The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recalled the battleship’s destruction in a post yesterday that invoked one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain.
The item in the Eagle — a latter-day version of the storied Brooklyn Daily Eagle that was published from 1841 until 1955 — said in its post that after the Maine blew up, Hearst “sent artist Frederic Remington to cover the war story in Cuba.
“When Remington found little happening there, he asked about coming home. Hearst wired back: ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’”
I note in Getting It Wrong that that the vow “has achieved unique status” in American journalism “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.”
Reasons for doubting that Hearst ever sent such a message are many, and include the fact that the artifacts — the purported telegrams exchanged between Remington and Hearst — have never turned up.
Hearst, moreover, denied ever having sent such a message, and there’s no known record of Remington ever having discussed the purported exchange.
I note in Getting It Wrong that the Remington-Hearst anecdote “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.”
Had the Remingt0n-Hearst exchange taken place, it would have been in mid-January 1897, at the end of Remington’s lone visit to Cuba in the months before the loss of the Maine.
We know that because the sole original source of the anecdote, a self-centered journalist named James Creelman, claimed in a book of reminiscences that exchange took place “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana” on February 15, 1898.
Creelman, who titled his book On the Great Highway, did not say how he learned about the purported exchange. In early 1897, Creelman was not in New York with Hearst, nor in Cuba with Remington. Creelman was in Spain, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal, the leading exemplar of what was called “yellow journalism.”
It is exceedingly unlikely that the telegrams would have flowed freely between Hearst and Remington as Creelman suggested. Spanish authorities in Havana, after all, had imposed strict censorship of international cable traffic. As I note in Getting It Wrong:
“Spanish control of the cable traffic in Havana was too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon. A vow such as Hearst’s to ‘furnish the war’ surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.”
I also note in Getting It Wrong that the purported Hearstian vow is a telling example of a quote that’s so neat and tidy that it should immediately trigger suspicions.
“Like many media-driven myths,” I write, “it is succinct, savory, and easily remembered.
“It is almost too good not to be true.”
Recent and related:
- Yellow journalism: A sneer is born
- On ‘transformational moments’ that journalists see
- More than merely sensational
- Keller no keeper of the flame on famous NYT motto
- Obama, journalism history, and ‘folks like Hearst’
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter
- Invoking media myths to score points
- Getting It Wrong goes on Q-and-A