In a battle for readers, two media barons sparked a war in the 1890s

As U.S.-Spain tensions soared, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst didn’t let the facts spoil a good story.

Photograph by LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/DAGLI ORTI/AURIMAGES
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Political cartoons mocked Joseph Pulitzer (left) and William Randolph Hearst (right) in 1898.
Photograph by LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/DAGLI ORTI/AURIMAGES

It is arguably the most celebrated anecdote in the history of American journalism. Sometime in early 1897, as the story goes, artist-correspondent Frederic Remington found himself in Cuba working for the New York Journal. The famous painter of bucking broncos and other Wild West scenes was on assignment for the newspaper’s owner, William Randolph Hearst, in anticipation of hostilities with Spain.

“There is no trouble here,” the bored Remington informed Hearst by telegram. “There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst fired back, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

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Giant headlines trumpet the U.S. declaration of war against Spain on the front page of William Randolph Hearsts New York Journal on April 25, 1898.

The story has been told and retold to show how the yellow press, of which Hearst was an exemplar, set the United States on the road to the Spanish-American War—a war in which Theodore Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill (as reporters wrote it all down) and with that fame strode into the White House; a war that marked the beginning of the United States as a global power and an ending of the Spanish Empire, which lost remnant colonies. It was also a war that ushered in a new age for journalism, for as irresponsible as coverage was at times, it was a first step to the development of energetic foreign news coverage in the States.

But the story is false.

No such telegrams were ever found. Hearst never admitted to saying any such thing. Historians have found that the story originated with Hearst’s ace correspondent, James Creelman, who included it in a memoir full of examples of such creative embroidery and lavish praise for Hearst. (The Remington-Hearst exchange was so irresistible that it had a thrilling cameo appearance in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ 1941 film based on Hearst’s life, further cementing it in the public’s imagination.)

And yet, the story contains a truth greater than it purports to tell. Curiously, where Creelman’s dramatic story falls short is in understatement—the suggestion that the yellow press alone was responsible for starting the war. In fact, conservative newspapers, staid business journals, book publishers, and fledgling film- makers alike were swept up in the wild melee that created an overwhelming go-to-war sentiment. Reporters of all stripes were responsible for outrageous fakes that rival some of today’s as competition over readership and power pushed the boundaries of journalism. (See also: How World War I launched mapmaking at National Geographic.)

American intervention

Cuba began its fight for independence from Spain in the mid-19th century, with a major insurrection from 1868 to 1878 and another revolt in 1879. The final flare-up began in 1895, but the resistance’s early efforts were met with brutality. Spanish general Valeriano Weyler rounded up insurgents and held them in horrific conditions, leading some to credit him with the invention of modern civilian concentration camps. The Spanish government’s harsh treatment of Cuban civilians pulled at American heart strings. Helping the Cubans fight for independence re- affirmed Americans’ belief in the virtues of their own revolution.

The rebellion jeopardized U.S. trade relations with and investments in Cuba. But there were larger reasons than that to go to war. In the late 19th century the United States’ continental frontiers were gone. International muscle flexing could open foreign markets to keep the U.S. economy going strong and revitalize Americans’ sense of their Manifest Destiny. Not only would they enjoy continental sway; they would be a global power.

The press did not generate these impulses, but it played upon and amplified them. Creelman’s anecdote reflects the pro-war attitudes of the press and, in being fabricated, reveals the ease with which correspondents cut corners in conveying them.

Coverage of Cuba

At the end of the 19th century journalism was still in its infancy. There were no journalism schools, no company ethics manuals, no journalism associations to enforce or even suggest standards. The goal was to get readers, which big city newspapers could now reach as a result of massive investment in high-powered presses. Some newspapers sought to attract an upscale readership with fact-based reporting, but even the New York Times and others with higher aspirations easily succumbed to sensational and slipshod reporting when the Cuba story came along.

The war in Cuba was the biggest foreign news story for Americans up to that time. By one count some 75 correspondents covered the incipient Cuba insurgency in the three years leading up to the war. A conservative estimate is that 200 went to the island after Roosevelt’s Rough Riders saddled up in 1898.

Newspapers spared little in covering the dramatic news that Cuba offered. Creelman, handsome Richard Harding Davis, novelist-journalist Stephen Crane, pioneer combat photographer Jimmy Hare, and many of their colleagues were the who’s who of war correspondents. If they brought bias and bravado to this assignment, they were nevertheless enterprising and intrepid. This was a dangerous and frustrating story to cover. One correspondent was killed in action. Others were wounded or felled by malaria or other tropical maladies.

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Gen. Valeriano Weyler, Spanish scourge of the Cuban Rebels, in a 19th-century oil painting by Joan Fuster. For of San Carlos, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

General Weyler hated the American press. “They poison everything with falsehood!” he told Creelman. “They ought to be suppressed!” And so the general did. He heavily censored correspondents’ cables. He tossed journalists in dank jails and threw them out of the country.

Paradoxically, one of the most sensational stories resulted indirectly from Weyler’s suppression of news. Davis was so closely watched by Weyler’s men that he could do little enterprise reporting and decided to leave the country in early 1897. On his homeward bound ship was Clemencia Arango, the sister of an insurgent leader. She told Davis that the Spanish had searched her and two female companions three times.

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The New York Journal’s illustration of a woman stripped and searched by Spanish officials. Female insurgents were indeed searched—but by other women and behind closed doors.

In fine Victorian umbrage, Davis wrote up the account as a litany of indignities, without mentioning the authorities had good reason for the searches. The women were carrying secret—and undiscovered— messages. The story grew all the more lurid when Remington, now back in New York, supplied an illustration of a slender, stark naked woman standing in the open with three men around her. The drawing, which covered two- thirds of a page of the New York Journal, was a gross distortion. Women, not men, had done the searches behind closed doors, not in plain sight above deck.

Intense competition to best each other in the field—and to justify their enormous investment in Cuba coverage—resulted in equally intense newspaper criticism of each other at home. The over-the-top New York Journal story led Pulitzer’s World to condemn Davis and Remington, saying they should be “quarantined before they are allowed to mingle again with reputable newspaper men.” Deeply embarrassed, Davis unfairly put all the blame on Hearst and vowed he would never work for him again.

Remembering the Maine

Newspapers spent tens of thousands of dollars cabling news. The Associated Press had 23 reporters on the job and five press boats. Almost unbelievably, Hearst had twice as many of both. The boats ferried uncensored dispatches to Florida and gave reporters a good view of naval military action.

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The Maine tragedy depicted in a dramatic chromolithograph by the Kurz and Allison Studio

When the U.S. battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, under mysterious circumstances (the cause remains disputed to this day and were at one time investigated by the National Geographic Society), three newspapers sent their own diving teams to investigate.

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The ship's company of the U.S.S. Maine in an 1896 photograph.

Some 260 sailors, most of them sleeping at the time, perished when an explosion near the ship’s powder magazine rent the forward part of the vessel and sent it to the bottom of Havana Harbor. When informed of the Maine’s sinking, Hearst told his editors to “spread the story all over the page. This means war.” Joseph Pulitzer’s World editorialized that “Nobody outside a lunatic asylum” would think Spain stupid enough to do such a thing, but this did not stop the newspaper from darkly reporting “Spanish treachery.”

Along with the New York Journal, the World published a so-called suppressed cable from the Maine’s captain to Navy Secretary John D. Long saying the explosion was not accidental. The cable was a fake. Hearst offered a $50,000 reward for solving the mystery of the Maine’s sinking, but made it clear whom he considered guilty. A front-page drawing two days after the ship went down in flames showed the vessel with a mine immediately under it. For good measure Hearst created a “War with Spain” card game.

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The sunken remains of the Maine in Havana Harbor

The World sent divers to conduct an investigation, but Spanish authorities squelched their attempt. A U.S. naval investigation laid blame for the tragedy, as Hearst’s drawing had suggested, on a Spanish submarine mine. Journalist George Bronson Rea, ever alert to fakes and also a trained engineer, was singular in his outright dispute of this finding.The World chided McKinley for not rushing to war after the sinking of the Maine. A few responsible newspapers counseled caution.

But the public did remember the Maine, and those recollections helped push the country to war several months later. Later inquiries, including one by the National Geographic Society on the hundred-year anniversary of the sinking, have suggested the explosion was due to accidental causes, perhaps a fire in the coal bunker putting off enough heat to ignite the adjacent powder magazine. But no universally accepted explanation has been reached for what was behind the sinking of the Maine.

Turning yellow

Newspaper proprietors like Hearst believed in muscular journalism. He sent a $2,000 sword and medical supplies to the commander of the Cuba rebels, organized a delegation of congressmen to visit Cuba as “Journal commissioners,” and ordered Creelman to concoct a plan to purchase a tramp steamer that would be sunk in the Suez Canal to block the Spanish fleet if it attempted to reach Manila. This ridiculous scheme was never carried out.

Hearst was not alone: Pulitzer’s World correspondent Sylvester Scovel, a former drama critic in Cleveland and one of the most flamboyant correspondents, had such a close relationship with the insurgent Gen. Máximo Gómez that the Spanish considered him a rebel agent, which he effectively was. Scovel carried messages back and forth to Gómez and supplied American authorities with intelligence.

In this same participatory spirit, Scovel insisted on joining in the solemn ceremony to lower the Spanish flag at the end of the war. When the rotund American commander, Gen. William Rufus Shafter, told him to take his hands off the halyard, the correspondent slugged him, or tried to (accounts vary).

The New York newspapers were not the only ones feeding the public’s appetite for news about Cuba. Americans everywhere were inundated with reports and editorials about Cuba. In the seven months leading up to the war, readers of the conservative Los Angeles Times found almost 10 Cuba-related items on aver- age each day; readers of the Chicago Tribune had more than six.

Newspapers often took swipes at each other and the quality of their rivals’ coverage, but rival papers’ critiques of each other did little to exonerate the Spanish or poke holes in insurgents’ claims. Far more commanding was the size of the Journal’s headline type, which increased 400 percent in the run-up to the war. Editor Arthur Brisbane was thankful that the word “war” had only three letters. “Had we had the French ‘guerre’ or even the German ‘Krieg’ to deal with, we would have been lost.”

Before war was declared, George Bronson Rea of the relatively restrained New York Herald grew so fed up with the journalistic shenanigans in coverage of the rebellion he wrote Facts and Fakes about Cuba. But he admitted to having “omitted many events that would have hurt the cause” of the insurgents.

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Cartoonist Richard Outcault created the so-called Yellow Kid, who became the symbol of yellow journalism in the 1890s.

Multimedia war

Every medium, from comic strips to print advertising, wanted in on the act. The Yellow Kid, a crazed cartoon character who gave the yellow press its moniker, set out in one series of comic strips to redress Cuba’s ills. An inspired copywriter came up with “We would like to C-U-B-A purchaser of a pair of our stylish fitting shoes.” The Chicago Dry Goods Reporter suggested retailers use “the disaster to the battleship Maine” for window displays. (See also: These colorful propaganda maps fueled 20th-century wars.)

Magazines were no less hyperventilating. Cosmopolitan editor John Brisben Walker proclaimed, “The time is right for the interference of the United States in the affairs of Cuba.” New York Herald correspondent Stephen Bonsal wrote in Harper’s Weekly, “In these leaking huts, where the dead and the dying lie huddled together, unceasing prayers are being offered up to Our Lady of Pity . . . And I believe these prayers will be heard in the United States.”

Those prayers were recycled in quickie books by Bonsal and others. Advances in photography made the plight of the Cubans vivid. The subsequent success of Collier’s magazine was attributed to the attention it received for extensive photographic coverage of the conflict. Two motion picture tinkerers, Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, created the first newsreels, dramatizing the sinking of the Maine and Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. “With nationalistic feeling at fever pitch,” one them said, “we set out to photograph what the people wanted to see.”

The Junta, the Cuba lobbying organization in the United States, published its own newspapers, planted reporters at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Washington Star, and held a daily four o’clock press briefing in New York. The Peanut Club, as it was called, made every effort to downplay insurgent transgressions and play up the Spanish inequity. “No matter what the feelings of his paper,” said the Peanut Club organizer, “I know of none who was not personally sympathetic to Cuba in her trouble.”

Pressure of the press

Correspondents took their pro-Cuba message directly to Capitol Hill, which created a continuous feedback loop. The journalists testified on Spanish transgressions. The press reported what the journalists said, and legislators repeated their stories when they returned home to constituents. One of the most notorious fakers, Frederick Lawrence of the Journal, told congressmen he had no qualms about passing along information fed to him by insurgents because they were men “of the highest character.” Legislators exhibited the same degree of credulity. Extolling the value of newspaper reports from Cuba, a senator observed, “In the main it turns out that the consensus of statements made by the American press in respect to a matter occurring in a foreign country is true.”

In this news environment American emotions boiled over. The just written American Pledge of Allegiance became a daily ritual at schools. At anti-Spanish rallies in towns and cities, indignant citizens burned General Weyler in effigy. In their homes Americans used Spanish flag toilet paper. The few anti-interventionist elements of the press eventually gave in. Whitelaw Reid, owner of the New York Tribune, told his managing editor, “It would be unwise for us to be the last persons to assent to [war], or seem to be dragged into the support of it.”

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Pulitzer, depicted as Pinocchio, interrupts President McKinley in his office in this 1898 cartoon.

The same could be said of President William McKinley. He was a reluctant warrior as a result of his bloody experience as a Union major in the Civil War. But he also was highly sensitive to public opinion and well aware of the jingoism roiling the nation. He read newspapers for two hours each morning. A special news digest prepared for him, called “Current Comment,” was especially useful, his secretary said, in gleaning “the drift of public sentiment.”

The president tried to convince Spain to give Cuba independence. When these negotiations failed, he did not explicitly call for war. His message to Congress gave belligerent legislators room to declare it. McKinley’s decision was shrewd. If the war went poorly, the blame could be spread around to these legislators; if it succeeded, McKinley would get the most credit. But when Congress declared war in April 1898, Hearst himself was all too happy to take credit: Headlines in his newspaper blared, “How Do You Like the Journal’s War?”

Looking outward

When the war ended a little over three months later, McKinley was a hero. The victorious Americans acquired Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico from Spain. The short war made the United States a global power as Spain retreated from the world stage.

“The past few months have witnessed one of the most remarkable developments of public opinion observed in this or any other country,” wrote a contemporary observer of this expansionist burst. “A year ago we wanted no colonies, no alliance, no European neighbors, no army, and not much navy . . . Today every one of these principles is challenged, if not definitely rejected.” The Spanish-American War similarly was a watershed in news coverage. It led to an expansion of foreign news reporting befitting a world leader. The level of professionalism improved. But James Creelman thought journalists’ performance in Cuba had been fine as it was. The war, he said, “justified the instrumentalities which produced it.”

John Maxwell Hamilton, journalist and author, is the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at Louisiana State University and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.