W. Joseph Campbell

Scandalously wrong: AP roundup on media scandals errs on yellow press

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 14, 2011 at 7:37 am

The Associated Press wire service cobbled together a superficial roundup about scandals in American journalism — and in doing so exaggerated the role of the yellow press in bringing on war with Spain in 1898.

The roundup, posted yesterday, was pegged to Rupert Murdoch’s troubles in Britain and the recent demise of the media mogul’s scandal-ridden Sunday tabloid, News of the World.

“Before the technology existed for Rupert Murdoch’s journalists to hack into phone records,” the roundup began, “past generations of dubious reporters have given readers 4-foot-tall furry creatures living on the moon, a bogus 8-year-old heroin addict and a nonexistent interview with a sick president that won a Pulitzer Prize.”

All sounds interesting.

But the roundup soon turned listy, bouncing from case to case with scant detail or analysis — a failing common to hurriedly prepared wire service compilations.

And the roundup was scandalously wrong in stating unsubstantiated claims about the yellow press and the Spanish-American War.

“During the ‘yellow journalism’ era of the 1890s,” AP’s roundup declared, “powerful publishers Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal whipped up a frenzy with false or exaggerated stories about Spanish rulers in Cuba, leading to the Spanish-American War.”

Let’s unpack that paragraph.

First, there’s little to no evidence that the content of the Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers “whipped up” any kind of frenzy related to Spain’s rule of Cuba. Second, the yellow press wasn’t much exaggerating in reporting about the effects of Spain’s harsh policies on the Cuban people.

Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers certainly were advocates of Cuban self-rule. But even at their most egregious — in the days following the destruction in February 1898 of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor — the content of those newspapers stirred little frenzy among Americans.

As I wrote in my 2001 work, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, Hearst’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World “were undeniably extreme in their reporting, especially in the aftermath of the Maine’s destruction.

“But their excesses,” I noted, “were not widely shared in the U.S. press; the excesses in fact were roundly deplored and even ridiculed. That they influenced many people, or whipped Americans ‘to a white heat’ is doubtful: Several contemporaneous sources describe the sober calm with which the American public and many newspapers awaited the official U.S. report about the cause of the Maine’s destruction.”

The Nation, for example, observed in March 1898: “Nothing could be more curious than the contrast between the wild aspect of the first pages of our [yellow journals] and the calm of the persons who are seen reading them.”

Nor was the yellow press exaggerating the deplorable conditions in Spanish-ruled Cuba, where a rebellion begun in 1895 had soon reached islandwide proportions.

Humanitarian disaster

Spain not only sent 200,000 troops in an attempt to put down the rising; senior Spanish leaders in Cuba imposed what they called a policy of reconcentración, or reconcentration, in which old men, women, and children — non-combattants — were herded into garrison towns.

The policy was intended to deprive Cuban rebels of food, supplies, and logistical support.

But the consequences were disastrous.

The Cuban non-combattants suffered enormously under reconcentración; tens of thousands of them died from hunger, disease, and malnutrition.

The effects of reconcentración drew the frequent attention of U.S. newspapers of all kinds — yellow and otherwise.

It was the humanitarian crisis on Cuba — and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis — that weighed significantly in the U.S. decision to go to war in April 1898. The often-flamboyant yellow press was a non-factor.

WJC

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