Commentary

What we see today has roots in Yellow Journalism

“Remember the Maine, To Hell with Spain!“

This was the attention-grabbing headline of the Hearst newspaper at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In the years before radio and television, newspapers were the major source of national and international news, and people read the newspapers voraciously. Newspaper boys found peddling newspapers on the streets to be an important way to make a little extra money for themselves and their families. Newspaper owners found that a catchy headline helped to sell more newspapers faster.

So what is the history behind this headline? The Cubans had been struggling for 30 years to assert their independence from Spain, which had once dominated the international world. Now the Cubans had garnered the sympathies of the American people to their cause. President William McKinley was hopeful of a peaceful resolution to the conflict. He had no desire to engage in war with Spain. As conditions worsened, however, the State Department sent the U.S. battleship Maine to Havana to make sure American citizens were safe and their interests were protected. Over the years, trade between America and Cuba had flourished. America imported sugar from Cuba, and 40% of Cuba's imports came from the United States.

Unfortunately an explosion destroyed the U.S. battleship Maine while moored in Havana harbor. Despite the fact that Spain denied having any part of the matter, the American press insisted otherwise. Hence the inflammatory headline, “Remember the Maine, To Hell with Spain!“ William Randolph Hearst, of Hearst Castle fame here in California, and Joseph Pulitzer of New York, published the anti-Spain propaganda in their competing newspapers. “Crisis at Hand“ and “Spanish Treachery“ were other headlines in their newspapers.

While stories were based on actual facts, the papers exaggerated and sensationalized what was happening. Hearst, for example, sent artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to draw pictures of the impending war in Cuba. Remington wired back to Hearst, “Everything quiet. There is no trouble here ...” to which Hearst supposedly replied, “You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war.” Such was the nature of what came to be known as Yellow Journalism.

It is interesting to note that more than 75 years later a private investigation into the explosion that sunk the battleship Maine concluded that it was not due to a mine planted by the Spanish, but rather due to a spontaneous internal explosion which may have started in the coal bunker.

At the time of the explosion, public opinion and Congress were for war even though it was against McKinley's better judgment. He continued to seek a peaceful resolution for relations with Spain, but in April 1898 he decided that war was inevitable and sided with Congress when they declared war.

Theodore Roosevelt quickly gathered a group of cowboys and college friends which became known as the Rough Riders. They eventually charged up San Juan Hill outside of Santiago, Cuba. While it was a dangerous event, it was a rather small part of the war. Roosevelt became famous for his bravery, and his fame eventually took him to the White House as president.

While Roosevelt and the Rough Riders took most of the newspaper headlines, Commodore George Dewey commanded the Navy's Squadron in Manila Bay, which drove out the Spaniards for a quick victory in the Philippines. After the 10-week war against Spain, Cuba was granted independence, and the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico (all of which had been apart of Spain's Empire) became U.S. territories in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The U.S. agreed to pay $20 million to Spain to cover the physical damages and loss to that country, and the United States now had the dubious role of being an imperial power with colonies.

Newport Beach resident SHERRY MARRON has a doctorate in American studies. She has taught at the University of Connecticut and Orange Coast College.

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