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.
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.”
Recent and related:
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- Why they get it wrong
- Blogging about journalism history: Why, and why bother?
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claim about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case
- The ‘anniversary’ of a media myth: ‘I’ll furnish the war’
- ‘Furnish the war’ lives on, and on
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- Myth-busting at the Smithsonian
- JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’