W. Joseph Campbell

Hearst, war, and the international appeal of media myths

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2010 at 3:24 pm

I wrote the other day about the international appeal of prominent media-driven myths, an observation that was reconfirmed yesterday in the Correio do Brasil.

The Correio item recounted the purported exchange of telegrams between the artist Frederic Remington and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, in which Hearst supposedly declared:

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

Remington at the time was in Cuba, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal to draw illustrations of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

The exchange, if it took place, would have been in January 1897, during Remington’s six-day visit to the island. The anecdote was first recounted in 1901 by James Creelman, a bluff, cigar-chomping journalist who was neither with Hearst nor Remington in early 1897; he was in Europe at the time of the purported exchange, and never explained how he learned of it.

The anecdote Creelman told, though, is rich and delicious, suggesting the malign potential of media power as well as Hearst’s meddling ways. The anecdote often is cited in support of the dubious claim that Hearst and his yellow press fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Trouble is, the “furnish the war” tale is almost certainly apocryphal.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 media-driven myths, the reasons for doubting the anecdote are many and include the fact that the purported telegram containing Hearst’s vow has never surfaced; Hearst, himself, denied having sent such a message, and Remington apparently never discussed such an exchange.

Hearst’s purported message, moreover, is incongruous and illogical on its face: It would have made no sense for Hearst to have pledged to “furnish the war” because war–the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule–was the very reason he sent the artist to Cuba in the first place.

I also note in Getting It Wrong that Remington’s work from Cuba further serves to impugn the anecdote. His sketches for Hearst’s Journal depicted unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of rebellion.

His work showed a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatant captives being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort, and a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s wounded leg.

The sketches appeared in the Journal beneath headlines such as “Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington” and “Frederic Remington Sketches A Familiar Incident of the Cuban War.”

After his return to the United States, Remington wrote a letter to the Journal’s keenest rival, the New York World, in which he disparaged the Spanish colonial regime as a “woman-killing outfit down there in Cuba.”

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “Remington’s sketches and correspondence … leave no doubt that he had seen a good deal of war-related disruption in Cuba.”

In addition, I write, “there was no chance that telegrams such as those Creelman described would have flowed freely between Remington in Havana and Hearst in New York. Spanish control of the cable traffic in Havana was too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.

“A vow such as Hearst’s to ‘furnish the war’ surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.”

That element–because it reputedly suggests Yankee meddling–surely helps explain why the Remington-Hearst anecdote exerts appeal beyond the United States, especially in Latin America.

The anecdote, in addition, is broadly appealing in its simplicity and deliciousness.

Indeed, it is almost too delicious to check out.

WJC

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