W. Joseph Campbell

Debunking the debunking

In Media myths, Yellow Journalism on November 20, 2009 at 3:04 pm

There’s undenial appeal in busting myths.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book on media-driven myths, “Debunking can be an entertaining and even faintly mischievous pursuit.”

A hint of that appeal can be detected in a commentary posted recently at fairfieldweekly.com, the online site of a free weekly newspaper in Connecticut.

The author writes: “In recent weeks, while researching a publishing project on the myths of American history, I have combed through an unending supply of stories that, upon closer scrutiny, simply do not hold, or even add, up.”

He says “the swiftness with which Americans are willing to accept, believe and disseminate myths would be touching if it wasn’t so dangerous.”

To illustrate that point, he cites “the sinking of the battleship Maine, the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War. The explosion was caused by a fire in the ammunition hold, not by Spanish sabotage. Doesn’t matter; we wanted the war, so [William Randolph] Hearst sold the sabotage myth to the American people, they quickly bought it hook, line and sinker, and we ended up an empire.”

Wreckage of the Maine, 1898 (Library of Congress)

In addressing a purported myth, the author indulges in and reiterates another, even more profound myth — that Hearst’s coverage of the Maine‘s destruction in Havana harbor in early 1898 was decisive to the U.S. declaration of war against Spain.

It’s a tempting and very tidy explanation about why the United States went to war. But it’s decidedly in error.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001),  Hearst and his newspapers are “not to blame for the Spanish-American-War.” They did not force—they could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

The destruction of the Maine may have focused American public opinion on Cuba, but it was scarcely the principal reason in the decision to go to war.

Rather, the conflict was result of a convergence of forces that were far beyond the control or influence of Hearst and his papers.

The war with Spain was the consequence of a prolonged, three-sided impasse: Spain, for domestic political reasons, could not agree to grant independence for Cuba. The rebel movement in Cuba, which had been fighting Spanish forces for three years before the United States declared war, would accept nothing less than independence. And the United States, for political and economic reasons, could tolerate no longer the disruption and the human rights abuses caused by Spain’s harsh and ineffective efforts to put down the rebellion.

A Cuban rebel executed by Spanish firing squad, 1897

By early 1898, the Spanish had forced thousands and thousands of Cuban non-combatants — women, children, and old men — into garrison towns, in an attempt to deprive the rebels of support. Many thousands of these civilians died of disease and malnutrition, at what the Spanish called “reconcentration” centers.

This human rights disaster was well-known to, and often a topic of coverage by, U.S. newspapers, including Hearst’s. In many respects, the U.S. war with Spain was a humanitarian crusade, to end the abuses on Cuba.

In addition, there is no agreement among historians that the Maine blew up because of “a fire in the ammunition hold.” A study commissioned by the National Geographic Society and released in 1998 reports that chemical analysis pointed to an external source, such as an underwater mine, as the cause of the deadly explosion that destroyed the battleship.

WJC

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