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Yes, the Press Helps Start Wars

August 10, 2018 in Economics

By Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter

Donald Trump has again stirred the wrath of his critics by
charging that the media can cause wars. His opponents immediately howled
that he’d launched another salvo in his ongoing campaign to
vilify journalists as the “enemy of the
people.” They also ridiculed his contention as factually
absurd. Fox News reporter Chris Wallace bluntly asked National Security Advisor John Bolton:
“What wars have we caused?” Princeton University
historian and CNN analyst Julian E. Zelizer epitomized the view
that Trump’s charge is unfounded with a piece in The
Atlantic
titled, “The Press Doesn’t Cause
Wars—Presidents Do.”

Zelizer and similar critics are technically correct, of course.
Media outlets have no power to launch attacks on foreign countries
or order U.S. troops into combat. But that view is much too narrow.
As Zelizer himself admits, the new media have considerable ability
to influence public opinion. Such a capacity to shape the overall
narrative is not a trivial power. An irresponsible press can, and
has, whipped up public sentiment in favor of military actions that
subsequent evidence indicated were unnecessary and even
immoral.

Two cases stand out: the Spanish-American War and the Iraq War.
Historians have long recognized that jingoistic “yellow
journalism,” epitomized by the newspaper chains owned by
William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, played a significant
role in the former conflict. Months before the outbreak of the war,
one of Hearst’s reporters wished to return home from Cuba
because there was no sign of a worsening crisis. Hearst instructed
him to stay, adding, “you furnish the pictures, and
I’ll furnish the war.”

History shows that a
jingoistic media can whip up support for hardline policies, as
Trump rightly pointed out.

Hearst’s boast was hyperbolic, but the Hearst and Pulitzer
papers did repeatedly hype the Spanish “threat” and
beat the drums for war against Madrid. They featured stories that
not only focused on but exaggerated the uglier features of
Madrid’s treatment of its colonial subjects in Cuba. Those
outlets also exploited the mysterious explosion that
destroyed the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s
harbor. To this day, the identity of the culprit is uncertain, but
the yellow press exhibited no doubts whatever. According to their
accounts, it was an outrageous attack on America by the villainous
Spanish regime.

Such journalistic pressure was not the only factor that impelled
William McKinley’s administration to push for a declaration
of war against Spain or for Congress to approve that declaration. A
rising generation of American imperialists wanted to emulate the
European great powers and build a colonial empire. That underlying
motive became evident when the first U.S. …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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