W. Joseph Campbell

War, the ‘apex of yellow journalism’? Not so

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Spanish-American War on June 10, 2010 at 11:52 am

I’ve noted from time to time how some media-driven myths–those false, dubious, improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual–travel quite well, crossing linguistic barriers with frequency and ease.

Hearst's New York Evening Journal, 1898

One of the more hearty, adaptable, and internationally appealing media myths is that of American “yellow journalism,” and how its sensational and exaggerated content supposedly brought about the Spanish-American War in 1898.

That myth was debunked in my 2001 study, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. But it is probably too deliciously appealing, too neat and tidy, ever to die away.

Indeed, it popped up in an international way yesterday, in a commentary in the English-language edition of China’s Global Times. The commentary appeared beneath the headline, “Yellow journalism creeping into Chinese media,” and declared:

“The term yellow journalism was coined during … late 19th century when media barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer’s respective newspapers, the New York Journal and the New York World, were in cutthroat competition. …

“The apex of US yellow journalism came when the two newspapers’ fear mongering and sensationalism led to the Spanish-American War in 1898.”

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the notion that the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer brought on the war with Spain over Cuba rests on a narrow, decidedly media-centric interpretation of the conflict’s causes.

That interpretation ignores, I noted, the “more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.

“In the case of the Spanish-American War,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “the policy objectives between the United States and Spain ultimately proved irreconcilable. Months of intricate diplomatic efforts ultimately failed to resolve what had become an intolerable state of affairs in Cuba, dramatized by the destruction of the [U.S. warship] Maine in a harbor under Spanish control and supervision.

“To indict the yellow press for causing the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and to ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in the spring of 1898 in an impasse that led to war.”

Failed diplomacy gave rise to the Spanish-American War, not the content of the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer.

Even so, it is intriguing how wartime can and does give rise to media-driven myths.

Of the 10 prominent myths addressed and debunked in my new book, Getting It Wrong, five of them (including the case of Jessica Lynch in the Iraq War) are related to conflict and upheaval.

I consider the linkage of war and media myth in Getting It Wrong, writing:

“That war can be a breeding ground for myth is scarcely surprising. The stakes in war are quite high, and the shock of combat is alien and unfamiliar to most people. Given their limited first-hand experience with war, media audiences usually find themselves in no position to challenge reports from the battlefield.

“The confusion and intensity inherent in warfare can lead journalists to place fragmented information that emerges from conflict into recognizable if sometimes misleading frames.

“In the process, distortion can arise and media myths can flourish.”

But unfamiliarity with warfare only partly explains the tenacity and international appeal of the myth that yellow journalism fomented the Spanish-American War.

Another, perhaps more important factor is that the anecdote outlines the purported extremes–the malevolent extremes–of media influence. That is, the news media can be so powerful that they can lead the country into war, if we’re not mindful.

Which is absurd.

WJC

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