

See how they are all assigning blame for a confusing situation?

The March 25 Hearing

On March 25, after both the Court and Bragg’s office had a chance to assess the alleged discovery document dump, Judge Merchan found that Trump and his lawyers misrepresented the facts and that there were no errors on the part of prosecutors. There was no error on the part of Bragg or the SDNY.

In other words, there was no screw-up. The judge, who was visibly angry at Trump’s team said:

It’s incredibly serious, unbelievably serious. You are literally accusing the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the people involved in this case of prosecutorial misconduct and trying to make me complicit in it.”

The MSNBC prosecutors attacking the SDNY and Merrick Garland before they had all the facts also fits the definition of a conspiracy theory. Something happened (a document dump and a 30-day delay) so Find Someone To Blame.

As is customary, nobody goes back to say, “I guess we were wrong.” Viewers don’t seem to mind. I assume this is because the next time they tune in, they find something new to be outraged about and they entirely forget the last outrage.

As a result, the commentators learn that it doesn’t matter what they say. They can talk off the tops of their heads and make stuff up and as long as they offer an evocative performance of partisan identity, they will continue to be hailed as legal experts.

Story: I have a friend who frequently appeared on a local news show as a legal expert. One day he was about to appear and had no ideas, so he called me for some suggestions on what he could say. I helped him come up with ideas, and then I said, “I could never do that.” He then assured me that it doesn’t matter what he says, he just has to say something.

One person on Twitter was furious at me for daring to accuse Laurence Tribe of advancing conspiracy theories:

The friend who often appeared on local TV also argued once before the Supreme Court.

Lots of lawyers appear before the Supreme Court. It’s cool and brag-worthy, but does not transform the person into an expert on all things at all times. One problem with the current media disruption is that users of social media and viewers of cable news have not learned how to evaluate sources in this new media environment.

My take is that all misinformation is harmful, particularly when spread by major outlets.

To show the damage done by these commentators, I will show you what circulated on social media when Weissmann, Murray, Tribe, and Eisen were offering their views.

Lindy Li, a political strategist, seized the occasion to repeat all of the misleading (or just wrong) Merrick Garland talking points:
I have, in the past, fact-checked a few of Lindy Li’s statements about Merrick Garland.
See this post and this post. If you read those posts, you’ll see that Garland has been vilified by this particular echo chamber since 3 months after his appointment.

This person says he is a lawyer, but he doesn’t appear on TV as a legal expert, so I’ll put this one in the “social media reactions” category:

This next one proves the adage, “A lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”:
A lie told a thousand times becomes the truth because, by the 999th repetition, even the most stubborn holdouts give in to the groupthink. Why the NBC and MSNBC Executives Hired Ronna McDaniel

This is from a Washington Post piece, which you can read free through my subscription. 

When the network executives first approached McDaniel, she preferred to appear only on NBC because she was afraid of facing harsh interviews and that liberal-leaning viewers would not respond to her positively, but the NBC execs persuaded her to appear on both NBC and the more liberal (partisan) MSNBC. 

MSNBC President Rashida Jones participated in recruiting McDaniel. 

McDaniel’s relationship with top NBC executives began last fall, according to people familiar with what took place. NBC was determined to secure a Republican primary debate, repeatedly talking to RNC officials about their chances and even sending star anchor Lester Holt to Washington for a pitch meeting at RNC headquarters. RNC officials wanted to give at least one debate to a nonconservative news outlet in a bid to broaden the party’s outreach.

In a friendly call between Jones and McDaniel, the two spoke about American politics, their young children and the need to have differing views on the airwaves. 

Indeed, offering “differing views on the airwaves” is what the cable news panels do.
When announcing the hire, the executive said this:

“As we gear up for the longest general election season in recent memory, she will support our leading coverage by providing an insider’s perspective on national politics and on the future of the Republican Party — which she led through some of the most turbulent and challenging moments in political history,” the memo continues. “And as a longtime Michigan resident, she’ll be an important voice from one of this year’s key battlegrounds.”

It appeared that the executives thought that the way to strengthen the news portion of the organization was to have a voice from the other side, and the way to enliven the talk show portion was to have someone with a different viewpoint.

News Reporters and Talk Show Hosts Have Different Needs

The MSNBC Hosts and Contributors are not news reporters. They are personalities. They are not out there with their microphones asking senators questions as they hurry from one meeting to another. They are not on the ground taking photographs during an emergency.
They are not running off to cover the latest Congressional hearing for their newspaper or network. They don’t break stories. They respond to stories.

Reporters need sources. They need sources who are Republicans as well as Democrats, so they work to cultivate sources. Their goal is to gather accurate news, which means being able to confirm stories with multiple sources.

How McDaniel on the staff could have helped the news reporters: If a story was breaking, McDaniel could call her friends who are still on the inside of the Trump machine, but who are disillusioned with Trump and willing to talk to someone who they trust.

From The New York Times (and other outlets): NBC political reporters remained concerned that Republican officials, who have mocked the network’s leadership for refusing to keep Ms. McDaniel, may now be reluctant to engage on stories.

Partisan Talk show hosts have different needs. Partisan talk show hosts need to grow their viewership and retain the loyalty of their viewers. On Rachel Maddow’s best days, she can attract more than 3 million viewers, but 81 million people voted for Biden. The way to increase her viewership is not to appeal to Republicans, which will cause a lot of current viewers to leave. The way to increase viewership is to enlarge her appeal to Democrats.

Given How McDaniel talks about issues, and given how cable news programs operate, NBC and MSNBC executives erred in thinking that it would be a good idea to have McDaniel appear on liberal talk show panels.

On Sunday immediately after the news of her hiring was made public, McDaniel appeared on Meet the Press and was interviewed by Kristin Welker. You can see the transcript here. The full broadcast is here.

When asked about Trump’s promise to “free” the people convicted of participating in the attack if he is elected president, she said this:

I want to be very clear: The violence that happened on January 6th is unacceptable. It doesn’t represent our country. It certainly does not represent my party. We should not be attacking the Capitol. We should not be having violence. I said it that day. I put a statement out that day that this is not acceptable. If you attacked our Capitol and you have been – have – and you’ve been convicted, then that should stay.

When asked why she didn’t speak out earlier, she said that as the RNC chair, she could not do that. She needed to remain “neutral.” She said that sometimes you have to “take one for the team.”

(She was widely mocked for that comment, by the way. Among those who mocked her was Liz Cheney.)

After saying she had to remain neutral, she added that now that she was no longer RNC chair, she could say whatever she wished. She also said this:

And I disagree with [violence]. I agree with him on a whole host of other things. Let’s close the border. Let’s make sure we have good incomes for people. Let’s make sure we do a lot of great things. But on that point, I don’t think we should be freeing people who violently attacked Capitol Hill police officers and – and attacked the Capitol.

She also said she will vote for Trump again because she agrees with much of his politics.

Finally, she backed away from saying Trump was responsible for the attack and in fact, said that she didn’t think he wanted the attack to happen. She also added that the RNC had nothing to do with the attack.

Here is an example of how McDaniel responded to the question of whether she regretted her actions on November 17 when Trump “pushed Republicans not to certify the election”:

I’m glad you asked me about this, because I’ve never had a chance to respond to this. And if you know the course of what happened that night these two individuals went into a hearing, they voted no. They didn’t vote not to certify. They said, “You know, we want an audit.” There were some problems in Wayne County. They’ve been consistent. They’ve been well documented over subsequent elections. And they said, “As canvassers, we think we should have an audit before we certify.” That’s all they asked for. Once the public hearing opened they were called such vicious names, such vile names, family members were being threatened, that they changed their vote, and they left shaken. And I did call them and say, “Nobody” – and I think we should agree with – on this as Republicans and Democrats – “Nobody should be threatened or bullied or pushed to change a vote.” And that’s what happened to them. And I want to finish by saying our call that night was to say, “Are you okay?” That’s my recollection. It was three and a half years ago. These are people I knew. I live in Wayne County. “Are you okay? Are you all right? Vote your conscience,” not pushing them to do anything. And then let me finish – let me add one other thing. She [the person voting] was threatened to such a degree that somebody’s gone to jail. I’m not going to say the threats that she had . . .

See the problem? She’s trying to explain. She is muddying the waters. She is rationalizing.
She minced her words.

I read the transcript but I have no idea whether McDaniel was telling the truth about what happened on November 17. Was her call perfectly innocent? Was she just calling her buddies to find out if they were okay after they were threatened?

If you ask a person questions, and no matter what she says, you will think she is lying, there is no point asking her questions unless the idea is to (verbally) slice her to ribbons while the audience cheers, and that doesn’t seem like a fair reason to hire someone. On the other hand, if she was telling the truth about what happened that night and people believe her, you suddenly introduce nuance and complexity, and according to the authors of The Outrage Industry, that isn’t acceptable on cable news shows:

“Outrage sidesteps the messy nuances of complex political issues in favor of melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery, and hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom. Outrage talk is not rational discourse. . . instead, it takes the form of a verbal competition, political theater with a scorecard.” (The Outrage Industry)

The problem is that these shows are about putting opinions side by side. It doesn’t matter if someone is wrong. What matters is the nature of their opinions.

If only facts were allowed, Pinocchio himself could appear on the show and it would not matter because he would be fact-checked in real time. The viewer would not be given multiple opposing views. They would be given the facts.

It seems to be acceptable to say things that are not true and even float conspiracy theories as long as the pundit offers an emotionally evocative performance of partisan identity.

Saying something untrue about Merrick Garland is acceptable as long as the point is that Trump committed crimes and should be prosecuted. Implying that a court is corrupt when it lowered Trump’s bond even though there was no evidence of corruption is acceptable as long as the person is also slamming Trump.

The On-Line Revolt of MSNBC Stars was a Power Move

In traditional news environments, the editors and executives make the decisions, and reporters do what they are told. This is because reporters are sort of fungible. Lots of people want the job. Rachel Maddow is not fungible. “Without Rachel Maddow, there would be no Rachel Maddow Show.” (Quotation from The Outrage Industry.) In other words, the MSNBC stars have some weight to throw around.

When, en masse, the stars went on the air and made their case to their viewers about why McDaniel should be fired, they were not risking their careers. If all of them walk, MSNBC will crash.

I found a clip of what Rachel Maddow told her viewers here. I’ll offer the following summary:

Maddow opens with an emotional and moving tirade against Trump and how he attacks the free press and the integrity of elections and is trying to install himself as a strong man (but we are catching on to him.) She said, “He would have been forgotten if he hadn’t been able to attach himself to the Republican Party.”

She then accuses McDaniel of helping him do all of these things,

She then slammed the MSNBC leadership for not objecting to the hiring of McDaniel when the matter first arose. But, she praises the executive leadership for responding when the hosts and staff objected by promising that McDaniel would not appear on MSNBC.

Maddow was clear about this: Over the weekend, the MSNBC hosts were promised that McDaniel would not appear on any MSNBC shows (presumably unless one of the hosts chose to invite her.)

But Maddow did not stop there. She then said that the fact McDaniel is nonetheless on the payroll at NBC News is “inexplicable . . . and I hope they will reverse their decision.” She said, “You wouldn’t hire a mobster to work at a DA’s office. You wouldn’t hire a pickpocket to work as a TSA screener.”

In other words, she put pressure on the executives to reverse their decision and fire McDaniel. It wasn’t enough that she would not appear on MSNBC shows.

She also added, “This is a difficult time for us as a country” and “We have never dealt with anything like this before.”

My personal take: Maddow delivered an emotionally evocative performance of partisan identity. However, I recoiled from it, particularly when she said, “We have never dealt with anything like this before.” A Black American woman living in 1860 may see things differently. Perhaps it’s the defense lawyer in me (I dedicated my career to representing people who were among the most vilified members of our society) but I think it’s a little unfair to pin everything Trump ever did on the chair of the Republican Committee. The entire speech was an example of appealing to emotion over reason. I could assign it to a college class and ask them to find the transparent and manipulative rhetorical devices.

I will also confess that it was the first time I ever listened to Rachel Maddow speak.

(I have, however, watched a few Glenn Kirschner clips because I was fact-checking and wanted to confirm that he had indeed said what people said that he said. What struck me was the emotion in his delivery. He paused dramatically to say “Because. Justice. Matters.” After watching Rachel Maddow I understood what he was doing, but his performance was a poor imitation.)

I read some of the comments to Maddow’s speech on Twitter and saw how Maddow’s fans reacted. They were moved and sang her praises. She was the best! They adored her! The attack on Ronna McDaniel and pressure on the executives to fire her caused Maddow’s stock to go up with her viewers, which means her stock went up in general.

She and the other hosts won. McDaniel was fired.

I suggest that the firing of McDaniel will exacerbate partisan animosity and polarization. Firing a Republican after she made a plea for people to get out of the echo chamber and listen to each other seems problematic to me. (Not that any MSNBC viewers would have listened to her, but her plea may resonate with people who are not MSNBC viewers.) She was hired. She gave the interview. She was fired. It was, however, a win for the hosts, who earned the praise and loyalty of their viewers.

From The Outrage Industry: The outrage is not the result of polarization. It exacerbates polarization. The errors made by the executives will, unfortunately, exacerbate polarization.

I suspect that the executives now understand the power wielded by the stars and they will not make an important move without first consulting them. I will leave others to consider whether opinion shapers should call the shots for a news network (Remember I am distinguishing talk shows from news.)

McDaniel was right when she said liberal audiences would not respond well to her. The executives were wrong. There may have been a place for McDaniel at NBC News, but she should not have been sprung on the MSNBC hosts the way that she was.

At the same time, I am not sympathetic to programming that, as part of its model, tolerates conspiracy theories and rejects nuance as long as the conspiracy theories are the right kind of conspiracy theories.

Yellow Journalism: Another Historical Model for Today’s Media Environment

This is from the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian:

Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting in the late 19th century that emphasized sensationalism over facts.” Yellow Journalists used a “sensationalist style,” and “bold headlines and creative drawings of events” and as a result, “sold a lot of papers for both publishers.”

The peak of yellow journalism, in terms of both intensity and influence, came in early 1898, when a U.S. battleship, the Maine, sunk in Havana harbor. The naval vessel had been sent there in a display of U.S. power. On the night of February 15, an explosion tore through the ship’s hull, and the Maine went down. Sober observers and an initial report by the colonial government of Cuba concluded that the explosion had occurred on board, but Hearst and Pulitzer, who had for several years been selling papers by fanning anti-Spanish public opinion in the United States, published rumors of plots to sink the ship.”

In other words, the publications reacted to a major political event by making stuff up and casting blame.

Yellow journalism arose in a profit-driven environment when publications were competing for readers and learned that sensational rage-inducing material sold more newspapers. The owner of one of the newspapers, Hearst, allegedly said, “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.

In a recent newsletter, Heather Cox Richardson explained how the United States evolved past the era of yellow journalism:

The sensationalism of what was known as “yellow journalism” created a backlash that gave rise to new investigative journalism designed to move away from partisanship and explain clearly to readers what was happening in American politics and economics. In 1893, McClure’s Magazine appeared, offering in-depth examinations of the workings of corporations and city governments and launching a new era of reform.

History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. In our current media disruption, as in the late nineteenth century, sensationalism is emphasized over facts.

I don’t expect to get out of the current era of yellow journalism through the rise of new publications. The problem right now is that there are too many publications and too many outlets competing for clicks and viewers.

I believe we will get out of the current era of yellow journalism by educating the public, particularly the young people. College instructors and teachers are helping students understand what is happening with the current media disruption and how to navigate the firehose of bad information.

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