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Historic Blunders: Explosive reports

Columbus would have wept. By the late 19th century the Spanish empire in the Americas, which he and his little ships founded, was in decline. Only a few islands in the West Indies remained, and even there the drive for independence was growing. Rebels in Cuba and the Philippines were on the march and the mother country did not have the strength to stop them.

While the Spanish were scrapping over the shards of empire, another struggle was taking place across the sunny Caribbean.

America was seeing the rise and rise of the newspaper barons. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were engaged in a ruthless battle for readers, one in which ethics took a back seat. It was called yellow journalism and it didn't so much bend the truth as twist its arm up its back.

Hearst decided to take an interest in the Cuban struggle for independence.

His papers exaggerated events there and he famously did not let one illustrator come home after a quiet time in the capital Havana. "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war," he said.

He did. On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine, an American battleship, blew up and sank in Havana harbour. More than 250 men died in what Hearst eagerly condemned as a despicable act of sabotage. Readers were urged to support a war with the slogan "Remember the Maine. To hell with Spain".

The US president, William McKinley, was not keen, and neither was Spain, which even offered the Cubans autonomy in an effort to avoid conflict. But Hearst and public opinion won. On April 11, McKinley asked Congress for permission to send US troops to liberate Cuba. On April 25 war was declared. By August it was all over. The Americans won, and the price was the lives of tens of thousands of Spaniards and Cubans. Nearly a quarter of a million Filipinos died in the conflict that followed the US conquest of their islands. And the USS Maine? Most experts now agree that the ship sank as a result of an accidental fuel explosion. And everyone agrees that the least likely explanation was an act of Spanish sabotage.

Stephanie Northen

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