W. Joseph Campbell

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

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