The exchange may never have happened (Hearst always denied that it did), but the story illustrates one of the most popular myths about the Spanish-American War. Generations of Americans have grown up learning that it was "Mr. Hearst's War" or "The Newspapers' War", an unjust and unnecessary conflict fought to boost the circulation of a few shameless "Yellow" daily papers. While some actions of these publications seen to support this theory ("How do you like the Journal's War?" asked Hearst's New York flagship in a screaming headline), it does not stand up under more sober analysis. First of all, not only the sensational yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer called for war with Spain, but also a broad-based sample of more sober journals, particularly those in the Midwest, West, and South. Second, and more important, no amount of newspaper pressure can force the people, Congress or President of the United States to do something against their will. The newspapers may help create public opinion and have some influence on the national leadership, but they cannot dictate policy. Not now, and not in 1898.
The war with Spain was, none the less, the Correspondents' War. Journalists not only reported on the conflict, they often took part in it, acting as scouts, spies and couriers for the Armed Forces and, on occasion, actually picking up a rifle and joining in the fight. In 1898, advances in long distance communications combined with the growth of the popular press to create a unique situation. Never before or again did War Correspondents enjoy such prestige with the public, combined with such freedom of action in the war zone. To understand why, one must examine the development of American journalism in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century.
The American public of 1898 was highly literate, and enjoyed ever-growing affluence and leisure time. In a day before radio, motion pictures and television, newspapers were the main source of information, opinion and entertainment for the vast majority of the people. The country had about 14,000 weeklies and 1,900 dailies. It has been estimated that 25 per cent of Americans over the age of 10 read at least one paper per week. In New York City, where the population was about 2,800,000, the combined circulation of the eight AM and seven PM daily papers was 2,000,000.
Following the Civil War, a new type of newspaper appeared on the American scene, the so called "Yellow" journal. The archetype of these lively papers, with their lurid mix of sex, scandal and mayhem, was the New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer was born in Hungary. As a young man, he longed to be a soldier, but was turned down by the armies of his own country, Britain and France. During the Civil War, Pulitzer was recruited to come to America and serve in the Union Army. Following his discharge, he became a successful reporter in St. Louis, eventually owning and publishing that city's Post-Dispatch. Now wealthy, Pulitzer began to seek to broaden his horizons. In 1883, he purchased the New York World, a not too successful daily owned by the financier Jay Gould. Within a year, Pulitzer had turned the paper around, building its success on a steady diet of titillation and crusading, catching the readers attention with large headlines and flashy illustrations. It appealed to the masses and left highbrow journalism to more stodgy publications like the New York Times. Despite failing health and the almost total loss of his eyesight, Pulitzer continued to direct his empire during the 1890s through a large corps of secretaries. Soon, the World had a host of imitators, both in New York and in other cities. The most flamboyant and successful of these were the papers of William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst was the son of Senator George Hearst, a rough and tumble California prospector who struck it rich and bought his way to a US Senate seat despite being nearly illiterate. Hearst's mother, Phoebe, was a formidable figure in California society who doted on and indulged her only son. Willie Hearst was quiet and shy, but also possessed a wild streak and a talent for getting into trouble. He was expelled from Harvard University after presenting several of his professors expensive chamber pots with their names elaborately painted on the inside. His formal education at an end, Hearst managed to convince his reluctant father to give him the San Francisco Examiner, a broken-down little paper the Senator had acquired to promote his political ambitions. To prepare for running the paper, young Willie spent most of a year as a reporter on Pulitzer's World. When he returned to California, Hearst began making the Examiner over in the World's image, and was so successful that it soon became San Francisco's leading daily. By 1895, Hearst was ready to conquer New York and in October of that year he purchased the Journal for $180,000.
Hearst entered the New York with his sights set on surpassing Pulitzer and the World. No sensation was too scandalous and money was no object. The two papers engaged in a bitter contest for circulation, Hearst lowering the price of the Journal to a penny, scoffing gleefully when Pulitzer was forced to follow suit. He also freely raided the World's staff, utilizing his mother's huge assets to hire talent away from Pulitzer. Among the more popular features of the World was "Hogan's Alley", a Sunday comic featuring a wise-cracking urchin in a yellow smock, the Yellow Kid. When Hearst hired the Kid's creator, R.F. Outcault, away from the World Pulitzer hired another artist to draw the cartoon, and now two versions of the "Yellow Kid" competed in the Sunday papers. This lead the more conservative New York Press to write a piece sneering at Hearst and Pulitzer's "Yellow Journalism", coining a term which has remained in use to the present day.
The outbreak of the second Cuban Revolution in 1895 was seen as a major news story, and many papers, conservative, yellow and middle of the road, were soon scrambling to get reporters on the scene. Most of these "journalists" go no closer to the fighting than Key West or the bar of the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana. From these comfortable positions, they concocted stories of wild fantasy, based upon slanted press releases coming from the "Cuban Junta", the Revolution's propaganda agency in the US, or from their own fertile imaginations. Readers were treated to a steady diet of battles that never happened, Cuban victories which never occurred, exaggerated stories of Spanish brutality and such flights of fancy as repeated stories of beautiful, savage Cuban "Amazon" warriors, serving the Revolution as Cavalry and showing no mercy to the hated Spaniard.
Not all correspondents were so lazy or so irresponsible. During the three years of Cuban Revolution prior to U.S. intervention, several American journalists made attempts, at great personal risk, to tour the countryside and meet with the insurgents. Some were successful and some failed. Many had prices put on their heads by Spanish authorities, but managed to elude capture and send out reports of what was happening on the island. Others were arrested and expelled, or ordered to leave Cuba. Often these orders were ignored and those expelled would slip back onto the island illegally under assumed names or landing from "filibustering" (smuggling) boats bringing weapons and supplies to the Rebel forces.
Some of the more active correspondents during the period of the rebellion were James Creelman, Sylvester Scovel, George Bronson Rea and Grover Flint. Creelman was on the island only briefly, Scovel, Rea and Flint were there much longer, each spending time in the field with the Rebels, Scovel and Rea about ten months during 1896 and Flint about four.
Creelman (1859 - 1915), of the World, was born in Montreal and moved to New York in 1872. Determined to become a writer, he joined James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s New York Herald in 1876. Creelman traveled extensivly in pursuit of stories, and was willing to take personal risks. He was shot at while reporting the Hatfield/McCoy feud. He interviewed Sitting Bull and other Indian leaders. Creelman was hired in 1894 by the World and covered the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. His shocking reports of Japanese atrocities were a sensation, and widely disbelieved. Sent to Cuba in the Spring of 1896, his first article, dated May 1st, was an investigative piece about Spanish slayings of noncombatants at Campo Florida near Havana. He was promptly expelled from the island, but what he saw there made him a dedicated convert to the Cuban Revolution. Later, now working for Hearst, Creelman went to Spain as the Madrid correspondent of the Journal.
Scovel, also of the World, was born in 1869 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Refusing his parents wish that he enter the ministry, Scovel left college at 19 and went west to work on a cattle ranch. Later, he went to Cleveland, Ohio first running a hardware store and later managing the Cleveland Athletic Club. He was also a member of the crack First Cleveland Troop of the Ohio State Militia. When the Cuban revolt broke out, Scovel made arrangements to send reports to several Western papers and traveled to the island. He made his way to the eastern provinces and joined the Rebel forces under General Maximo Gomez. About six months later he returned to Havana and was ordered to leave Cuba. Scovel appears to have ignored the order, instead returning to Gomez's forces, now as a correspondent for the World.
Rea was an engineer, born in Brooklyn in 1868. He had been in Cuba about five years and, like his paper, Bennett's Herald, he was not overly enthusiastic about the Cuban revolution. He felt sympathy for the impoverished Cuban people, but did not believe they were particularly badly treated by Spain. Nonetheless, Rea also slipped out of Havana and joined Gomez in the Cuban countryside.
In the Rebel camp, he met up with Scovel, and together the two corespondents traveled with Gomez for several months and later joined the Rebel band of General Antonio Maceo. They shared a number of adventures and narrow escapes from capture by the Spanish. Both were very effective as reporters, for they possessed a talent for regularly getting their dispatches out of Cuba and to their newspapers, a talent which some other correspondents lacked. Rea left Cuba in August while Scovel did not return to the US until November.
Flint, of the Journal, was a veteran of the U.S. Army in the American West and was fluent in Spanish, having lived for a time in Spain. He arrived in Havana in March and soon had also joined Gomez in the Cuban interior. Later, he visited the "seat" of the Revolutionary Government and interviewed President Salvador Cisneros. During his time in Spain, Flint was able to get only four dispatches through to the Journal, but after slipping off the island in a small boat in July, he wrote and published a book about his exploits entitled "Marching with Gomez".
American Papers would sometimes use material written by European visitors to Cuba. On December 5, 1895, the World published an account of a fight between Spanish troops and Cuban rebels written by a 20 year-old Subaltern of the British Army who was accompanying the Spanish force. This skirmish was the first time that Winston Churchill had come under hostile fire.
That traveling illegally in Cuba was a dangerous occupation for American reporters was illustrated in July, 1896. Three days after landing from the filibuster boat THREE FRIENDS, 23 year old Charles Govin of the Key West Equator-Democrat was captured and macheted to death by Spanish forces while traveling with an insurgent band.
Other times, the antics of correspondents were nearly comical. William Randolph Hearst had ordered a $2000.00 jeweled sword for General Gomez, but could not figure how to get it delivered. Finally, he sent reporter Ralph Paine along on a filibustering expedition to take the sword to Gomez. Paine embarked on the THREE FRIENDS, under the command of the famous Captain "Dynamite Johnny" O'Brien on December 14th, 1896. On the 19th, Paine and sword were about to go ashore when the filibuster was overtaken by a Spanish gunboat. The feisty O'Brien fought off the Spanish vessel with a Hotchkiss gun aboard THREE FRIENDS, but the mission had to be scrubbed and Gomez did not receive the sword until after the war (and he was said to have hated it). When stories of the adventure appeared in the press, Paine and correspondent Ernest W. Mc Cready, who had also been aboard the THREE FRIENDS, were sought by US authorities, charged with violations of the neutrality act.
Filibustering was not all fun and games. On January 2, 1897, the gun runner COMMODORE sank in heavy seas off Daytona, Florida. Among the passengers was the novelist Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. He had been employed by the Bacheller Syndicate to go to Cuba and do a series of articles on the revolution. Most of COMMODORE's passengers and crew escaped in three small boats. For thirty hours Crane and six (some accounts say eight) other men braved heavy seas in one of the boats before at last getting to shore. When it reached the breakers, the boat was wrecked and a crew member, Oiler William Higgins, drowned. The incident inspired one of the greatest pieces of Literature to come out of the Cuban Revolution and Spanish-American war period, Crane's short story "The Open Boat".
As previously noted, the Journal sent Richard Harding Davis and Frederic Remington to Cuba early in 1897. They had first planned to cross on the filibuster VAMOOSE and join the Rebels but, after a month of frustration, they gave up and left for Havana by regular transport on January 9th. Davis was the golden boy of New York journalism, possessing romantic good looks and the courtly manners of an Eastern Aristocrat. Remington, the famous Western artist, was a rougher type, but his illustrations were always in demand for the popular magazines.
As related, Remington was soon bored and returned to the States, but he did take back a portfolio of pictures. Davis remained in Cuba, writing a series of articles for the Journal detailing the excesses of the Spanish under the command of Captain-General Weyler. But his most sensational dispatch was sent from Tampa on February 10th, immediately after his return to the States. It was published in the Journal on the 12th under a screaming series of headlines:
The Journal published four more pieces inspired by the trip, including "The Death of Rodriguez", an account of the execution of a young Rebel, which was reprinted in several anthologies of his writing.
Both Rea and Scovel returned to Cuba early in 1897, assigned to learn General Gomez's reaction to the American suggestion of Cuban autonomy under Spanish sovereignty. On February 5th, Scovel was captured by Spanish forces at the town of Tunas on the south coast, where he had gone to send out dispatches. He was charged with communicating with the rebels, crossing the Spanish lines, traveling without a military pass and having a forged police pass. He was imprisoned in the town of Sacti-Spiritus, but still allowed to send dispatches to the World. That paper, and others, began a vocal campaign to get the correspondent released, and on March 9th Weyler, under pressure from the Spanish Embassy in Washington, ordered Scovel released and deported. When he arrived in New York two weeks later he was the most famous journalist in the country.
Rea was also having his troubles...with General Gomez. The two men got into an argument over some pieces Rea had written critical of certain officials of the Cuban Revolutionary government. The disagreement became heated, and Gomez threatened to have the correspondent shot. Rea replied that the day Gomez shot an American reporter would be the day he could forget about ever getting American aid for the Cuban Revolution. With this, Gomez backed down, but Rea found it expedient to again leave the island. Upon his return to New York, Rea decided to tell the public the "truth" about the Cuban situation as he saw it. His book, Facts and Fakes about Cuba, is well documented and exposes some of the fabrications made by less scrupulous reporters, but is also biased toward the Spanish side in the conflict.
The New York Herald, a more sober paper than the World or the Journal, was at this time printing a series of articles which likely did the Spanish cause in Cuba more harm then all the lurid sensations of the yellow press. They were the work of Stephen Bonsal, a well educated, much traveled and experienced war correspondent. Bonsal was in Cuba from January to April, 1897. He traveled with Spanish troops, reporting massacres and the horrible effects of General Weyler's reconcentrado policy, which forced the rural population into fortified towns to prevent them from aiding the Rebels. The result was mass starvation. Bonsal called the policy "depopulation by proclamation". Upon his return to the States, Bonsal testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what he had seen in Cuba and his book, "The Real Conditions in Cuba Today", published late in the year, was considered authoritative.
Hearst still preferred sensation to sober reporting, particularly if a pretty girl was involved. On August 16th, the Journal found just such a sensation in the story of Evangelina Cisneros, the beautiful seventeen year old niece of the President of the Cuban Republic. It was reported that Miss Cisneros had been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on the African coast for allegedly taking part in an uprising of political prisoners on the Isle of Pines. She claimed that three prisoners had come to her aid while she was resisting the carnal advances of Colonel Jose Berriz, the Military Governor of the Island. Berriz claimed she had lured him to her room, where the three prisoners were waiting to kill him. Miss Cisneros was now in Havana's Casa de Recojidas Prison where she had been kept for 10 months.
The girl's plight had been discovered by the Journal's Thomas G. Alvord, Jr. and George Eugene Bryson and British correspondent Clarke Musgrave. All were at the prison on other business and were struck by the sight of a beautiful girl imprisoned with "women of the lowest type". At first the trio tried quietly to gain the girl's release. Later, Bryson and Musgrave began to plot to break her out of the jail. After Bryson was expelled from Cuba on August 3rd Musgrave carried on alone, but by now, the case of Miss Cisneros was all over the front pages of America. Hearst had started a campaign of American women to try to secure her release. Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", and Mrs. Jefferson Davis, widow of the Confederate President, were enlisted to represent the women of the North and South in petitioning Spain's Queen Regent, Maria Christina, on behalf of the "Cuban Girl Martyr". By August 23rd, the Journal had 10,000 signatures on petitions for Miss Cisneros' freedom. Three days later, the figure was 15,000, headed by the mother of President McKinley. By months end, however, Evangelina was still in jail and the furor seemed to be dying down.
Very little more was printed about the case until October 8th, when the Journal broke the startling news that Evangelina had escaped. The next day it was reported that she was out of Cuba and on her way to New York. On the 10th, the Journal revealed that the escape had been engineered by its correspondents in Havana. The story was by-lined "Charles Duval", who claimed to have personally freed Miss Cisneros from the jail and gotten her off the island. Over the next few days, more articles by "Duval" revealed details about how the rescue was accomplished. On the 14th, the headline screamed:
Evangelina Cisneros was a sensation in New York, a fact which she found baffling in the extreme. Later, she visited Washington and was presented to President McKinley. Just as she got used to her celebrity status, the papers and public tired of her and moved on to other obsessions. Evangelina again made news in May, 1898 when she married Dr. Carlos Carbonelle, a Cuban Dentist who had assisted Decker in achieving her rescue. After the war, the couple returned to Cuba.
The Conservative Spanish Prime Minister Canovas was assassinated in August, 1897 and replaced by Liberal Praxedes Sagasta. The new Ministry soon was reviewing Spain's Cuban policies. General Weyler was recalled and replaced by the milder General Ramon Blanco. Scovel returned to Cuba in November and was promptly arrested on old charges stemming from previous visits. But under the new regime he was released on parole and allowed to send dispatches, even being granted an interview by Blanco. Before the end of the year, Spain announced it was granting Cuba autonomy under the Spanish Empire. The World sent Scovel back into the interior to get the reaction of the Insurgents to this new policy. Blanco approved the trip, which was seen as an unprecedented concession. When Scovel failed to report back within the expected time rumors circulated of his death. He eventually turned up, reporting that General Gomez had said the offer of Autonomy was too little too late.