W. Joseph Campbell

Yellow journalism ‘brought about Spanish-American War’? But how?

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 13, 2011 at 8:03 am

Not to blame: Hearst’s ‘Evening Journal’

The hoary claim that the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer brought on the Spanish-American War is often asserted but never persuasively substantiated.

It’s a notion that suggests the worst tendencies of the news media — that in extreme cases, they media can plunge the country into war, as Hearst and Pulitzer supposedly did with the sometimes-inflammatory content of their New York City newspapers.

Although the claim was long ago demolished as a media-driven myth, it remains too good not to be true, too delicious to resist.

It was asserted without substantiation the other day in a commentary posted online by the Scripps Howard news service.

“In fact,” wrote the commentary’s author, Dan K. Thomasson, “yellow journalism was founded in New York by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and even brought about the Spanish-American War. But as the competition began to thin and more truth-smitten journalists took over, respectability began making inroads and ultimately won the day — with an exception or two.”

Left unaddressed was just how the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer managed to accomplish that trick: By what mechanism was the content of their newspapers transformed into policy and military action?

In fact, there was no such mechanism.

As I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the yellow press. They certainly didn’t turn to it for guidance in policymaking.

“There is,” I wrote, “almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press, especially during the decisive weeks following the Maine’s destruction [in Havana harbor in February 1898], shaped the thinking, influenced the policy formulation, or informed the conduct of key White House officials.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I added, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

The content of the yellow press, I wrote, was “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” that preceded the declaration of war in April 1898.

So why is the myth so enduring that the yellow press fomented the war?

In part because it’s simplistic tale that’s often taught in high schools and colleges.

It’s also a ready way to excoriate 19th century yellow journalism, to summarize its flamboyant excesses and to point to its supposedly malign potential.

But to indict the yellow press for bringing on the Spanish-American War is, I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “to misread the evidence and thus do disservice to the broader understanding of a much-misunderstood conflict.

“It does disservice as well to keener appreciation of the much-maligned genre of yellow journalism.”

WJC

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