W. Joseph Campbell

Silly season arrives? ‘Furnish the war’ sightings suggest as much

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 24, 2010 at 10:01 am

It must be the onset of summer’s silly season, the period from mid-July to the end of August when news content becomes noticeably lighter and fluff-filled.

How else to explain the recent sightings in the news, in the United States and abroad, of William Randolph Hearst’s mythical vow to “furnish the war” with Spain?

The purported Hearstian vow–which, as I describe in Chapter One of my new book, Getting It Wrong, is surely a media myth–appeared yesterday in a breezy travel piece posted at the Christian Science Monitor‘s online site.

The writer, Ruth Walker, tells of a recent cross-country road trip during which she turned often to Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History, a 2008 book by Jan R. Van Meter.

The book, Walker writes, “is essentially a retelling of various chapters of American history through the catchphrases and slogans that emerged from them.”

She notes that a visit to the Hearst Castle in California “recalled William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who called for war with Spain after the USS Maine sank mysteriously in Havana Harbor.”

A memorable Hearstian line, Walker writes, was his “instruction to the artist Frederic Remington, whom he had sent to Cuba to ‘cover,’ as an illustrator, the anticipated war: ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

As is discussed in Getting It Wrong, reasons for doubting the veracity of the anecdote are many and include the significant fact that the purported telegram containing Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow has never surfaced.

Hearst, moreover, denied having sent such a message, and Remington apparently never discussed such an exchange.

Additionally, Hearst’s purported message 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 reason he assigned Remington to Cuba in the first place.

The artist was on the island for six days in January 1897–15 months before the start of the Spanish-American War. The war was not “anticipated” in early 1897.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that Remington’s work from Cuba impugns the anecdote, too. His sketches for Hearst’s New York Journal depicted unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of the rebellion, which had begun in 1895.

Remington’s work for the Journal 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.”

Remington clearly had seen many signs of war in Cuba.

For those and other reasons, the anecdote about Hearst’s vow is assuredly a media-driven myth, a dubious and improbable tale that deserves relegation to the closet of historical imprecision.

And that closet need not be opened at any time of year, not even during summer’s silly season when indulgence in the lighter side of the news becomes conspicuous.

WJC

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  1. [...] Watergate myth In Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 30, 2010 at 9:01 am The silly season of journalism is upon us, producing a summer stew of media-driven [...]

  2. [...] supposedly made the pledge in a cable to the artist Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba in early 1897, on assignment for [...]

  3. [...] Often cited as Exhibit A in the lineup of evidence that supposedly fingers Hearst as a war-monger is his own vow to “furnish the war” with Spain. [...]

  4. [...] illogical that Hearst would have vowed to “furnish the war” when war — the Cuban rebellion — was the reason he sent Remington to the island [...]

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