W. Joseph Campbell

Wrong-headed history: Yellow press stampeded U.S. to war

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

Glib but thinly substantiated.

Hearst: War-monger?

That characterizes the not-infrequent claims about William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and the war-mongering ways of their yellow newspapers. The claims are readily offered but rarely documented.

Take, for example, an essay published yesterday at Huffington Post which addressed the farcical campaign of the satiric newspaper, the Onion, to seek a Pulitzer Prize.

The HuffPo essay was headlined, “Why not give The Onion a Pulitzer?” and offered this dollop of wrong-headed history:

“Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used their newspapers to stampede the country into the Spanish-American War. A century later, the publications most often honored by Pulitzer Prizes went along for the ride of our Iraqi adventure in the same fashion — which makes the point that today’s regular Pulitzer honorees haven’t come very far from the journalism practiced in Pulitzer’s day.”

The latter claim — “today’s regular Pulitzer honorees haven’t come very far” — is risible. The preceding claim about the yellow press and a “stampede” to war with Spain is utterly false.

As I discussed 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, Pulitzer and Hearst published six newspapers between them. Pulitzer’s were the World and the Evening World in New York, and the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis. Hearst’s were the Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Those half-dozen titles wielded no more than modest agenda-setting influence on the rest of the American press, which then numbered more than 2,200 daily newspapers.

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,” the 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 with Spain for the future of Cuba. But it was not the sole factor, or even necessarily the decisive factor.

Effects of 'reconcentration'

What more than anything led America to war in 1898 were Spain’s brutal efforts to suppress the rebellion on Cuba, a vicious conflict that began in February 1895.

Spain sought to crush the rebellion by forcing Cuban non-combattants – old men, women, and children– into were called “reconcentration centers,” to prevent the non-combattants from giving aid, succor, and supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “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 the dailies of Pulitzer and Hearst — were aware of, and reported extensively about, the humanitarian crisis that had taken hold on Cuba by early 1898.

That crisis — and not the often-flamboyant contents of the yellow press — was what precipitated the conflict 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.

It’s important to note that the fierce Pulitzer-Hearst competition for readers in New York undercut whatever power their respective newspapers may have wielded in shaping U.S. public opinion and U.S. policy toward Spain.

As I noted in Yellow Journalism, the newspapers of Pulitzer and Hearst “were not in lockstep but sought instead to denigrate, undercut, or minimize the other’s coverage during the months before and after the United States declared war on Spain.”

The broader effect of the Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry, I noted, “likely was to diminish the integrity and, in turn, the credibility and  presumed influence” of their newspapers, further weakening their agenda-setting capacity.


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