W. Joseph Campbell

Getting it excruciatingly wrong about Hearst, Remington, Cuba, and war

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on August 14, 2017 at 9:01 am

William Randolph Hearst died 66 years ago today but remains a bogeyman of American media, routinely accused of journalistic misconduct such as fomenting the Spanish-American War in 1898, after vowing to a prominent artist that he would do just that.

Such claims of Hearst’s misconduct are nonsense: They are the stuff of media myth. Enduring media myth, in fact — as made clear by a rambling column posted the other day at the Los Angeles CityWatch site.

Hearst, gone these 66 years

The column demonstrates how excruciatingly wrong accounts of history can sometimes be.

Here are excerpts from the column, with inaccuracies and dubious claims highlighted in bold.

  • Hearst literally cooked up a war with Spain so he could increase his circulation. … That war was called the Spanish American War and was over pretty much after it started.
  • [Hearst’s journalism] was called “Yellow Journalism” mainly because the front page was printed on yellow paper.
  • The name “Yellow Journalism” came to mean those items or events that possibly held a germ of truth but were greatly exaggerated.
  • Famed western illustrator, sculptor and writer Frederic Remington worked for Hearst at the time. He went to Cuba to take pictures of all the horrible things Spain was doing it to Cuban citizens, but he couldn’t find a lot to photograph. Hearst reportedly told him, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

Let’s address those inaccuracies and flawed claims in turn.

Hearst stands wrongly accused of having brought on the war with Spain in 1898, as I discussed in detail in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. The war, I noted, was “the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of … Hearst’s New York Journal,” the leading exemplar of what then was known as “yellow journalism.”

Claims that yellow journalism brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, the scene of an islandwide rebellion since early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which moved thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

It turned into a humanitarian disaster that “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, the Hearst press.

What’s clear is that the yellow press reported on, but it did not create, the terrible hardships of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

As leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, correctly observed, the abuses and suffering created by that policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898. The content of the yellow press was a non-factor.

Almost always ignored in claims that Hearst brought about the war is any explanation about how newspaper content accomplished the trick: By what mechanism was Hearst’s newspaper content transformed into policy and military action?

It is left unaddressed because there was no such mechanism. Hearst did not “literally” cook up war with Spain.

Nor was the term “yellow journalism” inspired by the color of front page newsprint. Nothing of the sort.

Wardman: He gave us ‘yellow journalism’

“Yellow journalism” was a sneer, coined by Ervin Wardman, a fastidious, Hearst-hating editor of the old New York Press. Wardman loathed what Hearst called “New Journalism” and took to experimenting with pithy turns of phrase to denigrate the flamboyant style.

In a one-line editorial comment in the Press in January 1897, Wardman suggested calling it “Nude Journalism,” to suggest that Hearst’s journalism was bereft of morals and decency.

Wardman soon landed on “yellow-kid journalism,” a term in part inspired by the popular comic running at the time in Hearst’s Journal and in the rival New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Both newspapers carried version of the comic which featured a wise-cracking urchin of the slums typically called the “Yellow Kid.”

At the end of January 1897, “yellow-kid journalism” was modified to “the Yellow Journalism,” and the sneer was born.

“Yellow journalism,” as practiced in the late 19th century, was defined by much more than exaggeration. Indeed, it was a genre characterized by:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by rudimentary use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention frequently to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Given those features, I noted in Yellow Journalism, the genre “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

No media myth in American journalism is more enduring than that of Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

It supposedly was contained in a telegram to the artist, Frederic Remington, who went to Cuba for Hearst’s Journal in January 1897. Remington was an artist, sculptor, and writer: He was no photographer. His assignment in Cuba to draw illustrations of the rebellion against Spanish rule, the precursor to the Spanish-American War.

As myth has it, Remington before leaving sent a telegram to Hearst, saying, “Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

In reply, Hearst’s supposedly stated:

“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

The anecdote of the Remington-Hearst exchange lives on, as I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.”

It lives on “even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message,” I wrote. “It lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

Not only that, I added, but Spanish control and censorship of the cable traffic in Havana “was too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to go unnoticed and unremarked upon. 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.”

Debunking the Hearstian vow is the subject of Chapter One in Getting It Wrong; the chapter may be accessed here.

WJC

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