W. Joseph Campbell

Getting it right about Hearst, his newspapers, and war

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 27, 2010 at 7:30 am

It’s rather remarkable how William Randolph Hearst, the timeless bogeyman of American journalism, serves so readily as an exemplar of how awful the news media can be.


Hearst and his newspapers, for example, are often blamed for having fomented the war with Spain over Cuba in 1898. They didn’t.

He’s also accused of having vowed to “furnish the war,” in an incendiary telegram to the artist Frederic Remington in 1897. I debunk that popular but thinly documented tale  in my new mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

A column yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer offered another charge against Hearst’s character and journalism. He was accused of having played on anti-Catholic sentiment to whip up popular sentiment against Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Here’s what the column said:

“Fox News and [Fox talk show host Bill] O’Reilly have been the leading TV gathering point for anti-Muslim sentiment following the attack on New York’s World Trade Center, most recently providing viewers with a rallying point against the so-called ground zero mosque.

“This sort of journalism is even older than what some people characterize as political correctness and others call public respect for minorities. In 1890, William Randolph Hearst helped boost profits for his New York Journal newspaper, stirring public sentiment to start the Spanish-American War, by exploiting antipathy for the Roman Catholic Spanish Empire.”

Let’s see: In 1890 Hearst wasn’t even in New York; he was in San Francisco, running the Examiner newspaper. He didn’t take control of the New York Journal until 1895.

And war was not profitable for Hearst’s newspapers .

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the Spanish-American War in 1898 generally boosted newspaper circulation. But advertising revenues fell, as advertisers feared the conflict would undercut a halting recovery from hard economic times of the 1890s.

Moreover, newsprint costs soared, as did news-gathering expenditures.

In 1899, the trade journal Fourth Estate estimated that Hearst’s New York Journal had spent $50,000 a week—the equivalent these days of more than $1 million—on cable tolls, reporters’ salaries, and dispatch boats that ferried correspondents’ reports from the war’s principal theater in Cuba to Jamaica and elsewhere for transmission to New York.

Hearst’s Journal scoffed at claims that it helped bring on the war as part of a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits.

Hearst's Evening Journal

“Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal said, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000—the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.

Close reading of the Journal in the run-up to the Spanish-American War makes it clear that Catholicism wasn’t much of a preoccupation for the newspaper. The Cubans, after all, were overwhelmingly Catholic, too, and the Journal sided unequivocally with their bid for political self-rule.

The human rights disaster that took hold in Cuba by 1898 was far more important to the Journal and to other newspapers in New York than “antipathy” to Spain’s Catholicism.

Spain, in a clumsy attempt to put down an island-wide rebellion against its colonial governance, forced thousands of Cubans, mostly old men, women, and children, into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the rebels, who controlled much of the countryside.

This policy was called “reconcentration,” and it gave rise to widespread malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from starvation and illness.

The human rights disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism . And conditions on Cuba were a frequent topic of reporting in the Journal and other newspapers.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has quite correctly observed that the reconcentration policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

Hearst’s newspapers reported about, but certainly did not create, the devastating effects of Spain’s ill-considered and destructive policy.


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