Have I mentioned that news was suddenly big money? By the century’s turn, the tallest buildings in New York and San Francisco were both owned by newspapers. And the business became so hypercompetitive that some reporters not only made things up but stole those fake scoops and “specials” from one another with impunity. The Chicago Associated-Press fell into a trap set by a suspicious client, who set loose a rumor at two in the morning that President Grover Cleveland had been assassinated! True to its reputation, Chicago AP ran with it—no fact-checking here—and put it up on the wires. The assassination story ran in newspapers all over the country the next day, amid much chuckling and finger pointing.
The further away the newsworthy event, the more likely it was to involve fakery. “Bogus Foreign News&rdquo ran the headline in The Washington Post of February 22, 1903, but the subheads that followed it are so illustrative as to deserve full reproduction below:
POPE HAS DIED TWENTY-TWO TIMES IN FIVE YEARS
YELLOWNESS ACROSS THE SEA
AMERICANS OUTSTRIPPED IN THIS SORT OF THING BY ENGLISH AND GERMAN MANUFACTURERS-EDITORS VICTIMS BECAUSE REPORTS ARE SOMETIMES TRUE-RIVALRY FOR NEWS AMONG ORIENTAL ENGLISH DAILIES
It was a global problem. Even twenty true words cabled from London about an Indian Ocean hurricane could grow to a story ten times that length, padded out with imaginary details and encyclopedia facts. Mo’ words, mo’ money.
The loudest whoops at the fake news fiesta were shouted at William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Hearst, the legendary publisher and proud leading light of the “yellow press,” propounded two combustible ideas at the height of his influence in the late 1890s. First, he believed in the “journalism of action,” an activist press solving crimes, supporting charities, investigating corruption—taking charge in the arenas of national and international affairs. Second, he held unvarnished truth to be a somewhat negotiable commodity, especially when its subversion could lead to profit or power.
By 1897, the stage was set for a little international combustion. Cuba, ruled as a Spanish colony since 1511, had grown an insurgency, which was put down with terrific cruelty by its European overlords. In the U.S. there was a growing sentiment for a free and independent Cuba, along with the feeling that we should be mobilized for war to help out. Teddy Roosevelt, Joseph Pulitzer, and Hearst, among many others, felt that aggression was the proper response, but President McKinley was slow to act. And so began the first privately funded propaganda push to war in modern media history.
It kicked off in earnest on February 15, 1898, when the warship USS Maine, docked in Havana Harbor, exploded, killing 266 crewmen. Hearst first placed an ad offering “$50,000 Reward for the Detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage!&rdquo He then threw all of his paper’s resources at covering the explosion and its investigation, sending boatloads of reporters and illustrators to Cuba and Key West. Hearst’s Journal—along with Pulitzer’s World—not only produced the bulk of the news coming out of Cuba, but within days began spinning it to blame Spain for the explosion.
Competing papers cried foul! “Nothing so disgraceful as the behavior of these two newspapers has ever been known in the history of journalism,” wrote E.L. Godkin in the New York Evening Post. He alleged “gross misrepresentation of the facts, deliberate intervention of tales calculated to excite the public and wanton recklessness in construction of headlines.”
Nevertheless it was headlines that propelled the United States to war with Spain, headlines that swayed the populace with somewhat dubious evidence. War was declared and in two weeks it was over; we had freed Cuba, gained three new territories, and ended Spain’s influence in the Western Hemisphere.