W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Humanitarian crisis’

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.


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.


More from Media Myth Alert:

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.


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