W. Joseph Campbell

IBD invokes Hearst myth of ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 21, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Remington, Davis in Cuba

In Getting It Wrong, my new mythbusting book, I point out that the most resilient media-driven myths often are those that are distilled “to a catchy, pithy phrase.”

A telling case in point is the line often attributed to William Randolph Hearst: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” He supposedly was referring to war with Spain in the late 19th century.

Testimony to the tenacity of Hearst’s reputed comment–which I address and debunk in Getting It Wrong–appeared the other day in a commentary in Investor’s Business Daily. The commentary asserted:

“The media have a history of offering more heat than light on many issues. Recall publisher William Randolph Hearst’s telegram to a photographer on assignment to document the supposed conflict in Cuba in 1897: ‘You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.'”

Let’s unpack that error-fraught paragraph.

For starters, the story goes that Hearst purportedly sent the telegram to Frederic Remington, a prominent artist (not a photographer), who arrived in Cuba in January 1897 on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal (see image, above).

Remington was sent there to illustrate the island-wide rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. The artist later recalled that at the time of his brief visit, the Cuban countryside “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

Davis

Remington traveled to Cuba with Richard Harding Davis, a prominent writer and correspondent. Davis’ correspondence from that time stated flatly: “There is war here and no mistake.”

So a “supposed conflict” the rebellion was not. In fact, the Cuban rebellion gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

As I also point out in Getting It Wrong, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on,” I write, “even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

“It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

Moreover, I write, the myth “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.”

A further reason for doubting that Hearst sent such a message is that Spanish authorities closely controlled cable traffic into and out of Cuba. They surely would have intercepted–and would have called attention to–such an inflammatory message, had it been sent.

Despite those and other factors, the Remington-Hearst anecdote is a media myth that refuses to die. One reason for its tenacity, I point out in Getting It Wrong, is that the tale “has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful 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.”

Like many media-driven myths, the “furnish the war” anecdote is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is indeed “a catchy, pithy phrase,” one almost too good not to be true.

WJC

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  3. […] to that topic in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong, offering additional detail about how the often-retold tale about Hearst’s vow took hold and was […]

  4. […] surely never vowed to bring on the Spanish-American War of 1898, although that hardy myth is often invoked and readily […]

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  7. […] purported recipient of Hearst’s telegram was not “a reporter,” as Perlstein writes, but Frederic Remington, the famous artist of […]

  8. […] purported vow was supposedly made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal in early 1897 […]

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