April 28, 2008

Press Role in Spanish War A 'Yellow' Myth

The Spanish-American War, which began 110 years ago this month, was a brief conflict of lasting importance. In 114 days, American forces in Asia and the Caribbean destroyed two Spanish fleets, forced the surrender of a Spanish army in eastern Cuba and compelled the capitulation of the Spanish garrison in Manila. These victories signaled the emergence of the United States as a global power.

The war had lasting implications for the U.S. press as well — some of the most enduring myths in American journalism stem from that time. Foremost among them is the notion the conflict was "a newspaper-made war," brought on by sensational "yellow journalism." That term first appeared in print in 1897 and quickly caught on, to disparage the flamboyance of William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, then the country's largest-circulation newspapers.

In the decades since, some historians have argued that New York's yellow press inflamed American public opinion with exaggerated reporting about Spain's cruelty in trying to put down a rebellion in Cuba, a conflict that gave rise to the Spanish-American War.

Warmongering in the yellow press became most intense following the still-mysterious destruction of the Maine, a U.S. battleship that exploded in Havana Harbor in February 1898. According to the "yellow press theory" of the war, the administration of President William McKinley capitulated to war hysteria fueled by yellow journalism.

The yellow press theory is appealing because it neatly identifies the supposed origins of the war while offering timeless lessons about the malignant potential of the media: They can even be powerful enough to foment a war.

While succinct and inviting, the yellow press theory is built more on argument than evidence, and most historians now reject it as simplistic. The war's causes were more profound than the circulation-driven rivalry between Hearst and Pulitzer. Besides, few American newspapers in 1898 followed the lead of Hearst and Pulitzer. Most papers deplored their sensationalism.

Even if newspapers could bring on a war, the disincentives of doing so would be enormous. Wars tend to increase circulations, but also discourage advertising — the lifeblood of newspapers. And covering war is very expensive.

The Spanish-American War hewed to that formula: Newspaper circulation climbed, but advertising dropped sharply. And to cover the war, Hearst's Journal spent the equivalent today of $1 million a week on salaries, telegraph expenses and transportation costs.

In the final analysis, the Spanish-American War was caused not by yellow journalism but by a three-sided diplomatic impasse:

  • • Spain refused to grant Cuba its independence.
  • • The Cuban rebels would accept nothing short of independence.
  • • The United States could no longer tolerate the disruption and inhumane conditions that the Cuban rebellion caused.

When the diplomatic options exhausted themselves in April 1898, the United States and Spain went to war over Cuba's fate. But the war was a failure of diplomacy, not a creation of yellow journalism.

The story of Hearst and Pulitzer's role in the Spanish-American War, along with pieces of the battleship Maine, are explored in a display case on media ownership in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

W. Joseph Campbell is a news history consultant to the Newseum and author of four books, including "Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies" (2001) and "The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms" (2006).

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