Efforts to link the attack on Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to overheated political rhetoric and, more explicitly, to Republican Sarah Palin and the conservative Tea Party movement were evocative of a campaign more than a century ago to blame the assassination of President William McKinley on the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst.
McKinley was fatally shot in September 1901 by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, who, according to Hearst’s finest biographer, was unable to read English.
Even so, Hearst’s foes–notably, the New York Sun–sought to tie the assassination to ill-advised comments about McKinley that had appeared in Hearst’s newspapers months earlier.
One especially ill-considered comment helped fuel the allegations: That was a quatrain written by columnist Ambrose Bierce 20 months before McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901, while greeting well-wishers in Buffalo.
Bierce’s column of February 4, 1900, closed with a reference to the assassination a few days earlier of the Kentucky governor, William Goebel. Bierce, prickly and acerbic commentator, wrote:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West.
Good reason: it is speeding here [to Washington]
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
As I pointed out in my 2005 work,The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents, “The quatrain attracted little notice or comment until Czolgosz shot the president in 1901.”
Bierce later wrote, ‘The verses, variously garbled but mostly made into an editorial, or a news dispatch with a Washington date-line but usually no date, were published all over the country as evidence of Mr. Hearst’s [supposed] complicity in the crime.”
The Sun led the assault on Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal.
Beneath the headline, “A Menace to Our Civilization,” the Sun on September 12, 1901, accused the Journal of having provoked “an atrocious Anarchistic assault on the President” and declared that yellow journalism had “graduated into a serious and studied propaganda of social revolution.”
Never, the Sun declared, “was an instrument of disorder and sedition used so effectually and none ever had so great opportunities for its malign propaganda.”
Advertisers in the Journal, said the Sun, were “feeding a monster which is using the strength they are giving nutrition to in an effort to strike down the civilization upon which they depend.”
It was of course absurd to claim that Czolgosz’s mind had been poisoned by the contents of the Hearst press. Few other New York City newspapers were inclined to pick up the cudgel, even though not many admired Hearst’s activist-oriented journalism.
And as media scholar Brian Thornton noted in a fine journal article in 2000, “most of the attack against Hearst” in the aftermath of the McKinley shooting was sustained by letters to the editor of the Sun, not by the newspaper’s editorials.
Still, the uproar in 1901 stunned Hearst. David Nasaw, Hearst’s leading biographer, wrote that perhaps for “the first time in his life, Hearst was forced onto the defensive.”
In response, Hearst renamed the Journal the Journal and American, to assert the newspaper’s patriotism. Eventually, he dropped the “Journal” from the nameplate altogether.
Hearst could take a measure of comfort in the insightful and level-headed commentary of journals such as The Bookman, which dismissed the criticism as preposterous.
“As a matter of fact,” The Bookman said in its December 1901 number, “it cannot be shown that any President ever lost his life because his assassins were influenced by the reading of newspaper denunciation.”
The Bookman also noted:
“Indeed, the most severe attacks on President McKinley’s policy were not attacks for which the so-called ‘yellow journals’ were responsible, but they were attacks uttered by such sincere and high-minded men as Senator [George] Hoar and ex-Secretary [Carl] Schurz–both of them Republicans–and by newspapers of great ability, such as the Evening Post” of New York.
The Bookman added:
“It is unthinkable that a press censorship should ever be established in our country; for in its practical operation it would mean that the opposition would have to abstain from all newspaper criticism of the party in power.”
There are in The Bookman commentary echoes of well-reasoned and insightful commentary written in the aftermath of the rampage in Arizona that left six people (a federal judge among them) dead and Giffords clinging to life.
Notably, media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in a column posted yesterday at slate.com that only “the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts.
“Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons,” Shafer wrote, “infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.”
He’s absolutely right.
And to seize on political shootings to score political points is as appalling as it is unworthy.
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