W. Joseph Campbell

In myth, a truism: Hearst’s vow ‘will forever live on’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on May 17, 2010 at 8:34 am

William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain “has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote,” I write in my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Getting It Wrong.

The anecdote, I point out, “has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

It is for such reasons the Hearstian anecdote endures, despite having been thoroughly debunked. The tale is revisited, and debunked anew, in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong.

But it may well be that Hearst’s purported vow “will forever live on in journalism history,” as a columnist for the Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper wrote in a commentary published yesterday.

Far from challenging or disputing the tale, the columnist embraced it, repeating as if factual the supposed exchange between Hearst and the artist Frederic Remington, in which Hearst reputedly asserted:

“You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Remington was in Cuba in January 1897, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal to draw sketches of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. If the exchange did take place, it would have been then, in early 1897.

As I write in Getting It Wrong,  the anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though the telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.

And it lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion—was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place. (The rebellion gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.)

The sole source for the anecdote was a self-important journalist named James Creelman. He was neither in Cuba nor in New York at the time the exchange would have occurred. Creelman then was in Europe, as a correspondent for Hearst’s Journal.

That means Creelman learned about the tale second-hand.

Or made it up.

The durability of media myths such as the “furnish the war” anecdote is discussed in Getting It Wrong. I acknowledge that “some myths addressed [in the book] may prove resistant to debunking. They may still be widely believed despite the contrary evidence marshaled against them.”

I note that the “most resilient myths may be those that can be distilled to a catchy, pithy phrase.”

Quotations such as “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” are indeed neat, tidy, catchy, and delicious. They are easy to remember, fun to repeat, and too good not to be true.

Almost certainly, they will live on.

WJC

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