One of the year-end delights in print media is the Economist’s holiday season double issue, a lode of offbeat features and whimsical takes on the news.
The “Christmas Specials” also include an account about the Internet-borne resurgence of cartooning — an account that serves up the hoary media myth of yellow journalism, declaring:
“In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: ‘yellow journalism.’
“Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars.”
They even started wars?
The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer certainly reported closely about the Spanish-American War of 1898. But no serious historian believes their newspapers were important factors in bringing about the conflict.
But simply put, the yellow press did not create, nor was responsible for, the irreconcilable differences led to war between the United States and Spain.
As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:
“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It 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.”
The convergence of forces that gave rise to the war — which lasted 114 days and ended with Spain’s utter defeat in the Caribbean and the Philippines — can be traced to the rebellion on Cuba that began in 1895.
The Cuban uprising challenged Spanish rule of the island and by early 1898 had settled into a vicious stalemate. The Spanish military occupied most Cuba’s urban centers; the Cuban rebels controlled the countryside.
In an ill-considered attempt to deprive the rebels of food and logistical support, Spanish had ordered Cuban non-combattants — women, children, old men — into garrison towns where, by the tens of thousands, they fell victim to disease and malnutrition.
The Spanish policy, known as reconcentración, or reconcentration, was, I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “emblematic of the severity of Spain’s efforts to quell the rebellion.”
Not only was the rebellion stalemated by early 1898; a human rights disaster had taken shape in Cuba. The horrors of reconcentración drew wide attention, and condemnation, in the United States.
The reconcentración policy, along with Spain’s inability to quell the rebellion by negotiation or military force, were the proximate causes of the war that began in April 1898.
As I point out in Yellow Journalism:
“To indict the yellow press for instigating the Spanish-American War is fundamentally to misread the evidence and thus do disservice to the broader understanding of a much-misunderstood conflict. “
In July 2011, the magazine declared, without attribution, that “William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report.”
Recent or related:
- ‘Economist’ indulges in media myth
- ‘Yes, Virginia,’ special on CBS a sad distortion of a timeless newspaper reply
- Yellow journalism: A sneer is born
- Getting it right about yellow journalism
- Getting it right about Hearst, his newspapers, and war
- Those ‘warmongering’ papers of William Randolph Hearst
- Hearst ‘pushed us into war’? How’d he do that?
- Recalling American journalism’s greatest escape narrative
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- Fact-checking WaPo columnist on the ‘McKinley moment’
- What became of Virginia O’Hanlon?
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