W. Joseph Campbell

Media myth and Truthout

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on February 3, 2011 at 6:47 am

It’s at least faintly ironic that an online news site called Truthout — which asserts an embrace of “equality, democracy, human rights, accountability and social justice” — would post a reference to one of American journalism’s most enduring and delicious media myths.

Not Hearst's doing

In its serializing a book by radio host Thom Hartmann, Truthout the other day indulged in the myth that William Randolph Hearst vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain in 1898 — and then made good on the supposed pledge.

The installment Truthout posted Monday said Hearst “had cabled his artist correspondent to Cuba, Frederick[sic] Remington, ‘You provide the pictures, and I’ll provide the war.’

“Hearst came through on his end of the deal, and the Spanish-American War—started largely by his newspapers and the public sentiment they controlled ….”

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the anecdote about Hearst’s vow is almost certainly apocryphal — a media-driven myth.

And so is the notion that Hearst’s newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War.

In the first chapter of Getting It Wrong, I note that the Remington-Hearst tale remains popular “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on 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 anecdote endures “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.”

Given the context of Remington’s assignment, a vow to “furnish the war” simply would have been incongruous, and illogical.

Had Hearst sent such an inflammatory telegram, it surely would have been intercepted by Spanish censors, who controlled incoming and outgoing cable traffic in Cuba. Spanish authorities undoubtedly would have called attention to what would have been a clear case of Hearst’s meddling.

So it’s highly improbable that a cable containing a vow to “furnish the war” would have flowed without interruption between Hearst in New York and Frederic Remington in Havana. (Had the cable been sent, it would have been in mid-January 1897, near the end of Remington’s lone pre-war visit to Cuba.)

Moreover, no one who repeats the purported vow seems to note, or much care, that Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, a prominent artist of the American West, apparently never spoke about it.

The related myth — that Hearst’s newspapers brought on the conflict with Spain — is just as hardy as “furnish the war.” Like many media myths, it offers a reductive, simplistic, and easy-to-remember version of a complex historical event.

The Spanish-American War, quite simply, was not caused by the contents of Hearst’s newspapers, of which he had three at the time — two in New York City, one in San Francisco.

As I discuss in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press [of Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer] is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force—it could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Besides, no one who asserts that the yellow press was responsible for the war with Spain can persuasively demonstrate just how the often-exaggerated contents of Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers were decisive in the declaration of war in April 1898.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, then “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all.”

When it was discussed within the administration of President William McKinley, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or disdained at as a complicating factor.

The truth is that the yellow press neither drove, shaped, nor  crystallized U.S. policy vis-à-vis Spain in 1898.

Put another way: Hearst did not follow through on a vow he never made.

WJC

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