W. Joseph Campbell

‘Newspapers must learn from their history’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on February 16, 2010 at 8:03 am

So read the headline over a column the other day in a Canadian newspaper, the Guardian of Charlottetown, which says it covers Prince Edward Island “like the dew.”

“Newspapers must learn from their history.”

A fine sentiment, that.

As the Guardian headline suggests, many journalists tend to be ahistoric: They have but a dim understanding of journalism’s past.

It’s not entirely their fault, though: The task of finding lessons in journalism history is complicated because journalism history often is badly mangled, and distorted by myth.

Young W.R. Hearst

The Guardian column offers a case in point: Despite its call to learn from the past, the column mangled an often-mangled moment in journalism history.

That is, it indulged in a hardy media-driven myth–the myth of the purported vow of New York newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst to provide the war with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Here’s what the Guardian column said:

“Hearst was embroiled in a newspaper war in New York City. He figured a war would do wonders for circulation. Cuba was run by the Spanish, and that didn’t seem right, so a war there seemed logical.

“Get down there and cover the war, he told his reporting staff. Those assigned to the story promptly booked passage on the next boat. Once there, however, they discovered they had a rather serious problem.

“Have arrived, but there doesn’t seem to be a war, they said in a cable.

“You provide the stories, I’ll provide the war, Hearst replied.”

So where to begin in unpacking this account?

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, the anecdote about Hearst’s vowing to bring about war with Spain is almost certainly apocryphal.

Here are some reasons why:

  • The telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow has never turned up.
  • Hearst denied ever sending such a message.
  • Spanish censors in Cuba surely would have intercepted, and called attention to, such an inflammatory message, had it been sent.

And the anecdote lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to furnish or provide the war because war—the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule—was the reason Hearst sent correspondents to Cuba in the first place.

In most retellings, the anecdote about Hearst’s vow revolves around the purported exchange of telegrams with the famous artist, Frederic Remington, whom Hearst sent to Cuba in early 1897. Paired with him on the assignment was the famous writer, Richard Harding Davis.

Remington and Davis were there at a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been well aware that Cuba was the theater of a nasty war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which led in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Although the Guardian column suggested that Hearst blithely sought to foment a war as a ploy to boost readership (“a war would do wonders for circulation”), the causes of the conflict with Spain were of course far more profound and complex.

The Cubans who rebelled against Spanish rule were determined to win political independence, and would settle for nothing short of that.

The Spanish, for domestic economic and political reasons, would not grant Cuba its independence.

And the Americans could no longer tolerate the disruptions and human rights abuses created by Spain’s failed attempt to put down the Cuban rebellion.

That impasse became the formula for the U.S. war with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

It is quite likely the United States would have gone to war no matter what Hearst printed in his newspapers.

WJC

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