Fake news isn’t new. The battle for the most outrageous headlines of the late 1880s and 1890s between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer led to the popularity not just of "yellow journalism" but nudged the US into a brief war with Spain.

People were scared. Tensions were running high and, with military in the streets, no one felt safe. What would happen from day to day was anyone’s guess, but war felt imminent.

And with a single explosion, two of the world’s biggest nations were launched into a war that might never have been necessary in the first place, all thanks to overhyped, embellished reporting from institutions competing for a bigger portion of market share. Welcome to the world of William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalism and the war caused by a rush to judgment and power-hungry news organizations.

First, let’s introduce you to The Yellow Kid. The cartoon strip “Hogan’s Alley,” written by Richard Felton Outcault, is believed to be one of the first comics nationally recognized and earning some degree of popularity in the United States. One of the prominent characters in the strip, which started in 1894, was named Mickey Dugan.

A popular comic in the 1890s featured a character nicknamed “the yellow kid.” Papers that ran the comic strip, including The New York World and the New York Journal, were sometimes referred to as yellow papers. Image: Public Domain

He was a “bald, big-eared youth” always drawn in a large yellow nightshirt, giving him the nickname The Yellow Kid. The trip ran in many papers across the country, including the New York World and the New York Journal, owned by Hearst. By the turn of the century, the strip wasn’t as popular and began to fade, but the strip made a lasting impression: Papers that ran the strip were sometimes called yellow papers.

The papers shared something else too—a penchant for carrying sensationalistic stories with outrageous claims that might not have always been 100% accurate.

The two biggest newspaper magnates of the time were Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – yes, of those Pulitzers—who would often attempt to out-drama and over-hype each other’s publications with bigger, more incredible and outlandish articles.

Yellow journalism was sensationalistic and filled with embellished stories. The difference between yellow journalism and fake news is that yellow papers ran stories that were based in fact and contained verified information. Image: Public Domain

Remember in the 1980s, when Coca-Cola and Pepsi were engaged in what was widely called the “cola wars”? No one was hurt during that swagger-fest. But a hundred years before, the tone wasn’t as light and the bombs being lobbed were real.

Both the New York World and the New York Journal felt tensions saw an opportunity to sell more papers and turned their attention to Cuba, where tensions were rising between that country and Spain. At the time, Cuba was a Spanish colony, but residents there felt they weren’t being treated fairly. There were some small skirmishes and a defeated uprising but things didn’t get really heated until a trade deal between the US and Cuba was nullified by Spain in 1894.

The biggest event of the yellow journalism era was the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana. US sentiment toward Spain was already ugly and angry; the ship’s sinking was an easy excuse for the US to engage Spain in war. Image: Public Domain

When that happened, Cuban writer José Julián Martí, a noted member of the revolutionary movement who had been in exile in New York City, started working on a course of action to invade Cuba. He recruited Máximo Gómez y Báez, who had been a leader of rebel troops during the so-called Ten Years’ War between Cuba and Spain between 1868 and 1878, but took over the efforts when Marti was killed in May 1895, a month after military tactics began.

Within two years, Spain was offering Cuba an opportunity for home rule, a tempting alternative to the “reconcentration” programs in which Cubans were forced into camps where thousands died of starvation. But rebel forces were still in the countryside, earning the support of their countrymen in no small part thanks to the reporting from Hearst’s New York Journal.

Hearst and Pulitzer, but especially Hearst, filled his papers with accounts of Cubans suffering. He saw an opportunity not only to print and sell more papers but to give himself a big, important national role. As his reporters filed story after story about life on the ground in Cuba as war tore the country apart, Hearst wasn’t exactly fact-checking everything thoroughly. The more sensational the story, the bigger the headline.

He even hired an artist, Frederic Remington, to illustrate what was happening, telling him, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Things went completely to hell in February 1898 when the USS Maine battleship sunk in Havana’s harbor. At the time, it was widely reported and believed that the Maine was sunk by Spain as an act of war.

More than half of the ship’s crew, an estimated 260 of the just under 400 sailors aboard, were killed in the explosion. Hearst, without any information or facts to back up such a claim, ran with the story, accusing Spain of trying to start a war with the US. It didn’t take much prodding for the explosion of the Maine, a 6,000 ton warship that cost $2 million at the time, Congress and the American people demanded swift action and Hearst got his war.

Bold, oversized headlines with emotional wording were a mainstay of yellow journalism in the late 1890s. Image: Public Domain

The war lasted from April 1898 through December of that year, when the Treaty of Paris ended the conflict, giving the US control over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, even if Cuba didn’t get its independence until 1902 under the Platt Amendment, a rider in a US budgetary bill. (A 1976 naval investigation into the incident determined that the ship exploded due to a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks. Spain had nothing to do with it.)

William Randolph Hearst famously told an artist working for his New York Journal, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Image: Public Domain.

It has been stressed that, while yellow journalism was outlandish, it was always based on at least some truthful evidence. Things were exaggerated and embellished, but there was underlying truth and fact to what was reported. With yellow journalism, it was more adding fuel to an already sparking fire. The Spanish-American war, short though it may have been, created an environment in which the press had power and sway over national affairs and contributed to the “if it bleeds, it leads” concept that would eventually evolve into the 24-hour cable news networks.

Fake news is just the next step in that evolution, but now statements can be fact-checked in real time. The Bowling Green Massacre was 100% fake news but there are times when the line between real and fake will be hard to determine because outlets are getting better at illustrating the war their financial backers are promising to furnish.

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Amber Healy

Amber Healy has been writing, both personally and professionally, since she nagged her hometown paper to give her an internship in 1996. She's a big believer that the most fascinating stories are hidden under layers of seemingly boring drivel.