By M. Mallon
In 1898, the U.S.S. Maine, a battleship anchored in Havana Harbor exploded, killing 266 people. The U.S government had sent the vessel to patrol the waters between Cuba and the U.S. in order to prevent the illegal transport of arms and to protect Americans amid Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. The strained relationship between Cuba and Spain had significantly harmed trade relations with the U.S. and calls for humanitarian aid were becoming increasingly urgent. Given these rising tensions and a formal expression of solidarity with Cuba by the United States government, animosity towards Spain developed rapidly even before the Maine disaster.
In response to the disaster and an inquiry suggesting that its cause was an external explosion, widespread speculation and accusations were quickly directed towards Spain, both publicly and among members of Congress. Newspapers, including William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, quickly assumed Spain’s guilt. The Journal’s headline declared the tragedy “The work of an enemy.” Though no official statement had confirmed the perpetrator, the public embraced this narrative. Upon the release of this news, demand for American intervention became overwhelming, encouraging the U.S.’s eventual declaration of war just two months later.
Hearst’s newspaper and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World were well known for using sensational journalism to sell more papers. Regardless of evidence, they extrapolated on the inquiry’s vague conclusion in order to profit from American hysteria. Only five days after the incident, the World published the headline “The World’s Latest Discoveries Indicate The Maine Was Blown Up By A Submarine Mine,” while the New York Journal claimed “Crisis Is At Hand… Spanish Treachery.”
Though the U.S. government never specifically blamed Spain for the tragedy, this was the most profitable conclusion for media. Audiences enthusiastically consumed this interpretation, increasing the demand for retaliation.
This so-called “yellow journalism,” characterized by a focus on dramatized content in order to sell more papers, was especially prominent in the nineteenth century. Yellow journalism relies on a dramatic story and headline to capture public attention and increase profit. The term is often synonymous with the tactics of Hearst and Pulitzer because overwhelming public outcry, largely driven by their papers’ unfounded claims, persuaded the U.S. government to declare war on Spain.
In 1974, a team of naval historians reevaluated the explosion of the Maine in order to definitively determine if an external mine had caused the blast. These experts studied archives, official reports, and wreckage photographs, even requesting documentation of foreign ship explosions to compare with the Maine. They determined that the source of the blast had actually originated from within the vessel. In the years following, computer analysis of heat transfer indicated a high likelihood that the proximity of a coal bunker to a magazine of ammunition catalyzed a chain reaction of ignition large enough to destroy the Maine.
Yellow journalism was so successful because it did not create an unfamiliar narrative, but rather buttressed its audience’s existing perceptions. The ongoing conflict between Cuba and Spain had already captured the American attention, so the public was poised to receive proof to support their ill will. Because of this, Hearst and Pulitzer managed to deeply influence public opinion, despite the fact that they had fabricated information surrounding the culprit.
Another element that encouraged placing blame on Spain was the fact that the explosion of the Maine had been such a tragedy. 266 lives were lost in the blast and Americans wanted someone to focus their anger at, someone to blame for this massive loss of life. Spain was a convenient scapegoat. The U.S. was poised to take revenge against Spain through military action, gratifying this desire to convert grief to anger. To be successful, yellow journalism does not create false information out of thin air, but rather feeds on a society’s current anxieties.
These two yellow journalism outlets were not the only contributors to the anti-Spanish sentiment in America. Rather, their publications capitalized on an existing stereotype known as the Spanish Black Legend, which many western nations accepted as early as the fifteenth century. The shared sentiment that Spain was inherently evil arose mainly as rival European countries rejected the nation’s imperial endeavours and Catholicism. Though often credited as a response to Spain’s mistreatment of indigenous people and unrelenting colonial ventures, the Black Legend was predominantly the product of propaganda from competing western powers, whose treatment of indigenous people was often equally as abhorrent. This view characterized not just the Spanish government, but also Spaniards and Hispanic culture as barbaric, a stereotype which perpetuated the willingness of Americans conclude that Spain was guilty and that Protestant America was obligated to free Cuba from its brutal ruler.
Yet Spain lacked a possible motive for bombing the Maine. As it desperately attempted to quell the rising revolution in Cuba, Spain would have little reason to provoke the U.S., which had already demonstrated its distaste for Spain. Picking a fight with a major contender for global power would have achieved nothing for Spain but threaten the loss of Cuba and its other territories. Given this lose-lose scenario for Spain, the idea that it was eager to engage with America is quite ludicrous.
The early twenty-first century is often characterized as the “post-truth” era. However when compared to the dynamic between media and consumer in the nineteenth century, it is difficult to rationalize a distinction between the two time periods. Describing the present day as post-truth would indicate that at any time prior to the present, truth was more accessible. However, Hearst, Pulitzer, and the power of yellow journalism to rationalize a war paint a vastly different picture of the way the public received information. Unlike the present, audiences in the 1890s did not have easy access to alternative, fact-checked media sources, or even sites such as Snopes or Factcheck.org. Though users must sift through a constant barrage of contradictory information and journalism with the same intent as ones like the New York Journal, they also have access to a vast network of information in which the truth is accessible to those who are willing to fact check. Despite the sheer volume of fake news modern audiences must sift through, the ability to seek out the truth is far more accessible to the individual now than it was in the nineteenth century.
Though many regard fake news as a twenty-first century phenomenon, the struggle between objectivity and profit has plagued consumers of news since well before the introduction of the internet. Because the transfer of valuable information is a lucrative business, it is unsurprising that embellishment has been skewing public perspective since a time when audiences had far fewer resources with which to identify falsehoods.