The Herald, which then was regarded as one of the top daily newspapers in America, reported Twain, then 51, to be “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”
Twain was in London then, preparing to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for William Randolph Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal. That association allowed the Journal to puncture the Herald’s account as false.
In an article published June 2, 1897, beneath the headline, “Mark Twain Amused,” the Journal skewered the Herald’s story and offered Twain’s timeless denial: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Twain’s line is often quoted as “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated” and, sometimes, the Journal is said to have been the source for the erroneous report rather than the agent of its swift debunking.
According to the Journal, Twain said the likely source of the Herald’s error was the serious illness of his cousin, J.R. Clemens, who had been in London a few weeks before.
Ever eager to indulge in self-promotion, Hearst’s Journal enthusiastically embraced its brief association with Twain. Even so, it couldn’t have been much pleased with what the humorist filed about Victoria’s Jubilee.
As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “Twain’s reporting about Victoria’s jubilee seemed half-hearted and hardly inspired. The spectacle was easily the most regal international story of 1897, and came at a time when the British empire was at or near its height. But Twain found the celebration overwhelming,” calling it “a spectacle for the kodak [camera], not the pen.”
Twain’s dispatch to the Journal also included this strange observation:
“I was not dreaming of so stunning a show. All the nations seemed to be filing by. They all seemed to be represented. It was a sort of allegorical suggestion of the Last Day, and some who live to see that day will probably recall this one if they are not too much disturbed in the mind at the time.”
Lining up Twain to cover the Jubilee was emblematic of Hearst’s inclination to spend lavishly to recruit big-name talent, if only for spot assignments.
His Journal argued that “a newspaper may fitly render any public service within its power. Acting on this principle, it has fed the hungry, brought criminals to justice and enforced by legal methods the responsibility of public officials.”
Not everyone was comfortable with or admired such an activist vision, especially as it came with such heavy and frequent doses of acute self-promotion.
- As if Hearst were ‘back with us,’ vowing to ‘furnish the war’
- Recalling Mark Twain and the ‘calamity of calamities’
- News media indispensable to democracy? Some evidence would be nice
- Yellow journalism: A sneer is born
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- In myth, a truism: Hearst’s vow ‘will forever live on’
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- 114 years on the front page
- Media myth and Truthout
- JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’‘
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism