W. Joseph Campbell

On Hearst, yellow journalism, and war

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 5, 2010 at 10:04 am

The dubious linkage of William Randolph Hearst, late 19th century yellow journalism,  and the Spanish-American War was invoked yesterday in a post at the Breaking Media online site.

The item discussed the latest deal by Hearst Corp., noting the reported acquisition was “not a newspaper, a magazine or even a website, but [iCrossing Inc.,] a company specializing in buying search keywords and performing social media“—and suggested that William Randolph, the company’s founder who died in 1951, would have approved.

Hearst before the war

Inevitably, perhaps, the Breaking Media item offered an historically flabby slice of context, asserting that “the Hearst name will forever be associated with yellow journalism techniques that led to a war and mainstream acceptance of all kinds of crazy pseudoscience.”

I don’t know about the last bit, the “acceptance of all kinds of crazy pseudoscience.”

But the claim about Hearst, yellow journalism, and war is an exaggeration, a media-driven myth.

The reference to “war” is, of course, to the Spanish-American War of 1898, the 114-day conflict in which the United States routed Spanish forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The myth is that Hearst and his flamboyant yellow journalism whipped American public opinion to such an extent that war with Spain (over its harsh colonial rule of Cuba) became inevitable.

The myth is addressed, and debunked, in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. A slice of the myth–that notion that Hearst vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain–is discussed in a chapter my new book, Getting It Wrong.

In Yellow Journalism, I noted that the argument that Hearst fomented the war with Spain over Cuba rests on a decidedly narrow, media-centric interpretation of the conflict’s causes.

That interpretation ignores, I noted, the “more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.

“In the case of the Spanish-American War,” I wrote, “the policy objectives between the United States and Spain ultimately proved irreconcilable. Months of intricate diplomatic efforts ultimately failed to resolve what had become an intolerable state of affairs in Cuba, dramatized by the destruction of the [U.S. warship] Maine in a harbor under Spanish control and supervision.

“To indict the yellow press for causing the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and to ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in the spring of 1898 in an impasse that led to war.”

Failed diplomacy gave rise to the Spanish-American War, not the content of Hearst’s newspapers in New York and San Francisco.

I also pointed out in Yellow Journalism:

“The notion that the yellow press incited or fomented the Spanish-American War stands, moreover, as testimony to the supposedly powerful, even malevolent effects of the news media—that they can and sometimes do act in dangerous, devious, and manipulative ways.”

And that’s an important reason why the myth about Hearst, yellow journalism, and war has proved so tenacious. It offers a lesson, however misleading, about the extreme hazards of unchecked media power: Unscrupulous media moguls can take us into wars that otherwise we would not fight.

WJC

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