During the first century of America's independence, the most notable feature of the discussion of foreign affairs in America's steadily growing number of newspapers and magazines was partisanship. The sharp divisions of opinion between patriot and loyalist newspapers during the American Revolution arose in new contexts in the 1790s as Federalists and Republicans debated many of President George Washington's policies, including relations with Great Britain and France. Federalist editors strongly supported Washington's emphasis on good relations with Great Britain and neutrality in the Franco-British war, whereas Republican editors believed that America should side with France, its ally during the American Revolution.
From the 1790s through the Civil War, most newspapers that discussed political issues were founded to support a particular party or candidate. Their coverage of public issues, including foreign affairs, tended to be highly partisan. An example was coverage during the Mexican War (1846–1848). In general, Democratic newspapers supported their party's president, James K. Polk, whose actions had contributed greatly to the outbreak of the war. Most Whig newspapers, in contrast, sharply criticized "Mr. Polk's war." They raised doubts about the public's support for it and repeatedly questioned Polk's motives and goals.
Between the Civil War and World War II, the editorial pages of most newspapers remained partisan, especially during election years. But there were important changes during these seventy-five years that affected coverage of foreign affairs. First, there were advances in technology that permitted much more timely coverage. Whereas news of military developments in Mexico in the 1840s typically took two weeks or more to reach the East Coast, telegraph and radio transmissions permitted news of the fighting in Europe during World War I to reach American cities within hours or even, in some cases, almost instantaneously. Second, many papers' rapidly growing paid subscriptions and advertising revenues gave them money to spend on foreign and Washington correspondents, on memberships in such news services as the Associated Press, and on nationally syndicated columnists who often wrote on foreign affairs. Third, in their competition for readers and advertising dollars, newspapers and magazines could emphasize illustrated stories with broad public appeal (for example, lurid crimes and Spanish "atrocities" in Cuba), they could stress in-depth, "objective" reporting of major public issues, or, like most newspapers and magazines by the early 1900s, they could try to strike a balance between these two approaches. Fourth, English-language newspapers and magazines faced significant competition by 1900 from foreign-language publications that appealed to the millions of recent immigrants from Europe (and, to a lesser extent, from Latin America and East Asia) who retained ties to their former homelands and native languages. These publications often championed causes associated with governments or opposition movements in the former homelands and urged readers to contact U.S. political leaders on behalf of these causes. And fifth, the rapid growth of radio, newsreels, and news magazines after 1920 meant that newspapers and magazines of opinion had novel competitors not only in coverage of news and information, but also for the public's attention.
Newspapers' involvement in the events leading up to the Spanish-American War of 1898 especially illustrates two of these changes: the fierce competition for readers and the issue of sensationalism versus relative objectivity in coverage. In New York City, where the competition for readers was intense, the two papers with the largest circulations—Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal —used Cuba's war for independence from Spain that began in 1895 as a source of sensational stories about Cuban heroism and Spanish atrocities that helped to sell newspapers. Unfortunately, many of these stories were partly or entirely false, thus leading to the epithet "yellow journalism." An example of "yellow journalism" was a headline in the Journal after the U.S. battleship Maine blew up—probably from an accidental explosion in a boiler—in Havana's harbor on 15 February 1898: "The Warship Maine Was Split in Two by an Enemy's Infernal Machine." Meanwhile, the New York Times and other newspapers tried to increase their circulations by contrasting their "responsible" coverage with the unsubstantiated claims that often appeared as news in the World and the Journal.
Whether sensational or responsible, the extensive press coverage of the war in Cuba—and the overwhelming sympathy in newspapers and magazines for Cuba's independence movement—helped to prepare the American public for possible war with Spain. In other words, the coverage helped to give President William McKinley the public and congressional support he would need if he decided to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Spain. By the time McKinley did so in April 1898, he shrewdly had waited until enough tensions had built up in U.S.–Spanish relations to make it appear that war had become inevitable.
As the United States gradually moved between August 1914 and April 1917 toward another war, this time with Germany, the overwhelming majority of English-language newspapers and magazines were more sympathetic toward Great Britain and its allies than they were toward Germany and its allies. Most editors blamed Germany for starting the war and for invading France through neutral Belgium; most agreed with President Woodrow Wilson that German submarine attacks without warning on British and U.S. ships were immoral and unacceptable violations of international law; and most found Britain's anti-German propaganda more persuasive than Germany's often clumsy anti-British propaganda. British-inspired stories about German "atrocities" in Belgium and elsewhere were especially effective in the contest for American sympathies. The fact that England cut the telegraph cable from Germany to America early in the war, thus limiting Germans' ability to communicate with Americans, also helped the Allied cause.
Nevertheless, a significant minority of editors opposed U.S. arms sales to England and France, and a larger number opposed efforts by Allied governments and some of their American supporters to draw the United States into the war against Germany. The best known journalistic opponent of America's pro-Allied approach was William Randolph Hearst, who owned newspapers in several major cities. The journalism historian Frank Luther Mott explained Hearst's opposition:
Hearst had long shown an anti-British feeling; and now he supported the Irish insurrectionists, savagely attacked the English censorship, and featured the extremely pro-German wireless dispatches sent from Berlin by his special correspondent William Bayard Hale. In retaliation, both the British and French governments in October, 1916, denied further use of their mails and cables to Hearst's International News Service.
In addition to the Hearst papers, the anti-British Chicago Tribune, leading newspapers in such heavily German-American cities as Cleveland and Cincinnati, socialist and pacifist publications, and many German-American and Irish-American journals all challenged pro-Allied attitudes and policies. The criticisms were so intense, especially from German-and Irish-Americans, that President Wilson scolded "hyphenates" for being more loyal to their former homelands than to America.
After Congress approved Wilson's request for war against Germany in April 1917, the president and Congress made it a crime to criticize America's involvement in the war or to encourage young men to refuse to cooperate with the military draft. During the war, the postmaster general denied mailing privileges to publications that continued to criticize America's involvement. Three editors of a German-language newspaper in Philadelphia were sent to jail for publishing disloyal articles. Partly due to a widespread perception by the early 1920s that suppression of dissenters had been excessive, the courts generally gave better protections to America's basic freedoms—including freedom of the press—during future wars than they had during World War I.
After briefly disappearing during World ßWar I, the rich diversity of press opinion on foreign affairs returned during the debate over the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations in 1919–1920. Ethnic and socialist publications offered a wide range of views, many critical of specific provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Liberal editors who had supported Wilson during the war were dismayed that the peace treaty was harsh in its treatment of Germany. Most Republican editors favored the provisions in regard to Germany and U.S. participation in the League of Nations, but they also supported the efforts of Republican leaders in the Senate to add reservations that would clarify U.S. obligations as a member of the league. When the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles (including U.S. membership in the league) after Wilson refused to accept the Republicans' reservations, most Republican and Democratic editors were disappointed that a compromise that would have permitted passage had not been found.
Press coverage of the wars in East Asia, Africa, and Europe in the 1930s that eventually led to the U.S. involvement in World War II also was highly diverse. Generally not having to fear alienating Japanese-American readers, editors and columnists sharply criticized Japan for occupying Manchuria in 1931 and then invading China in 1933. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 especially angered African-American editors. Communist and liberal publications tended to support the leftist government in the Spanish Civil War, whereas Catholic and conservative journals generally sympathized with the rebel movement led by General Francisco Franco. Even when the overwhelming majority of newspapers and magazines denounced Germany's invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which began World War II in Europe, a scattering of communist and pro-Nazi publications disagreed.
Like the American public as a whole, journalists often disagreed about which policies to pursue toward the wars in Europe and Asia between September 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In Chicago, for example, the leading newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposal to revise the neutrality acts in the fall of 1939 to permit England and France to buy supplies in the United States, whereas the other major paper, the Chicago Daily News, supported the president's proposal. Although antifascist, the Chicago Defender, a leading African-American newspaper, urged its readers to continue to focus on fighting racism in America.
The great debate on foreign policy in the press between 1939 and 1941 generally took place at a more sophisticated level than the debate between 1914 and 1917 over involvement in World War I. For one thing, syndicated columnists like Walter Lippmann and Dorothy Thompson gave newspaper readers a deeper understanding of the issues involved than did the reading of news stories and editorials alone. For another, the issue this time was the nature and extent of U.S. involvement, not the relative merits of the Allied versus the Axis side. Most important, journalists and readers alike understood the stakes: if America became a belligerent in this war, it almost certainly would give up its selectively interventionist heritage and be transformed into a world power with unprecedented global responsibilities.