W. Joseph Campbell

Hearst, agenda-setting, and war

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 12, 2010 at 9:26 am

William Randolph Hearst is the bogeyman of American journalism, a timeless representation of what’s malign and dubious about the news media.

HearstAt their worst, the media can even force a country into war–just as Hearst did with his sensational and irresponsible newspapers in 1898.

It’s an easy meme: Juicy, delicious, easy to remember. It’s also a classic media-driven myth, a tall tale about the news media that dissolves under scrutiny.

The latest to repeat the myth was London’s Daily Telegraph, which usually ranks among Britain’s “quality” newspapers. (Unlike, that is, the raunchy and outlandish London tabloids of Rupert Murdoch.)

In an article yesterday that discussed the Hearst Corp.’s magazine holdings, the Telegraph said of William Randolph, who died in 1951:

“Through Hearst’s newspapers and magazines, he had enormous political influence and is sometimes credited with pushing opinion in the US into a war with Spain in 1898.”

Few serious historians of late 19th century America, and no recent biographers of Hearst credit (or blame) him and his publications with “pushing” the country into the war with Spain.

It just didn’t happen that way.

Like many media myths, Hearst-the-war-monger offers a simplistic explanation for a complex subject. It is far easier to blame Hearst’s yellow press for fomenting the conflict than it is to sort through the failed diplomacy that led the United States and Spain to go to war over Cuba in April 1898.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the New York newspapers of Hearst and his rival Joseph Pulitzer exerted at best limited agenda-setting influence on the U.S. press in the run-up to the war.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“A significant body of research indicates that newspapers in small-town and rural America scoffed at, condemned, and ignored the exaggerated and fanciful reports appearing in New York City’s yellow journals….”

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.

The pledge supposedly was sent by telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who in January 1897 was on assignment to Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal. Cuba at the time was in open rebellion against Spanish colonial rule–a rebellion that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

But the “furnish the war” tale is almost certainly apocryphal, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths.

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 the matter.

The purported vow, moreover, is illogical: 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 Remington to Cuba in the first place.

What’s more, Spanish authorities would have intercepted a telegram that contained a passage vowing to “furnish the war.” The Spanish controlled all incoming and outgoing cable traffic in Cuba in 1897 and they surely would have called attention to Hearst’s vow as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling.

Which it would have been, had it been sent.

WJC

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