W. Joseph Campbell

No, ‘Salon’ — Hearst’s yellow journalism didn’t cause war with Spain

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2015 at 2:29 pm

In a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Salon indulges in the hoary media myth that Hearst’s “yellow journalism” provoked war with Spain in 1898.

Salon’s essay was posted today beneath the headline: “Donald Trump’s third-rate ego monument: The billionaire wanna-be president who makes Trump look like a chump.”

Wasn't Heast's war

Wasn’t Heast’s war

As the headline suggests, the essay is no subtle or thoughtful treatment of Hearst. It reflects none of the sophistication and insight of Hearst’s most recent and skilled biographers, David Nasaw (who wrote The Chief in 2000) and Kenneth Whyte (author of The Uncrowned King in 2008).

Significantly, the Salon essay errs in claiming that Hearst’s flamboyant journalism of the late 19th century brought on the Spanish-American War, declaring:

“Headline grabbing was, literally, Hearst’s business. His combustible personality had already been responsible for the ‘yellow journalism’ that got the U.S. into war in Cuba in 1898. Trump hasn’t done that yet.”

Before unpacking that mythical claim, let’s briefly consider the defining features of Hearst’s journalism of the late 1890s — and how and why it came to be called “yellow journalism.”

Hearst, who was 32 when he came to New York City from San Francisco in 1895 and acquired a moribund daily, the Journal, infused his journalism with self-promotion, as did many fin-de-siecle American newspapers.

What set Hearst apart from his many competitors in New York was a willingness to spend generously in news-gathering and an inclination to go bold in news-presentation: His Journal was typographically more engaging and experimental than its staid rival newspapers.

Jail-breaking journalism

Activist, and bold in presentation

Moreover, Hearstian journalism of the late 1890s was animated by activism — by a notion that newspapers had an obligation to do more than comment and criticize, but to inject themselves in the issues of the day and try to correct the wrongs in public life, to fill the voids created by government inaction or incompetence.

The “journalism of action,” it was called. And it borrowed from “government by journalism,” which William T. Stead advanced in Britain in the 1880s.

Hearst’s “journalism of action,” as I pointed out in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, was “a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering and publishing the news.”

The most dramatic and celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” was the jailbreak in Havana in 1897 that freed a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. A reporter for Hearst’s Journal organized the escape of Cisneros, who was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer to New York, where Hearst organized a rapturous reception for her in midtown Manhattan.

Hearst shook up New York City journalism, and his foes chafed at his aggressive brand of journalism. Some of them openly hoped that the young publisher would spend himself into bankruptcy. In early 1897, one of the rivals came up with “yellow journalism” as a jeering rejection of what Hearst was then calling “the new journalism.” The sneer “yellow journalism” stuck; even Hearst’s Journal came to embrace the term.

But by no means did “yellow journalism” cause, foment, or otherwise bring about the war in 1898, a brief conflict that confirmed America as a global power.

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” Hearst’s Journal.

Assertions that the yellow press caused the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, where an islandwide rebellion had flared in early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the armed challenge to Spanish rule, Madrid sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and its generals imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” by which thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — were herded into garrison towns so they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The “reconcentration” policy gave rise to much suffering and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation, creating a humanitarian disaster on Cuba that “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” as I wrote in Yellow Journalism.

The desperate conditions on Cuba in 1897 and early 1898 were frequent topics of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, Hearst’s Journal. His newspaper reported on “reconcentration” but in no way created the policy’s devastating effects.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by the “reconcentration” policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, were pivotal in the American decision to go to war over Cuba in 1898; the content of the yellow press was irrelevant.

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 within the [William] McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor. It was regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain.”

A few years after the war, the Journal pointedly scoffed at claims that it fomented the war in a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits. “Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal noted in 1902, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.

WJC

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