The media-driven myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is as delicious as it is tenacious.
The myth is cited in the “E-bits” column in the November 2009 issue of The Digital Journalist. The columnist writes: “The godfather of yellow journalism, Hearst purportedly said to an illustrator he sent to cover a revolution that wasn’t happening in 1898, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.'”
It’s a story almost too good not to be true, almost too delicious to be false.
But it’s almost certainly apocryphal. As I write in the forthcoming Getting It Wrong, the story lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though the telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.
It 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 the illustrator, Frederic Remington, to Cuba in the first place. Remington was in Cuba in early 1897, at a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which in 1898 gave rise to the Spanish-American War.
Hearst’s famous vow has achieved unique status as an 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.
And it’s as tenacious as any media-driven myth.