The deadly shootings in Tucson a week ago touched off intense efforts by the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets to link the attacks to views and rhetoric of conservative politicians and activists.
But the smear failed to take hold, given the dearth of evidence tying the suspected shooter to political causes of the right and given the vigor of the pushback against what were outrageous characterizations.
The pushback was not without inaccuracy, however.
The conservative Red State blog the other day likened the media meme of the Tucson shootings to the historically incorrect view that the overheated content of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press brought about the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The Red State item asserted that in the Tucson shootings, the mainstream media “smelled opportunity in the proud and honorable tradition of William Randolph Hurst [sic].”
The item further declared:
“Hearst earned well-deserved infamy for his manipulation of the explosion of the USS Maine to enhance the likelihood of a war between The United States and Spain. He wrote inflammatory articles, based on biased and insufficient evidence that implicated the Spanish for having an infernal machine to sink US vessels. The Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. Historians believe that it may not have happened with the rhetorical justifications Heart’s dishonest journalism provided.”
There’s a lot of error and imprecision to unpack in that paragraph. Take the last line first: Few serious historians would argue that Hearst or the content of his newspapers were factors at all in the Spanish-American War.
Indeed, 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.”
No one making the argument that the yellow press fomented the war can demonstrate adequately or persuasively how its content influenced American policymaking during the weeks between the destruction of the Maine and the declaration of war in April 1898.
As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:
“If the yellow press did foment the war, 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 by officials of in the administration of President William McKinley, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or disdained at as a complicating factor. But the yellow press neither shaped, drove, nor crystallized U.S. policy.
Besides, the yellow press wasn’t alone in implicating Spanish authorities for the destruction of the Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. The warship exploded at anchor, killing 266 officers and sailors.
A U.S. court of naval inquiry found that the warship’s destruction was caused by a mine, set by persons unknown. The court of inquiry rejected the theory that an unnoticed coal bunker fire set off explosions that destroyed the Maine.
The court of inquiry’s most telling piece of evidence: The inward thrust of the warship’s keel. Such damage could only have been caused by an external explosion.
In any case, the warship was sunk in a harbor under control and supervision of Spanish authorities which, to the McKinley administration, was further evidence of an intolerable state of affairs in Cuba, where an islandwide rebellion had periodically flared over the previous three years.
Spain’s attempts to crush the rebellion had largely failed, but its harsh policies had precipitated a humanitarian crisis in which tens of thousands of Cuban non-combattants –old men, women, and children–fell victim to disease and starvation.
The humanitarian crisis, and Spain’s inability to exert control over Cuba, were the proximate causes of the war in 1898. The content of the yellow press, as well as other U.S. newspapers, reflected those realities, but certainly did not cause them.
As historian David Trask has written, Americans in 1898 “went to war convinced that they had embarked upon an entirely selfless mission for humanity.”
But they didn’t go because they were moved to do so by Hearst and his yellow press.
In the end, to indict Hearst and the yellow press for instigating 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.”
Much as the post-Tucson media smear has done a disservice to the vigor and legitimacy of political discourse in a democratic society.
Recent and related:
- The anniversary of a media myth: ‘I’ll furnish the war’
- NYTimes practices yellow journalism? How so?
- Two myths and today’s New York Times
- Blaming assassination on political rhetoric: No new tactic
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- On sensationalism and yellow journalism: Not synonymous
- Obama, journalism history, and ‘folks like Hearst’
- Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter
- Invoking media myths to score points
- Getting It Wrong goes on Q-and-A