W. Joseph Campbell

Juan Williams’ new book repeats Spanish-American War myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am

The new book by Juan Williams, the political analyst clumsily dismissed by NPR last year, offers some history of American journalism.

Some inaccurate history of American journalism.

The book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, repeats the hoary media myth that the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer brought on the Spanish-American War of 1898.

That’s a facile, media-centric interpretation endorsed by few if any serious historians of the conflict.

According to an excerpt of Muzzled posted at the online site of Fox News,  Williams writes:

“Hearst and Pulitzer became infamous for starting a real war. They whipped up so much anger at Spain through inflammatory stories about Spain’s handling of American vessels that they incited the United States to go to war with Spain in the Spanish-American War.”

Williams also says of Hearst and Pulitzer:

“Their coverage of the news, from crime to political scandals to war, was a study in sensationalized accounts, including outright distortion and lies, in a battle to sell more papers in New York City.”

Hearst and Pulitzer were bitter rivals, to be sure. But anyone who has spent much time reading their newspapers of the mid- and late-1890s can only be impressed by the vigor and breadth of their report.

As media historian John D. Stevens wrote in his study of sensationalism and New York City journalism, it is “tempting to caricature the yellow papers as being edited for janitors and clerks.”

But in fact they “published a fair amount of sober financial, political, and diplomatic information,” Stevens wrote. They were much more than merely sensational.

If the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer titillated, Stevens noted, they also informed.

In any case, they certainly cannot be blamed for bringing on the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

The yellow press “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

Those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — the scene of an islandwide rebellion that had begun in 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities ordered thousands of Cubans, mostly old men, women, and children, into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The authorities called the policy “reconcentration,” and it gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The human rights disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — included, but not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by reconcentration “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The yellow press reported on, but certainly did not create, the devastating effects of Spain’s ill-considered and destructive policy.

So to indict Hearst and Pulitzer, as Williams does, for supposedly “starting” the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and do disservice to a keener understanding of the much-maligned genre of yellow journalism.

WJC

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