William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is one of American journalism’s most enduring myths. It’s a stunningly hardy though dubious tale that has been deployed in discussing journalistic sins and shortcomings of all sorts.
As I write in my myth-debunking book Getting It Wrong, the Hearstian vow “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.”
It even has application in news about collegiate sports.
An online sports-news site, Bleacher Report, turned to “furnish the war” in a commentary posted yesterday about the whiff of scandal around Auburn University’s championship football program.
Hearst’s reputed vow was a way to set up the commentary, which defended the program from what it called “the incessant beating of the investigation drum by Auburn detractors” suspicious of player-recruitment violations.
The Bleacher Report commentary declared:
“When photographer Frederic Remington was dispatched to Cuba in the late 1800s to document a war and found none, he sent a message to publisher William Randolph Hearst: ‘There is no war.’
“Hearst allegedly responded: ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’
“In the ensuing months Hearst’s newspaper fanned the flames with sensationalized front page articles that were of dubious accuracy and in many cases patently false. His articles stirred passions among a readership that neither knew nor cared if the reports were accurate. His relentless attacks eventually helped push U.S. administration into declaring war on Spain. Hearst got his war.
“Since October, the Auburn football program has endured a similar smear campaign. …”
Reasons for doubting that Hearst ever made such a vow are many, and include the anecdote’s breathtaking illogic.
War was the reason Hearst, owner of the flamboyant New York Journal, sent Remington (an artist, not a “photographer”) to Cuba in the first place. That war was the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule, which began in February 1895.
Remington was in Cuba briefly in January 1897.
By that time, I note in Getting It Wrong, newspaper readers “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.”
It would have made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war.”
In addition, Hearst denied having made such a statement. Remington, apparently, never discussed it. And the telegrams bearing the content of the purported Remington-Hearst exchange have never surfaced.
Moreover, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, “there was no chance” that the telegrams “would have flowed freely between Remington in Havana and Hearst in New York.
“Spanish control of the cable traffic in Havana was too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon,” I write, adding:
“A vow such as Hearst’s to ‘furnish the war‘ surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.”
Like many media myths, the tale of the Hearstian vow is accessible, pithy, and easily recalled. It supposedly illuminates larger lessons about the news media — in this case, the media’s malign potential to bring about a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.
Which is nonsense, and historically inaccurate.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 was hardly a matter of Hearst’s having “got his war.” Rather, the conflict was the consequence of an intractable, three-sided standoff.
Cuba’s rebels would settle for nothing short of political independence. Spain refused to grant self-rule to the most important remnant of its once-sprawling American empire. And the United States, for economic and humanitarian reasons, could no longer tolerate an inconclusive war just 90 miles from its shores.
Recent and related:
- Hat-tipping ‘On Language’
- Media myth and Truthout
- The ‘anniversary’ of a media myth: ‘I’ll furnish the war’
- Getting it right about Hearst, his newspapers, and war
- Hearst ‘pushed us into war’? How’d he do that?
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- Fact-checking WaPo columnist on the ‘McKinley moment’
- Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- A history lesson not to miss? No, but it’s entertaining
- Getting It Wrong goes on Q-and-A