W. Joseph Campbell

Media myth infiltrates NYTimes ‘Learning Network’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, New York Times, Spanish-American War on August 13, 2011 at 12:06 am

The New York Times’ Learning  Network” blog declares says it provides “teaching and learning materials and ideas” based on the newspaper’s archival content.

Its entry yesterday was pegged to the 113th anniversary of the effective end of the Spanish-American War — and offered up a hoary media myth in discussing newspaper coverage of the conflict.

The Times item stated:

Support for the Spanish-American War was stirred by sensationalist accounts of Spanish wrongdoing in the newspapers of [William] Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer; according to legend, Hearst told an illustrator covering the war, ‘You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war.’”

It’s highly debatable whether much support for the war was generated by the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer. There is considerable evidence to suggest that their newspapers had little if any agenda-setting effect on the administration of President William McKinley on the question of going to war with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

And it’s virtually certain that Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” is apocryphal.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the anecdote about “furnish the war” is a hardy media myth that lives on despite concerted attempts to dismantle and debunk it.

The vow supposedly was contained in a telegram sent to the artist, Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal. Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis were there to cover the rebellion against Spain’s harsh colonial rule — a rebellion that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Remington and Davis reached Havana in early January 1897; Remington stayed just six days.

Before leaving for New York by passenger steamer, Remington supposedly cabled Hearst, stating:

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

Hearst is said to have replied:

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

But Remington didn’t remain in Cuba.

He promptly returned to New York, where his sketches received prominent display in Hearst’s Journal. They appeared beneath 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 scarcely the kind of tribute Hearst would have given a wayward artist who ignored instructions to “remain” in Cuba.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that the myth 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 point out, “that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war” of rebellion.

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

For those and other reasons, the tale about the Remington-Hearst exchange is surely apocryphal — a myth too often presented as fact.

The “Learning Network” isn’t off the hook by couching its reference to the purported Remington-Hearst exchange as “legend.” If the blog had doubts about the veracity of Heart’s purported vow, then it ought not have mentioned it in the first place.

WJC

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