W. Joseph Campbell

Hearst ‘pushed us into war’? How’d he do that?

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on November 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm

'Maine' destroyed

So powerful was William Randolph Hearst, the favorite bogeyman of American journalism, that he and his flamboyant yellow press brought on the Spanish-American War in 1898.

It’s a popular but dubious claim–a media myth, really–that lives on as a cautionary tale about the dark potential of media power.

This enduring myth about Hearst and the war was invoked yesterday, in a post at the Atlantic online site. The item–which took a few pokes at another bogeyman of journalism, global media mogul Rupert Murdoch–declared:

“Murdoch has displayed an absolute genius for pouring gasoline on fires. It’s an old tabloid technique, of course, as William Randolph Hearst well knew as he pushed us into war with Spain a century ago.”

Left quite unsaid is how Hearst accomplished that, how specifically “he pushed us into war with Spain.” It’s a topic we’ve explored previously at Media Myth Alert.

And the answer is, he didn’t.

He couldn’t have.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“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.”

In 1898, Hearst’s newspapers were the Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner. These three titles wielded what was at very best modest agenda-setting influence on the rest of the American press, which numbered more than 2,200 daily newspapers.

Indeed, as I noted 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, killing 266 officers and sailors. (See front-page image, above.)

The destruction of the Maine–in a harbor under Spanish control–was a trigger for the war that began in April 1898, amid a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over extending self-rule to Cuba.

That impasse was the central cause of the conflict.

Invariably absent in the claims that Hearst “pushed us into war” are persuasive explanations about how the often-exaggerated contents of his newspapers were transformed into U.S. policy, and how specifically those contents were decisive in the decisionmaking the led to the United States to declare war on Spain.

If Hearst and his yellow press had indeed “pushed us into war,” researchers surely should be able to find evidence of such influence in the personal papers and in the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

But nothing of the like can be found in the private letters, diary entries, and diplomatic correspondence of top members of the administration of President William McKinley.

Those papers contain “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 in Yellow Journalism.

And the few occasions when McKinley administration officials did refer to the yellow press in the run-up to the war, they tended to dismiss it as an annoyance or scoff it at as a complicating factor.


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