W. Joseph Campbell

‘War Lovers': A myth-indulging disappointment

In 1897, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on May 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I had a chance today to thumb through The War Lovers, the widely reviewed new book by Evan Thomas about the run-up to Spanish-American War.

But I didn’t buy it. It’s a myth-indulging disappointment.

Remington in Cuba

In sections of the book about the yellow press period at the end of the 19th century, Thomas ignored–or was unaware of–recent scholarship that has cast serious doubt on anecdotes he included.

Notably, Thomas embraced the media-driven myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain–a vow supposedly contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment in Cuba.

It is perhaps American journalism’s best-known tale. But as I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal.

It lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though the telegram Hearst’s reputedly sent has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.

And it lives on despite an obvious and irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Remington was there in early 1897, at a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been quite aware that Cuba for two years had been a theater of a very nasty war. By 1897, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers to Cuba in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which in 1898 gave rise to the Spanish-American War.

Thomas–whose biography at Amazon.com says he “is one of the most respected historians and journalists writing today”–overlooked almost all of that.

He cited as his authority James Creelman, the pompous, hyperbolic reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal who recounted the anecdote, without documentation, in his 1901 memoir, On the Great Highway.

Creelman presented the “furnish the war” anecdote in an admiring way, saying it demonstrated how Hearst’s “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating events. But over the years, the vow has taken on the more sinister overtones, of the sort that Thomas invoked in his book.

The anecdote’s evolution over the past 110 years is discussed in Chapter One of Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book on media-driven myths.

Creelman, by the way, wasn’t with Remington in Cuba in early 1897. He wasn’t in New York with Hearst, either. Creelman was in Europe, as the Journal‘s special correspondent on the continent. So he would not have had first-hand knowledge about the “furnish the war” telegram, had Hearst sent it to Remington in Cuba.

Thomas indulged in another myth of yellow journalism, one that centers around what I call the greatest escape narrative in American media history.

In what also is known as the case of “jail-breaking journalism,” Hearst’s Journal organized the escape in 1897 of a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros.

By then, she had been held in a Havana jail, without trial, for 15 months on suspicion of conspiring to kill a senior Spanish military officer. Cisneros claimed the officer had made her the target of unwelcome sexual advances.

As I described in my 2006 book, a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms,  Hearst sent a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal correspondent in Havana.

In reality, Decker was under orders to organize the rescue of Cisneros.

With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and with the vital support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker succeeded: He and two accomplices broke Cisneros out of jail in early October 1897. She was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer to New York City, where Hearst organized a delirious reception for her.

Thomas claimed that Decker, in articles the Journal published about jailbreak, “neglected to inform readers that he had bribed the guards, who arranged the theater of the escape as a way to save face.”

Decker

Such claims have circulated since 1897, mostly as a way to denigrate the Journal and its brazen accomplishment. Decker did say he tried, but failed, to bribe the jailer.

As is noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the evidentiary record to support the claim that bribes were paid is very, very thin.

“No one has identified to whom bribes were paid, how much, by what method, and how the purported payoffs secured the enduring silence of the authorities,” I wrote, adding:

“The allegations or suspicions of bribery rest more on assertion—and newspaper rivals’ contempt for the Journal—than on specific, persuasive documentation.”

It’s a good story, though. Like many media-driven myths, the Decker-bribery tale is delicious and enticing.

But it withers under scrutiny.

WJC

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