“A NEWSPAPER-MADE WAR?”
Despite the extraordinarily high profile of U.S. correspondents in the Spanish-American War, the role of the American press in the conflict has been badly distorted and poorly understood. It is another of the war’s many ironies.
Some of the most enduring and misleading myths about American journalism stem from the Spanish-American War. Foremost among these myths is that the conflict was “a newspaper-made war,”8 brought on by sensational and irresponsible “yellow journalism”—a term that first appeared in print in January 18979 and meant to disparage the flamboyance of Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, then the country’s largest-circulation daily newspapers.
In the decades since the Spanish-American War, many historians and biographers have argued that the yellow press of New York City inflamed American public opinion with months of exaggerated reporting about Spain’s cruelty in countering the rebellion that began in Cuba in February 1895. The reporting was as cynical as it was sensational, this theory maintain: It was intended not to help the beleaguered Cubans but to boost newspaper sales. The yellow press also set the agenda for other U.S. newspapers, which repeated and amplified the exaggerated reports about Cuba, particularly in the aftermath of the destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898. Most U.S. newspapers, historian Philip Foner claimed, “aped the ‘yellow press’ of New York.”10 According to the “yellow press theory” of the war, the administration of President William McKinley ultimately capitulated to the war hysteria created and promoted by the yellow journals.
This interpretation has proved irresistible over the years. After all, it very neatly identifies the supposed origins of the war while offering a compelling example of the malignant potential of unchecked media power: At their worst, this theory suggests, the news media can even force the country to war. The “yellow press theory” has received emphatic endorsement from numerous sources, including:
• W.A. Swanberg, a biographer of Hearst who said of the Spanish-American War: “It was an unnecessary war. It was the newspapers’ war. Above all, it was Hearst’s war.”11
• Joseph E. Wisan, author of The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (1895–1898), who asserted: “In the opinion of this writer, the Spanish-American War would not have occurred had not the appearance of Hearst in New York journalism precipitated a bitter battle [with Pulitzer] for newspaper circulation.”12
• Simon Michael Bessie, who wrote in his book, Jazz Journalism: “It ... is likely that the Spanish-American War would not have occurred without the powerful stimulant of rabid, pro-war yellow journalism.”13
• Bruce W. Sanford, who wrote in Don’t Shoot the Messenger : “When the yellows ran out of stories about beleaguered heiresses or gory murders, they turned to stunts like . . . starting the Spanish-American War. Readers were drawn like flies to cupcakes.”14
• Frank Luther Mott, who wrote in his often-cited single-volume history of American journalism: “The ‘ifs’ of history are usually more amusing than profitable, but there seems to be great probability in the frequently reiterated statement that if Hearst had not challenged Pulitzer to a circulation contest at the time of the Cuban insurrection, there would have been no Spanish-American War.”15
More recently, the New York Times declared that Hearst’s New York Journal “led the rest of the ‘yellow press’ in pushing the country into war” with Spain.16 And the Columbia JournalismReview declared the Spanish-American War had been “incited by the young Hearst and his feverish Journal.”17
While succinct and inviting, the “yellow press theory” of the Spanish-American War relies far more on argument than on evidence. As we shall see, many historians now reject that interpretation as implausible. The war’s causes were more profound than the circulation-driven rivalry between the New York City newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer. In the final analysis, the Spanish-American War was the result of a diplomatic impasse: Spain refused to grant Cuba its independence. The Cuban rebels would accept nothing short of independence. And the United States could no longer tolerate the economic disruption and the inhumane conditions that the rebellion in Cuba created. When the diplomatic options exhausted themselves in the spring of 1898, war ensued. It certainly was not a war fomented by the yellow press.
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8. Saturday Evening Post ( 14 April 1904): 1, cited in Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1885–1905 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957): 241.
9. For a discussion of the origins of the term, see W. Joseph Campbell, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies ( Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001), 25–39.
10. Philip S. Foner, The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism, 1895–1902, vol. 1 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 238.
11. W.A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst (New York: Scribner’s, 1961), 144.
12. Joseph E. Wisan, The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (1895–1898). (New York: Octagon Books reprint edition, 1965), 458.
13. Simon Michael Bessie, Jazz Journalism: The Story of the Tabloid Newspapers. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1938), 58.
14. Bruce W. Sanford, Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How Our Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us (New York: Free Press, 1999), 45.
15. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History: 1690–1960, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 527. For similar claims see Gene Wiggins, “Sensationally Yellow!” in Lloyd Chiasson Jr., ed., Three Centuries of American Media (Englewood, CO: Morton Publishing, 1999): 161.
16. John Kifner, “Good as a Gun: When Cameras Define a War,” New York Times ( 30 November 2003), sec. 4, p. 1.
17. Harold Evans, “What a Century!” Columbia Journalism Review (January–February 1999): 28.