W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Furnish the war’ Category

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

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‘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

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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

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‘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

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Renewing the Hearst-Remington association in a $200,000 grant

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War on July 8, 2012 at 10:10 am

The most tenacious myth in American journalism tells of a purported exchange of telegrams in January 1897 between  newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and the artist Frederic Remington.

Remington

Supposedly, in answering Remington’s telegram, Hearst vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain, which broke out 15 months later, in April 1898.

Despite repeated efforts to debunk it, the tale about Hearst’s reckless vow lives on — a story just too delicious to be discarded.

So I found intriguing the news the other day that the Hearst Foundations — which Hearst set up in the 1940s — have agreed to a $200,000 grant to the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

Most of the money, $150,000, is to put toward extensive restoration work on the museum’s main building, which dates to 1810. The remainder, $50,000, is for educational purposes, if matched by the museum before year’s end.

Hearst

The grant — the foundations’ second to the Remington museum since 2009 — represents a reminder and a renewal of sorts of the long ago Hearst-Remington association.

In early 1897, Remington and the writer Richard Harding Davis arrived in Cuba on assignment from Hearst’s New York Journal to cover the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, the conflict that gave rise to the Spanish-American War.

It was a coup for the Journal to have lined up talent such as Remington and Davis, who were paid handsomely for what was to be a month-long assignment.

It was during that assignment when the purported exchange of the telegrams supposedly took place — an exchange described by neither Hearst nor Remington, but by James Creelman, a Hearst correspondent who was in Madrid at the time.

The tale of Hearst’s vow is almost surely apocryphal, for reasons I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Among the reasons (typically overlooked) is that Hearst denied having sent such a message. Remington, apparently, never discussed the anecdote, which Creelman recounted, without documentation, in a memoir published in 1901.

Further reason for doubting the tale is that Spanish authorities controlled incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic from Havana. They surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary message to Remington, had it been sent.

Additionally, the anecdote rests on irreconcilable illogic. As I write in Getting It Wrong, 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 that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached island-wide proportion and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

Hearst’s Journal gave prominent display to Remington’s sketches beginning in late January 1897, following the artist’s return to New York after a stay in Cuba of just six days.

The Journal gushed over Remington’s work, introducing his sketches with extravagant headlines such as:

“War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal, Describes with Pen and Pencil Characters That Are Making the War Famous and Infamous.”

Remington, though, grumbled that his work did not reproduce well in Hearst’s newspaper.

The artist returned to Cuba for Hearst in June 1898, to cover the Cuban campaign of the Spanish-American War. He did not distinguish himself.

Overweight and ailing, Remington suffered in the Cuban summer. He seldom was near the front and became what biographers Peggy and Harold Samuels termed “the chronicler of the battle’s rear.”

Remington died in 1909. The museum devoted to his work was established in Ogdensburg in 1923.

The museum’s executive director, Ed LaVarnway, said by phone yesterday that the Hearst Foundations’ grants to the museum weren’t made in recognition of the late 19th century association between Hearst and Remington.

But Hearst representatives knew about those connections and about the anecdote about the purported exchange of telegrams, he said.

Vital to securing the latest grant, LaVarnway noted, was Gilbert C. Maurer, a Hearst Foundations director and a benefactor of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., Remington’s hometown. Canton is 18 miles from Ogdensburg.

He “was in the museum’s corner,” LaVarnway said of Maurer, formerly the chief operating officer of Hearst Corp., which William Randolph Hearst established 125 years ago.

WJC

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Those ‘warmongering’ papers of William Randolph Hearst

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on May 1, 2012 at 5:35 am

The first major engagement of the Spanish-American War took place 114 years ago today — in the Philippines, where U.S. warships attacked and destroyed a Spanish naval squadron in Manila Bay.

Warmonger?

The battle was a thoroughly unexpected development in a conflict fought over Spain’s harsh rule of Cuba, a conflict often but inaccurately blamed on the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst.

A commentary in the Tennessean newspaper took up that hoary myth the other day and added for good measure the apocryphal tale of Hearst’s having vowed to bring on the war.

The commentary said of Hearst:

“His most infamous manipulation was the warmongering his papers did in pushing the U.S. into war with Spain in 1898. He sent artist Frederick Remington to Cuba to cover the native uprising against Spain. Remington reportedly cabled Hearst that there was no war in Cuba. Hearst responded, ‘You get me the pictures; I’ll get you the war.’ He was true to his word.”

No serious historian embraces the notion that Hearst’s newspapers were decisive or much of a factor at all in the U.S. declaration of war against Spain in April 1898. That is a simplistic explanation about a war that was fought largely on humanitarian grounds — those of ending Spain’s long and harsh rule of Cuba.

As often is the case when such mediacentric claims are advanced, the commentary in the Tennessean left wholly unaddressed the method or mechanism by which the content of Hearst’s newspapers — he published three in 1898 –  was transformed into military action.

Three was, in fact, no such mechanism.

As I pointed out in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the Hearst press. They certainly didn’t turn to it for policy guidance.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

Advocates of the mediacentric interpretation of the Spanish-American War invariably cite — as the Tennessean did — the tale about Hearst’s vowing to furnish the war. It’s their Exhibit A.

While colorful, the tale of the purported Hearstian vow is a media-driven myth, one of the hardiest in American journalism.

It’s more than 110-years-old; during that time, no compelling evidence has ever emerged to support or document the tale.

Hearst denied making such a vow, which he purportedly sent in a telegram to Remington, an artist on assignment to Spanish-ruled Cuba in early 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal.

The telegram to Remington has never surfaced. And Remington apparently never discussed the tale, which was first recounted in 1901, in a brief, unsourced passage in memoir by James Creelman, a blowhard journalist known for frequent exaggeration.

Creelman

Perhaps the most compelling reason for doubting Creelman’s undocumented account rests on an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, 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 that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war.”

WJC

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James Fallows and ‘furnish the war’: Indulging in a media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on March 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

Young Hearst

In deploring “carefree talk” about pre-emptively bombing Iran’s nuclear installations, Atlantic correspondent James Fallows invokes the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 1890s.

The “furnish the war” anecdote can be just too delicious to resist, as Fallows demonstrates in a rambling commentary posted yesterday at the Atlantic online site.

In it, Fallows writes that “only twice before in my memory, and maybe thrice in American history, has there been as much carefree talk about war and unprovoked strikes as we’ve had concerning Iran in recent months ….

“The twice in my experience were: during the runup to the invasion of Iraq in 2002, and in the ‘bomb ‘em back to the stone age’ moments of the early Vietnam era.

“The time that even I don’t remember was the ‘you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war’ yellow journalism drumbeat before the war with Spain in 1898. This is not good company for today’s fevered discussion to join.”

The line, “you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war,” was attributed to Hearst more than 110 years ago. But as decades passed, no compelling evidence ever emerged to support or document the tale.

Indeed, it’s often overlooked that Hearst denied making such vow, which he purportedly included in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment to Spanish-ruled Cuba in early 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal.

The telegram to Remington has never surfaced. And Remington apparently never discussed the anecdote, which was recounted first in 1901, in a brief passage in memoir by James Creelman, a blowhard journalist known for frequent exaggeration.

Creelman did not explain how he learned of the “furnish the war” tale which, as I describe in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is almost surely apocryphal.

Not only does story live on despite the absence of supporting documentation; it lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.

That is, it would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Cuba in early 1897 was the theater of a nasty war. By then, Spain had dispatched nearly 200,000 troops in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Spanish authorities controlled and censured international cable traffic to and from Cuba. They surely would have intercepted — and called attention to — Hearst’s bellicose message, had it been sent. There is little chance the cable would have moved unimpeded from Hearst in New York to Remington in Cuba.

But despite the compelling evidence arrayed against it, the vow attributed to Hearst lives on, and on.

That’s because it has, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.

“It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

Which is what Fallows does.

WJC

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Sketches published 115 years ago undercut a tenacious media myth

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on January 24, 2012 at 5:25 am

On assignment for Hearst

The artist Frederic Remington was back from Havana just a few days when on January 24, 1897, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal began publishing his sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

Remington later confided that he didn’t think much of the Journal’s reproduction techniques. But the newspaper played up Remington’s artwork, publishing them beneath an extravagant headline that read:

“Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal, Describes with Pen and Pencil Characters That Are Making the War Famous and Infamous.”

The prominent display given the sketches, and the Journal’s flattering references to the artist, serve to undercut a tenacious and prominent media-driven myth, an anecdote that ranks as one of the most popular in American journalism.

And that is the hoary tale that Hearst, in a telegraphic exchange with Remington, vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the exchange, if it happened, would have occurred on or about January 17, 1897, when Remington was preparing to leave Cuba and return to New York.

Hearst had sent Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis to Cuba to report on the rebellion against Spanish rule, a vicious conflict that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Remington and Davis didn’t get along and parted ways after only a few days in Cuba. According to legend, Remington before leaving sent a cable to Hearst that said:

Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. 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.”

Remington left anyway, taking the passenger steamer Seneca to New York, arriving January 21, 1897. His Cuba sketches began appearing in the Journal 115 years ago today.

So how do those sketches help debunk the tale about Hearst’s vow “furnish the war”?

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the sketches “depict unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of a rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound.”

Their subject matter effectively disputes the notion that Remington had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.

Remington, 'gifted artist'

That the sketches were accompanied by glowing references to Remington as a “gifted artist” indicates that Hearst was not angry with Remington as he surely would have been had the artist left Cuba after being told “please remain.”

Indeed, it is difficult to believe Hearst would have been so generous in his compliments and ordered such prominent display of Remington’s work had the artist in fact disregarded Hearst’s instructions to stay in Cuba.

“Far from being irritated and displeased with Remington,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “Hearst was delighted with his work. He recalled years later that Remington and Richard Harding Davis, the celebrated writer who traveled to Cuba with the artist, ‘did their work admirably and aroused much indignation among Americans’ about Spanish rule of the island.”

The sole source of the “furnish the war” anecdote was James Creelman, who in January 1897 was neither with Hearst in New York nor with Remington in Cuba. Creelman then was in Spain, as the Journal’s “special commissioner,” or correspondent, on the Continent.

Creelman incorporated the anecdote about the Remington-Hearst exchange in a book of reminiscences, On the Great Highway, which was published in 1901. Creelman, a blustery, cigar-chomping egotist, did not say how he learned about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange, which he presumes to quote verbatim.

Hearst denied ever having sent such a message. Remington apparently never spoke about the supposed exchange.

The display Remington’s sketches received in Hearst’s Journal, and the newspaper’s compliments about the artist, are two of several compelling reasons for doubting the anecdote and treating it as a media myth.

Another reason is that the telegrams Remington and Hearst supposedly sent have never turned up.

The anecdote, moreover, is illogical on its face: It would have made no sense for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — the rebellion against Spanish rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

WJC

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A thumbsucker commentary and the Zhou misinterpretation

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war on December 2, 2011 at 12:49 am

A thumbsucker is what some American journalists call a self-indulgent article or commentary that tends to go on and on, usually about an obscure or time-worn topic.

At its online site yesterday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper posted a thumbsucker that ruminated about the close of historical periods, offering observations such as this:

“Bloodied soldiers didn’t stand around on the battlefield at Bosworth and immediately reflect that, though it had been a hard-fought day, at least the later Middle Ages had now ended.”

Obscure, perhaps, but not altogether uninteresting.

But what caught the eye of Media Myth Alert was the reference to the conventional but erroneous version of Zhou Enlai’s famous and often-quoted comment in 1972, that it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French Revolution.

That version is frequently offered as evidence of China’s sage, patient, and far-sighted ways. That’s rather how the Guardian thumbsucker-commentary referred to it, saying:

“If, as Zhou Enlai said, it is too soon to have a view of the French Revolution, then it is probably too soon to say if the [governing] coalition [in Britain] is a failed government.”

But Zhou was not referring to the French Revolution that began in 1789.

He was speaking about the political turmoil in France of 1968.

We know this from a retired U.S. diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Freeman, who was Nixon’s interpreter during the historic, weeklong trip, offered the revised interpretation almost six months ago at a panel discussion in Washington.  The discussion’s moderator was Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert who wrote about Freeman’s comments for the Financial Times of London.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman elaborated on his recollection about Zhou’s comment, saying it probably was made over lunch or dinner, during a conversation about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. The discussion, Freeman said, touched on the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the discussion that Zhou was speaking about 1968.

Just how Zhou’s remark came to be so dramatically misinterpreted, Freeman was unable to say.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said. “It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

Stereotyping is but one hazard of dubious quotes like Zhou’s.

Dubious and misinterpreted quotes tend to are falsehoods masquerading as the truth — as suggested by the delicious but apocryphal tale about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Dubious quotes also dishonor their purported authors — as in the comment often attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon hearing newsman Walter Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war in Vietnam, Johnson supposedly said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

But as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, there’s no persuasive evidence that Johnson ever made such a comment.

Besides, he didn’t see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired in late February 1968.

So it’s very difficult to believe the president could have been much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Or that he would have uttered such a comment, if he had seen the program.

WJC

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Accepting the Dicken-Garcia Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Journalism History

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths on November 12, 2011 at 7:49 am

I was honored yesterday to receive the Hazel Dicken-Garcia Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Journalism History, an honor given by the organizers of the annual Symposium on 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression, a conference convened in Chattanooga.

The award recognizes my work in journalism history, including the books Getting It Wrong, The Year That Defined American Journalism, and Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

The award’s namesake, Hazel Dicken-Garcia, is a retired journalism historian at the University of Minnesota who wrote Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth Century America and is regarded as one of the field’s leading lights.

In accepting the award, which is administered by David B. Sachsman of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, I spoke about the importance of myth-busting in media history. I told the conference-goers that “the health and integrity of the field, at least in part, rides on historians’ fulfilling an obligation to bust myths, to seek to set straight the historical record to the extent that’s possible.

“After all,” I added, “to bust myths is to wage war against simplistic and reductive explanations — and to recognize and insist upon the complexity of the historical record.”

I also spoke about my research into media-driven myths, those prominent, well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

I noted that media  myths can be thought of as the junk food of journalism – tasty and alluring, perhaps, but not terribly nutritious, and not terribly healthy.

“Media myths,” I said, “are inescapably media-centric; as such, they tend to distort our understanding of the history, roles, and functions of journalism in American society; media myths typically confer on the news media far more power and influence than they necessarily wield.”

Media myths, I added, “often spring from the timeless appeal to distill and simplify, the appeal of condensed, readily digestible historical accounts that are easily grasped, and a delight to retell.”

As examples, I discussed the famous tale about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow at the end of the 19th century to “furnish the war” with Spain and a Civil War-era quotation attributed to Chicago newspaper editor Wilbur F. Storey, who supposedly told a correspondent to  “telegraph fully all news; and when there is no news, send rumors.”

Both tales, I noted, are based on very thin documentation. Both have serious evidentiary problems.

Hearst’s purported vow was supposedly made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal in early 1897 to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

I noted in my talk how it would have made no sense for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” when war — the Cuban rebellion — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba.

Hearst

Not only that, but the telegrams supposedly exchanged by Hearst and Remington have never turned up; Hearst denied ever making such a vow, and Remington apparently never publicly discussed the matter.

“It’s almost certain that no such telegrams were ever sent,” I said.

The “send rumors” anecdote from the Civil War era is likewise improbable — although undeniably appealing and relevant even today.

“The quotation not only suggests journalism’s inclination to compromise ethics in the gathering of news,” I said, but “it speaks also to the profession’s unending appetite for rumor, gossip, and hearsay.”

The anecdote revolves around instructions supposedly sent in 1864 by Wilbur F. Storey, editor of the Chicago Times, to a correspondent near Nashville, Franc B. Wilkie.

The lone source for Storey’s supposed instructions Wilkie’s memoir,  Personal Reminiscence, which was published in 1891. That was 27 years after the instructions supposedly were sent.

Not only that, but by 1891, Storey had been dead seven years.

I noted that among the reasons for doubting that Storey ever sent such instructions is that they would have been superfluous. It would have made no sense for Storey to have told Wilkie to “send rumors” because the Chicago Times — like many newspapers during the Civil War — routinely printed rumors about battles, about troop movements, and about political developments — and identified them as rumor.

It would have been an unnecessary message, to advise a seasoned correspondent like Wilkie to “send rumors.”

“Simply put,”  I said, “Wilkie would have required no reminder from Storey to ‘telegraph fully all news; and when there is no news, send rumors.’”

I closed my remarks by saying that debunking media myths is  reminder “to be wary about conclusiveness.”

History, I said, “is neither static nor infallible. … There’s plenty of room for skepticism, plenty of room for testing assumptions — for applying tests of evidence and logic to well-known tales and dominant narratives.”

WJC

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