The war of the yellow papers
Cuban war and what is known about is reported in the newspapers. In a fierce battle of the press between the Hearst and Pulitzer magnates, the most eccentric narrative always wins. A war fueled by the sensationalism of the “yellow journalism”.
New York Journal’s first page, on February 9th of 1898, showed a letter sent by the Spanish ambassador in the United States to the north-American president in which the ambassador makes value judgements like this: “débil y populachero y además un politicastro que quiere dejarse una puerta abierta y quedar bien con los jingoes(n) de su partido.” [«weak and vulgar and also a politician that wants to keep the door open and get along with the exacerbated patriots of its party].
Enrique Dupuy de Lôme wrote the letter in mid-December, expressing his opinion about the Cuban situation and presidente McKinley’s diplomacy.
Since the 1868 uprising that Cuba, then a Spanish colony, fought with the metropole for its independence, in a war with several phases, which extended for the second half of the 19th century.
The united States were closer to enter the battle.
Days after the disclosure of the ambassador’s correspondence, the tension’s tone rose even more. On February 15th, the north-American ship U.S.S. Maine exploded in Habana’s port, killing more than 250 members of the crew.
The ship had been sent in the previous month, to protect the north-American interests in the island. With Maine’s explosion also all hopes of settling the matter of Cuba diplomatically sunk.
Only two days after the tragedy, the New York Journal published the headline “Destruction of the war ship Maine was the work of an enemy”.
The newspaper even offered a big compensation for information that led to the guilty. An extra edition about the case went further, claiming: “Spanish Treachery”
The tone of the press was so feisty and passionate that even Edwin Lawrence Godkin, from the intellectual New York Evening Post, wrote, in his editorial.
“Nothing so disgraceful as the behavior of these newspapers in the past week has been known in the history of American journalism. […] It is a crying shame that men should work such mischief simply to sell more papers.”
But it was too late; the war fever had reached even the reference publications.
THE WAR IN THE NEWSPAPERS
On March 6th, The New York Times published: “Madrid Press Feels Alarm: Talk of Destroying American Commerce and of Sending An Army to the United States”.
On the same day, the edition of the New York World placed even more pressure over the Government.
More than 100 women in the entire country had been questioned for the piece “American Women Ready to Give up Husbands, Sons and Sweethearts to Defend Nation's Honor”.
On April 25th, the north-American congress officially declares war. The conflict was as result of a three-sided conflict.
The Cuban rebels wouldn’t settle for anything less than the independence from Spain.
The Spanish were reluctant in losing their last colony in the western hemisphere.
The USA, for economic and humanitarian reasons, couldn’t ignore the conflict.
THE YELLOW JOURNALISM REVOLUTION
A quarter soon entered in action and William Randolph Hearst would be one of the protagonists of this «mechanism». Hearst reached the New Yorker journalism in 1895.
Joseph Wisan, a theorist, believes that “The Spanish-American War would not have occurred had not the appearance of Hearst in New York journalism precipitated a bitter battle for newspaper circulation”.
After having, in few years, transformed the San Francisco Examiner in the most popular newspaper in San Francisco, Hearst was eager to thrive in a larger market.
With family support, he bought the New York Journal and starred a revolution in the journalism done in New York.
His strategy for success underwent by attracting the best reporters, artists and columnists at the time, some of whom worked in one of the most popular newspapers in the market: The New York World.
After two decades of failure, the newspaper would be bought by Joseph Pulitzer and in 1883 became a true sales success by publishing appealing stories and of human interest.
Similar to Hearst, also Pulizter started in a smaller market. Under his leadership, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had become, in the end of the 70’s, a serious case of local journalism.
The World’s newsroom included famous investigation reporters, such as the pioneer Nellie Bly. The newspaper was also the first to print cartoons in color, with the creation of the Yellow Kid, by Richard F. Outcault.
The same Richard F. Outcault that Hearst recruited for his Journal, years after. The comic strip would come to help to name the sensationalist press practiced by Hearst and Pulitzer as yellow press.
The rivalry between the two owners and the war between the Journaland the World to conquer the New Yorker public are the focus of the documentary Hearst vs. Pulitzer.
The revolution that yellow journalism caused in the north-American journalist completely altered the journalistic coverage and the country’s media panorama.
Appealing titles, bombastic stories, astronomical circulations. It is how the routine of the World and the Journal was, who fought to conquer the American public. Their golden opportunity arrived in the end of the 1890 decade, with the rising of the tension in Cuba. The competition between the newspapers brought the little island to the north-American headlines.
Accused by other newspaper of having contributed for the American invasion in Cuba, the New York Journal published, in May of 1898, the epigram: “How do You Like the Journal’s War?”.
As consequence, few days later it was possible to read in the editorial: “This war has been called a war brought on by the New York Journal and the press which it leads. This is merely another way of saying that the war is the war of the American people, for it is only as a newspaper gives voice to the American spirit that it can be influential with the American masses”.
The press’s influence next to the Americans was not to be underestimated. In the decade of 1890, America was a nation of readers: it was counted by the thousands the weekly and about 1,900 daily newspapers. During the Spanish-American war, half of the titles were part of the yellow press.
The General Valeriano Weyler, responsible for the Spanish forces in Cuba, was called «Butcher Weyler» by the media. The public opinion claimed the American intervention. In November of 1896, McKinley was elected president of the United States with an electoral promise: to free the Cuban population.
Hearst and Pulitzer’s journalistic nose had place, for long now, their reporters in trail of the conflicts in Cuba. In the beginning of 1897, the Journal had sent the correspondent Richard Harding Davis and the illustrator Frederic Remington to the island.
Less than a week after, Remington wrote a telegram to Hearst: “Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return”. But Hearst insisted: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war”.
Despite Hearst denied having ever uttered such phrase, it was immortalized in the History of journalism, showing sensationalism. In 1941, the movie Citizen Kane, this episode is portrayed.
Even before the conflict burst, it arrived to the newsroom of the New York Journal whatwould become one of the year’s exclusives. In the summer of 1897, one of the newspaper’s correspondent reported the case of the Cuban young woman Evangelina Cossio y Cisneros, incarcerated for more than a year by the Spanish.
The episode had blood, beauty, youth, betrayal and injustice; ingredients that made the story irresistible for Hearst… and for the north-American readers.
The Journal’s main competitor, the New York World, tried to discredit the story, trying to show that its rivals exaggerate and distorted the facts. An effort that could have gone well, if the Journal hadn’t decided to act.
In the end of month of August, the reporter Karl Decker arrived in Habana with the secret mission of rescuing the woman and taking her to the United States.
The vast liberation campaign promoted by Hearst even involved the mother of the President McKinley and the Pope Leo XIII.
But not all press was conquered by the heroic mission.
The New York Times wrote: “We do not intend to express any horror or indignation over the lawless act of our contemporary, the Journal, in taking Evangelina Cossio y Cisneros from a Cuban prison”.
In October, the New York Journal pubished the story of Evangelina’s liberation, calling it “the greatest journalistic coup of this age”.
Her arrival in the United States occasioned several media events and even an official reception at the White House.
Since the beginning, the sympathy of the north-Americans was on the rebels’ side, who fought, such as the United Stated had done, to free themselves from the «oppressive empire». Evangelina had become a symbol of the struggle of all Cubans.
On the other side of the Atlantic, patriotism also arrived in the front page of newspapers. The Spanish press found in the Cuban War a space to cultivate sensationalism: the smallest details of battles filled pages and pages of the papers. The press became the voice of the war euphoria. Journalists praised the qualities of the «heroes» of the Spanish army and editorials spoke of honor, homeland and victory.
The press also guided the public opinion, contributing to make the few Spanish who, at the time, knew how to read, favorable to the war.
The «noble» Spain opposed «bravely» to two enemies: the Cuban fighters for independence and the north-American Government.
Caricatures and satirical publications were promoted as a way of showing the confidence of old Spanish nation in the superiority that History granted to it.
To the newly-created «yanqui» nation opposed the glorious Spain, represented as a lion, symbol of power and victory.
The Heraldo de Madrid wrote that the north-American soldiers would desert as soon as the first shot was heard.
El País defended: “El problema cubano no tendrá solución mientras no enviemos un ejército a los Estados Unidos” [“The Cuban problema will not a solution until we send na army to the United States”].
It is estimated that, at the time, were published more than 1,000 newspapers in Spain, even though had an ephemeral character or irregular periodicity. The colonial wars in Cuba and in the Philippines would be the main responsible for the significant increase of the daily newspapers’ circulation.
The sensationalism that invaded the Spanish press led the Unión Republicana to advise madrilène newspapers to avoid inflamed patriotic statements, since these could be misinterpreted in the several European capitals were Spanish papers were sold.
THE FIRST CONFRONTATION
Despite the media frenzy generated around the war, the first piece of the Hispanic-American conflict was, ironically, a news disaster.
The Spanish armada was defeated in the beginning of May of 898, in Manila Bay, in the Philippines. The battle had ended in just one morning, virtually without any photographic images and with minimal coverage from the location.
In the following weeks, the media sphere was around the conflict. Despite the declaration of war, there wasn’t major action in the island, which didn’t stop the newspapers of continuing to publish fanciful headlines.
Reporters awaited, along with the north-American military forces, writing about war preparations and waiting to leave to the island with the invasion forces. Among them was Anna Northend Benjamin.
From Tampa, in Florida, the journalist of the Leslie’s Weekly wrote reports of the troops preparations for the invasion of Cuba.
At the time of departure of the American forces, the reporter found resistance; the north-American government had banished female journalists from the battlefront and the authorities and the male colleagues were reluctant in letting her leave.
Anna Northend Benjamin ended up arriving in Cuba, illegally, accompanying battles and the post-war.
Also Kathleen Blake Watkins had difficulties in arriving to the battle stage, fighting strongly for accreditation with the United States War Departament. The reporter of the Toronto Daily Mail and Empire received editorial guidelines to write stories of interest, leaving the battlefront pieces to her colleagues. A distinction that didn’t please the journalist.
Another pioneer of the feminine war journalism, Katherine White, was one of the first reporters to arrive in Cuba, by enlisting as a Red Cross nurse. The technical used by the journalist of the Chicago Record would come to be repeated for several journalists in future conflicts.
The costs of war media coverage reached astronomical amounts. It is estimated that a third of total expenses of a newspaper was aimed to correspondents. There aren’t exact data about the number of reporters, photographers and artists who followed the invasion of Cuba, but it’s believed that it should surpass the 300, might even reach the 500.
The New York Journalalone had more than 50 correspondents covering the conflict.
One of them was Hearst. The owner of the Journal wanted to report the war in loco.
His nearness to the battlefront was such that his ship was even mistaken as an enemy ship and was chased by north-American forces.
It was aboard of the Sylvia, while searching the Cuban coast, that Hearst faced on the war scoops.
In a beach, there were more than 20 Spanish, “battered and bruised, half clothed, hald drowned, half starved”, after having escaped their flaming ships. Armed with his notebook, Hearst rescued them e and handed them to the authorities. His adventures made healines and reached even the pages of the competitor newspapers.
In The Times it was read: “We observe that the proprietor of our esteemed and enterprising yellow contemporary The Journal has carried his characteristic enterprise into Cuban waters”.
A WAR TOLD AND DRAWN
Despite the stories full of vivacity and the thrilling reports, the coverage done by the reporters was very dependent of second hand accounts.
Pieces were written in second or third hand, with imprecise facts, distorted or even invented by journalists to contribute to the dramatic effect.
The connection wires in the island had been cut, forcing correspondents to move to the nearest location with telegraph or cable transmission to send the pieces.
Ships were also a popular means of transportation among the press to follow the action in the battlefield, sometimes even disturbing the warships. The New York Journal, alone, had ten ships at its disposal.
Even before the beginning of the war, photography had been fundamental to show the Americans the life conditions of the Cubans and to mobilize the public opinion.
From the beginning of 1898, the north-American press sent more and more photographers to Cuba.
Arrived at the island, these faced the impossibility of capturing war images due to the ground conditions and the safety distance from the battlefield.
Artists and illustrators were responsible for visually reproduce the fights.
The war images also reached the European press pages, especially through illustrated newspapers. Le Petit Journal, Berliner, Illustrierte, Zeitung, Graphice Illustratedand London News were some of the publications that covered the war.
THE AMERICAN VICTORY
And war continues to escalate. After the victory in the Philippines, the north-American troops arrived in the Cuban city of Santiago.
The city surrendered in July. The Spanish armada was chased by American ships and destroyed in few hours.
In, the battlefront, the American victory seemed sure, also in the media field the war was fought unequally. After the Spanish defeat in the Philippines and in Santiago, the situation became unbearable for the Spanish press.
It was imposed a total censorship and it was watched the suspension of constitutional rights. Newspapers were only authorized to publish governmental information. The censorship and the apprehension of publications was becoming a routine, with the Government defending its intervention for State reasons.
However, the impasse wouldn’t last long. The American forces conquered Porto Rico in the end of July. After 114 days, it was agreed the peace.
In December of 1898, it was signed the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain renounced to its territories in Cuba, Porto Rica, Antilles, Philippines and Guam. After 400 years, the Spanish empire in the New World was closed to its end. The United States confirmed their emergence as a global potency.
In the years following the war, the Spanish press entered a period of disorientation, of loss of both credibility and readers. Patriotism gave place to pessimism.
In 1905, it was read in Nuevo Mundo:
“Es como si a los lectores de los periódicos de Madrid les fuese acometiendo, uno a uno, un cansancio, una fatiga de prosa periodística, y uno a uno fueran dejando el diario que antes les apasionaba.”
[«It’s like if the readers of the newspapers in Madrid were affected, one by one, by a tiredness, a fatigue of the journalistic prose and, one by one, were stopping the daily newspaper that once infatuated them»].
In the United States, Hearst expanded his media empire to other north-American states and continued to exert influence over the public opinion through his publications. The Journal would close doors in 1966, 15 years after Hearst’s death.
With the turn of the century and the death of Pulitzer, in 1911, also the World reached its decline. The increase of the newspaper’s price had negative consequences in its circulation, leading, eventually, to its extinction, in 1931. Pulitzer’s legacy and his contribution to journalism would be immortalized in the Pulitzer Prizes, which distinguish, since 1917, the Excellency in this area.
The Journal and the World, yellow pressmaximum exponents, revolutionized the journalism and continue to influence the way it reflects over the media world. The rivalry between the two newspapers would come to be forever associated to the Hispanic-American War. A conflict influence – if not boosted – by another battle, fought thousands of kilometers away: a war of the press.