W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Yellow Journalism’ 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

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

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‘They even started wars’: Nonsense in the Economist’s holiday double issue

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 22, 2012 at 6:19 am

One of the year-end delights in print media is the Economist’s holiday season double issue, a lode of offbeat features and whimsical takes on the news.

Economist double issue_2012This year’s edition is no exception. The “Christmas Specials” in the  Economist’s double issue consider such topics as Japan’s Citizen Kane and offer long ruminations about hell.

The “Christmas Specials” also include an account about the Internet-borne resurgence of cartooning — an account that serves up the hoary media myth of yellow journalism, declaring:

“In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: ‘yellow journalism.’

“Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars.”

They even started wars?

Uh-uh.

The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer certainly reported closely about the Spanish-American War of 1898. But no serious historian believes their newspapers were important factors in bringing about the conflict.

But simply put, the yellow press did not create, nor was responsible for, the irreconcilable differences led to war between the United States and Spain.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It 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.”

The convergence of forces that gave rise to the war — which lasted 114 days and ended with Spain’s utter defeat in the Caribbean and the Philippines — can be traced to the rebellion on Cuba that began in 1895.

The Cuban uprising challenged Spanish rule of the island and by early 1898 had settled into a vicious stalemate. The Spanish military occupied most Cuba’s urban centers; the Cuban rebels controlled the countryside.

In an ill-considered attempt to deprive the rebels of food and logistical support, Spanish had ordered Cuban non-combattants — women, children, old men — into garrison towns where, by the tens of thousands, they fell victim to disease and malnutrition.

The Spanish policy, known as reconcentración, or reconcentration, was, I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “emblematic of the severity of Spain’s efforts to quell the rebellion.”

Not only was the rebellion stalemated by early 1898; a human rights disaster had taken shape in Cuba. The horrors of reconcentración drew wide attention, and condemnation, in the United States.

Reconcentration images

Horrors of reconcentración

The reconcentración policy, along with Spain’s inability to quell the rebellion by negotiation or military force, were the proximate causes of the war that began in April 1898.

As I point out in Yellow Journalism:

“To indict the yellow press for instigating the Spanish-American War is fundamentally to misread the evidence and thus do disservice to the broader understanding of a much-misunderstood conflict. “

Alas, the holiday season number is not the first time the Economist has fallen for the media myth of yellow journalism.

In July 2011, the magazine declared, without attribution, that “William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report.”

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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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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Online at BBC News: Recalling the derivation of ‘All the news that’s fit to print’

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on February 11, 2012 at 12:10 am

The most famous seven words in American journalism — “All the news that’s fit to print” — took a permanent place 115 years ago yesterday in the upper left corner, or left “ear,” of the New York Times masthead.

On front page for 115 years

And I recalled that occasion in a piece for the BBC News online site, writing:

“The motto appeared on the Times’ front page without notice, commentary, or fanfare. In the years since, the phrase has been admired as a timeless statement of purpose, interpreted as a ‘war cry’ for honest journalism, and scoffed at as pretentious, overweening, and impossibly vague.

“Even the Times hasn’t been entirely consistent in its embrace and interpretation of those seven words. In 1901, at the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Times referred to ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ as its ‘covenant. In 2001, a Times article commemorating the newspaper’s 150th anniversary said of the motto:

“’What, exactly, does it mean? You decide. The phrase has been debated, and endlessly parodied, both inside and outside the Times for more than a century.’

“On occasion, the motto has been taken far too seriously, as in 1960 when Wright Patman, a U.S. congressman from Texas, asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ amounted to false and misleading advertising.

“’Surely this questionable claim has a tendency to make the public believe, and probably does make the public believe, that the New York Times is superior to other newspapers,’ Patman wrote.

“The Trade Commission declined to investigate, saying: ‘We do not believe there are any apparent objective standards by which to measure whether “news” is or is not “fit to print.”’

“No matter how it’s interpreted, the motto certainly is remarkable in its permanence. One-hundred fifteen years on the front page has invested the motto with a certain gravitas. It often has been associated with fairness, restraint, and impartiality — objectives that nominally define mainstream American journalism.

“A commentary in the Wall Street Journal in 2001 addressed those sentiments, describing the motto as the ‘leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.

“Interestingly, the ‘leitmotif’ of American journalism had its origins in marketing and advertising.

“’All the news that’s fit to print’ first appeared on an illuminated advertising sign, spelled out in red lights above New York’s Madison Square in early October 1896. That was about six weeks after Adolph S. Ochs had acquired the newspaper in bankruptcy court.

“Ochs, patriarch of the family that still controls and publishes the Times, had come to New York from Tennessee. His task was to differentiate the Times from its larger, aggressive, and wealthier rivals — notably the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. It was a tall order, given the beleaguered status of the Times in New York’s crowded newspaper market.

“Ochs possessed a keen sense of promotion and turned to a number of techniques to call attention to the Times. The illuminated sign at Madison Square was one. An even more successful promotion was a contest inviting readers to propose a better motto.

“In late October 1896, the Times announced it was offering $100 for the phrase of ten words or fewer that ‘more aptly’ captured the newspaper’s ‘distinguishing characteristics’ than ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’

“Hundreds of entries poured in. …  As the contest unfolded in the fall of 1896, the Times amended the rules, making clear it would not abandon ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ but would still pay $100 for the best suggestion. And entries kept coming in.

“A committee of Times staff narrowed the field to 150, which in turn was winnowed to four by the motto contest judge, Richard W. Gilder, editor of The Century magazine. The finalists were:

  • “Always decent; never dull”
  • “The news of the day; not the rubbish”
  • “A decent newspaper for decent people”
  • “All the world’s news, but not a School for Scandal”

“The latter entry, Gilder determined, was the best of the lot, and the Times paid the prize money to the author of the phrase, D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut.

“What exactly prompted Ochs to move ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to the front page 115 years ago is not entirely clear. But his intent was unmistakable — to throw down a challenge to the yellow press, a challenge that Ochs ultimately won. The Times has long outlived the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

“So the motto lives on as a reminder, as a daily rebuke to the flamboyant extremes of fin-de-siècle American journalism that helped inspire ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’”

WJC

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‘Yellow journalism’: The back story to a sneer, 115 years on

In 1897, Anniversaries, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 31, 2012 at 6:35 am

Wardman: Gave us 'yellow journalism'

Yellow journalism” is a disparaging epithet often invoked in journalism, even though its derivation is little known.

This is the back story to a sneer that trips easily off the tongue with scorn and condescension.

The first verified use of the term was 115 years ago today, when “yellow journalism” appeared in the old New York Press.

The phrase “the Yellow Journalism” appeared in a small headline on the Press’ editorial page on January 31, 1897. The phrase also appeared that day in the newspaper;s editorial page gossip column, “On the Tip of the Tongue.”

Yellow journalism” was quickly embraced in American newspapering, as a way to disparage and denigrate the freewheeling practices of William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal as well as Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World.

Within weeks of the first use of the term, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.

In the 115 years since then, “yellow journalism” has turned into a derisive if vague shorthand for denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all kinds.

“It is,” I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “an evocative term that has been diffused internationally, in contexts as diverse as Greece and Nigeria, as Israel and India.”

I also noted that yellow journalism emerged in “a lusty, fiercely competitive, and intolerant time, when newspapers routinely traded brickbats and insults” and even threats.

Just how Wardman and the Press came up with “yellow journalism” is not clear.

The newspaper’s own, brief discussion of the term’s derivation was decidedly unrevealing. “We called them Yellow because they are Yellow,” the Press said in 1898 in a comment about the Journal and the World.

In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with depraved literature, which may have been an inspiration to Wardman, an austere figure largely lost to New York newspaper history. (The New York Times said in 1923 in its obituary of Wardman: “Like many another anonymous worker in journalism, his name was not often conspicuously before the public, and he was content to sink his personality in that of the papers which he served.”)

Wardman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in three years at Harvard University, once was described as showing “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.” He did little to conceal his contempt for Hearst and Hearst’s flamboyant style of journalism.

Disdain routinely spilled into the columns of the Press, of which Wardman became editor in chief in 1896 at the age of 31. (The Press ceased publication in 1916.)

The Press took to taunting Hearst, Hearst’s mother, and Hearst’s support for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. Hearst’s Journal was virtually alone among New York newspapers in supporting Bryan’s “free silver” candidacy.

The Press taunted Hearst, then 34, as a mama’s boy and “little Willie.” It referred to the Journal as “our silverite, or silver-wrong, contemporary.”

The Press also experimented with pithy if stilted turns of phrase to denounce “new journalism,” Hearst’s preferred term to characterize his style of newspapering.

“The ‘new journalism,’” the Press said in early January 1897 “continues to think up a varied assortment of new lies.”

Later in the month, the Press asked in a single-line editorial comment:

“Why not call it nude journalism?”

It clearly was a play on “new journalism” and was meant to suggest the absence of “even the veneer of decency.”

It wasn’t long before Wardman and the Press seized upon the phrase “yellow-kid journalism,” which evoked the Hearst-Pulitzer rivalry over a popular cartoon character known as the “Yellow Kid.” Both the Journal and the World at the time were publishing versions of the kid.

The Yellow Kid (Library of Congress)

At the end of January 1897, the phrase “yellow-kid journalism” was modified  to “the Yellow Journalism,” and the sneer was born.

Wardman turned often to this delicious pejorative, invoking it in a number of brief editorial comments such as:

“The Yellow Journalism is now so overripe that the little insects which light upon it quickly turn yellow, too.”

The diffusion of “yellow journalism” was confirmed when Hearst’s Journal embraced the term in mid-May 1898, during the Spanish-American War. With typical immodesty, it declared:

“… the sun in heaven is yellow—the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism.”

WJC

Adapted from an essay posted in 2010 at Media Myth Alert.

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Where do they get this stuff?

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

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

Hearst: Never made the vow

None of this is particularly new, though.

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

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

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

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

The commentary asserted:

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

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

Creelman

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

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

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

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

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

What’s more, I write, the anecdote “lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

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

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

It was journalism with a social conscience.

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

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

Why is all this significant?

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

Which is nonsense.

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

WJC

Some dubious history from Frank Rich

In Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 1, 2011 at 9:50 am

Frank Rich, in a lengthy New York magazine screed about Rupert Murdoch, invokes the hoary media myth that William Randolph Hearst’s “papers famously fomented the Spanish-American War and perfected the modern gossip machine.”

I won’t quarrel much with Rich’s claim about “the modern gossip machine.” But the bit about the Spanish-American War represents a serious misreading of history.

In addressing such a dubious assertion as Hearst’s yellow press “fomented the Spanish-American War,” it’s useful to ask: How’d they do it? How was newspaper content translated into war policy?

Rich doesn’t say. He doesn’t pause to consider how it was that content of Hearst’s newspapers set an agenda for war that the administration of President William McKinley pursued.

The yellow press in fact had no such agenda-setting influence. It was a negligible factor.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, McKinley administration officials took no leads from Hearst’s newspapers.

They derided the yellow press, when they thought of it at all, and regarded it as a complicating factor in efforts to resolve a diplomatic impasse over Spain’s harsh rule of Cuba — an impasse that gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The impasse arose from Spain’s brutal but ineffective attempts to put down a rebellion on Cuba that began in 1895 and reached islandwide proportion by 1898.

To tamp down the rebellion, Spain imposed a policy it called “reconcentration,” in which tens of thousands of Cuban men, women, and children were herded into garrisons towns and fortified areas, from where they could provide no aid or support to Cuban insurgents in the countryside.

Reconcentration” brought on widespread starvation, malnutrition, and disease. Tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died as a result of the Spanish policy which, as historian Ivan Musicant has written, “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The misguided policy, Musicant also noted, “turned public opinion enormously in the United States.”

Ultimately, then, as I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the Spanish-American War was “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.”

I also noted:

“While the yellow press may have reported extensively on the consequences of Spain’s failures and missteps, it did not create them.”

So what? one might ask.

After all, Rich’s reference to Hearst and the Spanish-American War represented a small portion of a lengthy article about Murdoch. So why make a fuss about it?

Several reasons offer themselves.

For starters, the Hearst-Murdoch comparison, as I’ve pointed out previously at Media Myth Alert, is facile and inexact. The similarities between the two media tycoons are largely superficial.

Notably, Hearst had nothing akin to the global reach of Murdoch’s multimedia empire. And Hearst, unlike Murdoch, vigorously pursued political ambitions: Hearst ran repeatedly and mostly unsuccessfully for high political office during his late 30s and 40s, before giving up.

But a more important reason for directing attention to this dubious bit of media history is that Rich arguably should have known better: Few serious historians buy into the claim about Hearst and his newspapers fomenting the war with Spain.

And thinking it through, it doesn’t seem very logical: Could newspaper content be so powerful and decisive that it could push a country into war it otherwise wouldn’t have fought?

Does it really work that way?

Assuredly not.

WJC

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Juan Williams’ new book repeats Spanish-American War myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am

The new book by Juan Williams, the political analyst clumsily dismissed by NPR last year, offers some history of American journalism.

Some inaccurate history of American journalism.

The book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, repeats the hoary media myth that the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer brought on the Spanish-American War of 1898.

That’s a facile, media-centric interpretation endorsed by few if any serious historians of the conflict.

According to an excerpt of Muzzled posted at the online site of Fox News,  Williams writes:

“Hearst and Pulitzer became infamous for starting a real war. They whipped up so much anger at Spain through inflammatory stories about Spain’s handling of American vessels that they incited the United States to go to war with Spain in the Spanish-American War.”

Williams also says of Hearst and Pulitzer:

“Their coverage of the news, from crime to political scandals to war, was a study in sensationalized accounts, including outright distortion and lies, in a battle to sell more papers in New York City.”

Hearst and Pulitzer were bitter rivals, to be sure. But anyone who has spent much time reading their newspapers of the mid- and late-1890s can only be impressed by the vigor and breadth of their report.

As media historian John D. Stevens wrote in his study of sensationalism and New York City journalism, it is “tempting to caricature the yellow papers as being edited for janitors and clerks.”

But in fact they “published a fair amount of sober financial, political, and diplomatic information,” Stevens wrote. They were much more than merely sensational.

If the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer titillated, Stevens noted, they also informed.

In any case, they certainly cannot be blamed for bringing on the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

The yellow press “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.”

Those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — the scene of an islandwide rebellion that had begun in 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities ordered thousands of Cubans, mostly old men, women, and children, into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The authorities called the policy “reconcentration,” and it gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The human rights disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — included, but not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

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

The yellow press reported on, but certainly did not create, the devastating effects of Spain’s ill-considered and destructive policy.

So to indict Hearst and Pulitzer, as Williams does, for supposedly “starting” the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and do disservice to a keener understanding of the much-maligned genre of yellow journalism.

WJC

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