The Spanish American War, while dominating the media, also fueled the United States’ first media wars in the era of yellow journalism. Newspapers at the time screamed outrage, with headlines including, “Who Destroyed the Maine? $50,000 Reward,” “Spanish Treachery” and “Invasion!”
But while many newspapers in the late 19th century shifted to more of a tabloid style, the notion that their headlines played a major part in starting the war is often overblown, according to W. Joseph Campbell, a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C.
“No serious historian of the Spanish American War period embraces the notion that the yellow press of [William Randolph] Hearst and [Joseph] Pulitzer fomented or brought on the war with Spain in 1898,” he says.
“Newspapers, after all, did not create the real policy differences between the United States and Spain over Spain's harsh colonial rule of Cuba.”
Newspapers Shift to Feature Bold Headlines and Illustrations
The media scene at the end of the 19th century was robust and highly competitive. It was also experimental, says Campbell. Most newspapers at the time had been typographically bland, with narrow columns and headlines and few illustrations. Then, starting in 1897, half-tone photographs were incorporated into daily issues.
According to Campbell, yellow journalism, in turn, was a distinct genre that featured bold typography, multicolumn headlines, generous and imaginative illustrations, as well as “a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.”
In fact, the term "yellow journalism" was born from a rivalry between the two newspaper giants of the era: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Starting in 1895, Pulitzer printed a comic strip featuring a boy in a yellow nightshirt, entitled the “Yellow Kid.” Hearst then poached the cartoon’s creator and ran the strip in his newspaper. A critic at the New York Press, in an effort to shame the newspapers' sensationalistic approach, coined the term "Yellow-Kid Journalism" after the cartoon. The term was then shortened to "Yellow Journalism."
“It was said of Hearst that he wanted New York American readers to look at page one and say, ‘Gee whiz,’ to turn to page two and exclaim, ‘Holy Moses,’ and then at page three, shout ‘God Almighty!’” writes Edwin Diamond in his book, Behind the Times.
That sort of attention-grabbing was evident in the media’s coverage of the Spanish American War. But while the era’s newspapers may have heightened public calls for U.S. entry into the conflict, there were multiple political factors that led to the war’s outbreak.
“Newspapers did not cause the Cuban rebellion that began in 1895 and was a precursor to the Spanish American War,” says Campbell. “And there is no evidence that the administration of President William McKinley turned to the yellow press for foreign policy guidance.”
“But this notion lives on because, like most media myths, it makes for a delicious tale, one readily retold,” Campbell says. “It also strips away complexity and offers an easy-to-grasp, if badly misleading, explanation about why the country went to war in 1898.”
The myth also survives, Campbell says, because it purports the power of the news media at its most malignant. “That is, the media at their worst can lead the country into a war it otherwise would not have fought,” he says.
Sinking of U.S.S. Maine Bring Tensions to a Head
According to the U.S. Office of the Historian, tensions had been brewing in the long-held Spanish colony of Cuba off and on for much of the 19th century, intensifying in the 1890s, with many Americans calling on Spain to withdraw.
“Hearst and Pulitzer devoted more and more attention to the Cuban struggle for independence, at times accentuating the harshness of Spanish rule or the nobility of the revolutionaries, and occasionally printing rousing stories that proved to be false,” the office states. “This sort of coverage, complete with bold headlines and creative drawings of events, sold a lot of papers for both publishers.”
Things came to a head in Cuba on February 15, 1898, with the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor.
“Sober observers and an initial report by the colonial government of Cuba concluded that the explosion had occurred on board, but Hearst and Pulitzer, who had for several years been selling papers by fanning anti-Spanish public opinion in the United States, published rumors of plots to sink the ship,” the Office of the Historian reports. “... By early May, the Spanish American War had begun.”
Despite intense newspaper coverage of the strife, the office agrees that while yellow journalism showed the media could capture attention and influence public reaction, it did not cause the war.
“In spite of Hearst’s often quoted statement—’You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war!’—other factors played a greater role in leading to the outbreak of war,” the office states. “The papers did not create anti-Spanish sentiments out of thin air, nor did the publishers fabricate the events to which the U.S. public and politicians reacted so strongly.”
The office further points out that influential figures like Theodore Roosevelt had been leading a drive for U.S. expansion overseas. And that push had been gaining strength since the 1880s.
In the meantime, newspapers’ active voice in the buildup to the war spun forward a shift in the medium.
“Out of yellow journalism’s excess came a fine new model of newspapering,” Geneva Overholser writes in the forward of David Spencer’s book, The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America, “and Pulitzer’s name is now linked with the best work the craft can produce.”