“Led by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, newspapers were largely responsible for creating the Spanish-American War through the birth of yellow journalism.”
But how that worked, how the newspapers created or fomented that war, was left unsaid, as was the nature of the contribution of “yellow journalism.”
For that matter, “yellow journalism” was left undefined.
But the short answer is that newspapers — and yellow journalism — were not “responsible,” largely or otherwise, for the war in which the United States crushed Spanish military forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, an outcome that signaled America’s emergence as a global power.
As I discussed in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer — the leading exemplars of the yellow press — exerted very modest agenda-setting influence in the run-up to the war.
“There is little evidence that the press beyond New York City, especially in small-town and rural America, was influenced by the content of the yellow journals, including their demands for war after the destruction of the Maine,” an American warship that blew up while on a friendly visit to Havana in mid-February 1898.
The destruction of the Maine — in a harbor under Spanish control — was a trigger for the war.
But if newspapers had been responsible for the war, then researchers should be able to find unambiguous references to such influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.
“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers [in the administration of President William McKinley] nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all,” I wrote Yellow Journalism.
So what, then, were the proximate causes of war in 1898?
Fundamentally, the war was the consequence of a three-sided diplomatic impasse: Cuban insurgents, who in 1895 had launched a rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, would accept nothing short of independence from Madrid. Spain, for domestic and economic reasons, was adamant not to grant Cuban independence — and sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island in an attempt to put down the rebellion. And the United States had become deeply frustrated with Spain’s inability to bring an end to a conflict on an island 90 miles from U.S. shores.
Not only did Spain send thousands of troops to Cuba, it sought to deprive the rebels of the aid and support of non-combattants by herding women, children, and old men into reconcentration centers. The Cuban non-combattants suffered grievously; tens of thousands of them died from starvation and illness in the reconcentration centers.
By 1898, a humanitarian disaster had taken hold in Cuba.
The diplomatic standoff, and the effects of Spain’s reconcentration policy, were the real reasons for the war.
Not Hearst. Not Pulitzer. Not “yellow journalism.”
As for “yellow journalism”: The term was coined in 1897 and it came to represent a flamboyant genre defined by these features:
- the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
- a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
- the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
- bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
- a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
- a penchant for self-promotion, to call frequent attention to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.
It was, as I noted in Yellow Journalism, a genre that scarcely could be “called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Nat Geo’s cartoonish treatment of Hearst v. Pulitzer
- No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War
- On Hearst, yellow journalism, and war
- New Pulitzer biography: An opportunity missed
- Hearst, Garrison Keillor, and ‘furnish the war': Celebrities and media myths
- Juan Williams new book repeats Spanish-American War myth
- Getting it right about ‘yellow journalism’
- Yellow journalism: A sneer is born
- Remembering the Maine–and a myth of yellow journalism
- The ‘anniversary’ of a media myth: ‘I’ll furnish the war’
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- Media myths, the ‘junk food of journalism’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism