William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 1890s may be the anecdote most often told in American journalism.
It’s a woolly tale that’s been in circulation since 1901, and it lives on despite repeated and thorough debunking. It’s one of the ten media-driven myths examined in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.
“Furnish the war” is so tenacious because it offers a tidy summary of the news media at their worst. And it’s a pithy quotation, easily digested and readily recalled.
The anecdote reemerged the other day, in a commentary posted at TheCitizen.com, an online news site of Fayette Publishing in Fayetteville, GA. The commentary stated:
“William Randolph Hearst in 1897 [told] the artist Frederic Remington: ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’ Think for a minute what that statement means. War means business, war means profits and war means death.”
Hearst’s purported message to Remington is almost certainly apocryphal–as is the notion that war meant profits for Hearst’s newspapers. In their intensive coverage of the four-month Spanish-American War of 1898, his papers lost money.
As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the Spanish-American War generally boosted newspaper circulation. But advertising revenues fell, as advertisers feared the war would undercut the nascent recovery from the hard economic times of the 1890s.
In addition, newsprint costs soared, as did news-gathering expenditures.
The trade journal Fourth Estate estimated in 1899 that Hearst’s New York Journal had spent $50,000 a week—the equivalent these days of more than $1 million—on cable tolls, reporters’ salaries, and dispatch boats that ferried correspondents’ reports from the war’s principal theater in Cuba to Jamaica and elsewhere for transmission to New York.
The Journal scoffed at claims that it helped foment the conflict in a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits.
“Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal said, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000—the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.
During the war, which lasted 114 days, the Journal‘s racy sister publication, the Evening Journal, produced as many as forty extra editions a day–a late 19th century manifestation of what contemporary journalists would recognize as the unrelenting, 24-hour news cycle.