Yellow Journalism and Watergate: Exaggerations and Lies That Changed History

Yellow Journalism and Watergate: Exaggerations and Lies That Changed History


History books teach that the Irish Potato Famine was due to the failure of the potato crop… but what if the British were the biggest factor? Everyone knows that the Boston Massacre was a sign of British cruelty against the colonies… but what if it were actually a tragic accident? It’s human nature to lie and exaggerate, but most lies don’t start the Spanish-American War. These six lies were so major that they changed the world.

Exaggeration: The Boston Massacre

There is no denying that the Boston Massacre was a major factor in sparking the Revolutionary War. On March 5, 1770, a group of boys started taunting and throwing snow at a group of British soldiers. This led to crowds of other townspeople joining in and throwing rocks. Then, without orders, one of the soldiers fired his gun, which caused the other soldiers to shoot into the crowd as well. In the end, five Boston civilians were dead.

While most certainly a tragedy, it is actually widely considered by historians to be an accident. In fact, most of the soldiers, whose defense lawyer was Patriot and future president John Adams, were acquitted, with only two of the soldiers receiving lesser charges of manslaughter. But the Patriots took this event and ran with it. Throughout the colonies, and even in London, they published pamphlets and newspapers on the event. They painted it as a purposeful attack on the American people and the number of deaths changed depending on the publication. The most famous piece of propaganda was an engraving of the event made by Paul Revere. It shows an organized line of smiling British soldiers firing into the innocent crowd on the orders of a British officer. The Patriots used the Boston Massacre to radicalize more moderates into revolution and they succeeded. It was an exaggeration which is still believed today.

Lie: The Spanish sunk the USS Maine

Tensions were already high between Spain and the United States when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. The U.S. had interfered in both Cuba and the Philippines, where the citizens were fighting to rid themselves of Spanish rule. So, when the battleship sank, killing over 260 people, an investigation was launched.

Of course, this was the height of “yellow journalism,” a time in news reporting history where the stories contained little truth or research and instead were just written to sell the newspaper (sounds familiar…). Newspaper giants such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer immediately put out stories that blamed the explosion on a Spanish mine or Spanish sabotage. The public ate this up because, “the articles tended to confirm its own prejudiced view of Spain and the Spaniards.” The American people demanded retaliation; with no diplomatic solution in sight, President McKinley had little choice but to declare war. The Spanish-American War lasted less than a year, but the U.S. victory gave Cuba its freedom; brought the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico under U.S. control; and began the U.S. involvement in the affairs of the world.

Lie: Nixon had no prior knowledge of Watergate

Few things have done more damage to the reputation of presidents than the Watergate scandal. On June 17, 1972, burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Convention at the Watergate offices, wiretapping the phones and other key spots. Investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, aided by their informant Deep Throat— now known to be former FBI deputy director William Mark Felt, Sr.—discovered a connection between the burglars, the major cover-up that followed, and the CIA and FBI. The trail of lies extended all the way to President Nixon himself.

Once the break-in was discovered, the President and his administration furiously shredded papers, deleted parts of recorded conversations, and attempted to silence anyone who knew about their involvement. Once the truth came out, impeachment trials began; however, on August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned. Before this scandal, there was always a sense that the President would do what was best for the country; subsequent presidents have had to prove they were trustworthy, an almost impossible task. Watergate also ushered in a new era of investigative journalism where even those in authority were subject to interrogation.

Lie: There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq

After the events of 9/11, America was restless. With the search for Osama bin Laden looking grim, President Bush was feeling the pressure to bring about results. In late 2002, an Italian dossier— now known to be fake—brought to light alleged evidence that Iraq had made a deal with Niger for Uranium and was creating weapons of mass destruction. Despite an investigation by the United Nations stating Iraq had no weapons, the U.S. and UK insisted that they did. Furthermore, officials claimed that Iraq had not complied with a UN resolution declaring that Iraq needed to let investigators into the country to search. On March 20, 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq. It was soon made clear that the document that the U.S. used as their prime reason to invade was fabricated. The U.S. had no actual evidence that Iraq had weapons; after nearly a decade of war, it was clear that these weapons never existed.

Exaggeration: The Irish Potato Famine was caused by potato blight

The Great Famine of Ireland occurred between 1845 and 1852 and was a devastating event in the country’s history. It is believed that as many as a million people died and over a million people emigrated, reducing Ireland’s population by 25 percent. England commonly spread that the sole cause of this famine was a potato blight that knocked out the potato crop for several years, a devastating blow to a major part of the population that relied on this crop.

However, while a potato blight was the impetus of the event, it was the actions of the British, to whom Ireland belonged at that time, that made the Famine so devastating. Though the potato crop had failed, Ireland was still producing other grain crops… which the British exported to England and the rest of the world. There is also evidence that England was accepting charity on Ireland’s behalf but were either taking it for themselves or distributing it only to the non-Catholic Irish. Combined with new landlord/tenant policies that favored the English side, there was no way that Ireland could recover from the potato crop failure, let alone the other factors.

Lie: The Piltdown Man is the “missing link”

Since the discovery of evolution, scientists have been looking for the “missing link” that connects man and ape. In 1912, Charles Dawson believed he had found it buried in a pit in Piltdown (in the UK): They recovered pieces of over 500,000-year old bones that showed a creature with a human-like skull and ape-like jaw. This discovery matched the belief of the time that scientists that brain size evolved first.

At first, there were many critics of the find who believed that something was off, but they were soon silenced by a supposed second find at a nearby site that was accepted by the American Museum of Natural History as true. However, as time went on, and more fossils were discovered around the world, many were curious as to why the Piltdown Man didn’t fit into the story the other skeletons told. Forty years after Piltdown Man’s discovery, archaeologists tested the fossil using the vastly improved dating technology. They discovered that not only were the bones only 50,000 years old, but they also came from two different creatures, a human and some kind of ape. Scientists also found evidence of tampering: The teeth were filed down to seem more human, and aged through artificial staining.

The hoax was exposed in a 1953 Time magazine article, though who actually committed the fraud is still under debate. The fact that it took so long for the lie to be discovered had major influence on research of human evolution. It slowed down scientific discovery as to where humans actually came from, caused many legitimate findings to be ignored because they didn’t match, and generally wasted a lot of time.

While “little white lies” may seem harmless, when it’s on a historical scale, lies and exaggerations have the power to exacerbate political tensions between countries, alter how leaders are perceived, and derail greater discoveries and achievements.



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