As someone enamored with the fun, carnival-like atmosphere that is American media (dueling headlines from the New York Post and the New York Times are a perennial favorite), the choice of my first comparison piece between historical media accounts and the present day historical opinion was obvious to me. When considering the moments in American history where the media narrative arguably changed the course of history, the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in 1898 leapt to mind. (Brush up on the Spanish-American War here.) I still remember vividly my AP History lesson on the Maine in March 2003, because it coincided with the lead up to the American invasion of Iraq that same year. The story also comes with a great slogan: “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”
That was back in the days of my youth when Facebook was what you did when you were tired in class and WMD was a scary acronym because it meant “World Math Day” on the school calendar. (I still have nightmares of standing in front of a classroom racing through a geometry proof). There is certainly something appropriate about the coincidences of March that year. As we studied the frantic “Yellow Journal” headlines of America’s tumble into the Spanish-American War in March 1898, newspapers around the world inked headlines quoting Colin Powell’s famous “Enough is enough” speech in front of the UN Security Council. Both wars seemed to have begun on the insistence powerful political players and frantic media coverage. It’s a connection journalist Evan Thomas makes in his newbook The War Lovers, in which he argues that there are similarities between the hurried run-ups to the Spanish-American and Iraq wars.
My look at the headlines from the beginning of the Spanish-American War started with the newspaper that is featured most prominently in my high school history book: William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. It was this paper’s iconic February 17th, 1898 front-page article about the sinking of the Battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor that is etched into the historical narrative as a prime example of “Yellow” or sensationalist journalism. But, after some prodding around the Google News Archive, I was surprised to discover that another, far less sensational New York Times report on the event had also been sent across the international news wires along with an incredibly detailed account of the sinking of the Maine. The Times account even went into the technical aspects of the ship’s coal storage and ventilation systems, the possible origin of the blast that sunk the ship.
Just a few weeks later though, America marched across Spain’s crumbling Empire and claimed victory. Ambassador to the United Kingdom John Hay famously remarked that “it was a splendid little war”—his iconic quote was even used as a chapter heading in my AP history book (The text, in a funny bit of ironic oversight, breezes over the much longer and more deadly Philippine insurrection after Spain and the US had resolved their differences, something we could have possibly learned from in 2003). How did the calm resolve of more sensible explanations of the disaster lose out to the sensationalist newspapers and politicians calling for the “freedom” of the Cuban people from the treacherous Spanish? It seems that the popular newspapers at the time were in favor of blaming the Maine explosion on the Spanish and for that reason, going to war. My AP history book denies their ultimate influence, stating plainly that “so called yellow or sensational journalism did not cause the war” and that instead “the conflict stemmed from larger disputes in policies and perceptions between Spain and the US.” But public furor of the incident never resided and the American people and the war hawks were ready for action. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley, apparently struck with patriotism, even volunteered her services to President McKinley in the effort against the Spanish. The newspapers’ influence was heightened by the outrage of some politicians after congressional testimony from Captain Sigsbee, who assured the politicians and reporters gathered that the blast had come from outside the ship.
So what can be gleaned from our look at the actual events of 1898 as compared to the narrative recorded in contemporary accounts? For one, I think most people choose to remember the sensational journalism—the controversy over the sinking of the Maine. I certainly did. Despite historians begging us to think otherwise, we remember the headlines but not the whole story, never mind a 1975 investigation by retired Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover that concluded that the Maine exploded because of coal boiler fires, and a 1998 investigation by National Geographic that revived and questioned his theories (with much cooler animations).
It was interesting to see what I remembered about the historical account compared to what actually was written down. Especially fun was rediscovering the old tricks of attention-grabbing headlines (particularly the ones that take up long swaths of the front pages of papers). Engaging as the exercise was, it also highlighted how competing narratives in history can coexist over time as well as evolve with new evidence and research, creating a persistent mystery, in spite of the history already written.
Sean Cleary is a blogger for Inside AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and a member of the Communications team, where he also assembles AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s weekly newsletter.
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