W. Joseph Campbell

‘Economist’ indulges in media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 22, 2011 at 8:31 am

The latest issue of Britain’s Economist newsweekly carries a column that presents an intriguing discussion of “the madness of great men” — an affliction it says is common among media tycoons.

To buttress that point, the usually well-reported Economist turns to a media myth — the discredited notion that press baron William Randolph Hearst, the timeless bogeyman of American journalism, fomented the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Such claims about Hearst are often made but rarely supported by persuasive explanations as to how the contents of Hearst’s newspapers were transformed into U.S. policy and military action.

The Economist column offers no such explanation: Its assertion about Hearst is supported by no evidence.

The column, titled “Great bad men as bosses,” considers the serious recent troubles of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and introduces Hearst with a brief discussion of “what Norwegians call stormannsgalskap, the madness of great men.” (It also can be translated to “megalomania.”)

Stormannsgalskap,” the Economist says, “is particularly common among media barons, not least because they frequently blur the line between reporting reality and shaping it. William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report.”

Widely suspected by whom?

No serious historian of the Spanish-American war period gives much credence to such claims.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press of Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer “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.”

The proximate cause of the war was the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s bungled attempts to quell a rebellion that had begun in Cuba in 1895 and had spread across the island by 1898.

To deprive the Cuban rebels of support, Spain’s colonial rulers herded Cuban women, children, and old men into garrison towns, where thousands of them died from starvation and disease.

While mostly forgotten nowadays, that humanitarian crisis was widely reported in the U.S. press, and widely condemned by the U.S. government.

The disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I noted in Yellow Journalism.

And as a leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has correctly noted, the ill-advised and destructive policy toward Cuban non-combatants “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The Economist’s additional claim, that Hearst stirred up the war “to give his papers something to report,” is laughable.

Quite simply, there was no shortage of news to cover in the run-up to the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, a “variety of other events figured prominently on the Journal’s front page in the months before the Spanish-American War,” including the inauguration in March 1897 of President William McKinley;  the brief war between Greece and Turkey; the headless torso murder mystery that gripped New York in the summer of 1897; the Klondike gold rush; New York’s vigorously contested mayoral election, and the Journal-sponsored New Year’s Eve gala to celebrate the political consolidation of the five boroughs of New York City.


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