American Correspondents Cover the Spanish-American War

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American Correspondents Cover the Spanish-American War


Myth and Legend. Two stories, neither of them true, color popular conceptions about reporters in the Spanish-American war of 1898. The first story concerns a telegram William randolph Hearst allegedly sent to Frederic Remington, who was waiting in Havana to illustrate a war that was not happening. Hearsts cableYou furnish the pictures, and Ill furnish the warsuggests that the excess of Yellow journalism caused the war. Hearsts New York Journal agitated for American intervention in the Cuban uprising against the Spanish colonical government there and helped to fan the flames of belligerent sentiment. Desire to help the Cuban underdog, the search for overseas markets, and patriotism helped bring on the war. A second story maintains that Sylvester Scovel, the daring correspondent for Joseph Pulitzers New York Worlsd, punched the American commander in Cuba, Maj. Gen. William Rufus shafter, during the ceremony marking Spains surrender. This story supports a countermyth to the one about Hearst, that the press worked against the government in the war. In fact Scovel hit Shafter only after the general struck him first. Moreover, Scovell spent much of the war working for the U.S. navy as a spy and courier.


During the Spanish-American War the rivalry between the New York World and the New York Journal spawned one of the best-known practical jokes in the annals of journalism. The World had six correspondents covering Cuba while its rival the Journal had more than two dozen. As was standard practice, each paper copied stories from the other. Arthur Brisbane, editor of the Journal became so angry at the World that he devised a plan to embarrass the competition. He planted a story in his paper detailing the death of an Austrian artillery officer, Col. Reflipe W. Thenuz, serving under the Spanish officer Colonel Ordonez (odor-nose). A few days later after the same report appeared in the World the Journal reported that Reflipe W. Thenuz was an anagram of sorts for We pilfer the news. To add insult to injury, the Journal sarcastically announced that it would solicit artists designs for a Thenuz monument, and for days after ward the Journal prititcd letters from readers denouncing Pulitzers staff as plagiarists.

Source: Joyce Milton, The Yeltew Kids: Forngn Cerrespendtnts in theHeyday fo Yellow Joumafùm (New York: Harper 6t Row, 1989).

With the Insurgents. In 1895, after deciding that selling insurance was boring, Sylvester Scovel of Pittsburgh went to New York City and asked if the New York Hearld would be interested in dispatches from Cuba. (An insurgency under Gen. Maximo Gomez was massing against the Spanish imperial government,.) He was hired on the spot. While in Cuba Scovel attached himself to Gomezs forces, and for three months he sent dispatches to New York, unsure if any of them arrived. He was arrested while trying to bluff his way into Havana, and ther regular Herald correspondent there denied any knowledge of him. But the correspondent for the rival World, Dr. William Shaw Bowen, went to see Scovel while he was incarcerated in Morro Castle. He was so impressed by the articulate young man that he obtained his release and proposed to hire Scovel for the World. When the World published an interview Scovel had with Gomez, the Spanish military governor, Valeriano Weyler, offered a $5,000 reward for the reporter, deal or arive. At the time Scovel

was secretly in New York getting treatment for an infected gunshot wound to his leg, and Pulitzer warned him not to conduct himself as a partisan in the conflict.

All-Star Lineup. In 1896 a variety of correspondents covered the insurgency, many of them from the terrace of the Inglaterra Hotel. Joseph Pulitzer, concerned at the backlash against nonsensical reports coming from Havana, hired the famous, egotistical war correspondent James Creelman. During his long professional career Creelman conducted interviews with the Sioux leader Sitting Bull, Pope Leo XIII, and King George of Greece. Meanwhile, as the circulation war between Pulitzer and Hearst escalated, Hearst hired the worlds most famous war correspondent, Richard Harding Davis, who had previously covered the coronation of Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the Journal. In addition, the sickly and young Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage (1895), covered the conflict for the World. However, he did not reach Cuba until 1898 and then quickly became ill with malaria. When he filed a story with the Journal for a fellow correspondent who had been wounded, the World fired Crane.

The Cuban Joan of Arc. Early in 1897 George Eugene Bryson of the Journal learned that Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, a seventeen-year-old great-niece of the president of the provisional republic, was being held prisoner in a notorious jail, the Casa de Recojidas. When Hearst learned of her situation he printed frontpage pleas for aid to the Cuban Joan of Arc and girl martyr. James Creelman, now with the Journal, enlisted two hundred stringers, or occasional contributors to the paper, to collect signatures and letters of appeal from American citizens, including President William McKinleys mother and Mrs. Jefferson Davis. After many bribes to prison officials, the correspondents finally organized a jailbreak and took Miss Cisneros to New York. There the Journal covered her first elevator ride and a shopping trip and sponsored a speaking tour before losing interest in her.

Remember the Maine. In early 1898 President McKinley dispatched the USS Maine, a second-class battleship, to Havana. It was anchored near shore for three weeks, until 15 February, when a massive explosion sent it to the bottom of Havana Harbor. Two hundred sixty men of a crew of 354 were killed. No one knew what caused the explosion. Intelligent observers realized Spain had nothing to gain by blowing up the ship. (The U.S. Navy later theorized that a fire in a coal bunker onboard ship was the most reasonable explanation.) Nevertheless, many assumed that war with Spain had become inevitable, and indeed the nation moved closer to it. Hearsts, Journal began a memorial fund for the dead. President McKinley asked Congress to declare war on Easter Sunday, 9 April 1898. It was not clear what the United States would do with Cuba once Spain had been defeated.

Enterprise. Two hundred correspondents covered the war, twenty-five of them employed by Hearst. Publishers spent unprecedented sums to scoop each others stories. Cable costs to transmit a single story to New York some times reached 18,000. The Associated Press ran a fleet of boats that routinely crossed the lines under fire to find cable stations. Correspondents inflated their copy to match the growing headlines at home. Stephen Crane covered the famous charge up San Juan Hill by Theodore Roosevelts Rough Riders as a blaze of glory. Most papers applauded the imperialistic impulse that sent the navy to Cuba and sent troops to suppress the Philippine insurgency of 1899 to 1902. After the Twentieth Kansas swept through a town of seventeen thousand in the Philippines leaving not a single survivor, Heartss Journal proclaimed the righteousness of American expansionism: The weak must go to the wall and stay there. . . . Well rule Asia as we rule at home. We shall establish in Asia a branch agent of the true American movement to wards liberty.

Amateur Spies. Throughout the war Sylvester Scovel and other members of the press corps provided intelligence to American commanders about the location of Spanish ships and troops. Yet the correspondents drew fierce criticism from military authorities for endangering American troops and violating censorship in pursuit of sensational stories. Scovel even carried messages back and forth to General Gomez, who feared that Americas intention was not to grant Cuba its independence but to annex it as a colony. On the whole, leading correspondents such as Creelman and Davis added glory to a conflict that had few clear outcomes.


Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: From The Crimea to Vietnam, the War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975);

Sidney Kobre, The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1964);

Joyce Milton,, The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1989);

W. A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst (new York: Scribners, 1961).