W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘1897’ Category

No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Media-driven myths can be tenacious because they offer simplified, easy-to-grasp versions of complex events of the past.

That’s why, for example, the Watergate myth — that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is so hardy. It’s easy to grasp and easy to retell.

Not to blame: Hearst's 'Evening Journal'

Hearst’s Evening Journal

So it is with the Spanish-American War, a brief conflict in 1898 that confirmed the United States as a global power.

The media myth of the Spanish-American War — the simplified but inaccurate account of the conflict’s origins — is that it was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

But the notion is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the hoary myth made an appearance at Politico Magazine the other day, in a commentary titled “The Neocon Surge.”

The commentary said prominent neoconservatives “are going into overdrive to pin the blame for the collapse of Iraq on anyone other than themselves.” And it called out the scholar Robert Kagan, saying he had “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

What especially interests Media Myth Alert is not resurgent neoconservatism but the claim that the Spanish-American War was a “product” of Hearst’s yellow press, a claim Politico vaguely attributed to “most historians.”

Politico is wrong on both counts.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, which had been the scene of an islandwide rebellion since early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst. The yellow press reported on but it did not create the terrible effects of Spain’s disastrous “reconcentration” policy.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by that policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898 — not the content of the yellow press, and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it.

Warmonger?

Young Hearst: No warmonger

Almost always unaddressed in claims that Hearst fomented the war is any discussion about how his newspapers’ content accomplished the trick: By what mechanism was newspaper content transformed into policy and military action?

It’s left unaddressed because there was no such mechanism.

The mechanism wasn’t an agenda-setting function: Hearst’s newspapers, attention-grabbing though they were, did not set the news agenda for the other 2,000 or so daily newspapers in the United States in the late 1890s.

A significant body of research compiled over the years indicates that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, and ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow journals in the run-up to the war. Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses and flamboyance.

Moreover, top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the yellow press. They certainly didn’t turn to it for guidance in policymaking. As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, diary entries of White House officials disparaged the yellow press as a nuisance but gave it no credit as a factor in developing or shaping policy.

The content of the yellow press, I further noted, was “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” over conditions on Cuba, negotiations that preceded the declaration of war.

At most, Hearst’s newspapers were irritants to policymakers in Washington. They did not, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century has correctly observed, “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The Remington-Hearst media myth invoked anew

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on June 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

One of American journalism’s most persistent myths – William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish” or otherwise bring about war with Spain in the late 1890s — has made a fresh appearance, this time in remarks by radio show host Thom Hartmann.

Remington, Davis in Cuba

The stuff of myth

According to excerpts posted online by the NewsBusters site, Hartmann last week invoked Hearst’s vow as if it were genuine, asserting that Hearst “famously sent the telegram to Frederic Remington down in Cuba saying, ‘Get me the pictures, I’ll give you the war,’ for the Spanish-America War.”

Hartmann added: “And Remington supplied the pictures and, or at least the drawings of the, what was it, the USS Maine?” (A YouTube link to the program is available here; see time stop 12:52.)

As with all media myths, this one has some historically accurate scaffolding. But there is no evidence that Hearst ever sent such a telegram, or that he ever made such a war-mongering vow.

The back story to the myth is that Remington, a famous artist of the American West, was sent to Cuba on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal. He arrived Havana in January 1897 — 15 months before the  destruction of the Maine in Havana harbor.

Remington spent six days on the island, drawing sketches of the rebellion that the Spanish authorities then ruling Cuba were trying without great success to put down. Remington left by passenger steamer on January 16, 1897, and reached New York four days later.

At the time, the Cuban rebellion was an important ongoing story in leading U.S. newspapers and Remington’s sketches were displayed prominently in Hearst’s Journal.

Before leaving Cuba, Remington supposedly sent Hearst a cable, stating: “Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

In reply, Hearst supposedly told Remington:

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

The purported vow to “furnish the war” is at the heart of the media myth. It is one of the most familiar lines in American journalism, and it may be the most-quoted comment attributed to Hearst.

But as I discuss in the first chapter of my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal.

Reasons for saying so are many.

For starters, Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, apparently, never discussed it. The artifacts — the telegrams — have never turned up.

What’s more, Spanish authorities who controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic, surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary and meddlesome cable, had it been sent. It is very unlikely that the telegrams, had they been sent, would have flowed freely and uninhibited from Hearst in New York to Remington in Havana.

Not only that, but the myth endures despite “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency,” as I described it in Getting It Wrong.  That is, it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” (or, as Hartmann put it, “give you the war”) because war – the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Given the context of Remington’s assignment, Hearst’s purported vow is illogical and incongruous.

(The Cuban rebellion gave rise to the Spanish-American War in April 1898.)

In addition, the correspondence of Richard Harding Davis gives lie to the Remington-Hearst anecdote.

Davis was a prominent writer and journalist who traveled with Remington on the assignment to Cuba (see image, above).

Davis frequently wrote letters to his family, especially to his mother, Rebecca Harding Davis. And his correspondence made clear that Remington did not leave because they had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.

In fact, on the day before Remington left Cuba for New York, Davis wrote:

“There is war here and no mistake.”

More important, Davis’ letters say that Remington left for home not on the pretext that “everything is quiet” but because Davis wanted him to go.

“I am as relieved at getting old Remington to go as though I had won $5000,” Davis wrote to his mother on January 15, 1897. “He was a splendid fellow but a perfect kid and had to be humored and petted all the time.”

Davis added that he “was very glad” Remington left “for he kept me back all the time and I can do twice as much in half the time.”

In other letters, Davis said Remington left because he had all the material he needed for his sketches and because Remington was fearful of crossing Spanish lines to meet up with the Cuban rebels, which had been the plan.

Moreover, the provenance of the anecdote is quite dubious. It was first recounted in print in 1901, in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a self-important, cigar-chomping journalist known to indulge in hyperbole.

Creelman mentioned the anecdote without documentation — without saying how or where he had heard about it. At the time of the purported exchange between Remington and Hearst, Creelman was neither in Cuba nor in New York, but in Spain, on assignment to the Continent for the New York Journal.

Creelman: Sole source

Creelman: self-important

Additionally, Creelman presented the “furnish the war” tale not to condemn Hearst but to praise him. Creelman wrote in his memoir that the anecdote demonstrated how Hearst’s activist “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating events.

Over the years, the anecdote’s original intent has been lost and the purported vow has taken on sinister overtones. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, it now has “unique status” in American journalism “as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.”

And as Hartmann’s remarks suggest, the anecdote remains impressively resilient.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2013

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2013 on the appearance of numerous and prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the five top writeups posted at the blog during 2013, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29): The year brought the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous and clever War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth. Welles’ show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly was so frightening that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

But as I discussed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong,  the radio dramatization produced no such effects. Panic and hysteria were wildly overstated by newspapers of the time.

PBS took up The War of the Worlds program in a documentary that aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary. The PBS program not only made The War of the Worlds seem tedious, it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.” It failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

My critique was seconded by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? (posted May 14): The online news magazine Salon found great significance in liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced tirade in May about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Stewart’s criticism, Salon declared, evoked “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” suggesting that negotiations could lead to a way out of Vietnam.Salon logo

Salon proceeded to step into media myth by describing how Cronkite’s commentary supposedly was received by President Lyndon Johnson:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon offered a muddled caveat by stating parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”? Simply put, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

Cronkite’s commentary about Vietnam was, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, no epiphany for Johnson, and it had nothing to do with his deciding not to seek reelection in 1968.

In fact, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that Jon Stewart’s rant has figured at all in Obama’s fading popularity. Far more decisive has been the botched introduction of the Obama administration’s health-care plan.

London’s Independent invokes Jessica Lynch-Pentagon myth (posted January 28): The year brought the 10th anniversary of the Washington Post’s stunningly inaccurate tale of the supposed heroics of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch during an ambush in Iraq.

In the years since, news reports sometimes have claimed — without citing supporting evidence — that the  Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch. In January, for example, London’s Independent newspaper declared “the Pentagon exaggerated [Lynch's] story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

Lynch_headline_Post

Stunningly inaccurate

But that was not the Pentagon’s line. Not according to Vernon Loeb, the then-Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in a front-page story published April 3, 2003.

Loeb’s story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which 11 American soldiers were killed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported.

Although the newspaper has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its botched story, Loeb said in an interview with NPR in December 2003 that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

The erroneous report about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, by the way, did little damage to Loeb’s career. He left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times. Later, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as deputy managing editor for news before returning to the Post in 2011 as metropolitan editor.

And next month Loeb will join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor.

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post can be an arrogant news organization.

This tendency was on display last summer in its refusal to acknowledge and correct an inaccurate reference to Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The reference was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

WaPo’s Thomas obit

The obituary, written by Patricia Sullivan, claimed that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

But there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question. The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. Peace plan: She didn’t ask about a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error had broader dimension in that it suggested an embrace of the notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war  in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House touting a “secret plan.” The belief that he did, though, circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Sullivan, said as much, telling me by email:  “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”

In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”

I brought all this to the attention of the Post’s reader representative, Douglas Feaver, noting that if the newspaper can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if it could back up Sullivan’s claim, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, I wrote, then a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than 2 1/2 weeks to reply to my query and when he did, he absolved the Post of error, stating: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

If that sentiment does become policy, it certainly will be none too soon.

Hearst mostly elusive in ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary (posted March 15): The Hearst Corp., founded in 1887 by William Randolph Hearst, commissioned a documentary about the company and its much-misunderstood founder that promised to tell “the wonderful Hearst story.”

At least that’s what the director, Leslie Iwerks, said in introducing the film at its Washington, D.C., debut in March.

Citizen HearstThe documentary, titled Citizen Hearst, turned out to be something less than a revealing portrait. Its consideration of Hearst’s long career in journalism was  fast-paced but superficial.

The film notably avoided discussing young Hearst’s aggressive brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

The zenith of the “journalism of action” came in 1897 in the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

The Cisneros jailbreak, organized by a reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, offered rich material for a documentary. But it received no mention in Citizen Hearst.

The film, moreover, only superficially considered Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions of the early 20th century. It made no mention about how Hearst then turned his newspapers into platforms to support those goals.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2013:

Getting it right about ‘Is There a Santa Claus?’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, Quotes on December 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm

The paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit published in 1897 in the old New York Sun long ago became the best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism. It also is decidedly myth-prone, as recent newspaper descriptions of the legendary editorial suggest.

These descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title as well as details about its derivation and its author. Surely, can’t be churlish to expect newspapers to get it right about a newspaper commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.

Is There_NYSunThe editorial was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” as Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute wrote the other day in a commentary for the Tampa Bay Times. (Clark’s commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out.”)

The phrase “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years later, recalled the excited speculation that prompted her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897, as is often assumed, but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is probable that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period after reaching the Sun. In any case, the Sun certainly did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as the San Jose Mercury News claimed yesterday in reprinting the editorial.

We know this because that Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stated as much Monday.

But that almost certainly was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun shortly after his death, in an exceptional and moving tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

So why does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon live on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis? These are among the reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming, a commentary without villains or sinister elements. It is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past; it is reassuring somehow to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers a moving reminder to adults about Christmases past, and the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Mistaking conspiracy for sloppy history in Hearst’s ‘vow’ to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 29, 2013 at 3:31 pm

The media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain has proved irresistible in a number of ways.

Hearst in the late 1890s

Hearst, activist publisher

The vow has been invoked as evidence of the sketchy character of Hearst, an activist newspaper publisher whose “yellow journalism” brought him prominence in the closing years of the 19th century.

The vow has been cited to illustrate the potential malignant power of the news media — that at their worst, they can bring on a war.

And in a column in the weekend issue of the Wall Street Journal, the vow is offered as evidence of how conspiracy theories can double back on their makers.

Or something like that.

The fuzzy conspiracy argument is advanced by Amanda Foreman, an historian who writes the Journal’s “historically speaking” column. The latest column is of interest to Media Myth Alert in that it offers an unusual twist to Hearst’s mythical vow.

Not that Foreman is all that persuasive in advancing her conspiracy argument. What she sees as conspiracy looks a lot like sloppy history.

Like all media myths, the “furnish the war” anecdote has some factual scaffolding. But Foreman misstates a key factual element in the tale, which stems from a reputed exchange of telegrams between Hearst and the artist Frederic Remington, who went to Cuba in early 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal.

Remington’s assignment was to draw sketches of the island-wide Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule. Soon, supposedly, the artist sought permission to return to New York, saying in a telegram that “everything is quiet.”

Hearst, in reply, is said to have told Remington:

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

Remington left Cuba anyway, and his sketches of the Cuban rebellion began appearing in the Journal in late January 1897.

Foreman in her column writes that Hearst was both “peddler and victim of the same conspiracy theory.”

span-am war_journal

Wasn’t the Journal’s war

She says he promoted the notion that he fomented the conflict with Spain by proclaiming in the New York Journal in May 1898: “How do you like the Journal’s war?” But in that epigram, the Journal was taunting its rivals, not claiming responsibility for the war — an important distinction that will be discussed in some detail below.

Foreman writes that “when critics started labeling Hearst a warmonger, he became the victim of his own success” of having advanced the notion he had fomented the war.

She then introduces the “furnish the war” vow, calling it “a fictitious communiqué” that “remains the single-most quoted proof that Hearst engineered the Spanish-American War.”

Foreman says the “chief problem” with the Remington-Hearst anecdote “is that Remington was nowhere near Cuba at the time.”

But Remington was in Cuba before the war — for six days in January 1897. That he was there, on assignment for Hearst, is a component of the factual scaffolding of the “furnish the war” tale, which entered the public domain in 1901, in a book by James Creelman.

He was a journalist known for hyperbole and bluster. And he recounted the anecdote without documentation, writing:

“Some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana [in February 1898], the New York Journal sent Frederic Remington, the distinguished artist, to Cuba. He was instructed to remain there until the war began; for ‘yellow journalism’ was alert and had an eye for the future.”

Creelman then described the purported Remington-Hearst exchange of telegrams, invoking it to praise the aggressive, anticipatory character of Hearst’s “yellow journalism.” Only years later did Creelman’s unsourced anecdote become popular as evidence of Hearst’s perfidy.

While Hearst for a time in 1898 may have thought that he had brought about the war with Spain, supporting evidence is not to be found in the pithy epigram that Foreman cites.

As I discuss in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, context and timing matter in evaluating the epigram, which appeared in the upper-left corner, or left ear, of the New York Journal on May 8, 9, and 10, 1898.

The epigram

The Journal’s taunt

In asking “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Hearst’s newspaper, I wrote, was not boasting but “mocking the claims” of its rivals — notably the anti-war New York Evening Post, which in an editorial published April 30, 1898, accused the Journal of fomenting the war.

The following day, U.S. naval vessels destroyed a Spanish squadron in Manila Bay in the war’s first major engagement.

First reports of the naval battle appeared in U.S. newspapers on May 2, 1898. That day on its editorial page, the Journal published the portion of the Evening Post editorial accusing the Journal of fomenting the war. That assertion was derided in a headline spread across the Journal’s editorial page, which stated:

“Some People Say the Journal Brought on This War. How Do You Like It as Far as It’s Gone[?] “

The headline and the epigram that appeared at the Journal’s left ear a few days later (“How do you like the Journal’s war?”) clearly were snarky retorts aimed at the Evening Post in the aftermath of a stunning U.S. naval victory.

When it did specifically address the notion of fomenting the war, Hearst’s Journal was far more oblique and ambiguous. For example, the newspaper stated in early May 1898:

“This war has been called a war brought on by the New York Journal and the press which it leads. This is merely another way of saying that the war is the war of the American people, for it is only as a newspaper gives voice to the American spirit that it can be influential with the American masses. The Journal is powerful with the masses because it believes in them — because it believes that on issues of national policy, their judgment is always likely to be sounder than that of the objecting few.”

The statement hardly qualifies as a ringing assertion of responsibility for bringing on the war.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Furnish the war’ media myth infiltrates NPR tribute to Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 16, 2013 at 11:07 am

Media myths often are pressed into the service of emphasis, to underscore telling points and broader themes about media performance.

Hearst in caricature, 1896

Hearst in caricature, 1896

So it is with the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. The anecdote speaks to the arrogance and dangers of media power — that at their worst, the news media can even bring on war.

Which is nonsense.

Even so, “furnish the war” is a tale too tempting sometimes not to be pressed into the service of emphasis.

Which takes us to an essay posted today at the NPR’s online “You Must Read This” column, where writers discuss their favorite books. In the essay, Alexander Nazaryan of the “Page Views” blog of the New York Daily News pays tribute to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a delicious send-up of war reporting that was published in 1938.

ScNPR books_logooop centers around William Boot, a hapless nature writer for the fictional London newspaper Daily Beast who inadvertently is assigned to cover the turmoil in Ishmaelia, a fictional state in East Africa.

While slow to get going, Scoop offers hilarious turns. Its portraits of arrogant, suspicious, hype-prone war reporters are entertaining and resonate even today, 75 years on.

Why the NPR essay about Scoop much matters to Media Myth Alert is that it invokes the tale about “furnish the war.”

The essay notes how the bumbling Boot inevitably incurs the wrath of editors back in London, and adds:

“After filing the kind of stories that wouldn’t get a single retweet these days, he receives an unambiguous telegram from the Daily Beast:  ‘LORD COPPER PERSONALLY REQUIRES VICTORIES.’ If that seems like rather heavy-handed satire, remember that the not-at-all-fictional Randolph William Hearst once allegedly told a correspondent in Cuba, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.’”

Actually, it’s  not “Randolph William Hearst.”

And William Randolph Hearst almost certainly never sent a message vowing to “furnish the war.”

That anecdote revolves around a purported exchange of telegrams between Hearst and Frederic Remington, the famous American artist who in January 1897 went to Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

Remington’s assignment was to draw sketches about Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. He was in Cuba six days, then returned to New York.

Before leaving, Remington supposedly wired Hearst, saying:

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

In reply, Hearst supposedly said:

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

As I discuss in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, reasons for doubting the Remington-Hearst exchange are many, and include the absence of documentary evidence: The telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

Moreover, Hearst denied ever having sent such a message, and Remington apparently never discussed it.

And the tale lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency:  It would have been absurd for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war— the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason Hearst dispatched Remington to Cuba in the first place.

“Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached island-wide proportion and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

The “furnish the war” anecdote first appeared in 1901, a brief passage in a slim memoir titled On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent. The author was James Creelman, a portly, bearded, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hype and pomposity.

Creelman did not explain how or from whom he learned about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange. Creelman in January 1897 was Hearst’s correspondent in Europe, which means he wasn’t with Remington in Cuba, nor with Hearst in New York.

Creelman invoked the anecdote not to condemn Hearst, but to compliment him. For Creelman, the “furnish the war” vow was suggestive of the aggressive, anticipatory “yellow journalism” that he saw and liked in Hearst’s newspapers.

But in the mid- and late-1930s, the anecdote’s meaning shifted dramatically, to become emblematic of the supposedly wretched character of Hearst and his journalism.

The transformation made “furnish the war” a far more engaging tale, and ensured that it would live on and on. And ready to be pressed into the service of emphasis.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

William Randolph Hearst mostly elusive in new ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Error, Furnish the war, Reviews on March 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

Citizen Hearst was a mostly unsatisfactory biography published in 1961 about media baron William Randolph Hearst. It was more caricature than revealing portrait.

Citizen HearstThe title, Citizen Hearst, has been reprised for documentary that opened in several theaters this week. The documentary — commissioned by the media company that Hearst founded 126 years ago — is no revealing portrait, either.

Hearst was an innovative yet often-contradictory figure, and this complexity is largely elusive in Citizen Hearst, an 84-minute film that had its Washington, D.C., debut screening last night at the Newseum. The director, Leslie Iwerks, introduced the film by saying it told “the wonderful Hearst story.”

The opening third of Citizen Hearst delivers a fast-paced if mostly shallow look at Hearst’s long career in journalism. After that, the film turns mostly gushy about the diversified media company that is Hearst Corp.

To its credit, Citizen Hearst steers largely clear of the myths that distort understanding of Hearst and his early, most innovative years in journalism.

His affable grandson, Will Hearst, is shown in the film scoffing at what may be the best-known anecdote in American journalism — that William Randolph Hearst vowed in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The anecdote is undocumented and utterly dubious, but it was presented at face value in the biography Citizen Hearst. It is an irresistible tale often invoked in support of a broader and nastier media myth, that Hearst and his newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Citizen Hearst the documentary doesn’t embrace the warmongering myth (although former CBS News anchor Dan Rather is shown saying he was taught in school that Hearst practically brought on the Spanish-American War).

The documentary, however, fails to consider the innovative character of Hearst’s newspapers of the late 19th century.

It notably avoids discussing Hearst’s eye-opening brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

This ethos was a motivating force for one of the most exceptional and dramatic episodes in American journalism — the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

Cisneros

Evangelina Cisneros

A reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, supported by clandestine operatives in Havana and U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, broke Cisneros from jail in early October 1897.

She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of an American-educated Cuban banker (whom she married several months later). Then, dressed as a boy, Cisneros was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.

The Cisneros jailbreak was stunning manifestation of Hearst’s “journalism of action” and it offers rich material for a documentary. It was, as I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history.

It receives not a mention in Citizen Hearst.

The documentary presents only superficial consideration of Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions — and avoids mentioning how he turned his newspapers into platforms to support those ambitions.

Hearst wanted to be president, and was a serious contender for the Democratic party’s nomination in 1904. He lost out to Alton Parker, a New York judge, who in turn was badly defeated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

Citizen Hearst presents the observations of no serious Hearst biographer: No David Nasaw, author of The Chief, an admirably even-handed biography published in 2000; no Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding work published in 2009 about Hearst’s s early career.

Instead, Dan Rather is shown speaking vaguely about Hearst’s journalism (“he played big”). Movie critic Leonard Maltin makes several appearances, discussing such topics as headline size in Hearst’s fin de siècle newspapers.

The documentary treats Helen Gurley Brown, she of Cosmopolitan fame, much like a rock star. And Hearst company officials are quoted often and sometimes at length.

HuffingtonPost was quite right in noting in a review posted Wednesday that the film turns into “something you’d expect to see playing on a loop on the lobby TV screen at Hearst’s headquarters”  in New York.

It leaves you wondering how many people would pay to see it. Or why.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Yes, Virginia’ special on CBS a sad distortion of a timeless newspaper reply

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, Quotes, Television on December 13, 2012 at 7:29 am

CBS will demonstrate anew tomorrow night that repeat performance is no measure of quality. Or accuracy.

The network will air for the fourth successive Christmas season its charmless, half-hour animated special, “Yes Virginia.”

The show is an unrelieved distortion of  the story behind the New York Sun’s classic editorial reply to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon who implored in a letter to the newspaper in 1897:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Church

The Sun’s reply, by a veteran editorial writer named Francis P. Church, declared in part:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The tiresome CBS show offers none of the charm of Church’s timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit.

Indeed, the program distorts all major elements of the back story of the “Yes, Virginia,” editorial.

Holiday Programming

CBS’ Church: Scowling, loud, irritable

It depicts Virginia is a waddling, round-headed girl annoyingly obsessed about the existence of Santa Claus. It portrays Church as scowling, loud, and irritable.

Neither portrayal is convincing, nor very accurate.

Church is cast as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church wasn’t the editor; he was an editorial writer who relished the anonymity the position allowed.

And the Sun of 1897 was no tabloid.

Not only that, but the CBS show has Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

That’s far from accurate.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia wrote the letter not long after her birthday in July 1897.

The Sun published its editorial-reply on page 6 of its issue of September 21, 1897.

In first appearance, the editorial that has become the most famous in American journalism was inconspicuous and obscure. It was placed in the third of three columns of editorials. It certainly was not introduced with large headlines on the front page, as the CBS show has it.

The headline accompanying the Sun’s editorial posed the timeless question:

“Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial was no instant sensation, no immediate hit. And the Sun did not reprint the editorial at Christmastime every year after 1897, as is commonly believed.

It took years for the newspaper to warm to and embrace “Is There A Santa Claus?”

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it wasn’t until the mid-1920s when the Sun began routinely publishing the essay at Christmastime.

What helped kept the editorial alive were the newspaper’s readers. They found it appealing and memorable. They found solace and inspiration in its passages.

In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.

A letter-writer told the newspaper in 1926 that “Is There A Santa Claus” offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

In 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the essay to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

The CBS program hints at none of that. It offers no indication that the editorial’s fame rests at least in part on generations of readers who collectively proved to be far more perceptive than editors in identifying and affirming the essay’s significance and enduring appeal.

If anything, the vapid CBS show demonstrates that history’s back story can be richer, and far more charming, than repeat holiday fare on television.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:

Newspaper endorsements don’t much matter — except maybe at the margins

In 1897, Newspapers on November 5, 2012 at 6:54 am

Romney endorsed by New York Daily News

It’s long been apparent that newspaper endorsements for high political office are rarely decisive.

Back in 1897, when print made up the mass media, newspapers were shocked when their endorsements had little impact on the outcome of the New York City mayoral election.

The Tammany Hall candidate, an obscure judge named Robert A. Van Wyck, won the election decisively — without giving a speech and without receiving the editorial support of the city’s leading newspapers.

Nowadays, in a world of myriad digital options, many U.S. daily newspapers are but shells of their former selves. Few of them really presume to set an agenda for their communities and their endorsements for high political office are all but irrelevant. More than a handful of newspapers no longer endorse candidates for president.

Still, it is conceivable that newspaper endorsements could make a difference in close elections in a few places in tomorrow’s presidential election. Enough readers could take cues from newspaper endorsements to tip the outcome in very tight races — as perhaps in Iowa and Florida.

It’s speculative, but not implausible.

In Iowa and Florida, prominent newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 are backing Republican Mitt Romney this year. And the Obama-Romney race is close in both states. Polling data compiled and aggregated at RealClearPolitics indicate that Obama leads by three percentage points in Iowa and that Romney is narrowly ahead in Florida.

The largest-circulation newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, has endorsed Romney, citing his “strong record of achievement in both the private and public sectors.”

In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel have come out for Romney.

The Sentinel asserted in its editorial endorsement: “We have little confidence that Obama would be more successful managing the economy and the budget in the next four years. For that reason, though we endorsed him in 2008, we are recommending Romney in this race.”

And the Sun-Sentinel said: “When President Obama came into office in 2009, the economy was in freefall and though untested, he inspired us with his promise of hope and change. Now, four years later, we have little reason to believe he can turn things around.

“So while we endorsed Obama in 2008, we recommend voters choose Republican Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.”

That those newspapers have turned away from Obama probably matters much only to a few readers. But editorial endorsements that sway even a few readers could make a difference if the statewide race is very close.

This point was made the other day by a leading political analyst and numbers-cruncher, Michael Barone. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Barone said the Des Moines Register’s endorsement “could make a significant difference” in the outcome in Iowa.

Some indirect evidence suggests that newspaper endorsements can signal the outcomes of close races.

Greg Mitchell, formerly editor of the trade journal Editor & Publisher, noted in a recent commentary at the Nation that just before the presidential election in 2008,  he “went out on a limb and predicted which candidates would win in the thirteen key ‘toss-up’ states based purely on newspaper endorsements in those states — not polls or common sense or anything else.”

Mitchell said he “got them right, except for one.”

Based on newspaper endorsements in swing states this year, Mitchell has predicted that Obama will narrowly defeat Romney. Mitchell’s breakdown has five swing states for Obama, five for Romney, and one (Virginia) undecided, which seems more like a toss-up.

In any case, data compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, show that 12 newspapers that endorsed Obama in 2008 are supporting Romney this year. They include the New York Daily News, the country’s fifth-largest newspaper, and Newsday of Long Island, the 13th largest daily.

Those endorsements aren’t likely to matter much, though, given that Obama is a sure bet to carry New York State.

WJC

‘Not Likely Sent’ article about Hearst’s ‘vow’ a top 50 selection in AEJMC flagship journal

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 10, 2012 at 12:45 pm

AEJMC, the journalism educators organization, announced yesterday the 50 top articles to have appeared in its flagship journal — and among the selections was “Not Likely Sent,” my 2000 myth-busting study about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

Hearst

“Not Likely Sent” was published in the summer 2000 issue of the peer-reviewed Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

The article challenged as implausible the often-retold anecdote about Hearst’s supposed exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, in which Hearst is said to have declared:

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

Remington at the time of purported exchange was in Cuba, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal. Remington spent six days on the island in January 1897, preparing sketches to illustrate aspects of the Cuban insurrection against Spain’s colonial rule.

Among the reasons for dismissing the famous anecdote — which has been invoked over the decades by scores of journalists and historians — is Hearst’s denial, and the implausibility of the supposed exchange.

That is, Spanish censors who controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s message to Remington, had it been sent.

I also pointed out in “Not Likely Sent” that Hearst’s supposed vow ran counter “to the Journals editorial positions in January 1897. The newspaper in editorials at the time expected the collapse of the Spanish war effort and resulting independence for Cuban insurgents. The Journal was neither anticipating nor campaigning for U.S. military intervention to end the conflict.”

The Cuban rebellion, however, ground on and became a stalemate. In April 1898, the United States entered the conflict, principally to end a human rights disaster that was festering in Cuba.

The editor of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Daniel Riffe, said in a statement that selecting the journal’s top 50 articles was “a piece of research in itself.” The process included tapping the advice of his predecessors as editor, as well as consulting citation guides and Google Scholar.

“I finally assembled a list of 50 articles that I hope our members agree have been influential in our field,” Riffe said.

The top 50 articles were selected and announced as part of the centennial celebration of AEJMC – the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Predecessor titles of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly were Journalism Quarterly and The Journalism Bulletin.

An elaboration of “Not Likely Sent” appeared as a chapter in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Separately, a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, described how Hearst’s purported vow came to be embedded in the lore of American journalism.

Despite the repeated debunkings, however, the anecdote about “furnish the war” lives on — a timeless, pithy, and easily recalled example of the news media at their supposed worst.

As I wrote in the article:

“The Remington-Hearst anecdote is indeed ‘a beautiful story,’ a succinct and delicious tale, one rich in hubris and in swaggering recklessness. It is, however, a story altogether dubious and misleading.

“It suggests a power that the press, including Hearst’s Journal, did not possess, that of propelling the country into a war that it did not want.”

WJC

Recent or related:

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,785 other followers

%d bloggers like this: