W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘1898’

Hearst, Ted Cruz, and the myth of war-mongering ‘yellow journalism’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on April 27, 2018 at 7:19 am

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz  assailed U.S. technology companies this week and, in doing so, brought up one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — that William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers brought about the Spanish-American War 120 years ago.

In an interview with “Breitbart News Tonight,” Cruz declared that the “scope of the power” of Facebook and other tech companies “is truly unprecedented. You think back to the heights of yellow journalism, when publisher William Randolph Hearst controlled much of media and in fact got America into the Spanish-American War. Well, these tech companies have power William Randolph Hearst could never have imagined.”

Cruz: Blames Hearst for war

Maybe.

But it hardly can be said that Hearst “controlled much of [the] media” in 1898. He ran three newspapers then — his flagship New York Journal, its down-market companion the Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner. At the time, the United States had more than 2,000 daily newspapers (and 12,000 weeklies), the ownership of which was quite diffuse.

More intriguing to Media Myth Alert was the senator’s unsourced claim that Hearst “got America into the Spanish-American War.” No serious historian of the period embraces that notion. It is indeed a hoary media myth, which I addressed and debunked in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism.

Claims about Hearst’s war-mongering power almost always are unsourced. They almost always lack an explanation about just how Hearst and his “yellow journalism” brought on the war: What was the linkage? By what mechanism were the contents of Hearst’s three newspapers transformed into government policy and military action against Spain?

The short answer: There was no such mechanism.

As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, there is almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press — especially during the decisive weeks following the deadly destruction of the USS Maine in mid-February 1898, while on a friendly visit to Havana — shaped the thinking, influenced the policy formulation, or informed the conduct of key officials in the administration of President William McKinley.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

The administration assuredly did not take a policy lead from the Hearst press. His newspapers were, I noted, “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” that preceded the declaration of war on April 25, 1898. The conflict lasted 114 days as the U.S. Army and Navy routed Spanish forces in theaters in the Caribbean and Asia — in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

To indict the yellow press for bringing on the conflict is to misread the evidence and ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in an impasse that led to war. Failed diplomacy — essentially, the United States and Spain could not resolve differences over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — gave rise to war.

The start date of the conflict was a source of recent confusion for the Washington Post which, in a glib essay about the cruelties of April, erroneously stated the war was declared on April 20, 1898.

Hearst’s Journal: Offered reward to solve Maine destruction, 1898

The Post’s essay also said “the main justification for war was the February sinking of the USS Maine (‘Remember the Maine’). Hoping to sell newspapers, publishers — specifically, William Randolph Hearst — alleged Spain was responsible for the disaster, an unsubstantiated claim at the time that has since been debunked.”

Not so.

In March 1898 (very much “at the time”), a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine’s destruction was likely triggered by the detonation of an underwater mine in Havana harbor, which was under Spanish control. The Court’s key finding was that a portion of the battleship’s bottom plating had been bent inward, in the shape of an inverted “V.” That evidence signaled an external source of the explosion.

Although the Court of Inquiry identified no suspects in the presumed mining, the American press and public held Spanish authorities responsible, given their control of the harbor. (For example, one of Hearst’s rivals, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, declared at the end of March 1898: “The Government of Spain is inescapably responsible for the destruction of the Maine by a MINE in Havana harbor. What are we going to do about it?”)

The Naval Court’s central finding was endorsed in 1911, when the wreck of the Maine was raised from Havana harbor and taken to sea for burial in 400 fathoms of water. The 1911 inquiry placed the likely location of the underwater mine farther aft than did the 1898 inquiry.

The mine-sunk-the-Maine interpretation was not seriously challenged until the mid-1970s, when Admiral Hyman G. Rickover commissioned a private study that proposed spontaneous combustion — a fire smoldering undetected in a coal bunkers near the ship’s forward magazines — was the explosion’s probable source.

Rickover’s interpretation has proved not to be the final word, however.

In 1998, a study commissioned by National Geographic and conducted with computer simulations by Advanced Marine Enterprises found fresh support for the mine theory.

The study said “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine” was the source of the explosion. It also said “that while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker can create ignition-level temperatures in adjacent magazines, this is not likely to have occurred on the Maine, because the bottom plating … would have blown outward, not inward.”

WJC

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‘Forbes’ essay invokes zombie-like Hearst ‘quote’: It never dies

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 22, 2015 at 12:14 pm

The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst that he would “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

It is, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Exhibit A in support of the dubious notion that Hearst  brought on the Spanish-American War.

The vow supposedly was made in a telegram to the artist, Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Cuba to draw sketches of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. Remington stayed just six days in January 1897 before returning to New York, where his sketches were displayed prominently in Hearst’s New York Journal.

'Maine' destroyed

‘Journal’ reports ‘Maine’ destruction

The mythical tale about the Hearstian vow and the war with Spain was offered up anew yesterday, in an essay posted at Forbes.com. It declared:

“Artist Frederick [sic] Remington was working for Hearst and the Journal was filled with his sketches of alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace, especially women and children. When events in Cuba seemed to have run their course and the Spanish had regained control Remington wrote to Hearst and asked if it was time to come home, Hearst replied, ‘Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.’ And when the battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, he did just that with a stream of fictional stories of sabotage and anti-Americanism. That the explosion was actually caused by the accidental ignition of coal dust was, as far as Hearst was concerned, irrelevant. He had his war.”

There’s a lot of myth and misunderstanding to unpack there.

For starters, the “alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace” were quite real. The abuses stemmed from Spain’s policy of “reconcentration,” in which Cuban non-combattants were herded into garrison towns, to deprive the rebels of their support. Reconcentration led to acute hardships, privation, and the deaths of untold thousands of Cubans.

A leading historian of the Spanish-American War period, Ivan Musicant, has  written that reconcentration “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.”

Despite the Forbes claim, Spain never “regained control” of Cuba; at best, the rebellion had settled into an uneasy stalemate by the end of 1897.

The battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, 13 months after Remington’s brief visit to Cuba. Cause of the explosion that killed 266 U.S. sailors and officers remains disputed. But in March 1898, a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine most likely had been destroyed by an underwater mine. The Inquiry could not determine who set the device, however.

About a month after the Court of Inquiry issued its report, the United States and Spain went to war over Cuba.

In the run-up to war, the Journal didn’t distinguish itself with its overheated reporting about the crisis. But the newspaper’s content cannot be said to have brought on the conflict.

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, claims that Hearst fomented the war invariably are offered without persuasive explanation as to how the often-exaggerated content of his newspapers was transformed into U.S. policy, how newspaper reports were decisive in the decision-making the led the United States to declare war in April 1898.

The inescapable answer: Newspaper content was not decisive.

If Hearst and his newspapers had pushed the country into war, then researchers surely should be able to locate evidence of such influence in the personal papers and 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 content of Hearst’s newspapers “penetrated the thinking of key White House officials, let alone influenced the Cuban policy of the McKinley administration,” I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Which brings us back to the zombie-like vow, which, by the way, the Forbes essay mangles.

Hearst purportedly told Remington, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” — not “Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.”

Creelman: Sole source

Creelman the pompous

The original source for the “furnish the war” quotation was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author, James Creelman, was a vain, cigar-chomping journalist inclined to self-promotion, hyperbole, and pomposity.

Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the supposed Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

What’s more, Creelman – who was in Spain at the time Remington was in Cuba in 1897 – recounted the anecdote not as a rebuke but as a compliment to Hearst and the activist “yellow journalism” he had pioneered in New York City.

Over the decades, though, the quote has morphed into censure of Hearst and his supposedly war-mongering newspapers.

The quote lives on despite the absence of any supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up, and Hearst denied having sent such a message.

Not only that, but the Spanish authorities who controlled Cuba’s incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic surely would have intercepted and called attention to such an incendiary message — had it been sent.

In addition, the timing of Remington’s assignment further undercuts the “furnish the war” tale: The timing poses an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, in that it would have been absurd for Hearst to pledge to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

WJC

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‘SF Examiner’ marks 150th anniversary with dose of media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 11, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The San Francisco Examiner marked its 150th anniversary today with a dash of media myth about its most famous owner, William Randolph Hearst, and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Media baron Hearst

Hearst: Started with the Examiner

The newspaper, which has survived near-death encounters in its turbulent past, asserted the following in an online overview of its history:

“Led by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, newspapers were largely responsible for creating the Spanish-American War through the birth of yellow journalism.”

But how that worked, how the newspapers created or fomented that war, was left unsaid, as was the nature of the contribution of “yellow journalism.”

For that matter, “yellow journalism” was left undefined.

But the short answer is that newspapers — and yellow journalism — were not “responsible,” largely or otherwise, for the war in which the United States crushed Spanish military forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, an outcome that signaled America’s emergence as a global power.

As I discussed in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer — the leading exemplars of the yellow press — exerted very modest agenda-setting influence in the run-up to the war.SFExaminer loho_Twitter

I noted:

“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 warship that blew up while on a friendly visit to Havana in mid-February 1898.

The destruction of the Maine — in a harbor under Spanish control — was a trigger for the war.

But if newspapers had been responsible for the war, then researchers should be able to find unambiguous references to such influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers [in the administration of President William McKinley] nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all,” I wrote Yellow Journalism.

So what, then, were the proximate causes of war in 1898?

Fundamentally, the war was the consequence of a three-sided diplomatic impasse: Cuban insurgents, who in 1895 had launched a rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, would accept nothing short of independence from Madrid. Spain, for domestic and economic reasons, was adamant not to grant Cuban independence — and sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island in an attempt to put down the rebellion. And the United States had become deeply frustrated with Spain’s inability to bring an end to a conflict on an island 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Not only did Spain send thousands of troops to Cuba, it sought to deprive the rebels of the aid and support of non-combattants by herding  women, children, and old men into reconcentration centers. The Cuban non-combattants suffered grievously; tens of thousands of them died from starvation and illness in the reconcentration centers.

By 1898, a humanitarian disaster had taken hold in Cuba.

The diplomatic standoff, and the effects of Spain’s reconcentration policy, were the real reasons for the war.

Not Hearst. Not Pulitzer. Not “yellow journalism.”

As for “yellow journalism”: The term was coined in 1897 and it came to represent a flamboyant genre defined by these features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call frequent attention to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

It was, as I noted in Yellow Journalism, a genre that scarcely could be “called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

WJC

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No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Media-driven myths can be tenacious because they offer simplified, easy-to-grasp versions of complex events of the past.

That’s why, for example, the Watergate myth — that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is so hardy. It’s easy to grasp and easy to retell.

Not to blame: Hearst's 'Evening Journal'

Hearst’s Evening Journal

So it is with the Spanish-American War, a brief conflict in 1898 that confirmed the United States as a global power.

The media myth of the Spanish-American War — the simplified but inaccurate account of the conflict’s origins — is that it was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

But the notion is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the hoary myth made an appearance at Politico Magazine the other day, in a commentary titled “The Neocon Surge.”

The commentary said prominent neoconservatives “are going into overdrive to pin the blame for the collapse of Iraq on anyone other than themselves.” And it called out the scholar Robert Kagan, saying he had “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

What especially interests Media Myth Alert is not resurgent neoconservatism but the claim that the Spanish-American War was a “product” of Hearst’s yellow press, a claim Politico vaguely attributed to “most historians.”

Politico is wrong on both counts.

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

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, which had been the scene of an islandwide rebellion since early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst. The yellow press reported on but it did not create the terrible effects of Spain’s disastrous “reconcentration” policy.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by that policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898 — not the content of the yellow press, and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it.

Warmonger?

Young Hearst: No warmonger

Almost always unaddressed in claims that Hearst fomented the war is any discussion about how his newspapers’ content accomplished the trick: By what mechanism was newspaper content transformed into policy and military action?

It’s left unaddressed because there was no such mechanism.

The mechanism wasn’t an agenda-setting function: Hearst’s newspapers, attention-grabbing though they were, did not set the news agenda for the other 2,000 or so daily newspapers in the United States in the late 1890s.

A significant body of research compiled over the years indicates that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, and ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow journals in the run-up to the war. Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses and flamboyance.

Moreover, top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the yellow press. They certainly didn’t turn to it for guidance in policymaking. As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, diary entries of White House officials disparaged the yellow press as a nuisance but gave it no credit as a factor in developing or shaping policy.

The content of the yellow press, I further noted, was “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” over conditions on Cuba, negotiations that preceded the declaration of war.

At most, Hearst’s newspapers were irritants to policymakers in Washington. They did not, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century has correctly observed, “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

WJC

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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.

WJC

Recent and related:

Juan Williams’ new book repeats Spanish-American War myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am

The new book by Juan Williams, the political analyst clumsily dismissed by NPR last year, offers some history of American journalism.

Some inaccurate history of American journalism.

The book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, repeats the hoary media myth that the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer brought on the Spanish-American War of 1898.

That’s a facile, media-centric interpretation endorsed by few if any serious historians of the conflict.

According to an excerpt of Muzzled posted at the online site of Fox News,  Williams writes:

“Hearst and Pulitzer became infamous for starting a real war. They whipped up so much anger at Spain through inflammatory stories about Spain’s handling of American vessels that they incited the United States to go to war with Spain in the Spanish-American War.”

Williams also says of Hearst and Pulitzer:

“Their coverage of the news, from crime to political scandals to war, was a study in sensationalized accounts, including outright distortion and lies, in a battle to sell more papers in New York City.”

Hearst and Pulitzer were bitter rivals, to be sure. But anyone who has spent much time reading their newspapers of the mid- and late-1890s can only be impressed by the vigor and breadth of their report.

As media historian John D. Stevens wrote in his study of sensationalism and New York City journalism, it is “tempting to caricature the yellow papers as being edited for janitors and clerks.”

But in fact they “published a fair amount of sober financial, political, and diplomatic information,” Stevens wrote. They were much more than merely sensational.

If the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer titillated, Stevens noted, they also informed.

In any case, they certainly cannot be blamed for bringing on the Spanish-American War.

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

The yellow press “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.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

Those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — the scene of an islandwide rebellion that had begun in 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities ordered thousands of Cubans, mostly old men, women, and children, into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The authorities called the policy “reconcentration,” and it gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The human rights disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — included, but not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by reconcentration “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The yellow press reported on, but certainly did not create, the devastating effects of Spain’s ill-considered and destructive policy.

So to indict Hearst and Pulitzer, as Williams does, for supposedly “starting” the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and do disservice to a keener understanding of the much-maligned genre of yellow journalism.

WJC

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‘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.

WJC

Recalling Hearst to bash Murdoch: Superficial and off-target

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2011 at 12:26 am

Hearst: Murdoch's model?

The fallout from the phone-hacking scandal rocking Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings in Britain has prompted unflattering comparisons that the tough old media mogul is but a latter-day reincarnation of William Randolph Hearst, American press lord of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Trouble is, such comparisons are facile and no better than superficial. Hearst, for example, hardly established the international presence that Murdoch commands.

And these off-target comparisons have become an occasion to indulge in the hoary media myth that Hearst and his yellow press fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Sun Herald newspaper of Mississippi, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2006 for coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast, did just that in an editorial published over the weekend.

“Not since William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire sensationalized news and gave a distinctive yellow tinge to journalism has the world seen the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian/American media lord whose News Corporation has spread its tabloid brand in print and on the airwaves to so many corners of the globe,” the Sun Herald harrumphed in its editorial.

Of Hearst, the Sun Herald further stated:

“His newspapers were so powerful in molding public opinion that they were credited with pushing the United States into war with Spain in 1898.”

Really?

No.

As I pointed out in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, critics who blame the yellow press of Hearst (and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer) for bringing on the war invariably fail to explain how the contents of those newspapers came to be transformed into policy and military action.

How did that work? What was the mechanism? Why was the yellow press so singularly powerful at that moment in American history?

In truth, as I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, there was no mechanism by which the newspapers’ contents were translated into policy and a decision to go to war. They were not that powerful.

Had the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer brought about the war with Spain, then “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, adding:

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

In short, senior officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of what was called the yellow press. They did not turn to it for guidance or insight in policymaking.

Their thinking was not shaped by yellow journalism.

A variation of the Murdoch-Hearst criticism is to assail Murdoch — as a commentary  posted yesterday at Huffington Post put it — “the latest prime purveyor of so-called ‘yellow journalism’.”

The author, novelist Terence Clarke, declared that yellow journalism as practiced by Hearst and Pulitzer “sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers.

“It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Now, with Murdoch leading the way, journalism in many instances has fallen victim to the same wish for sales, and has descended, again, from the high ground it should occupy.”

Oh, spare us such superficiality.

The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer was much more than merely sensational.

Anyone who has spent much time reading through their newspapers of the late 19th century invariably comes away impressed with the aggressive and news-oriented approaches they took.

David Nasaw, author of a commendably even-handed biography of Hearst, pointed this out notably well, writing:

“Day after day, Hearst and his staff improved on their product. Their headlines were more provocative than anyone else’s, their drawings more lifelike … the writing throughout the paper outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded.”

Not only that, but Hearst was willing to spend lavishly to get the news. He, much more so than Pulitzer, was inclined to tap prominent writers, such as Mark Twain, and pay them well to cover important events for his New York Journal.

Hearst paid $3,000 to the novelist, playwright, and foreign correspondent Richard Harding Davis to spend a month for the Journal in Cuba in early 1897, writing reports about the Cuban rebellion that was the proximate cause of the Spanish-American War.

That sum is the equivalent today of more than $50,000.

Moreover, the yellow press of the late 19th century exerted a lasting and profound influence on American journalism history.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the genre “was much decried but its salient features often were emulated.”

Yellow journalism “was appealing and distinctive in its typography, in its lavish use of illustrations, in its aggressive newsgathering techniques,” I noted, adding:

“To a striking degree, features characteristic of the yellow press live on in American journalism, notably in the colorful layouts that characterize the formerly staid titles that used to disparage the yellow press—titles such as the New York Times and Washington Post.”

WJC

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Scandalously wrong: AP roundup on media scandals errs on yellow press

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 14, 2011 at 7:37 am

The Associated Press wire service cobbled together a superficial roundup about scandals in American journalism — and in doing so exaggerated the role of the yellow press in bringing on war with Spain in 1898.

The roundup, posted yesterday, was pegged to Rupert Murdoch’s troubles in Britain and the recent demise of the media mogul’s scandal-ridden Sunday tabloid, News of the World.

“Before the technology existed for Rupert Murdoch’s journalists to hack into phone records,” the roundup began, “past generations of dubious reporters have given readers 4-foot-tall furry creatures living on the moon, a bogus 8-year-old heroin addict and a nonexistent interview with a sick president that won a Pulitzer Prize.”

All sounds interesting.

But the roundup soon turned listy, bouncing from case to case with scant detail or analysis — a failing common to hurriedly prepared wire service compilations.

And the roundup was scandalously wrong in stating unsubstantiated claims about the yellow press and the Spanish-American War.

“During the ‘yellow journalism’ era of the 1890s,” AP’s roundup declared, “powerful publishers Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal whipped up a frenzy with false or exaggerated stories about Spanish rulers in Cuba, leading to the Spanish-American War.”

Let’s unpack that paragraph.

First, there’s little to no evidence that the content of the Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers “whipped up” any kind of frenzy related to Spain’s rule of Cuba. Second, the yellow press wasn’t much exaggerating in reporting about the effects of Spain’s harsh policies on the Cuban people.

Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers certainly were advocates of Cuban self-rule. But even at their most egregious — in the days following the destruction in February 1898 of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor — the content of those newspapers stirred little frenzy among Americans.

As I wrote in my 2001 work, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, Hearst’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World “were undeniably extreme in their reporting, especially in the aftermath of the Maine’s destruction.

“But their excesses,” I noted, “were not widely shared in the U.S. press; the excesses in fact were roundly deplored and even ridiculed. That they influenced many people, or whipped Americans ‘to a white heat’ is doubtful: Several contemporaneous sources describe the sober calm with which the American public and many newspapers awaited the official U.S. report about the cause of the Maine’s destruction.”

The Nation, for example, observed in March 1898: “Nothing could be more curious than the contrast between the wild aspect of the first pages of our [yellow journals] and the calm of the persons who are seen reading them.”

Nor was the yellow press exaggerating the deplorable conditions in Spanish-ruled Cuba, where a rebellion begun in 1895 had soon reached islandwide proportions.

Humanitarian disaster

Spain not only sent 200,000 troops in an attempt to put down the rising; senior Spanish leaders in Cuba imposed what they called a policy of reconcentración, or reconcentration, in which old men, women, and children — non-combattants — were herded into garrison towns.

The policy was intended to deprive Cuban rebels of food, supplies, and logistical support.

But the consequences were disastrous.

The Cuban non-combattants suffered enormously under reconcentración; tens of thousands of them died from hunger, disease, and malnutrition.

The effects of reconcentración drew the frequent attention of U.S. newspapers of all kinds — yellow and otherwise.

It was the humanitarian crisis on Cuba — and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis — that weighed significantly in the U.S. decision to go to war in April 1898. The often-flamboyant yellow press was a non-factor.

WJC

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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.

WJC

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