W. Joseph Campbell

Hearst and war: A newspaper misreads history

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on March 28, 2011 at 8:30 am

American journalists, to put it charitably, can be quite unfamiliar with the history of their profession.

The field, as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history.”

As such, journalists are known to flub it — or indulge in media myths — when they do take up the past. Consider, for example, the Bangor Daily News in Maine, which both flubs it and offers up a hardy media myth in an editorial posted online last night.

The media myth centers around the hoary notion, rejected by serious historians, that William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism fomented or brought about the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In invoking the myth of Hearst and the long-ago war, the Bangor newspaper sought to describe the context for the multiple military missions the United States is pursuing these days.

The newspaper declared:

“U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001. They’ve been in Iraq since 2003. And they soon could be in Libya. This is not to mention standing U.S. military bases in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Brazil, Greenland, the Philippines, Cuba, Guam and on and on. How and when did this happen?

“The year the United States began its ascendancy as a world power was 1898, beginning with the Spanish-American War, a conflict of dubious progeny fanned into flames by the partisan journalism practiced by William Randolph Hearst.”

How simplistic. And how illogical.

Just think it through: wars can begin because of overheated newspaper content?

Quite simply, that’s a misreading of history, a lazy interpretation that ascribes too much power to Hearst and his yellow press while ignoring the human rights disaster on Cuba that helped precipitate the war in April 1898.

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 published the Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner. The three titles wielded at best modest agenda-setting influence on the rest of the American press, which then numbered more than 2,200 daily newspapers.

Indeed, as I pointed out 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.

The destruction of the Maine was a triggering event of the war. But it was not the sole factor, or even necessarily the decisive factor.

What galvanized American public opinion were Spain’s brutal efforts to suppress an islandwide rebellion on Cuba, a nasty conflict that began in February 1895 and ultimately gave rise to the Spanish-American War.

A centerpiece of Spain’s attempt to crush the rebellion was to force Cuban non-combattants – old men, women, and children– into what the Spanish called “reconcentration centers,” to prevent the non-combattants from giving aid, succor, and supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The “reconcentration” policy was a disaster. Tens of thousands of Cubans fell victim to disease and starvation. U.S. newspapers — including but certainly not limited to Hearst’s dailies — were aware of, and reported extensively about, the humanitarian crisis that had taken hold on Cuba by early 1898.

That crisis, not the content of the yellow press, was what “fanned” the flames for war with Spain.

As the historian David Trask has written, Americans in 1898 “went to war convinced that they had embarked upon an entirely selfless mission for humanity,” to end Spain’s brutal rule of Cuba.

The war hardly was “a conflict of dubious progeny,” as the Bangor Daily News dismissively put it. And it surely wasn’t a war driven by Hearst and his yellow press.


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