W. Joseph Campbell

‘Famously rumored': Hearst and his reputed vow

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on July 22, 2010 at 9:26 am

Media-driven myths are propelled by many forces, among them the reality that the tales sometimes are just too good, too delicious, to check out.

Hearst's Evening Journal, April 1898

So it was with a commentary posted yesterday at the “Unleashed” blog of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The commentary invoked the well-known and often-repeated anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, stating:

“Hearst is famously rumored to have declared in writing to artist Frederic Remington: ‘I’ll furnish the war,’ referring, of course, to the Spanish-American War in 1898, henceforth referred to as ‘Mr Hearst’s War’….”

“Famously rumored,” eh? A flimsy construct, that, for making a point or building an argument.

It takes but a few minutes spent online to find evidence that the Hearstian vow is almost certainly a media-driven myth–a dubious, improbable tale masquerading as fact.

Chapter One in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths, takes up and dismantles the Hearstian vow, and that chapter is readily accessible online.

Still, it’s clear that the anecdote’s simplistic directness have helped make it resistant to debunking. As I note in Getting It Wrong, media myths that can be reduced to a memorably pithy phrase are most likely to withstand debunking.

So it is with “furnish the war.”

The anecdote also is impressively flexible. It is useful, I write, “in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It 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.”

Even more impressive, perhaps, is that the anecdote endures despite the near-complete absence of supporting documentation.

Hearst

“It lives on,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “even though the telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message. 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 against Spain’s colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place. Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war.”

Hearst assigned Remington to Cuba 15 months before the Spanish-American War broke out. In early 1897, no one, including Hearst, could have known the United States would take up arms against Spain over Cuba.

WJC

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