W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘1898’

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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‘Furnish the war’ finds a place in sports

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on February 28, 2011 at 8:13 am

Hearst: Didn't say it

William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is one of American journalism’s most enduring myths. It’s a stunningly hardy though dubious tale that has been deployed in discussing journalistic sins and shortcomings of all sorts.

As I write in my myth-debunking book Getting It Wrong, the Hearstian vow “has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism.

“It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

It even has application in news about collegiate sports.

An online sports-news site, Bleacher Report, turned to “furnish the war” in a commentary posted yesterday about the whiff of scandal around Auburn University’s championship football program.

Hearst’s reputed vow was a way to set up the commentary, which defended the program from what it called “the incessant beating of the investigation drum by Auburn detractors” suspicious of player-recruitment violations.

Of interest to Media Myth Alert is the commentary’s total buy-in of the Hearst anecdote, which, as evidence offered in Getting It Wrong clearly shows, is counterfeit, a discredited media myth.

The Bleacher Report commentary declared:

“When photographer Frederic Remington was dispatched to Cuba in the late 1800s to document a war and found none, he sent a message to publisher William Randolph Hearst: ‘There is no war.’

“Hearst allegedly responded: ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’

“In the ensuing months Hearst’s newspaper fanned the flames with sensationalized front page articles that were of dubious accuracy and in many cases patently false. His articles stirred passions among a readership that neither knew nor cared if the reports were accurate. His relentless attacks eventually helped push U.S. administration into declaring war on Spain.  Hearst got his war.

“Since October, the Auburn football program has endured a similar smear campaign. …”

Reasons for doubting that Hearst ever made such a vow are many, and include the anecdote’s breathtaking illogic.

War was the reason Hearst, owner of the flamboyant New York Journal, sent Remington (an artist, not a “photographer”) to Cuba in the first place. That war was the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule, which began in February 1895.


Remington was in Cuba briefly in January 1897.

By that time, I note in Getting It Wrong, newspaper readers “would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached island-wide proportion and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

It would have made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war.”

In addition, Hearst denied having made such a statement. Remington, apparently, never discussed it. And the telegrams bearing the content of the purported Remington-Hearst exchange have never surfaced.

Moreover, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, “there was no chance” that the telegrams “would have flowed freely between Remington in Havana and Hearst in New York.

“Spanish control of the cable traffic in Havana was too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon,” I write, adding:

“A vow such as Hearst’s to ‘furnish the war‘ surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.”

Like many media myths, the tale of the Hearstian vow is accessible, pithy, and easily recalled. It supposedly illuminates larger lessons about the news media — in this case, the media’s malign potential to bring about a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.

Which is nonsense, and historically inaccurate.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was hardly a matter of Hearst’s having “got his war.” Rather, the conflict was the consequence of an intractable, three-sided standoff.

Cuba’s rebels would settle for nothing short of political independence. Spain refused to grant self-rule to the most important remnant of its once-sprawling American empire. And the United States, for economic and humanitarian reasons, could no longer tolerate an inconclusive war just 90 miles from its shores.

Simply put, Hearst and newspaper content were non-factors in the decision to go to war.


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