The struggle for independent/alternative media in Cuba

Freedom of press is so easily taken for granted in the US, yet fought so hard for in Cuba. Cuba being a communist country, naturally doesn’t allow free or independent press. Any media outside of state run television and the state newspaper, “Granma”, are unregulated, and there for illegal. This poses a numerous amount of problems for those living in the country, however the people, as with many other unregulated businesses and jobs, have found their ways around the government to get themselves, and what the rest of the country, need or want. Getting information and stories out to the masses besides that of the government’s choosing is a crucial necessity for helping evoke a want for change, and we were lucky enough to speak to two major independent media platforms who were putting in the effort to do just that.

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El Toque, a group of journalists running an online “alternative” platform set on delivering stories and news to Cubans that cant be found in the state (government) run newspaper, “Granma”. While interviewing the group, we learned that independent media like theirs is actually illegal because it is not regulated. Because of this, like many technically illegal businesses, they do their work out of a house using the server from the public wifi park near by. However, the group acknowledges the issues with this and  spread their work, along with many other Cuban platforms, through something called “El Paquete”, or The Package, though the threat from the government doesn’t linger far from their minds, “The government can do whatever it wants.. but some spaces the government doesn’t have the tools to control yet… the logic of our legal system is you only can do what the government allows and the rest is forbidden, our logic is backwards…if it is not regulated, its forbidden..it is one of our worst problems, everyday we could be blocked because the government can do whatever it wants..(However) being a black market (El Paquete), it cannot be controlled”. El Paquete being USBs sold to Cubans by a group of people on a timely basis that contains not only independent Cuban media, platforms, and projects, but also TV shows, music, magazines, movies, and much more content that are usually banned access to, including content from the US. While first describing their platform, one member of the group heartwarming ended the introduction with,   “We talk about good and bad things with honesty”, as compared to the state run newspaper.

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On Cuba, an alternative media dedicated not only to its readers inside Cuba, but interestingly enough, those Cubans who have left the country. While interviewing one of the staff members for the media platform, she explained to us the importance of having a variety of information and stories being released to the public through On Cuba, as well as the importance for those stories to reach or be of relevance not only to those in Cuba, but their families abroad, “…you cannot predict a future of the country without taking into account these people (the family members abroad) that are still influencing what happens inside the country. So we want to talk not only about politics or official stuff, we also want to talk about people themselves, about their stories”. On Cuba also makes a strong effort to stay as neutral as possible, or to include stories and points of view from multiple sides, though this too can prove troublesome when stereotyping and misconceptions come into play from one side or the other; “When you talk about Cuba in the press you will find very polarized positions; theirs media content talking about the perfection of Cuba, and theirs a lot on the other hand talking about ‘the disaster of Cuba’. We are neither of these extremes, though this is also an issue because the two sides still punish (us). One side understands you are not with them, so they think you are on the other side”. A large part of why these people are doing what they’re doing, trying to avoid government intervention and starting the independent and alternative media platforms, is because they feel the people just arent getting what actually matters or is truly important and relevant through state run media, “In Cuban media the stories talk more about statistics and not about people; more about data and not about people’s stories. I hardly find in the media what I feel in the streets, or what I understand people to be feeling… I understand that we need, as a country, to move the debate and talk about these stories because they’re important”.

 

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More than just “a communist country”; real people striving in the real Cuba

 

Its only human nature to be skeptical of things we dont completely understand, or things that are perceived as “bad” or “wrong”. When growing up in a country holding an outdated embargo for reasons in history that are only briefly covered in the public school system, this skepticism is a popular attitude toward Cuba in the US.  However, Cuba’s history, and the history of US affairs in Cuba dating back to the Spanish-American war is highly misunderstood and misconstrued. Gaining a new perspective and understanding of Cuba’s past, and present, and the US-Cuba relations is long over due for us here in the US. But because this is no simple subject, the easiest place to start to try and give the public an idea, at least of the real Cuba today, is with a look at the people and their reality in Cuba. Its easy to disregard Cuba as nothing more than a communist country and thus some kind of threat to the US, and not comprehend the reality behind the country; the reality that theirs real people living their trying to strive with limited access to necessities thanks to our embargo. And not just “real people”, but some pretty amazing people who are genuinely, and maybe unnecessarily, nice to any visitors to their country, including those from the US.

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La Marca tattoo parlor, considered to be Havanas first tattoo parlor, doubles as a mini art gallery and actively promotes local artists. Dedicated of course to art and beautiful tattoos, but far more importantly to safety, sanitation, and health. Because tattooing as a business is technically illegal in Cuba, there are no regulations for tattoo parlors, and many get shut down. Since La Marca is some how still in business with little fuss from officials, they strive to keep up a good reputation and go to lengths far beyond those of parlors in the US to ensure their work space and materials are clean and sanitary for their customers. Keeping the reception, sketch space, and parlor itself completely separate, they completely re wrap the chairs in saran wrap not only between every customer, but even between the tattooing process and the cleaning and wrapping process for each individual customer. They get most of their ink from Canada due to the trade embargo with the US, and yes, they pull the fresh needle out of its sealed package right in front of you. The artists at La Marca were more than happy to book last minute appointments for myself and one other  student on the study abroad trip for the day before we were scheduled to head home.

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Clandestina is Cuba’s very first “design store”. Coining the phrase “99% diseno Cubano”, you can find “99% cuban design” screen printed by hand on t-shirts, and bags, and even buy stickers and key chains with the stores phrase. The group of local artists and entrepreneurs are set on providing, not only the tourists, but locals with hand made Cuban designs, art, and clothes. They were more than willing to take time to let us interview them, and even showed us the art gallery housed above the store.

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Marta Rojas, the only reporter to take notes during Fidel Castros 1953 Moncada Garrison court case. One of Castro’s early attempts to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was his attack on Cuba’s second most important military base, the Moncada Garrison. This being only the beginning of what would alter be Fidels revolution, he gave his historic defense during the case, “la historia me absolvera”, “History will absolve me”, and Marta Rojas was the only reporter to document Fidel’s strong words throughout the case. However, she would hold have to hold onto her notes for 6 years before they would be published, and would later turn the notes from the court case into a book. While interviewing her in her apartment, she shared a heart warming thought with the study abroad group, “Theres two things you can learn a lot from;  people and books”. She was nice enough to invite us into her apartment, show us personal photos and documents from her days as a journalist, and even offered some palatines prior to us leaving her.

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Jose Fuster, an artist outside of Havana, is one of the many artists striving to help improve some of the more impoverished neighborhoods in Cuba. As a guide told the story upon our visit, Fuster began transforming his house with tiles, and eventually his neighbors wanted in on the fun. Fuster slowly began transforming his neighbors houses, and eventually other areas of the neighborhood. Now his corner of the neighborhood houses what has become known as “Fusterlandia”, an all out tourist attraction and art museum in Fuster’s own home and throughout the neighborhood. He, like Mrs. Rojas, was also nice enough to invite us inside his home and let us interview him in his studio, which is closed off to visitors.

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While horseback riding in Vinales, we stopped to talk to a tobacco farmer who explained the part the government plays in farming. The government actually takes 90% of all crops and harvests, leaving only 10% for farmers to sell for their own income. This particular man was selling bundles of 10 cigars for only 10 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos), so one CUC each which currently is equal to one US dollar. Even with this information in mind, a different tobacco farmer we met near the private homes we were staying in, also in Vinales, was more than willing to give us a few cigars free of charge after showing us his barn.

 

 

 

Bridging the embargo gap between the US and Cuba through music

My experience watching music bring democracy and communism together during a study abroad trip in Cuba

Coming from a household that seemingly revolved around music, I’ve had my fair share of heavy music related experiences. Little did I know, it would be a study abroad trip to Cuba where Id truly see just how universal and influential music is.

Having barely passed Spanish 1 in high school with a C, I was mentally preparing to be frustrated by my inability to translate and understand, not just people, but music. Come to find out, I wouldn’t need those presaved Spotify playlists as much as I thought I would.

Though the Cuban government has, and still tries to retain a certain amount of filtering of what comes in from the United States, in both the sense of the trade embargo we placed on their country, and our culture in response to the embargo, music has managed to easily slip through the cracks, and the Cuban people love it just as much as you’d imagine us homesick college students did.

The non stop cultural fusion through music that occurs in Cuba really shines through in what we already consider to be one of the greastest classic rock songs of all time; Hotel California by The Eagles can be heard playing anywhere and everywhere just as it can here in the states. Little did I know the happiness I felt when I heard a friend of our professor strum those first few chords on the porch of our rental home in Tarara ,it would not be my last encounter with the song.

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I would find it again while hiking to our first water fall in the country side, being sang in Spanish by an elderly man sitting on a rock with his guitar over looking this scene.

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And again in an, odd but awe inspiring, trip to the “prehistoric wall” painting in Vinales, being played by two Europeans off their phone who had also climbed the rocks as a few of us on the trip also did, to just below where the mural start, in an attempt to get a good view of the mountains adjacent.

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And many more times throughout the two weeks abroad

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Just as with any lively town, its not uncommon to turn a street corner in Havana and find a band serenading the streets in both Spanish and English, or be invited to dance in a bar

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(Katherine Hamilton, a Flagler college journalism major part of the Study abroad trip being taught how to salsa by a local in a roof top bar overlooking the Malecon)

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(Musician at restaurant atop Soroa park and orchid gardens)

For the duration of the trip we had the same three taxi drivers take us from location to location. We eventually learned to find the drivers all Spanish selections on the radio soothing, and eventually familiar, mumbling along to some songs as the trip went on and we heard them more, serving as background for post hike van naps. However, we were ecstatic when he started playing hits like, Total Eclipse of the Hear, and Stevie Wonders, I Just Called To Say I Love You, when we first entered the van on the Fourth of July, the driver swaying back and forth with us as we sang in the back seats.

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(Carlos, one of our taxi drivers, who greeted us with Total Eclipse of the Heart on the fourth of July-photo courtesy Tracey Eaton )

Art and various other odes to musicians and band can also be found throughout Cuba, particularly John Lennon of the Beatles. In John Lennon park in Havana Cuba, a Statue of Lennon seated on a bench permanently resides in the park for photos, and just across the street a bar named, The Yellow Submarine, plays nothing but classic rock hits all day and night. Even the team of On Cuba, an independent media outlet in Havana, decorated their office with a quote from, Imagine, by John Lennon.

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(John Lennon Statue in John Lennon Park, Havana Cuba-photo Courtesy Katherine Hamilton)

And of course, there were the night clubs. One of the most noteworthy of all, and such a crowd pleaser we had to make a second trip back the night before we flew home, was Fabrica de Arte in Havana. Factory turned nightclub and art gallery, is well worth the line that sometimes stretches around the side of the building, lucky for us, a family friend of our professor works as a security guard in Cuba and was able to talk the bouncers into sliding us ahead in line. First walking in your blinded by bright white walls, and have trouble paying attention as your explained how you drink card works because your eyes are catching glimpses of beautiful artwork peaking out from behind anyone from Cuba’s best dressed to fresh off a day of backpacking Europeans. Finally emerging from the initial crowd at the door, you find yourself in, literally, an art gallery. White from floor to ceiling with people quietly shuffling past pieces and sipping drinks. After so many rooms of back to back art, you find a hallway with people pouring out of it and can hear the thumping from speakers. Once you finally break through the doorway, you’re confused to find a huge nightclub and bar. This continues throughout the building for about three stories, with only one exit to try and find your way back down to. Some rooms are stages with live bands, some are DJs, but both English hits like Bruno Mar’s, That’s What I Like, to Spanish favorites like Despacito and Bailando served as the soundtrack to two amazing nights.

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(From art gallery to night club-photos inside Fabrica de Arte courtesy of Tracey Eaton)

One of my personal favorites had to be Casa de la Musica in Trinidad. After a decent trek up a notably steep hill on cobblestone streets, we arrive at the bottom of Casa de la Musica. Practically throwing my 1 or 2 CUC (Cuban convertible peso) cover charge at the bouncers, I was awe struck to be looking up at an outdoor, amphitheater style, stage surrounded by long benches carved into the limestone, packed full circle with people and waiters buzzing back and forth with trays full of drinks. After just a couple of minutes of finding our seats only 3 rows up from the stage left, the girls of the group were rushed down, not only to dance in the area in front of, but on stage too.

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(Casa de la Musica -Trinidad)

Though Casa de la Musica featured exclusively spanish hits, at least on the night we were there, just another trek up a hill to the right of Musica, you could find a line curving out of a cave on another hilltop overlooking more of Trinidad. A change up between english and spanish music by a DJ made the Cave the perfect spot to end the night..until you realize you have to hike back up out of the Cave after hours of dancing.

One of the more heart warming experiences by far, though, had to be getting news that we were invited to see a pin pal of one of the students of the study abroad group perform at a music venue in Havana. Flagler’s Hannah Pierce got into contact with Cuban singer and musician, Aurorita Feliu, and upon going to see her perform you could tell the rest of us were beyond thrilled she did. Not only did she have a one of a kind voice, she was pure talent on guitar, and had an equally as amazing band backing her. Though she had us fully mesmerized and swaying with the Spanish pieces she performed, she paused to introduce her “American friends”,the study abroad group, to the rest of the crowd, and begin singing Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz with just us snapping our fingers to accompany her. With other locals, and even some family and friends of our professor who were aiding us during the trip, joined in on the song, it was quite the emotional and culturally connecting experience for us all.

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(Aurorita Feliu performing in Havana Cuba- photo courtesy Tracey Eaton

“Imagine, OF all the people”? Fidel Castro’s, and the “real story”, behind John Lennon park

Beatlemania having swept over the world in the sixties is far from an over exaggeration, as we all know. But to find out that in 1964 Fidel Castro declared a nationwide ban of the Beatles’ music really puts into perspective the influence and reach music can have.

Castro saw the”fab four” as a symbol of the “vulgar consumerism” he resented and thought of the British band as “a tool of capitalist America”. Regardless of the ban, their music still made its way to Cuba’s youth underground, and two years late in 1966, the ban was lifted, although it still took some time for Cuba to allow all its people to embrace the rock and roll craze. In 1971 the Beatles show was aired for the first time over Cuban airwaves, but tension still remained towards the new culture of the 60s and 70s.

However, on December 8th of 2000, the 20 year anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination, a statue was unveiled on a park bench at 17th and 6th street in Havana park, also known as “John Lennon Park”. Somewhere in those 30+ years, John Lennon grew on even communist rebel Fidel Castro. Whether this actually stands as symbol of musical freedom in the new era of the Fidel rule is still up to debate among Cuban musicians, for Havana park didn’t get its British nickname along with the unveiling of the statue. This story actually begins months prior with a group of Cuban musicians.

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Jorge Dalton recalls his participation in the original tribute to the icon in an article of the Havana Times. A group of Cuban musicians and other artists had the idea to pay tribute to the band and “right the injustice that the banning of the Liverpool Four in Cuba during the 60s and 70s had meant”. With the support of the National Committee of the Young Communists League, Cuban Radio and Television Institute, and various other members of the community, the group of artists planned to pay tribute on the roof top of the  Habana Libre Hotel at the same time as a film festival as an ode to the Beatles rooftop concert in England in 1969.

Everything was planned out and seemed to have the green light, until the actual day came. The National Committee of the Young Communists League withdrew their support and deemed the concert “inappropriate” and the Communist Party Leadership, relayed through the National Committee of the Young Communists League, said the concert was not to be authorized.

Although the group of artists attempting the concert greatly dwindled in size and lost the support of the  Cuban Radio and Television Institute, who were going to supply broadcast and audio equipment, the few remaining musicians persevered and decided to try Havana Park next.

News spread about the reattempt at the concert and the park was packed with people before they even started setting up. Rushed, unrehearsed, and improvised, the band began the tribute. Jorge recalls “pulling electricity  directly from streetlamps and people’s houses”, and even nearby police couldn’t help but join in, “The park was also surrounded by a long cordon of police officers, who ended up singing Yesterday, A Hard Day’s Night, Come Together and Let It Be along with us”. The tribute ended with Hey Jude after one musician, Carlos Varela, “took the microphone and proposed baptizing the park with the name of John Lennon”.

When Fidel presented the statue of Lennon at the park only months later, party leaders and members of the Cuban Radio and Television Institute who had tried to stop the concert prior were even present at the unveiling.

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Cuban Rum Diaries

Bacardi and Arechabala, or Cuba and Ricard? Who truly owns the name Havana Club Rum?

Bacardi, now the largest privately owned liquor company in the world, actually started out as a Cuban company. One of Bacardi’s signature bottles, Havana Club Rum, has actually been involved in a legitimacy war for years, and with Cuban boarders opening to the U.S., tourists are dieing to know the truth behind Havana Club Rum and the rightful owner of the brand name.

That story goes that Bacardi was actually a competitor  with one of the wealthiest families in Cuba prior to the revolution, Arechabala. However,in 1959 the Arechabala families company was confiscated along with hundreds of other Cuban companies at the time of Fidel Castro’s revolution. Bacardi, however,  managed to remain unaffected by the confiscation.

Bacardi, unlike the Arechabala family, had assets outside of Cuba and could continue production. The Arechabala family, sadly forced out of Cuba with nothing left to their names, eventually sold the recipe to their rival Bacardi. With the Arechabala recipe, Bacardi re-set up shop in Puerto Rico and went to work.

Clearly, this piece of the story isn’t the complex one, its the competitor Bacardi acquired after setting up their distillery in Puerto Rico that raises the war on who truly holds the name of Havana Club Rum. This competitor being the Cuban Government itself in joint with French beverage giant, Pernod Ricard.

The Cuban Government and Pernod Ricard started their partnership in 1993, and the war has waged not only on the market but also in court. Bacardi argues that Ricard and the Cuban government do not legally own the rights to the name Havana Club Rum due to the fact that the name was confiscated during the revolution, where as Bacardi actually was offered, paid for, and use the original recipe of the Havana Club name.

Pernod Ricard argue that although their rum is not made with the original Arechabala family recipe, their Havana Club Rum is the true Havana Club Rum solely because it is still made in Cuba, unlike Bacardi who have to make theirs in Puerto Rico. Ricard claims that without the Cuban climate to be distilled in, it cant be true Cuban rum.

The rum war ultimately comes down to morals and authenticity? or culture and tradition? According to Amparo Arechabala, the joint company likes to claim the Arechabala family abandoned their company and recipe, where as she and Bacradi argue they didn’t abandon Cuba, they were forced out along with everyone else. Its saddening to see something thats supposed to bring people together cause such heartbreak for one family, but also warming to hear Bacardi argue their fight for the name isnt just for authenticity and marketing, but for moral justice to the founders of the name and recipe, of course with high hopes this is true of Bacardi.

Was the Cuba crisis tailor made by Yellow Journalism?

Hearst and Pulitzer’s East coast-West coast rivalry and how it affected the Spanish American war

“You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war”- William Hearst

America’s “Imperialism age” and image as the world power it is considered today started around 1894 under president McKinley. It was considered America’s “new manifest destiny” and came into full swing  when the U.S. decided they wanted more political say in the Hawaiian government than what we were getting through the colony we had established there. Eventually the Dole family funded a political overthrow of the government, and when the  monarchy resisted, the U.S. responded by sending in troops. After queen Liliuokalani was forced to resign, the U.S. established Pearl Harbor naval base and eventually acquired a hunger for trade routes and a control of the oceans that Hawaii’s sugar trade and naval base couldn’t feed. This lead to our involvement in Spanish affairs in Cuba.

Cuba’s sugar trade was of a vastly larger scale than Hawaii’s, but the island was already being occupied by Spain. However, the Cuba Libre movement had been taking place throughout this time  – a common pattern of rebellious uprisings from the Cuban people against Spain. In an attempt to put an end to the uprisings, General Weyler set up what has come to be known as ultimately the blue print for concentration camps. 25 percent of Cuba’s population, nearly 300,000 people by the end of 1897, were placed into one of Weyler’s camps.

Weyler’s camp is where we first see yellow journalism resort to sensational headlines and prying stories out of Cuba. General Weyler was given the name “The Butcher” by yellow journalists in response to his “ruthless tactics”, turning American attention and sympathy towards the island. Journalists banked on how the public’s feeling of this demonstration of Spanish power being an uncomfortable 90 miles from our boarder,  and gave fuel to the current war between William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

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Prior to the 1890s, there had been a major news output on either coast, Hearst on the west coast, and Pulitzer on the east. In the 1890s, however, Hearst decided to open a rival newspaper in New York, dropping his price to 1 cent a paper (“penny press”). Pulitzer responded by doing the same, and the two companies eventually resorted to sensational headlines, and the creation of yellow journalism in order to attract sales, hence them resorting to naming general Weyler The Butcher. Prior to American involvement, Hearst hired an artist named Frederick Remington to “record” the war in Cuba between the rebellion and Spain. Hearst having supposedly told Remington, “You furnish the pictures, and i’ll furnish the war” giving way to yellow journalism’s control over how the American people viewed the affairs in Cuba.

In 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine is docked in Havana to “monitor development and protect American investment”.  On February 15th, the ship explodes, killing 299 Americans.Yellow journalists immediately go to work pointing blame at Spain, and soon “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain” slogans and posters go up. When an investigation later proves that a fire in the boiler room, located right next to a weapons room, was the real cause of the explosion,  president McKinley choose to keep the new information quiet.

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It wasn’t until the interception of the De Lome letter, a telegraph from Alfred Delome, the Spanish ambassador in the U.S., back to the Spanish saying our leader was “weak, catered to rabble, and a low politician” that McKinley started to consider war. The telegraph was made public and was even more fire for yellow journalists. President McKinley tried putting off entering war for as long as possible, believing our navy wasn’t strong enough, but eventually passed the Teller Amendment claiming our plan was “Cuban independence, not to annex”. America declared war on Spain on April 25th, 1898, and yellow journalists follow the troops in through future president, Theodore Roosevelt.

At this time, Teddy Roosevelt was the assistant secretary of the navy, and became deeply involved in American “imperialism”. He declared an invasion on the Philippines and put together the Rough Riders.Wanting to feed his love for the idea of war, Theodore agrees to Pulitzer’s offer of hiring him as a war correspondent for his newspaper. However, the only battle Theodore ended up reporting back to Pulitzer on was the battle of San Juan hill. With no one to say otherwise, Teddy may have made himself and the Rough Riders out to be more heroic than they may have actually been.Regardless,  Roosevelt ends up coming out of the war the most profitable and is even chosen as McKinley’s vice president for the election of 1900

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Without Hearst and Pulitzer’s feud creating sensational headlines, a need for news that would “one up” each other, and a willingness to go to any means necessary to create that news, the Spanish American war could have been brought upon in a completely different way, if at all. Relentless “egging on” from media in foreign and domestic affairs is clearly, nothing new.

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