W. Joseph Campbell

‘Forbes’ essay invokes zombie-like Hearst ‘quote’: It never dies

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 22, 2015 at 12:14 pm

The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst that he would “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

It is, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Exhibit A in support of the dubious notion that Hearst  brought on the Spanish-American War.

The vow supposedly was made in a telegram to the artist, Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Cuba to draw sketches of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. Remington stayed just six days in January 1897 before returning to New York, where his sketches were displayed prominently in Hearst’s New York Journal.

'Maine' destroyed

‘Journal’ reports ‘Maine’ destruction

The mythical tale about the Hearstian vow and the war with Spain was offered up anew yesterday, in an essay posted at Forbes.com. It declared:

“Artist Frederick [sic] Remington was working for Hearst and the Journal was filled with his sketches of alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace, especially women and children. When events in Cuba seemed to have run their course and the Spanish had regained control Remington wrote to Hearst and asked if it was time to come home, Hearst replied, ‘Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.’ And when the battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, he did just that with a stream of fictional stories of sabotage and anti-Americanism. That the explosion was actually caused by the accidental ignition of coal dust was, as far as Hearst was concerned, irrelevant. He had his war.”

There’s a lot of myth and misunderstanding to unpack there.

For starters, the “alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace” were quite real. The abuses stemmed from Spain’s policy of “reconcentration,” in which Cuban non-combattants were herded into garrison towns, to deprive the rebels of their support. Reconcentration led to acute hardships, privation, and the deaths of untold thousands of Cubans.

A leading historian of the Spanish-American War period, Ivan Musicant, has  written that reconcentration “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The misguided policy, Musicant also noted, “turned public opinion enormously in the United States.”

Despite the Forbes claim, Spain never “regained control” of Cuba; at best, the rebellion had settled into an uneasy stalemate by the end of 1897.

The battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, 13 months after Remington’s brief visit to Cuba. Cause of the explosion that killed 266 U.S. sailors and officers remains disputed. But in March 1898, a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine most likely had been destroyed by an underwater mine. The Inquiry could not determine who set the device, however.

About a month after the Court of Inquiry issued its report, the United States and Spain went to war over Cuba.

In the run-up to war, the Journal didn’t distinguish itself with its overheated reporting about the crisis. But the newspaper’s content cannot be said to have brought on the conflict.

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, claims that Hearst fomented the war invariably are offered without persuasive explanation as to how the often-exaggerated content of his newspapers was transformed into U.S. policy, how newspaper reports were decisive in the decision-making the led the United States to declare war in April 1898.

The inescapable answer: Newspaper content was not decisive.

If Hearst and his newspapers had pushed the country into war, then researchers surely should be able to locate evidence of such influence in the personal papers and reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

But nothing of the like can be found in the private letters, diary entries, and diplomatic correspondence of top members of the administration of President William McKinley.

Those papers contain almost no evidence that the content of Hearst’s newspapers “penetrated the thinking of key White House officials, let alone influenced the Cuban policy of the McKinley administration,” I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Which brings us back to the zombie-like vow, which, by the way, the Forbes essay mangles.

Hearst purportedly told Remington, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” — not “Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.”

Creelman: Sole source

Creelman the pompous

The original source for the “furnish the war” quotation was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author, James Creelman, was a vain, cigar-chomping journalist inclined to self-promotion, hyperbole, and pomposity.

Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the supposed Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

What’s more, Creelman – who was in Spain at the time Remington was in Cuba in 1897 – recounted the anecdote not as a rebuke but as a compliment to Hearst and the activist “yellow journalism” he had pioneered in New York City.

Over the decades, though, the quote has morphed into censure of Hearst and his supposedly war-mongering newspapers.

The quote lives on despite the absence of any supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up, and Hearst denied having sent such a message.

Not only that, but the Spanish authorities who controlled Cuba’s incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic surely would have intercepted and called attention to such an incendiary message — had it been sent.

In addition, the timing of Remington’s assignment further undercuts the “furnish the war” tale: The timing poses an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, in that it would have been absurd for Hearst to pledge to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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  2. […] Forbes weighed in yesterday on the dust-up over Facebook’s removal of the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War. In  doing so, the magazine stepped squarely in a nasty and tenacious media myth. […]

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