Sensationalized news coverage is nothing new to today's media, but in the 1890s, it played a pivotal role in America's decision to go to war with Spain. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, the biggest newspaper tycoons of the day, practiced yellow journalism, the use of half-truths and spectacular news reports to gain readership. What began as a rivalry between Hearst and Pulitzer's publications, though, inadvertently heightened Americans' cry for intervention in Spanish-occupied Cuba.
The conflict between Pulitzer and Hearst began with the Yellow Kid, a character from "Hogan's Alley," a comic strip in Pulitzer's paper, "The New York World." In an effort to gain a wider audience for his "New York Journal," Hearst began to imitate the melodramatic, shocking headlines of Pulitzer's paper and stole R.F. Outcault, the Yellow Kid's creator, from the World's staff. In response, the two papers attempted to repeatedly outdo each other by making their stories more and more outrageous, even if it meant twisting the facts or inventing material.
Inflaming Public Opinion
While Spain had controlled Cuba since its colonization in 1492, U.S. business investments in Cuba spurred on support for the country's liberation. Seeing an opportunity to increase their audience, Pulitzer and Hearst made the Cuban conflict a major subject of their stories. Using partially true and imagined reports, they painted a picture of Spanish brutality that created outrage among Americans. For example, one drawing from Hearst's paper depicted Spanish officials strip-searching a woman. To discredit his rival's controversial story, Pulitzer reported that the woman had already been searched by female prison matrons when the incident occurred.
An Explosive News Opportunity
In response to growing public opinion on Cuban independence, America sent the U.S.S. Maine to Havana as a show of military power. Three weeks later, on February 15, 1898, an explosion destroyed the ship and killed its crew. When an inquiry into the disaster cited a mine as the cause, it provided the perfect opportunity for newsmen like Hearst and Pulitzer to name it as a Spanish terrorist attack. As a result, the accusations against Spain further angered readers. President McKinley eventually succumbed to public pressure and asked Spain to grant Cuban independence. In response, Spain declared war.
Hearst and Pulitzer's Legacy
The Spanish-American War was one of the first times in history that the news media was able to directly influence public opinion. While Hearst and Pulitzer's sensationalistic coverage wasn't the only factor that led to war, it provided a major tool for molding the social and political climate surrounding the issue. As a result of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. gained Spain's colonies, thrusting it into the role of a world power with the press as a powerful societal force.
- PBS.org: Yellow Journalism
- Library of Congress: The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War
- Florida State University: A Visual Conversation: Media Images During Wartime, 1898-1918
- U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian: U.S. Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895-1898
- Macarthur Memorial Educational Programs: Spanish-American War Primary Resources
- Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images