The press holds a significant level of influence over the United States. In fact, the media exercises so much sway over the country that on at least one occasion, it has played a critical role in pushing the nation into military conflict. The Spanish-American War is an example of how journalism can often have widespread consequences.
Yellow Journalism and International Tensions
In the late 1800s, two rival newspaper companies engaged in a bitter feud to earn more readers. The New York Journal, which was run by William Randolph Hearst, began to challenge the supremacy of The New York World, which was run by Joseph Pulitzer.
The two organizations began trying to sell more newspapers by publishing wildly sensational stories and using other tactics to entice people to read their reports. In many cases, journalists working for these companies embellished the truth and, in some cases, outright lied to lure readers into buying their work.
Both newspapers focused on political corruption and issues related to injustice. But in the 1890s, they began focusing on international relations in a way that built up public approval of the upcoming Spanish-American War.
A Time for War
In 1895, The World and The Journal started focusing on atrocities committed by Spain’s military in Cuba. Through a bevy of news reports, they systematically increased resentment towards the Spanish government among the American public.
The tensions between the U.S. and Spain grew fierier as Cuba struggled to obtain its independence from the European nation. The Cubans started an armed resistance against the Spanish military in 1895. The conflict between the two parties endangered U.S. investments in the country.
Spanish authorities captured Cubans and placed them into “reconcentration areas” without providing adequate food, shelter, or medical care. Many of these individuals died from hunger and disease.
Both newspaper gave extensive coverage of these events, focusing on the plight of those who were rounded up and forced into these camps. They played on American sympathy towards a nation trying to gain its independence much like the colonist did in the Revolutionary War.
By 1896, public sentiment favoring intervention made its way into Congress. However, President Grover Cleveland did not want the United States to become involved in the matter. After he left office, William McKinley took over and warned the Spanish government that the United States would become involved if necessary.
Meanwhile, the World and the Journal were running pieces designed to gin up outrage at Spain. They published reports with headlines like “Spanish Treachery,” and “Invasion!”
But it was not until the U.S.S. Maine, an American warship, was sunk that the U.S. was pushed over the edge. It was never determined who was responsible for sinking the ship, but Hearst and Pulitzer decided to blame the Spanish government anyway.
The Power of Yellow Journalism
It would be inaccurate to say that yellow journalism was the sole or primary cause of the Spanish-American War. Plenty of other factors certainly contributed to the environment that led to the military conflict.
Still, it cannot be denied that the media’s role in drumming up support for the war was significant. Indeed, without public opinion on his side, President McKinley would have had a much harder time when it came to fulfilling his threats against the Spanish government.
This is yet another reason why it is important for Americans to know how to consume the news. Sometimes, the press can deceive people into believing narratives that are not true.