W. Joseph Campbell

On Hearst, yellow journalism, and war

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 5, 2010 at 10:04 am

The dubious linkage of William Randolph Hearst, late 19th century yellow journalism,  and the Spanish-American War was invoked yesterday in a post at the Breaking Media online site.

The item discussed the latest deal by Hearst Corp., noting the reported acquisition was “not a newspaper, a magazine or even a website, but [iCrossing Inc.,] a company specializing in buying search keywords and performing social media“—and suggested that William Randolph, the company’s founder who died in 1951, would have approved.

Hearst before the war

Inevitably, perhaps, the Breaking Media item offered an historically flabby slice of context, asserting that “the Hearst name will forever be associated with yellow journalism techniques that led to a war and mainstream acceptance of all kinds of crazy pseudoscience.”

I don’t know about the last bit, the “acceptance of all kinds of crazy pseudoscience.”

But the claim about Hearst, yellow journalism, and war is an exaggeration, a media-driven myth.

The reference to “war” is, of course, to the Spanish-American War of 1898, the 114-day conflict in which the United States routed Spanish forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The myth is that Hearst and his flamboyant yellow journalism whipped American public opinion to such an extent that war with Spain (over its harsh colonial rule of Cuba) became inevitable.

The myth is addressed, and debunked, in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. A slice of the myth–that notion that Hearst vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain–is discussed in a chapter my new book, Getting It Wrong.

In Yellow Journalism, I noted that the argument that Hearst fomented the war with Spain over Cuba rests on a decidedly narrow, media-centric interpretation of the conflict’s causes.

That interpretation ignores, I noted, the “more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.

“In the case of the Spanish-American War,” I wrote, “the policy objectives between the United States and Spain ultimately proved irreconcilable. Months of intricate diplomatic efforts ultimately failed to resolve what had become an intolerable state of affairs in Cuba, dramatized by the destruction of the [U.S. warship] Maine in a harbor under Spanish control and supervision.

“To indict the yellow press for causing the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and to ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in the spring of 1898 in an impasse that led to war.”

Failed diplomacy gave rise to the Spanish-American War, not the content of Hearst’s newspapers in New York and San Francisco.

I also pointed out in Yellow Journalism:

“The notion that the yellow press incited or fomented the Spanish-American War stands, moreover, as testimony to the supposedly powerful, even malevolent effects of the news media—that they can and sometimes do act in dangerous, devious, and manipulative ways.”

And that’s an important reason why the myth about Hearst, yellow journalism, and war has proved so tenacious. It offers a lesson, however misleading, about the extreme hazards of unchecked media power: Unscrupulous media moguls can take us into wars that otherwise we would not fight.



  1. […] “yellow journalism,” and how its sensational and exaggerated content supposedly brought about the Spanish-American War in […]

  2. […] is, after all, far easier to believe that Hearst and his “yellow press” brought on the Spanish-American War in 1898, I said, than it is […]

  3. […] is a neat, tidy, reductive way of explaining the causes of the Spanish-American War:  Hearst, the war-mongering publisher, is to […]

  4. […] told, though, is rich and delicious, suggesting the malign potential of media power as well as Hearst’s meddling ways. The anecdote often is cited in support of the dubious claim that Hearst and his yellow press […]

  5. […] to Cuba 15 months before the Spanish-American War broke out. In early 1897, no one, including Hearst, could have known the United States would take up arms against Spain over […]

  6. […] was “keen to adapt and eager to experiment,” I wrote. Its practitioners–notably William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal–took risks, spent lavishly on gathering the news, and […]

  7. […] a pithy and imaginative way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph […]

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  9. […] On Hearst, yellow journalism, and war […]

  10. […] William Randolph Hearst was a war-monger, a feckless newspaper publisher who fomented the conflict with Spain in 1898, can be an […]

  11. […] example, I said. The quote just seems too good, too perfect to be true.  It deftly captures Hearst as war-monger, but it’s supported by almost no evidence. It’s almost certainly […]

  12. […] Ervin Wardman coined “yellow journalism” to disparage the flamboyant newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph […]

  13. […] denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of the New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. By the end of March 1897, references to “yellow […]

  14. […] clearly meant the slogan to be a rebuke to the flamboyant ways of the  New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Their newspapers were the […]

  15. […] characterizes the not-infrequent claims about William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and the war-mongering ways of their yellow newspapers. The claims are readily […]

  16. […] style of flamboyant journalism certainly helped inspire the epithet “yellow journalism,” but he was no father of tabloid […]

  17. […] claimed the tough old media mogul has “surpassed William Randolph Hearst,” press baron of the 19th and early 20th centuries, “in practicing yellow […]

  18. […] Randolph Hearst almost surely never vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain, and his newspapers of the […]

  19. […] so, “furnish the war” is a tale too tempting sometimes not to be pressed into the service of […]

  20. […] as evidence of the sketchy character of Hearst, an activist newspaper publisher whose “yellow journalism” brought him prominence in the closing years of the 19th […]

  21. […] the Spanish-American War veered clear of the hoary media myth that sensational newspaper reporting whipped up public opinion to such an extent that the conflict became […]

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