Category: Features


In Memoriam

It is a sad day for American intellectualism. The political writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens has died of pneumonia. His views on most topics ranged from literally communist (human rights – he would often address audiences as “comrades”) to neoconservative (the War in Iraq), and his well-formed arguments skewered and crushed many opponents live on TV. His exposés on Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa beamed bright, sharply focused sunlight on two forms of power that are infected with corruption. One challenged him to a debate at one’s peril.

His views on the Iraq War were motivated by freedom of speech and the need to protect the intellectual gains humans have made since the Enlightenment. I disagreed heavily with his views on this topic, but he was the only pro-war person whose argument was sound enough that it made me really think hard about my own anti-war views. That is a stark contrast to the apish, crayon-scrawled views that propagated through the neoconservative movement at the time.

Always challenging authority, as he aged he began expressing his views on atheism, or as he called it: Anti-theism. There is a significant difference and it highlights the way in which he often charged headlong into a debate. His esophageal cancer was not helped by his penchant for smoking and his replacement of alcohol for water. As he famously said himself, “I drink enough in the average day to kill or stun the average mule.” Yet even as he neared death, he redoubled his efforts to promote anti-theism, along with the other “Four Horsemen” (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins). His performance along with Stephen Fry at an Intelligence Squared debate on the question of whether the Catholic Church is a source for good in the world is not to be missed. They argued that it was not and won the debate by a very large margin, convincing even initial supporters of the motion.

There are very few public voices in the US that are capable of simultaneously maintaining two or more thoughts in their head, and even fewer who can mold those thoughts into elegant prose. In these days of journalistic yes-men and corporatized intellectual poverty, the country is going to miss this sharp and articulate firebrand. He had a lot more to say.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York Wold-Telegram & Sun Collection, via The Library of Congress and Wikipedia)

Preaching nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr. was a key figure in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. His career as a civil rights activist began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in response to Claudette Colvin, who refused to give her bus seat up to a white man, and later, Rosa Parks who was arrested for not giving up her seat. His famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech can be recognized by just about any person who hears it as it is one of the most famous speeches by any American ever. His efforts pressured the U.S. government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed most forms of discrimination against African Americans. As a result, he became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to date.

After his civil rights victories, Martin Luther King Jr. began to press for worker’s rights. In this efforts, he supported unions and cast a wide net, supporting the rights of white and black workers alike, though his final few days were spent during a rally in Memphis in support of black sanitary workers who were sent home on a day with bad weather, receiving 2 hours of pay, though white workers in the same department were compensated for an entire day. There was a lot of tension in the air and there had been death threats against Reverend King and it was on this day in 1968, that he was assassinated, ostensibly by James Earl Ray, and a good deal of work in the areas of human and workers rights remains to be done.

Wikipedia: Martin Luther King Jr.

A portion of the cover of Orwell's 1984 by Signet (NetCharles.com)

In George Orwell’s book 1984, the Memory Hole was chute, down which workers at the Ministry of Truth would throw old news articles, books and documents that contained evidence contrary to the current (and frequently changing) position of the Government. Articles, documents and books were rewritten so that the frequently changing positions of the Government had always been true in the eyes of the public. The chute led to an incinerator where old evidence was instantly destroyed.

Today’s widespread use of electronic media creates the very real possibility that if data archives were held by only a small number of individuals, they might be able to edit, revise, or delete documents to suit their interests. The effect would be the same as that of the Memory Hole in 1984: the new prevailing opinions of those individuals would always have been true and the evidence to the contrary could disappear without a trace.

The best defense against such a thing would be to ensure many people hold copies of the same documents on personal hard drives – especially when engaging in “cloud computing” whenever the “cloud” is controlled by a major corporation or the government.

Wikipedia: Memory Hole

Julian Assange (The News Update)

Terrorist, really?

Few people in the past year have sparked debate in the manner that Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has. His organization has become well-known for publishing material that is leaked by anonymous whistleblowers that often show wrongdoing on the parts of governments and corporations around the world, though a good deal of its notoriety stems from the publication of the Iraq War Logs and its bringing to light actual U.S. military footage of a helicopter crew shooting reporters and civilians in Baghdad, a video that the group entitled “Collateral Murder”.

The release of documents pertaining to the U.S. military and the U.S. Department of State resulted in an outcry by conservatives across the country who claimed that Assange had hurt the national security of the United States and that he had exposed a number of U.S. military informants in Afghanistan, claims that Assange strongly denies. Fox News Correspondents and familiar Republican faces such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin called Julian Assange a traitor, though he is actually Australian and therefore can not commit treason against the U.S., and they even went so far as to call for his assassination within days of the shooting of Gabriel Giffords in Arizona.

While calls for assassination rang out at Fox News, the rest of the American media played up the angle that WikiLeaks had damaged American national interests because it had published diplomatic cables that contained confidential and embarrassing information about foreign dignitaries and diplomats. The cables did certainly create a good deal of awkwardness at the State Department, but rather than focus on any specifics, the general treatment among the major networks was downright tabloid. For example, in this piece, ABC News focused on non-substantive comments in the cables that essentially resort to the level of name calling. And far from being hard hitting, ABC did not make a terribly strong case. From the piece, we find out that Libya’s Ghadafi is considered “wierd”. This could hardly be of any surprise, but we learn nothing of the real nuggets of information found in the documents from the ABC piece – a trend that you will see is quite prominent in American media.

The Administration’s Response – and from Corporate America

The reaction from the Obama Administration was rather strong. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the release of the diplomatic cables. Their release certainly made her job difficult. But did the release of the cables truly affect the relations between the U.S. and other countries to the degree that she has claimed? For her part, Julian Assange did suggest that Secretarty Clinton should resign, “if it can be shown that she was responsible ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations.” (Go to 2:20 in the video for the quote.) Unfortunately, most of the American press reported that with the headline to the effect: Assange: Clinton Should Resign, ignoring a rather important subjunctive clause, but also skillfully avoiding the reasoning behind Assange’s statement. Mr. Assange made that statement with the revelation from his group that the U.S. State Department had begun a program to try to gain information about foreign dignitaries by the use of biometrics and espionage. If the State Department is trying to spy on other leaders, suddenly the peaceful and “candid discussions” that Secretary Clinton mentioned in the ABC News video would certainly take a very different tone, but once again, there is no information in the ABC report about these potentially unethical clandestine actions by the State Department.

Presidential Candidate Obama discusses open government in 2008 (Glass Booth.org, via YouTube)

President Obama campaigned in part on the notion of openness in the Federal Government. Obama had also signed whistleblower protections early during his presidency. One bill strengthened whistleblower protections for the employees of companies contracting with the Federal Government and he strengthened whistleblower rights in the recently-passed Food Safety Act. Yet, despite this early support for openness in government, President Obama was now in the rather uncomfortable position that he was in charge of the organization losing leaked information.

Despite the discomfort, the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, challenged Fox News by saying that the White House is not afraid of one guy with a laptop. He also went on to say that those who leaked information are subject to a Department of Justice criminal investigation as well. But while president Obama claimed to be in support of an open, censorship-free internet after the Diplomatic Cables release, it was quite clear that his Justice Department was in fact strongly pursuing an investigation into the the potential for ties between Julian Assange and the alleged leaker, Private Bradley Manning.

President Obama discusses open internet in December, 2010 (Stop the War Coalitino, via YouTube)

It was around that time in early December, 2010, that Swedish allegations of “sex by surprise”, not rape as reported by the American media, forced Assange to remain in place in Britain, even serving some time in solitary confinement until his bond was secured. He remains without charge from Sweden, though he has been fighting his extradition to Sweden out of concern that he would be extradited again to the United States. It was also made public that one of the women who had accused Assange of rape was actually tied to the CIA. WikiLeaks also found it difficult to receive donations because companies like PayPal, Visa and Mastercard cut off services to WikiLeaks, though the latter two do allow donations to the KKK! It is strongly suspected that the Obama Administration was partially responsible for convincing those companies to cut their financial ties to WikiLeaks.

One company, VISA, did hire a firm to investigate WikiLeaks to determine whether it could find any wrongdoing by the group and found none. VISA has yet to allow donations to flow back to WikiLeaks, despite the findings having come out roughly three months ago.

Assange in his own words

So who is this Julian Assange? Is he the terrorist described by Fox News? The guy who is hurting American national security like the U.S. mainstream press argues? Is he a supporter of free speech and open government?

To this point we have heard from virtually everyone but Julian Assange himself. But to fully understand his comments, we can not confine ourselves to the American mass media. First, let us take a look at a speech that he gave to the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2010.

Julian Assange speaks at the Oslo Freedom Forum, April 2010 (Oslo Freedom Forum, via YouTube)

In that speech, Assange describes how his organization tries not to know the names of the whistleblowers in order to protect itself as well as the whistleblowers. WikiLeaks tries to protect whistleblowers as much as possible, while using freedom of speech laws around the world to their maximum extent to ensure that the leaked information remains public and protected from attempts to shut websites down.

The stakes are quite high. After minute 5:15 in the Oslo Speech, Assange mentions the salient point that with today’s electronic media, the information repositories of the West are becoming concentrated in fewer hands. While it was once true that people could see missing pages in book in Soviet Libraries, it is now possible to remove websites without a trace. This is a very well-thought out position on transparency of information in the electronic era. There have already been examples, as Assange continues, in which stories of scandals have slipped into the Orwellian “memory hole”. The protection of information against consolidated control is to make it public and to ensure that thousands of copies of that information can be found across the internet. By making information public, WikiLeaks says that it provides the tools that the public needs in order to hold its leaders accountable for their actions.

Julian Assange speaks at TED, July 2010 (TED, via YouTube)

In another speech at TED, Assange discusses some of the types of documents that WikiLeaks has released to the public, including the release of Collateral Murder (around 5:30). At one point, Assange makes a very intriguing statement, “Capable and generous men do not create victims, they nurture people.” This is hardly a statement by the vindictive radical of Fox News’ imaginings.

Listen to Assange discuss his own reaction to the video in the following video from an interview conducted by Al Jazeera. At not point does Assange attempt to hyperbolize what can be seen on the video screen.

Julian Assange discusses 'Collateral Murder' (Al Jazeera, via YouTube)

The Al Jazeera interview also includes commentary by Ivan Eland, a national security analyst from the Cato Institute (hardly an anti-military institution). Eland describes the actions from the lens of the military while Assange describes the situation from the perspective of the victims. Al Jazeera does a great job of showing similarities and dissonances between the two perspectives to give the viewer a rather impressive perspective of the incident in which American helicopter pilots gunned down a number of innocent bystanders. This is not the type of portrayal of the U.S. military that one sees in the United States. Rather, a better example of American portayal can be seen here:

Wolf Blitzer reports on 'Collateral Murder' (CNN, via YouTube)

CNN did not show the entire video. They did not mention that the “weapons” described by the helicopter pilots were actually cameras, but they did stop just before the helicopter opened fire and just after the letters “RPG” appear on the screen. The net effect of this editing is to give the viewer the impression that the helicopter pilots were in the right by defending themselves against a potential rocket propelled grenade attack. Wolf then cuts to Barbara Starr, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, who touts the Pentagon’s line without question: That the people had been investigated and that no fault was found. Yet Starr never describes the extent of the investigation, nor does she comment on the rest of the video. She also propagates the lie that other troops were attacked nearby that day. Finally, the journalist Starr rather callously mentions that the deaths of these journalists can simply be added to the death toll of 129 to that point in the Iraq War.

So CNN all but asks the viewer not to worry, nothing to see here people… just journalists dying despite the fact that journalists are given legal protections even in war zones – protections that are never mentioned despite the large number of deaths of journalists by the U.S. military. That is the American mainstream media in a nutshell. When the need for information and transparency is palpable, CNN obscured the facts in order to provide the Pentagon a blanket of plausible deniability. Later, CNN posted an article online entitled “Secretive website WikiLeaks may be posting more U.S. military video”, a clear effort to discredit WikiLeaks without bringing any new information to the fore.

This is not to say that high-ranking officials should necessarily be charged with corruption because of the actions of much lower-ranking pilots. Nor does Assange make that case. However, the incident may certainly warrant a review of the specific ways in which loose rules of engagement may have resulted in the deaths of a number of innocent people that way. Perhaps there is a way to address civilian deaths that will heighten the safety for troops and civilians alike – neither we nor the Pentagon will know unless the matter is investigated and that will not happen unless there is public pressure to do so.

The added benefit for political leaders may be that after having encountered a number of incidents in which mistakes were made, the public may develop a more nuanced view regarding the myriad ways in which such unfortunate instances could happen. That may mean that the public could better differentiate between instances in which an undesirable outcome resulted from good-faith efforts, versus cases of corruption. The public would likely be more forgiving in the former cases, which could give politicians more latitude in their efforts to improve conditions at home as well. That is why there is a need to bring details about events like these to light.

More on the media perception of Assange

After the release of Collateral Murder and the release of Iraq and Afghanistan War documents, the line in the media became the accusation that Julian Assange and WIkiLeaks were attempting to attack U.S. national security. That is a charge that Julian Assange deftly handles here in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Anderson Cooper interviews Julian Assange (CNN, via YouTube)

After the release of the American diplomatic cables, Julian Assange was of course charged with sex crimes in Sweden and the timing is clearly suspicious. The American press wasted no time in ensuring that future interviews with Assange were about him rather than the information that he was attempting to present.

Increasingly, the theme in American media was about Julian Assange himself. For example, an October, 2010 interview with CNN avoided the contents of WikiLeaks releases, but rather focussed on Julian Assange’s personality and the early reports of allegations of rape. This led to Assange walking out of the interview while he was attempting to steer the interview back toward the contents of WikiLeaks’ latest document release.

A short time later, Assange related to Larry King why he had walked out of the interview, namely to ensure that media attention remains on the deaths of innocent victims during a time of war. When Daniel Ellsberg (the leaker of the Pentagon Papers) calls for an investigation over the matters that WikiLeaks released, Larry King called an end to the segment:

Larry King interviews Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg (CNN, via YouTube)

In January, CBS’ 60 Minutes did an interview with Assange in Britain at the location of his house arrest. You will find the entire interview is chock full of references to the “mysterious” “strange” or “enigmatic” Assange – but you will hear very few details regarding the actual contents of WikiLeaks releases. Interviewer Steve Kroft asks questions that essentially carry water for the Pentagon throughout the interview. Assange actually instructs Kroft on a number of points regarding the practice of journalism in Part I, as well as reminding Kroft of the importance of America’s First Amendment in his own work. Part II of the interview covers Assange’s past, with descriptions of his “frequently uprooted” childhood and his hacking activities. There are a number of great exchanges where Assange is able to directly respond to Pentagon and State Department accusations and he does it quite well.

60 Part I: Minutes interviews Julian Assange (CBS News)

Part II: 60 Minutes interviews Julian Assange (CBS News)

Unfortunately, 60 Minutes played the “enigmatic” angle heavily during its normal showtime, but Steve Kroft and the production staff do discuss (in rather surprising contrast) how they perceived Assange to be rather genuine in his beliefs and actions during their own reflections on 60 Minutes Overtime. And the disappointing dearth of information regarding WikiLeaks’ revelations is described in detail in an article by David Swanson.

How stark is the American media portrayal of Julian Assange? Thanks to the wonderful world of the internet, it is possible to directly compare American interviews such as those by CBS and CNN with interviews by reporters from the Netherlands and Australia. Viewing the last two sample videos and the Al Jazeera interview earlier shows American just what they have been missing: A press that seeks to inform the public rather than to cover up excesses by the U.S. Government.

Without such transparency as that displayed by international news sources, it is unlikely that citizens of the United states will be able to ensure the safety of their own family members who are sent into harm’s way from the excesses of a national security state that creates an environment in which otherwise well-intentioned soldiers can become excited for the next kill. How much less violence might there have been in Iraq and how many fewer people – Iraqis and Americans alike – if the people in Iraq were not subject to such unfair rules of operation that ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ should be the rule of the day? That is, after all, what WikiLeaks claims to do: To provide the transparency required for citizens to make informed decisions on their own.

Now that you have finally seen the major players give their cases in their own words, you can finally decide for yourself: Is Julian Assange truly an ideological terrorist acting to destroy the United States, or is he facing attacks by the same people who profit from unceasing wars whose current estates are now jeopardized by WikiLeaks, or is there some other combination of factors taking place? How would one even be able to consider all of the possibilities, given American mainstream reporting alone? Now that you have seen actual details and reporting, you have the ability to decide for yourself.

Testimony before a Senate Inquiry regarding the Teapot Dome affair (Library of Congress, via Wikipedia)

One of the greatest scandals in the history of the U.S. government, the Teapot Dome scandal was an instance of corporate malfeasance during the Roaring Twenties, that decade of deregulation and corporate overreach that gave way to the Great Depression by its end. The Warren Harding Administration was rocked when news came out that the Secretary of the Interior had agreed to lease the Teapot Dome Navy oil reserves to private oil companies after accepting bribes to do so. The companies were given low rates and no-bid contracts (always a worrisome sign). The resulting investigation was filled with intrigue, filled with figures who became stunningly rich in a heartbeat all while important documents went missing, one after the next. It all goes to show that corruption has never been a new idea in government, and a thorough read of the history of this scandal will show just how far the corrupted will go to hide their activities from the public.

Wikipedia: Teapot Dome Scandal

Enron Complex, Houston, TX (Alex, via Wikipedia)

A national debate has been raging for thirty years now regarding whether to allow the national economy o become unregulated. The Government has historically policed corporations in order to ensure that they adhere to laws and regulations that protect the environment and your pocketbook. The current crop of Tea Party Republicans would like to see the Government removed from the process of regulating commerce. Yet, when we take a look at a list of recent Corporate Scandals, we can instantly see why this is a bad idea. It just happens that with corporations required by law to maximize profits, there is very little a corporation is likely to do in order to police itself.

Wikipedia: List of Corporate Scandals

Monks Mound, Cahokia Illinois, the largest Native American earthwork prior to the arrival of Columbus (rbw)

Many Americans lack a sense of history regarding their surroundings. It is often assumed that American history began with the Jamestown colony, but this is largely due to a systematic attempt during the early 20th century to forget the past. In fact, some of the evidence to the contrary can be found in the burial and effigy mounds that dot the American landscape. Thousands of mounds can be found, especially in the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River systems. The Moundbuilders built these mounds for a large variety of purposes, but did so over a very long period of North American history. The largest mound, Monk’s Mound, was once near the center of a city, Cahokia, with a population of around 20,000 at its height around 1,000 C.E. It is located a few miles north of the intersection of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Modern society could be informed by learning more about its history: Changes to the local climate and environmental degradation (such as deforestation) created an upheaval to Native American cultures by the 13th century C.E. This led to the consequence that subsequent cultures lived in smaller, more widely scattered bands by the time Europeans arrived.

Wikipedia: Mound Builders

In addition to his usual amazingly funny physics-related humor, xkcd has published a very handy comparison chart that helps to visualize the relative doses for a variety of different types of radiation exposer. Click on the image to be brought to the full-size chart on xkcd’s site.

Radiation dose comparison sheet (xkcd)

Richard Nixon (The National Archives, via Wikipedia)

“But when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” That line from the Frost-Nixon interview famously showed the state of American democracy after Richard NIxon.

Elected the 37th President of the United States in 1969, he was re-elected to a second term. His presidency was not without accomplishment, as he signed the Clean Water Act and enhanced the Clean Air Act. He founded the EPA, negotiated a détente with the Soviet Union, ended the Vietnam War and connected with China. And he was a Republican!

Unfortunately, that was not the only lasting impact to Nixon’s presidential legacy. Machtpolitik played a primate role during his administration. Nixon’s soon to be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was sent to the Paris negotiations to scuttle a peace treaty by suggesting to the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal under the Republicans. The peace talks failed on the eve of the 1968 election. Kissinger also played a lead role in the CIA-assisted overthrow of democratically elected leader of Chile, plunging that nation into decades of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. (He was also involved in other similar activities during the Ford Administration.) Nixon authorized illegal military bombing campaigns and other incursions in Cambodia and Laos as well. His first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, resigned from office after it wsa clear that he had accepted bribes and evaded taxes while he was the governor of Maryland.

Despite all of that, what Richard Nixon is undoubtedly most famous for, however, is the Watergate Scandal, where his cronies bugged the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. The event lead to Nixon’s resignation and also lead to every subsequent presidential scandal, real or imagined, to end with the syllable “-gate”.

The role of the US president became imperial under Nixon and his neo-conservative acolytes, including Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Dick Cheney carried his torch through the Reagan and Bush administrations. For everyone who wishes the American government would focus on the livelihoods of its citizens, Richard Nixon began the rolling snowball of “Unitary Executive Power” that impinges on democracy today.

Wikipedia: Richard Nixon

The USS Constellation (via Wikipedia)

Relations between the United States and France soured after the French Revolution. Royal France had been a vital ally during the American Revolution, but when the King was toppled, the U.S. stopped repaying its debt to France, claiming that it had owed the debt to the Kingdom of France, not the French Republic. The U.S. angered France even more when it signed a treaty with Britain that included trade items at a time that Britain and France were hostile with one another. By the end of 1796, France began seizing American ships in retribution and thus began one of America’s first undeclared (though still authorized by Congress) wars. Not listed in all history books, the war itself was largely fought at sea and is given any one of several names: the Half-War, the Pirate Wars, the Undeclared War (as if it were the only one), the Undeclared War with France, the Franco-American War, or the Quasi-War.

Wikipedia: The Quasi-War

Mercury (MESSENGER)

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and it is also the smallest planet in the solar system, now that Pluto has been demoted. Until now, Mercury has been the only major body in the inner solar system that has not been orbited by human spacecraft. As of Thursday, NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging probe, aka MESSENGER, (what an acronym!) successfully entered orbit around the planet, after two flybys of Venus, 3 of Mercury and one of Earth itself. There, it will map the surface and study the environment around Mercury. There are a number of mysteries surrounding the planet, including why it has such a large iron core. There are also a number of questions about strange and bizarre terrain found opposite the planet from a huge 1,550 km-wide impact basin.

Mercury’s next visitors will arrive as part of a joint European Space Agency and Japanese Space Agency project, BepiColombo, that is expected to reach the planet in 2019.

Wikipedia: Mercury

Aerial view of the Red Forest, near Chernobyl, Ukraine, 2007 (Wikipedia)

Formerly called the Wormwood Forest, the region was devastated when Hydrogen gas from the Chernobyl nuclear power planet exploded, releasing radioactive material over a wide region. All of the conifers in the surrounding forest died rapidly and when their needles dried up, their reddish-brown color led to a new name: The Red Forest.

Wildlife returned to the area once humans deserted it, including endangered species. The wildlife has been effected by the radiation as well, leading to a number of mutations in plants especially.

Wikipedia: The Red Forest

Sunlight enters the main entrance of New Grange once per year on the Winter Solstice (Cyril Byrnes, via The Irish Times)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As people all over celebrate all things Irish today, let’s take a look at a place as old as Ireland itself. New Grange is a huge passage mound in County Meath that dates to 3100 – 2900 BCE, during the Neolithic Period (the New Stone Age). It is part of the Brú na Bóinne archaeological complex, an expansive site that predates the Pyramids at Giza. Roughly 150 passage graves survive today in Ireland and 40 of them are locate at Brú na Bóinne.

The site is huge. Some 550 giant slabs, weighing a total of 200,000 tonnes were quarried from the riverside nearby in order to construct it and transported to the site, all under the power of humans and animals. Its use is uncertain, though most people believe it was a tomb. It does have some astronomical significance as well: Each winter solstice, the sun shines directly into the main passage of the monument, illuminating the far wall.

Wikipedia: New Grange

Hearst's New York Journal front page giving a biased, pro-war account of the explosion on the U.S.S. Maine (Wikipedia)

By the end of the 19th century, Cuba had long been seen as a potential acquisition for the expanding United States. By the 1860s, Cuba was importing many of their goods from the United States, who purchased most of the sugar that the island produced. Several attempts to purchase the island from Spain were aborted due to shifting political fortunes within the U.S. Large American companies had a significant financial interest in lowering import tariffs on the sugar, while at the same time the mindset of “Manifest Destiny” – the drive to expand the U.S. throughout the Western Hemisphere – was beginning to take hold.

Enter the media. Beginning in the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pullitzer, and other members of the media began to conjure and over-report ‘attrocities’ that they claimed had been perpetrated by the Spanish Empire, which was now in steep decline. During this time, Hearst’s New York Journal and Pullitzer’s New York World entered into a fight for readership. They began to employ strategies to gain readership that would later be called “Yellow Journalism”. This included publishing morality plays, showing “nudity” (or the closest Victorian equivalent), and sensational political articles about sometimes fabricated scandals.

During the 1890s, Cuba began a struggle for independence against Spain. Hearst and others could see the potential for readership in the headlines. At one point, World correspondent as James Creelman wrote in his log, he sent a message from Cuba to Hearst saying “There will be no war.” Hearst replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Later, the U.S. sent a dreadnought, the U.S.S. Maine to Havana to guard American interests as hostilities broke out there. It sank, likely the result of an internal boiler explosion, but Hearst’s headline was “MAINE EXPLOSION CAUSED BY BOMB OR TORPEDO”. Pullitzer’s Journal screamed, “DESTRUCTION OF THE WAR SHIP MAINE WAS THE WORK OF AN ENEMY” above an illustration of a terrible explosion splitting the ship in two pieces. The headlines helped to begin the Spanish-American War.

Three years later, Ambrose Bierce claimed that Hearst’s reporting led Leon Czolgosz to shoot President McKinley. These claims devastated Hearst’s hopes to become president himself, but he denied it to be the case.

Later, in 1941, Frank Luther Mott gave a description of signs of “Yellow Journalism”:

1. scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
2. lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
3. use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudo-science, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
4. emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
5. dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.

How many are still in use today?

Wikipedia: Yellow Journalism

Newsboys selling newspapers on the Brooklyn Bridge, 1908 (Lewis W. Hine, via Wikipedia)

In 1898, in an attempt to boost earnings from the increase in sales brought on by the onset of the Spanish American War, newspaper publishers raised the price of a bundle of newspapers 20%, from 50¢ to 60¢. While it does not seem like a very steep price today, the price increase made it very difficult for newsboys to purchase bundles for distribution because many of the boys who sold newspapers were poor and sometimes homeless. Wages were already low and most newsboys earned only about 30¢ per day.

Because the price increase made it difficult for newsboys to earn a living, they went on strike. This was the Newsboy Strike of 1899. They refused to sell newspapers owned by Joseph Pullitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The strike had immediate effect as Pullitzer’s New York World newspaper circulation dropped by two-thirds. After two weeks, the newspapers began distributing their papers at 50¢ per bundle once again.

Do not feel too sorry for William Randolph Hearst. He actually helped to start the Spanish American War. See how in tomorrow’s Pseudo-random Wiki-link.

Wikipedia: Newsboy Strike of 1899