W. Joseph Campbell

Hearst pushed country into war? But how?

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 18, 2010 at 7:37 am

Hearst's 'Evening Journal'

That William Randolph Hearst was a war-monger, a feckless newspaper publisher who fomented the conflict with Spain in 1898, can be an irresistible notion.

It’s also a classic media-driven myth, one that ignores the failure of diplomacy that led to the Spanish-American War and offers a simplistic and misleading explanation instead.

The claim that Hearst brought on the war appeared the other day in a commentary published in the Press Gazette of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The commentary flatly asserted:

“William Randolph Hearst wielded tremendous power with his chain of newspapers, up to and including getting the United States involved in a war with Spain beginning in 1898.”

As is often the case, the claim about Hearst’s war-mongering is backed by no documentation, no supporting evidence. It’s as if the matter is settled, as if there’s no disputing that Hearst and his yellow press possessed such power.

It’s assumed Hearst was capable of thrusting the country into war.

But no recent biographer of Hearst, and no serious historian of the Spanish-American War, supports such an interpretation.

I addressed and knocked down such claims in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I wrote:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force—it could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Hearst’s newspapers–which in 1898 included the Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner–wielded at best modest agenda-setting influence.

I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“There is little evidence that the press beyond New York City, especially in small-town and rural America, was influenced by the content of the yellow journals, including their demands for war after the destruction of the Maine,” an American battleship that blew up in Havana harbor in February 1898.

The destruction of the Maine in a harbor under Spanish control was a trigger for war, which began in April 1898, after the United States and Spain reached an impasse in negotiations about extending self-rule to Cuba.

Conspicuously absent in argument that Hearst fomented the conflict are adequate or persuasive explanations as to how the often-erroneous, often-exaggerated contents of Hearst’s newspapers were transformed into policy and military action.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, if Hearst’s yellow press did bring on the war, then researchers should be able to find unambiguous references to such influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all,” I wrote in the book.

When the yellow press was discussed within the administration of President William McKinley it tended to be dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.

Its content was regarded “neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain,” I added.

So there is “almost no evidence that the demands of the yellow journals—especially during the critical weeks after the Maine’s destruction—penetrated the thinking of key White House officials, let alone influenced the Cuban policy of the McKinley administration,” I wrote.

So why is the notion so tenacious that Hearst’s yellow press brought on the war?

Blaming Hearst’s newspapers for the war is a convenient way to excoriate yellow journalism, a ready way of summarizing its excesses and defining its malevolent potential.


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