One of American journalism’s most persistent myths — William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish” or otherwise bring about war with Spain in the late 1890s — has made a fresh appearance, this time in remarks by radio show host Thom Hartmann.
According to excerpts posted online by the NewsBusters site, Hartmann last week invoked Hearst’s vow as if it were genuine, asserting that Hearst “famously sent the telegram to Frederic Remington down in Cuba saying, ‘Get me the pictures, I’ll give you the war,’ for the Spanish-America War.”
Hartmann added: “And Remington supplied the pictures and, or at least the drawings of the, what was it, the USS Maine?” (A YouTube link to the program is available here; see time stop 12:52.)
The back story to the myth is that Remington, a famous artist of the American West, was sent to Cuba on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal. He arrived Havana in January 1897 — 15 months before the destruction of the Maine in Havana harbor.
Remington spent six days on the island, drawing sketches of the rebellion that the Spanish authorities then ruling Cuba were trying without great success to put down. Remington left by passenger steamer on January 16, 1897, and reached New York four days later.
At the time, the Cuban rebellion was an important ongoing story in leading U.S. newspapers and Remington’s sketches were displayed prominently in Hearst’s Journal.
Before leaving Cuba, Remington supposedly sent Hearst a cable, stating: “Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”
In reply, Hearst supposedly told Remington:
“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”
Reasons for saying so are many.
For starters, Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, apparently, never discussed it. The artifacts — the telegrams — have never turned up.
What’s more, Spanish authorities who controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic, surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary and meddlesome cable, had it been sent. It is very unlikely that the telegrams, had they been sent, would have flowed freely and uninhibited from Hearst in New York to Remington in Havana.
Not only that, but the myth endures despite “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency,” as I described it in Getting It Wrong. That is, it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” (or, as Hartmann put it, “give you the war”) because war — the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.
Given the context of Remington’s assignment, Hearst’s purported vow is illogical and incongruous.
(The Cuban rebellion gave rise to the Spanish-American War in April 1898.)
In addition, the correspondence of Richard Harding Davis gives lie to the Remington-Hearst anecdote.
Davis was a prominent writer and journalist who traveled with Remington on the assignment to Cuba (see image, above).
Davis frequently wrote letters to his family, especially to his mother, Rebecca Harding Davis. And his correspondence made clear that Remington did not leave because they had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.
In fact, on the day before Remington left Cuba for New York, Davis wrote:
“There is war here and no mistake.”
More important, Davis’ letters say that Remington left for home not on the pretext that “everything is quiet” but because Davis wanted him to go.
“I am as relieved at getting old Remington to go as though I had won $5000,” Davis wrote to his mother on January 15, 1897. “He was a splendid fellow but a perfect kid and had to be humored and petted all the time.”
Davis added that he “was very glad” Remington left “for he kept me back all the time and I can do twice as much in half the time.”
In other letters, Davis said Remington left because he had all the material he needed for his sketches and because Remington was fearful of crossing Spanish lines to meet up with the Cuban rebels, which had been the plan.
Moreover, the provenance of the anecdote is quite dubious. It was first recounted in print in 1901, in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a self-important, cigar-chomping journalist known to indulge in hyperbole.
Creelman mentioned the anecdote without documentation — without saying how or where he had heard about it. At the time of the purported exchange between Remington and Hearst, Creelman was neither in Cuba nor in New York, but in Spain, on assignment to the Continent for the New York Journal.
Additionally, Creelman presented the “furnish the war” tale not to condemn Hearst but to praise him. Creelman wrote in his memoir that the anecdote demonstrated how Hearst’s activist “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating events.
Over the years, the anecdote’s original intent has been lost and the purported vow has taken on sinister overtones. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, it now has “unique status” in American journalism “as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.”
And as Hartmann’s remarks suggest, the anecdote remains impressively resilient.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Remembering the ‘Maine,’ Hearst, and Remington
- ‘They even started wars’: Nonsense in the Economist’s holiday double issue
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- Obama, journalism history, and ‘folks like Hearst’
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