Apr/May 2010

The Yellow Peril

Looking back at the world the press lords made.

Michael Lind


A group of exiles based in New York, calling for an American invasion of the country they have fled, collaborate with sympathetic members of Congress who favor an expanded US military role in the region. Sensationalist journalists play up real and fictitious atrocities to whip up public support for war. When war finally comes, the United States gets bogged down in counter-insurgency campaigns, and American occupying forces commit atrocities. This may sound like a description of the 2003 war in Iraq, but it also describes the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the American war to conquer the Philippines that followed.

In The War Lovers, Evan Thomas, an editor at Newsweek, doesn't draw the parallels overtly, but they are present on page after page, and together with a new pair of books chronicling the lives of twentieth-century press lords in the William Randolph Hearst mode, Thomas's study reminds us of an era when the makers of mass opinion wielded the sort of clout that could mobilize support for a war—or silence any number of disagreeable critics. To this day, many Americans believe that the Spanish-American War was actually brought about by Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal. One of Hearst's correspondents claimed that the artist Frederic Remington, sent to Cuba with a Journal delegation, had cabled Hearst: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return. Remington." Hearst replied, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." Regardless of whether Hearst actually sent such a telegram (he denied it), Thomas makes it clear that the war's origins were not rooted in the press, but rather in the ambitions of Theodore Roosevelt, his friend the Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and other proponents of a "large policy" based on modernizing the US Navy, obtaining naval bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific, promoting an isthmian canal (initially in Nicaragua, later in Panama), and competing with the other great powers of the day—Britain, Imperial Germany, and a rising Japan. Roosevelt and Lodge believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon "race," and they were more interested in seizing Spanish possessions such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines than in helping the inhabitants of those countries. But just as neoconservative proponents of the invasion of Iraq found it useful to appeal to the sympathy Americans felt for the victims of Saddam Hussein, so the navalists of the 1890s made the case for war against Spain largely on humanitarian grounds. They found allies not only among Cuban expatriates but also in the "yellow press" symbolized by Hearst.

You might say that Hearst, as one of the signal innovators of the yellow press, was made for the part. The son of a miner who parlayed a fortune he made in silver and copper into a seat as a senator from California, young "Willie," after leaving Harvard, found his calling at the Examiner, a San Francisco newspaper owned by his father. Hearst boosted circulation with sensationalistic headlines, like this from a story about a hotel fire: "Hungry, Frantic Flames: They Leap Madly upon the Splendid Pleasure Palace by the Bay of Monterey, Encircling Del Monte in Their Ravenous Embrace from Pinnacle to Foundation. Leaping Higher, Higher, Higher, with Desperate Desire." After his father died, in 1895 Hearst used money from his mother to buy the New York Journal, which soon began running headlines like these: "He Hiccoughed for Five Days," "White Woman Among Cannibals," "Snakes and Their Gods," "Pretty Annette's Gauzy Silk Bathingsuits," "The Frightful Dreams of a Morphine Fiend."

Hearst allied himself with a group of Cuban exiles in New York known as the Peanut Club, "after the free peanuts provided to hungry newsmen." In addition to snacks, the exiles provided Hearst's reporters with other morsels: sometimes genuine and sometimes fabricated atrocity stories from Cuba, inspiring headlines like "Heartrending Narrative of a Butchery by Brutish Troops" and "Fiendish Cruelty in Cuba." In the Senate, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, John Sherman of Ohio, quoted stories from the Journal about the successes of Cuban rebels, including machete-wielding female "Amazons." According to Thomas, "These stories were wholly fictional, written by Frederick Lawrence, one of Hearst's more notorious hacks. . . . Sent to Havana by Hearst, Lawrence seems never to have left his café table at the Hotel Inglaterra, where the foreign correspondents lazed about, swapping stories." When the Maine, a US warship that President William McKinley had dispatched to Cuba on a "friendly visit" in response to concerns about German designs on the country, exploded in Havana's harbor on February 15, 1898, most likely by accident, the Journal's headline read: "Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy." After nearly three hundred sailors were killed, Hearst wired his reporters: "Maine is a great thing. Arouse everybody. Stir up Madrid." When Congress passed a joint resolution calling for Cuban independence, and McKinley duly signed it, Spain broke off diplomatic resolutions, and war soon followed.

But merely stirring up Madrid wasn't enough for the ambitious young publisher. Like Theodore Roosevelt, who resigned as assistant secretary of the navy to lead his own cavalry regiment, the Rough Riders, in Cuba, Hearst wanted to take part in the war. When the McKinley administration refused to offer him a commission in return for his proposal to equip the army with a cavalry regiment—or, alternately, the navy with a gunboat—at his own expense, Hearst chartered a steamer and arranged for a personal invasion, with his teenage girlfriend, Millicent, and her sister in tow, dressed as sailors. "The Editor of the Journal Describes the Great Struggle as He Saw It on the Battlefield" was the headline of one of Hearst's dispatches. After watching the navy defeat the Spanish fleet, Hearst rounded up a few prisoners and presented them to an American captain, who replied, "You took 'em. You can take care of 'em."

Meanwhile, the tabloid wars raged at home. While playing at being a soldier abroad, Hearst was competing for circulation with Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World. "The epic battle did not pit Hearst against Pulitzer," historian James McGrath Morris writes in Pulitzer. "Rather, it was Hearst against Pulitzer's leaderless troops in a helter-skelter twenty-four-hour-a-day competition." The World's publisher was in seclusion, mourning the death of his daughter shortly after her debutante party. Nevertheless, the World had run up some key victories against the rival Journal. Pulitzer's newspaper had beaten Hearst's into print in reporting the sinking of the Maine, but the World, unable to compete with the small army that Hearst had deployed, began engaging in a common newspaper practice of the time, stealing stories from Journal reporters. The Journal retaliated by reporting that an Austrian artillery officer, Colonel Reflip W. Thenuz, had been killed in Spain; when the World plagiarized that report, the Journal revealed that the fictitious Austrian's name was an anagram for "We pilfer the news" and solicited funds for a Thenuz Memorial.

As Morris notes, there was also an element of class antagonism in the moguls' battle. Pulitzer's background was radically different from Hearst's. Raised in an educated Jewish family in Pest in what was then Austria-Hungary, Pulitzer and his younger brother emigrated to the United States after their father's death left them in economic straits. Joseph arrived in 1864, when the Union Army was recruiting soldiers from Europe (Albert arrived three years later). In his early career in the United States, Pulitzer was a protégé of the liberal émigré Carl Schurz, one of the leaders of America's large and influential German-American community. Like other German Jews, Pulitzer was treated as "German" rather than "Jewish" until the late nineteenth century, when Russian-Jewish emigration to the US provoked a tide of anti-Semitism and attacks on "Jewseph Pulitzer." Still, awareness of the mild anti-Semitism in higher social circles prompted Pulitzer to lie to the parents of his Episcopalian wife, telling them that his own mother had been a Catholic—falsely implying that he was not Jewish by descent on the maternal side.

Following the Civil War, many idealistic German Americans were appalled by the corruption of the Grant administration and broke away from the mainstream Republicans to form a third party, the Liberal Republicans. Pulitzer's relations soured with Schurz, who with his partner had made the young man wealthy by buying out his share of the Westliche Post, and broke down altogether when Pulitzer switched to the Democratic Party. Pulitzer appealed to his new allies by telling Missouri Democrats: "Well, these rebels have now voted for four years, and show me the first Union man who has been disturbed, show me one Negro who has been molested on account of his Union sentiments! The only Negro who has been molested that I know of in the whole state was a fellow in Saint Louis County who ravished a poor girl. And he was only lynched. Not by rebels, however, but by honest Germans and strong Union men."

Such tub-thumping rhetoric shows that the young idealist had turned into a hard, calculating publisher—Pulitzer's apprenticeship as a yellow-press man was nearly complete. In order to take advantage of membership in the new Associated Press, Pulitzer bought a small German-American newspaper, the Staats-Zeitung, and changed it into an English-language daily, the St. Louis Globe. Subsequently, he merged two other Saint Louis newspapers into the Post-Dispatch. Pulitzer found a model in the sensationalistic New York Sun and cultivated its editor, Charles Dana. (Pulitzer's overtures weren't successful, and when Dana became the Sun's publisher he published anti-Semitic attacks on Pulitzer.)

In 1883, Pulitzer achieved his long-standing ambition of breaking into the New York newspaper market when he purchased the World from the financier Jay Gould. In Pulitzer, Morris writes: "The paper abandoned its old, dull headlines. In place of 'Bench Show of Dogs: Prizes Awarded on the Second Day of the Meeting in Madison Square Garden' on May 10 came 'Screaming for Mercy: How the Craven Cornetti Mounted the Scaffold.' . . . In a city where half a dozen newspapers offered dull, similar fare to readers each morning, Pulitzer's dramatic headlines made the World stand out like a racehorse among draft horses." Pulitzer also didn't scruple to lure writers and editors from the small paper owned by Albert Pulitzer, who had refused to merge his paper with Joseph's.

The Spanish-American War helped both the World and the Herald surpass a million daily subscribers. But according to Thomas, there were hidden journalistic costs in the combat to boost circulation. "The World was outmatched in every attempt to be more yellow than Hearst's editors and reporters. In the end, the effort left Pulitzer's reputation in tatters and his name inextricably linked to Hearst's." Following the war, under Pulitzer's direction, the World sought to regain its reputation for accuracy.

Another hidden cost of the imperial newspaper racket came in the person of Theodore Roosevelt, the great hero of the Spanish-American conflict. Hearst, for his part, was terribly jealous of Roosevelt's popular esteem, as he confessed in a morose letter to his doting mother:

I guess I'm a failure. I made the mistake of my life in not raising a cowboy regiment I had in mind before Roosevelt raised his. I really believe I brought on the war but I failed to score in the war. I had my chance and failed to grab it, and I suppose I must sit on the fence now and watch the procession go by. It's my own fault. I was thirty-five years of age and of sound mind—comparatively—and could do as I liked. I failed and I'm a failure and I deserve to be for being as slow and stupid as I was. Outside of the grief it would give you I had better be in a Santiago trench than where I am. . . . Goodnight, Mama dear. Take care of yourself. Don't let me lose you. I wish you were here tonight. I feel about eight years old—and very blue.

Pulitzer's clash with the former Rough Rider was more consequential. When the World published articles alleging corruption in the creation of the Panama Canal, Roosevelt, nearing the end of his term in office, brought federal libel charges against Pulitzer. Undeterred by the reluctance of the Justice Department and the derision of Congress, the president insisted on prosecuting the publisher, by now an ailing recluse who thought there was a good chance he could be imprisoned under Roosevelt's charges. Although the case was thrown out of court, Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, delegated an appeal to the Supreme Court, which in 1910 ruled unanimously in Pulitzer's favor. Pulitzer proved to be generous in victory, writing a British friend: "Personally, I believe that the Panama work is a monumental achievement and that the paper must give Roosevelt the credit for the work and we must draw the biggest kind of line between that phase and the mere incident of his personal attack upon the paper on account of charges it made of corruption specifically and personally which it certainly could not substantiate—never did and never will."

Hearst is now best remembered for the somewhat gothic second act of his career. Twice elected to Congress, he was ultimately thwarted in his political ambitions, in successive campaigns to be mayor of New York City and governor of New York state. After those defeats, Hearst retreated to the lush, secluded castle he had built in San Simeon, California—the setting of the ghoulish death scene in the most durable monument to his career, the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane. But Pulitzer's old age was as bleak as Hearst's. Morris recounts how the tycoon, losing his eyesight and suffering from a variety of ailments, was constantly on the move, traveling in Europe and Asia and living for long periods on his yacht. Yet Pulitzer's legacy proved to be more significant than Hearst's fantasy castle. In later years, Pulitzer sought to improve the low reputation of newspapering, by founding a school of journalism at Columbia University and endowing the Pulitzer Prizes. "My idea," he wrote in 1903, "is to recognize that journalism is, or ought to be, one of the great and intellectual professions."

If the turn of the twentieth century was the age of the yellow press, midcentury was the era of the middlebrow newsmagazine—a term coined to describe Time, founded in 1923 by two veterans of the Yale Daily News, Briton Hadden, who died young in 1929, and Henry Luce, who lived until 1967. Hadden and Luce had sought to create a journal that could compete with the New Yorker for readership among the "smart set." Instead, the audience for the Time-Life publishing empire, which grew from Time and Life to include Fortune and Sports Illustrated, became the mass suburban middle class created after World War II by the expansion of college education and office jobs.

Luce seems in retrospect a fitting journalistic prophet for a confident new cold-war middle class. He was the son of Protestant missionaries to China, where he spent much of his childhood. In his lively biography, The Publisher, historian Alan Brinkley writes: "Like other sons and daughters of missionaries, he never stopped thinking about how to make the nation live up to the Providential righteousness of America's destiny (a vision embedded in generations of American Presbyterian history)." In the memoir with which he was struggling when he died, Luce wrote: "It was and is the American task to take the lead in creating a new form of world order." This providential vision of history as the triumph of political and economic liberalism over tyranny lay behind "The American Century," the essay he published in Life on February 17, 1941. In an echo of the culture of his parents, Luce wrote: "It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels." Time-Life Books issued from a similar missionary mandate; when Luce launched the book-publishing arm of his empire in 1948, he tasked it with producing a "Western Culture" series that would "add up to a coherent interpretation of history. . . . The drama of Western Culture culminates in the creation of the United States of America. And this interpretation invites all Americans to take stock of American civilization at the moment of history when the U.S. has become the heir and chief guardian against [sic] the whole body of Western Civilization against the forces of reactionary neo-barbarism." At the end of the twentieth century, this kind of triumphalism was attacked in the name of multiculturalism by the left and defended by neoconservatives, who would, however, forcefully dissent from Luce's assessment of US support for Zionism, which he wrote created "a trail of social injustice and the smell of injustice" and "produced a reaction of bewildered disillusionment and hostility to the U.S."

As part of the sweeping civilizing mission for his properties, Luce peopled them with ardent foes of Communism. During the cold war, he bitterly blamed the Truman administration, rather than Chiang Kai-shek's failure, for Mao's seizure of power in China and supported the wars in Korea and Vietnam. He employed writers like Whittaker Chambers and Willi Schlamm, who would become mentors of the young William F. Buckley Jr. and contributors to National Review.

But for all his anti-Communism, Luce was a moderate Republican of a kind almost extinct today. Calling himself a classical liberal, he detested the New Deal: "If people want state socialism," he wrote Wendell Willkie in October, "let them vote for it with their eyes open. Indeed let there be summoned a constitutional convention to scrap the present dear old Constitution." But like Willkie, whom he advised and supported for the presidency in 1940, Luce sided with Roosevelt's internationalism against the isolationism of the Republican right. In the 1960s, he backed Kennedy, was repelled by the emerging Goldwater right, and used his journals to support civil rights. Brinkley reveals that Luce's second wife, the playwright and ambassador to Rome Clare Boothe Luce, claimed that their marriage had been saved when she had persuaded him to sample LSD at the urging of the writer Gerald Heard and his partner, Michael Barrie. Brinkley relates the tale: "After taking '100 Gamma of LSD' at 11:45, Harry sat at his desk, lit a cigarette, and began reading Lionel Trilling's biography of Matthew Arnold, interrupting himself occasionally to discuss the relationship between Arnold and Cardinal Newman with Gerald Heard." Ever the Presbyterian sober-sides, Luce reported that he had "not particularly enjoyed it."

Luce died in 1967. In 1972, Life went out of business, the victim of television. First TV eliminated the function of photo magazines (Sports Illustrated, which began with a focus on genteel sports like polo and yachting, survives on the basis of its salacious swimsuit issue and accompanying videos). Then Craigslist and other Internet ad services, by depriving print newspapers of their chief source of revenue, accelerated their collapse. Newsmagazines like Time, meanwhile—founded as gatekeeper publications, assessing the stories of true importance in a news market dominated by daily papers—are losing their reason for being, and a good deal of their identity, in the rapid-fire world of online news.

If there is an equivalent today to publishing moguls like Hearst, Pulitzer, and Luce, it is Rupert Murdoch, whose neoconservative magazine, the Weekly Standard—which he sold to the conservative Clarity Media Group last year—lobbied for the Iraq war as ardently as Hearst's Journal had lobbied for America's war against Spain, and whose Fox News Channel transferred a blend of conservative partisanship and sensationalism from tabloid journalism to television. And Murdoch, of course, continues to own what is in many ways the signature tabloid paper of our age, the New York Post. But Fox is competing for audiences with ever-proliferating cable channels and the fast-ramifying blogosphere—and Murdoch is rumored to be on the lookout for a buyer for the Post, which has likewise been a lagging adapter to the Internet age. The challenge of creating a common audience in the balkanized media landscape is as formidable as the challenge of wringing revenue out of the traffic in free online material.

The result may be a shift in influence away from publishers toward politicians—and here, too, the careers of our first generation of modern press moguls offer a cautionary lesson. On closer inspection, their careers show that publishers have more often been the manipulated than the manipulators in their dealings with the political world. Theodore Roosevelt, Lodge, and their Cuban expatriate allies might have brought about their war without Hearst's support, and while Franklin Roosevelt benefited from Luce's internationalist propaganda, he did not need it to steer the US toward confrontation with Germany and Japan. When they are not serving as mouthpieces for political factions, publishers and editors in the mainstream media, conscious both of subscriptions and of access to elected officials, follow public opinion more than they shape it; the prestige press in New York and Washington was for the Vietnam and Iraq wars as long as they were popular and denounced them as tragic errors only when the public turned against them. However outsize a role he played in ginning up the Spanish-American War, Hearst was right to envy Theodore Roosevelt for making the history he could only describe.

Michael Lind is the author of The American Way of Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2006) and policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation.

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