W. Joseph Campbell

Where do they get this stuff?

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on September 24, 2011 at 5:06 am

William Randolph Hearst almost surely never vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain, and his newspapers of the late 19th century were much more than rumor-mongering sheets.

Hearst: Never made the vow

None of this is particularly new, though.

The tale about “furnish the war” was debunked as a media myth years ago, for example.

And Hearst’s leading biographer, David Nasaw, noted in his authoritative 2000 work, The Chief, that “Hearst and his staff improved on their product” day by day in the late 1890s.

“Their headlines,” Nasaw wrote, “were more provocative than anyone else’s, their drawings more lifelike … the writing throughout the paper outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded. Equally important in attracting new readers, the paper’s layout was excellent, with text and drawing breaking through columns to create new full-page landscapes….”

So it’s a bit baffling just where the exaggerated and cartoonish characterizations about Hearst come from. When they are cited, they’re usually accompanied by little or no sourcing information — as was the case in a commentary posted yesterday at the Technorati news site.

The commentary asserted:

“Media magnate William Randolph Heart once quipped, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’ As the father of yellow journalism, he was well known for providing his stories as a game of Telephone, repeating a rumor of a rumor of a rumor. It made him billions, and lowered the discourse of media to this day.”

I revisit the tale about “furnish the war” in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that it was first recounted in a memoir published in 1901 by James Creelman, a portly, Canadian-born journalist prone to pomposity and exaggeration.

Creelman

Creelman, I write, “never explained how he learned about the anecdote” about Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war.” Creelman offered no citation for it in his memoir, On the Great Highway.

According to Creelman, Hearst’s vow was contained in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, who went to Cuba in early 1897 to draw sketches for Hearst’s newspapers about the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

The Cuba rebellion gave rise 15 months later to the Spanish-American War.

At the time Remington was in Cuba, Creelman was in Madrid, which means he had no first-hand knowledge of the purported exchange of telegrams.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that the artifacts — the telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst — have never turned up and that Hearst denied ever having sent such a message.

What’s more, I write, the 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.”

Interestingly, Creelman recounted Hearst’s purported vow not as a rebuke but, I write, “as a compliment, to commend Hearst and the activist, anticipatory ‘yellow journalism’ that he had pioneered in New York City.”

The anecdote was, to Creelman, illustrative of the power and potential of what Hearst championed as the “journalism of action” — the journalism that gets things done.

It was journalism with a social conscience.

Hearst’s leading newspaper, the New York Journal, insisted in editorials that a newspaper’s duty should not be “confined to exhortation.” Rather, newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves into public life, to right the wrongs that government could not or would not address.

So Hearstian journalism of the late 19th century was scarcely a game of “telephone,” of rumor piled upon rumor.

Why is all this significant?

Because the anecdote about “furnish the war” is often presented as evidence that Hearst did foment the conflict with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

Which is nonsense.

The reasons why the United States went to war in 1898 are far more profound and complex than the supposed manipulative powers of Hearst and his newspapers.

WJC

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