Something something income inequality? Something something bread and circuses? Just wondering.
While that feels like a seductive narrative, I don’t think the parallels hold up under scrutiny. In the late Gilded Age, newspapers were the most powerful, economically entrenched, and politically influential form of communication ever devised; their equivalent today isn’t blogs, but cable news networks. (Jonah Peretti isn’t the new Hearst, Roger Ailes is.) “Yellow journalism” wasn’t the bread and circuses (comic strips and rotogravure and syndicated columns and pro sports took care of that part of the newspaper empires), it was a drumbeat advocating for war and colonialism and unionbusting and scaremongering about The Yellow Peril and The Negro Problem and The Immigrant Menace.
Clickbait exists due to a climate of desperation, not muscle-flexing. Free-falling ad revenue and a surplus of media outlets and finite amounts of consumer attention mean that it’s equivalent not to the big chain papers, but to the tiny-circulation local papers, two to a town of 5,000, that were being pushed out of business by the Hearsts and Pulitzers starting in the 1890s, and who ran as much human-interest, reader-flattering, and advertorial content as they could just to keep the presses running. There were lots of other forms of clickbait in the golden age of print — news-of-the-weird tabloids like the Police Gazette, judgy slash salacious advice columns in women’s weeklies, all manner of epic rants, gleeful takedowns, and swindling hoaxes being passed around in broadsides and pamphlets and proto-zines — but bottom-feeding we have with us always. It’s the top-feeders you want to watch out for.