W. Joseph Campbell

Some dubious history from Frank Rich

In Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 1, 2011 at 9:50 am

Frank Rich, in a lengthy New York magazine screed about Rupert Murdoch, invokes the hoary media myth that William Randolph Hearst’s “papers famously fomented the Spanish-American War and perfected the modern gossip machine.”

I won’t quarrel much with Rich’s claim about “the modern gossip machine.” But the bit about the Spanish-American War represents a serious misreading of history.

In addressing such a dubious assertion as Hearst’s yellow press “fomented the Spanish-American War,” it’s useful to ask: How’d they do it? How was newspaper content translated into war policy?

Rich doesn’t say. He doesn’t pause to consider how it was that content of Hearst’s newspapers set an agenda for war that the administration of President William McKinley pursued.

The yellow press in fact had no such agenda-setting influence. It was a negligible factor.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, McKinley administration officials took no leads from Hearst’s newspapers.

They derided the yellow press, when they thought of it at all, and regarded it as a complicating factor in efforts to resolve a diplomatic impasse over Spain’s harsh rule of Cuba — an impasse that gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The impasse arose from Spain’s brutal but ineffective attempts to put down a rebellion on Cuba that began in 1895 and reached islandwide proportion by 1898.

To tamp down the rebellion, Spain imposed a policy it called “reconcentration,” in which tens of thousands of Cuban men, women, and children were herded into garrisons towns and fortified areas, from where they could provide no aid or support to Cuban insurgents in the countryside.

Reconcentration” brought on widespread starvation, malnutrition, and disease. Tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died as a result of the Spanish policy which, as historian Ivan Musicant has written, “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The misguided policy, Musicant also noted, “turned public opinion enormously in the United States.”

Ultimately, then, as I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the Spanish-American War was “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.”

I also noted:

“While the yellow press may have reported extensively on the consequences of Spain’s failures and missteps, it did not create them.”

So what? one might ask.

After all, Rich’s reference to Hearst and the Spanish-American War represented a small portion of a lengthy article about Murdoch. So why make a fuss about it?

Several reasons offer themselves.

For starters, the Hearst-Murdoch comparison, as I’ve pointed out previously at Media Myth Alert, is facile and inexact. The similarities between the two media tycoons are largely superficial.

Notably, Hearst had nothing akin to the global reach of Murdoch’s multimedia empire. And Hearst, unlike Murdoch, vigorously pursued political ambitions: Hearst ran repeatedly and mostly unsuccessfully for high political office during his late 30s and 40s, before giving up.

But a more important reason for directing attention to this dubious bit of media history is that Rich arguably should have known better: Few serious historians buy into the claim about Hearst and his newspapers fomenting the war with Spain.

And thinking it through, it doesn’t seem very logical: Could newspaper content be so powerful and decisive that it could push a country into war it otherwise wouldn’t have fought?

Does it really work that way?

Assuredly not.


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