Media Propaganda and the Spanish/American War

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Irresponsible Journalism & Media Propaganda

During the Spanish/American war of the 1890’s, sensationalism and propaganda in media reporting became the name of the game.    The mainstream media, then dominated by newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, exaggerated – and outright fabricated – stories of horrible conditions under Spanish rule.   Following the age-old maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads”, the newspapers published stories about Spanish death camps, Spanish cannibalism, and inhumane torture.

Threat to Corporate Interests

The Spanish Empire was the first truly global empire, reaching its territorial height in the late 1700s.   By 1898, Spain was losing territories regularly.   Cuba too was becoming increasingly hard to control and a minor revolution had broken out.   This wasn’t welcome news to people in the United States who owned Cuban sugar, tobacco, and iron industry properties, valued at over $50 million (worth ca. $1.2 billion today).

The “Campaign” Begins

The newspaper media sent reporters to Cuba but when they got there, they found a different story.   Artist and correspondent Frederick Remington wrote back to Hearst:   “There is no war. Request to be recalled.”  Hearst’s famous reply:  “Please remain.  You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”,  and he did.   Hearst’s newspaper, continually screaming how Spanish Cuba was going to hell in a hand basket, convinced big business interests in the US to put pressure on anti-war President William McKinley to protect their Cuban investments. McKinley, in response, sent the USS Maine battleship to Havana Harbor as a calming show of force.

A Convenient Accident?

Three weeks after arriving, on the night of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded, killing 266 men.   There are two theories for the explosion: some believe the explosion was caused by an external mine that detonated the ship’s ammunition magazines.  Others say it was caused by a spontaneous coal bunker fire that reached the ammunition magazines.  Currently, the evidence seems to favor the external mine theory.

The Drums of War

Without waiting on an investigation, America’s mainstream media blamed the tragedy on Spain and beat the drums for war.   By April, McKinley yielded to public pressure and signed a congressional resolution declaring war on Spain.  To help pay for the Spanish-American War, congress enacted a “temporary” tax of 3 percent on long-distance telephone bills.   This was essentially a tax on the rich, as only about 1,300 Americans owned phones in 1898.

Ongoing Taxation

Although the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, the temporary tax was only abolished in… 2005.   Over its lifetime, the 107-year-old tax generated almost $94 billion – more than 230 times the cost of the Spanish-American War.

Expansionism and Turning Point of Control

The Spanish-American War put a large nail in the coffin of Spain’s global empire.   By the end of 1898, the United States, which was founded in opposition to imperialism, found itself in control not only of Cuba, but of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Hawaiian Islands as well.