W. Joseph Campbell

As if Hearst were ‘back with us,’ vowing to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on May 10, 2011 at 2:26 am

Nieman Watchdog, a blog that “seeks to encourage more informed reporting,” indulged yesterday in the mythical tale of William Randolph Hearst‘s famous vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

Remington in Cuba for Hearst

It was a case of the blog’s turning to a fiction about Hearst and treating it as if it were fact.

The occasion for invoking “furnish the war” was to call attention to inaccuracies in news graphics accompanying reports last week about the slaying of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

“Journalism is a serious business where credibility is paramount,” the blog post asserted. “Editors need, first and foremost, to get the facts right, in graphics as well as text and video.”

The post further noted that “some publications presented as facts what was just fiction. Sometimes there was no factual support whatsoever. It’s as though William Randolph Hearst was back with us, saying once again, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the tale about Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” is a hardy media-driven myth that lives on despite concerted attempts to discredit and dismantle it.

The vow supposedly was contained in a telegram sent to the famous artist, Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Cuba for Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal (see image, above). Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis were assigned there to cover the insurrection against Spanish colonial rule — the conflict that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

They arrived in Havana in early January 1897; Remington stayed only six days.

Before leaving by passenger steamer for New York, Remington supposedly sent Hearst a cable, stating:

“Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst replied with his famous vow:

Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

But Remington didn’t stay.

He promptly returned to New York, where his sketches were given prominent display in Hearst’s Journal. They appeared with such flattering headlines as: “Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal.”

That’s hardly the sort of tribute Hearst would have granted a wayward artist who ignored specific instructions to “remain” in Cuba.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that the anecdote about Hearst’s vow “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.”

Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 “would have been well aware,” I write, “that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war,” which gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Not only that, but the artifacts themselves — the telegrams reputedly sent by Remington and Hearst — have never surfaced. And Spanish censors monitored incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic in Havana, and they surely would have intercepted Hearst’s incendiary message — had it been sent.

For those and other reasons, the tale about the Remington-Hearst exchange is surely apocryphal — fiction that too often masquerades as fact.

WJC

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