Journalism, Spanish-American War

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Many historians consider the Spanish-American War to be a conflict that American journalists not only reported but helped create. The United States had complex motives for going to war against Spain in 1898; sympathy for its Cuban neighbors mixed with the nation's own global ambitions. But Americans were also driven to war by their emotions, stirred by a series of newspaper stories.

For decades, Cuban patriots had waged guerrilla warfare against Spanish rule. Outnumbered and poor, the revolutionaries tried to disrupt the Cuban economy by burning sugarcane plantations. The Spanish retaliated harshly, executing suspected rebels and herding peasants into camps where thousands succumbed to disease and starvation. These brutal measures provided stirring copy for American journalists, who invariably sympathized with the Cuban underdogs.

Still, the public might have paid little attention to the conflict had it not coincided with a newspaper circulation war in New York. At the end of the nineteenth century, more than half a dozen newspapers competed in the influential New York market. The leader was Joseph Pulitzer's World, which pioneered a "new journalism" that appealed to a broad audience through reforming crusades, catchy headlines, and sensational human interest stories. In 1895, Pulitzer was challenged by William Randolph Hearst, an impulsive millionaire who bought the New York Journal and took Pulitzer's techniques to an extreme that critics called yellow journalism.

Although he probably felt genuine concern for the Cubans, Hearst also recognized the ingredients of a great story. One Journal reporter recounted that Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to provide sketches of the conflict. Finding no fighting, Remington cabled to Hearst, asking to come home. Hearst allegedly replied, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Some doubt that such an exchange ever took place, but the tale captures Hearst's arrogant determination not simply to report events but to provoke them.

When the Spanish searched some Cuban women on an American ship, Hearst's headline screamed, "Does Our Flag Protect Women?" He used Remington's lurid and misleading drawing, suggesting that male soldiers had strip-searched the women, to underscore the point. Hearst also championed the cause of Evangelina Cisneros, a young woman imprisoned for attempting to

kidnap a Spanish officer. Cisneros claimed she was only trying to repel his advances. Hearst depicted the beautiful Cisneros as a symbol of national liberation, a "Cuban Joan of Arc," and recruited leading American women to campaign for her release. When Spain refused, Hearst sent a reporter to break Cisneros out of jail, bringing her to New York in October 1897 for a triumphant reception. These were examples of what Hearst proudly called "journalism that acts."

Many of Heart's excesses were denounced by rival papers, but his escapades drew readers, encouraging other yellow papers to offer sensational accounts of the Cuban conflict. The battle of words was further fueled by Cuban exiles. Eager to draw Americans into the war, these Cuban propagandists fed stories to eager editors, including false reports of Cuban victories and exaggerated tales of Spanish atrocities. The Cubans scored a direct hit against their foe when they intercepted a cable sent by Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, Spain's ambassador in Washington, in which he ridiculed President William McKinley. Hearst printed the telegram with a headline denouncing it as "the worst insult" ever.

Hope for a peaceful resolution was destroyed on February 15, 1898, when the USS Maine, an American battleship moored in Havana harbor, exploded, killing 266 sailors. No evidence linked Spain to the tragedy, and a 1976 Navy investigation concluded that the explosion was probably an accident. Most American papers withheld judgment, but Hearst insisted that the Maine was destroyed by an "enemy's secret infernal machine," a claim the Journal supported with a fanciful illustration of an imaginary Spanish mine. Hearst assembled his own committee of U.S. congressmen to visit Havana harbor; they traveled on his yacht and filed stories for the Journal.

Historians have often blamed Hearst and Pulitzer for whipping up war fever, but McKinley declared war, on April 11, 1898, for more complex reasons. Although newspapers did contribute to public resentment against Spain, U.S. leaders were also responding to real, ongoing turmoil in Cuba and understood the war as a chance to advance America's global interests. Although Hearst boasted that this was "the Journal's war," that claim exaggerates his actual influence on public opinion.

In spite of the excesses of yellow journalism, the record of journalists in what one historian has called "the correspondents' war" is not all negative. Many newspapers avoided and even criticized the sensationalism of the yellow press. Before the war, some journalists risked imprisonment to expose human rights abuses against the Cubans. During the conflict, several journalists reported on American military incompetence, while others risked their lives to provide first-hand accounts of battle, including stirring tales about the Rough Riders that made Teddy Roosevelt a national hero. Some fine reporting was done by Richard Harding Davis, Sylvester Scovel, and the novelist Stephen Crane. African-American reporters sometimes challenged the nation's imperialist expansion, especially as the war devolved into a bloody three-year effort to subdue the Philippines.

Although the Spanish-American War was not caused solely by a circulation battle among New York newspapers, the story of yellow journalism's distortions and interventions in Cuba remains a cautionary tale about the power of the mass media to shape public opinion and create war fever that government can use to carry out its military and economic policies.


Browne, Charles H. The Correspondents' War: Journalists in the Spanish-American War. New York: Scribner, 1967.

Campbell, W. Joseph. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

Marks, George P., ed. The Black Press Views American Imperialism (1898–1900). New York: Arno, 1971.

Pérez, Louis A., Jr. War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Swanberg, W. A. Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst. New York: Scribner, 1961.

Ernest Freeberg

See also:Imperialism; Journalism, World War I; McKinley, William.

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