August 27, 1989, Sunday

LENGTH: 709 words

HEADLINE: The Years of Living Dangerously

BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens. Mitchell Stephens is the author of "A History of News" and an associate professor of journalism at New York University.

THE YELLOW KIDS: Foreign Correspondents in the Heydey of Yellow Journalism, by Joyce Milton. Harper & Row, 412 pp., $22.95.

FEW SUBJECTS are viewed with such shortsightedness as journalism. We watch Geraldo Rivera broadcasting from a house of prostitution and think he has invented sensationalism. We see the publicity surrounding Diane Sawyer and conclude that journalists have never before achieved such celebrity. We watch Sam Donaldson interrogate some politician and decide that journalists have never before wielded such power. We read the reports from Tiananmen Square and believe that the world has never before been so aggressively covered.

An account of one short period in the history of journalism - press coverage of events surrounding the Spanish-American War in 1898 - is alone sufficient to disabuse us of all these notions.

The two most dynamic figures in fin de siecle journalism in this country were Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal. Pulitzer and Hearst filled the pages of their papers with a mix of blood, sex, color comics and progressive crusades - "yellow journalism" it was called, after a comic character, the "yellow kid," who appeared in both papers. And they spread what the Journal called "War Fever" with an exuberance, partisanship and effectiveness unlike anything that modern television viewers or newspaper readers have seen.

WHILE THE cable Hearst is said to have sent to a Journal illustrator in Cuba - "you furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war" - is probably apocryphal, Hearst did come as close as has any American outside of government to single-handedly starting a war. For example, when Hearst learned that an attractive young Cuban woman was being held as a rebel agent in a Spanish jail, he devoted 375 columns of newsprint to a romanticized version of her story, finally sending one of his reporters to rescue her from jail.

And when the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor for reasons that have still not been determined, Journal headlines read, "Maine destroyed By Spanish . . . This Proved Absolutely by Discovery of the Torpedo Hole" and "War Sure!" This last may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within a couple of months the United States had declared war on Spain over Cuba.

The young correspondents who covered events in Cuba - the dashing Richard Harding Davis, for example, and the novelist Stephen Crane, who was sent to Cuba by Hearst - were stars in their own right. They weaseled their way aboard the boats running guns to the Cuban rebels. They crawled through the swamps to cross Spanish lines and interview rebel leaders. They stood amidst the bullets with the Rough Riders atop San Juan Hill (ducking was considered bad form).

Perhaps the most daring of this daring lot, the World's Sylvester Scovel, spent time in both Spanish and American jails. Most of these reporters, like Scovel, worked for the "yellow" papers; Davis dubbed them the "yellow kids."

THE STORIES the "yellow kids" produced were often overheated, frequently slanted, occasionally misleading. Still, newspaper readers in the 1890s probably knew more about goings-on in the Cuban hills than readers and viewers in the 1980s know about goings-on in Beirut.

Joyce Milton's book on this period is short on analysis. This is not the place to turn for perspective on yellow journalism or the Spanish-American War. Milton strings together accounts of the adventures of the best-known of these journalists, including just enough background to set off the anecdotes.

But what an engaging collection of anecdotes it is. One Journal reporter, for example, was lying wounded on the ground after a battle when he heard someone say to him, "Copy! Copy! An hour to spare before the paper goes to press!" It was Hearst himself, notebook in hand, flush with excitement. "I'm sorry you're hurt," the publisher said. "But wasn't it a splendid fight? We beat every paper in the world."

Many of these stories have been told before, but not recently, and Milton tells them well. She provides a spirited, if somewhat superficial, account of a time in American journalism that was - difficult as this is for us to believe - wilder than our own.