American yellow journalism of the late 19th century, led by the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, has been often blamed for bringing on the Spanish-American War, which began 112 years ago this month.
It is an enduring media-driven myth, a misleading, media-centric interpretation that refuses to die, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
The commentary–which contemplated parallels in the recent sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel and the destruction in Havana harbor in 1898 of the USS Maine– declared:
“While the cause of the explosion [that destroyed the Maine] remained a mystery, newspapers fighting for readership jumped on the incident as a means to increase sales. Exploiting and distorting the news—an industry art form that came to be called ‘yellow journalism’—reporters slanted the news to sensationalize it. As the Navy continued its investigation [into the causes of the battleship’s loss], the newspapers worked the American public’s emotions into a frenzy.”
There is, quite simply, little evidence to support such a claim. (And coining the term “yellow journalism” predated the Maine‘s destruction by more than a year.)
Rather than stirring emotions “into a frenzy” in late winter 1898, the American press was “notably becalmed and restrained,” as I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.
I cited the trade journal Fourth Estate, which observed that the “frightful news from Havana, telling of the destruction of the . . . Maine, was treated here as a terrible calamity. The natural suspicion that Spanish methods of warfare had destroyed the ship moved men to cry for war, but the press as a whole published and reiterated the message from the [Maine’s] Captain, to ‘suspend judgment.’”
The trade journal also noted:
“Some of our papers, overheated with natural anger, have clamored for war, but the great majority have shown to the world that the press of the United States is in accord with the Government and is anxious for war only when it must be.” (Emphasis added.)
The Fourth Estate‘s reference to “some” papers clamoring for war no doubt was a reference to Hearst’s New York Journal and its racy sister publication, the Evening Journal. Hearst’s papers, as well as those of Joseph Pulitzer, were often speculative and over-the-top in their reporting.
But these newspapers, the leading exemplars of yellow journalism, hardly set an agenda for the American press in the aftermath of the Maine‘s destruction.
As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, scholarly “studies of the heartland press in 1898 signal the limited influence of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers—and note that few local newspapers immediately and vigorously advocated war” because of the loss of the Maine in a harbor under Spanish control.
The staid New York Times, which in the late 19th century began emerging as the antithesis to yellow journalism, also noted the generally calm reaction in the United States after the Maine‘s destruction.
The Times stated in late February 1898:
“No Latin race, we imagine, would have kept its head as well as the American people have kept theirs during the disturbing events of the past two weeks. In Spain or France or Italy there would have been tumultuous assemblages, much outcry in the streets, and incitements to riots.
“Outside of the reckless newspapers there has been no raving here.”
So it scarcely can be said that newspapers “worked the American public’s emotions into a frenzy” that led to the Spanish-American War. There is little to support the notion that a journalistic war cry arose in the wake of the Maine’s destruction.