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Did Yellow Journalism Fuel the Outbreak of the Spanish-American War?

August 21, 2019 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

Newspaper headlines played off tensions between Spain and the United States in a time when raucous media found a voice.

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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.

The sinking wreck of the battleship USS Maine, 1898.

“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 …read more


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