W. Joseph Campbell

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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.

Hearst, gone these 66 years

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.

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

WaPo book review invokes Hearst myth of ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on January 28, 2017 at 9:05 am

In a time of “fake news” circulated by shadowy Web sites, you’d think mainstream media would be extra-vigilant about not trafficking in media myths, those appealing tall tales about the exploits of journalists.

Not so with the Washington Post, which repeats the mythical anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to wapologofurnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

The Post’s blunder appeared in a review posted yesterday of The True Flag, a new book about America’s emergence as a colonial power during and after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The review qualified the anecdote with the adverb “reputedly,” as if that insulates the writer or the newspaper from blame for peddling a dubious tale.

It doesn’t. If the anecdote’s false, or likely so, it ought to be left out.

Here’s how the offending passage reads:

“Yellow-press lord William Randolph Hearst reputedly cabled one of his photographers, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which was published recently), “the Hearst anecdote is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true.”

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmIt also is one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths that circulates, I note, “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.”

The anecdote first appeared in 1901 in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a journalist prone to hyperbole and pomposity. Creelman’s book, On the Great Highway, did not explain how or where he learned about the “furnish the war” tale.

Creelman said Hearst’s vow was triggered by a telegram from Frederic Remington, a prominent artist and illustrator on assignment in Cuba for the New York Journal. (Contrary to the claim in the Post’s review, Remington was not a photographer.)

He spent six days in Cuba in January 1897, drawing sketches of the islandwide rebellion against Spanish rule, which preceded the wider war of 1898.

According to Creelman’s unsourced account, Remington wired Hearst, publisher of the Journal, to say: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst said in reply, according to Creelman:

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

The tale gained traction only years later after Hearst, a lifelong Democrat, broke with President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the New Deal and backed a Republican, Alf Landon, in the 1936 presidential election. Hearst’s apostasy prompted vigorous criticism and his foes seized on “furnish the war” as an example of his dangerous, war-mongering ways.

The most truculent of biographies about Hearst — Ferdinand Lundberg’s slim polemic, Imperial Hearst — was published in 1936. And it repeated the “furnish the war” anecdote.

The tale has endured, even though the telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

“It lives on,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message. 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 write, but “Spanish control 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.”

The evidence arrayed against the hearty anecdote makes it clear that the exchange Creelman described never took place.

So what are the odds the arrogant Post will correct this lapse?

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

No, ‘Politico’ — Hearst didn’t vow to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 18, 2016 at 1:58 pm

In a lengthy essay posted today, Politico considers what it called the “long and brutal history of fake news” — and offers up, as if it were true, the fake tale of William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The essay also invokes other myths associated with the run-up to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Hearst’s vow, supposedly contained in an exchanged of telegrams with the artist Frederick Remington, is one of the most tenacious of all media myths, those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal. They can be thought of as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as fact for years.

Politico logoHere’s how Politico recounted the anecdote:

“In the 1890s, plutocrats like Randolph Hearst and his Morning Journal used exaggeration to help spark the Spanish-American War. When Hearst’s correspondent in Havana wired that there would be no war, Hearst — the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane — famously responded: ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women — and he got his war.”

Lots of myth to unpack in that passage.

Let’s start with the unsourced reference to Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which came out not long ago), “the anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm

And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Not only that, but it’s extremely unlikely that Hearst’s purported telegram would have reached Remington without being intercepted by Spanish authorities.

They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their oversight, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

I further point out that an incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

Remington’s assignment in Cuba was to draw sketches of the rebellion which, by then, had reached islandwide proportions. Spain had sent as many as 200,000 troops to Cuba in a futile attempt to put down the conflict. Remington arrived in early January 1897 and stayed six days.

He apparently never spoke publicly about the purported telegraphic exchange with Hearst. Even so, the artist’s work and recollections of the assignment belie the notion that he had found Cuba undisturbed by conflict.

Remington

Remington: Brief trip to Cuba gave rise to media myth

His sketches published in Hearst’s New York Journal depict unmistakable, if unremarkable, scenes of  rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban noncombatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound.

Accompanying the sketch of the captive noncombatants was a caption in which Remington said the treatment of Cuban women by irregulars allied with the Spanish was nothing short of “unspeakable.” And “as for the men captured by them alive,” Remington’s caption said, “the blood curdles in my veins as I think of the atrocity, the cruelty, practiced on these helpless victims.”

In 1899, Remington recalled the assignment to Cuba in a short magazine article in which he wrote:

“I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” a grim fortress overlooking the Havana harbor. The countryside, Remington wrote, “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

Clearly, the artist had seen a good deal of war-related misery and disruption during his brief visit to Cuba.

The trip’s immediate aftermath proved controversial and embarrassing to Remington. After returning to New York, he drew an imaginative and highly inaccurate sketch of leering Spanish authorities conducting a strip-search of a young Cuban woman aboard an American passenger vessel before it left Havana.

Remington’s sketch was drawn to accompany a report by Richard Harding Davis, a flashy correspondent who had accompanied the artist to Cuba and stayed on for a few weeks.

Davis’ article — which condemned the search and suggested, erroneously, that it was illegal on an American-flagged vessel in Cuban waters — was published on the Journal’s front page in February 1897. Remington’s accompanying strip-search sketch (see nearby) was displayed on page 2. It erred in showing men conducting the search; it was carried out by a woman.

Presumably, this sketch is what Politico referred to in stating:

“Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women — and he got his war.”screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-11-15-08-am

The subject of the search was a Cuban woman. And the sketch, while exaggerated, had nothing to do with the onset of the Spanish-American War in April 1898.

Nor did the content of Hearst’s newspapers: They did not foment or give rise to the conflict — a media-centric interpretation that I address and debunk in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Claims that Hearst brought about the war, I wrote, “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 rebellion since early 1895.

In trying to put down the rebellion, Spain not only had sent thousands of troops to the island, it imposed a cruel policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

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

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “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, Hearst’s newspapers in New York and San Francisco.

The Hearst press reported on, but did not create, the deplorable effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

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 April 1898 — a decision that had little to do with Hearst, Remington, or the content of the New York Journal.

WJC

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‘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

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Nat Geo’s cartoonish treatment of Hearst v. Pulitzer

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War on June 9, 2015 at 9:31 am

National Geographic’s docudrama last night about the rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was, predictably, long on stereotype, highly selective, and misleading in its superficial treatment of its protagonists.

The show, one of eight installments in a not-so-acclaimed series called “American Genius,” was cartoonish in depicting Hearst as a callow and strutting rich kid, extravagant with money, and eager to imitate the techniques of the older and, at least according to National Geographic’s program, more virtuous Joseph Pulitzer.

Pulitzer bust

Pulitzer: Mean-spirited ways ignored

Hearst, the son of a millionaire miner turned U.S. senator, was 32 when he came to New York from California in 1895, a time when the city’s journalism had gone stagnant. Its leading publishers and editors were aging, infirm, or absentee. Or in Pulitzer’s case, all of the above.

Hearst promptly shook up New York’s journalism establishment, and earned its enmity in doing so.

But National Geographic offered little discussion about the seismic character of Hearst’s entry into New York, or how success in New York was crucial to his goal of building a lasting media empire.

Significantly, the docudrama failed to mention a key component in the supposed Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry: Pulitzer was almost entirely absent from New York journalism after 1891 — years before Hearst came to Gotham to acquire and run the New York Journal. The rivalry was not directly between the owners, but between their newspapers.

Likewise, the program made no mention at all about how Pulitzer tried to run his New York World remotely, through a steady stream of telegrams and letters sent to his editors and business managers from Maine, Georgia, Europe, or wherever the peripatetic Pulitzer sought comfort as his health worsened and his eyesight failed.

Similarly, there was no mention that Pulitzer was a harsh and mean-spirited taskmaster who often treated his senior staff like so many incompetents. He drove away talent as much as Hearst recruited it from the World. Or as National Geographic put it, stole from the World.

Perhaps most important of the program’s flaws was its silence about the activist concept that inspired and animated Hearst’s journalism in the mid- and late-1890s.

Contrary to the program’s frequent claims, Hearst was not so much an imitator of Pulitzer as the adapter of a theory of participatory journalism advanced by William T. Stead in Britain in the mid-1880s. “Government by journalism,” Stead called it, arguing that newspapers had a central role in guiding civic life, given their presumed capacity to frame and shape public opinion.

Hearst clearly borrowed from Stead’s “government by journalism” in pursuing a model his newspaper called the “journalism of action.” It was a breathtaking vision of participatory journalism that went well beyond the stunts (such as Nellie Bly’s race round the world in 1888) organized by Pulitzer’s newspaper.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “journalism of action” envisioned that newspapers should and could go beyond merely gathering, publishing, and commenting on the news. Instead, I noted, the “journalism of action” asserted that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

evangelina_oct10_trim

‘Jailbreaking journalism,’ 1897

There was no more dramatic or celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” than the case of “jailbreaking journalism” in 1897.

That was when Karl Decker, a reporter Hearst dispatched to Cuba, helped to organize the escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed in Havana for nearly 15 months, during the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and with the critical support of a clandestine smuggling network operating in Havana, Decker succeeded in early October 1897 in breaking Cisneros out of jail. She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of a Cuban-American banker, then smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City.

There, Hearst organized a rapturous welcome for Cisneros, who knew few words of English and seemed overwhelmed by the reception.

The National Geographic show had the Cisneros character speaking fairly fluent accented English. And it characterized the jailbreak superficially, as simply “a way [for Hearst] to get his readers interested in the rebels’ cause against Spain.” It was that, but much more: the rescue, the Journal declared, was “epochal,”  a “supreme achievement” of participatory journalism.

It proved to be the zenith of the “journalism of action,” a flamboyant if now little-remembered paradigm of newsgathering and newsmaking.

Interestingly, the small stable of experts National Geographic recruited for its show did not include the leading authorities on Hearst — biographers David Nasaw, author of The Chief, and Kenneth Whyte, who wrote The Uncrowned KingBoth books are outstanding.

Had it tapped such experts, the program might have sidestepped such inaccurate claims as Hearst’s having “had more money than God.” Hearst was wealthy, but his widowed mother imposed restraints on his spending, as Nasaw describes in some detail in The Chief.

Hearst’s resources were not unlimited, National Geographic’s claims notwithstanding.

In fact, representatives of the World and the Journal met to explore jointly raising prices, to rebuild revenues depleted by coverage of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

They were effectively blocked from doing so because Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, had lowered the price of his newspaper to one cent from three cents. No way would the World and the Journal leave the one-cent market to Ochs, who came to New York in 1896. So the World and the Journal kept their cover price at a penny, which meant long-term strains on resources and revenues.

About that, of course, the docudrama made no mention.

WJC

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Hearst, Garrison Keillor, and ‘furnish the war’: Celebrities and media myths

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Quotes, Spanish-American War on April 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

Wasn’t I just blogging about celebrities pushing media myths?

Today brought another entry to that dubious lineup.

Keillor_WritersAlmanac

On his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, Garrison Keillor blithely retold the hoary media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The occasion for Keillor’s myth-indulgence was the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth in San Francisco.

“In 1898,” Keillor smugly told listeners, “Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The tale is one of the best-known in American journalism. And it is almost certainly apocryphal, for reasons discussed in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Let’s revisit some of the many reasons.

For starters, Hearst denied sending such a message (a denial usually overlooked or ignored) and Remington apparently never discussed it.

Hearst

Hearst: Denial ignored

What’s more, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up.

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

The sole original source for the “furnish the war” anecdote was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author was James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration.

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

Nor did he say exactly when the presumed Remington-Hearst exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana” in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897, on assignment for Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule.

The rebellion was the antecedent to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The timing of Remington’s trip to Cuba in early 1897 further undercuts the “furnish the war” anecdote: It presents an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, as it would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

As Keillor’s podcast suggests, the “furnish the war” anecdote is a delicious tale, easy to retell, and easy to believe. Like nearly all media myths, it resides on the cusp of plausibility; it corresponds well to the superficial and misleading image of Hearst as war-monger, as the unscrupulous newspaper publisher who fomented the Spanish-American War.

And that, too, is a tenacious media-driven myth.

WJC

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Christmas Eve 100 years ago: NY Sun catches up with Virginia O’Hanlon of ‘Yes, Virginia,’ fame

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes on December 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

NYSun_21Sept1897One-hundred years ago, a reporter for the old New York Sun caught up with Virginia O’Hanlon who, as an 8-year-old in 1897, had written the letter to the newspaper that inspired American journalism’s most memorable editorial, a paen to childhood and the Christmas spirit titled “Is There A Santa Claus?

The editorial’s most famous lines sought to reassure young Virginia, saying:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

NYSun_25Dec19140000

Virginia and daughter (From New York Sun, December 25, 1914)

Seventeen years later, on Christmas Eve 1914, Virginia O’Hanlon spoke about the editorial and recalled it fondly.

“I think that I have never been so happy in my life as when the Sun told me that there was a Santa Claus and that he would live forever,” she told the newspaper’s reporter. “I was eight years old then, just at the age when doubts creep in and when most children get their first touch of cynicism.”

She also recalled having told her father in 1897: “‘I am going to write to the Sun and ask it to tell me the truth, the honest to goodness truth, about Santa Claus. If the Sun says there isn’t any I’ll believe it; if it tells me Santa Claus is real I’ll make those girls at school sorry they ever teased me” by telling her Santa did not exist.

The interview was conducted at the home of Virginia’s parents at 121 West 95th Street in New York City, a few doors from where she had written to the Sun in 1897, saying: “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

At the time of the interview, Virginia was a married woman, 25-years-old. She was wed at her parents’ home in June 1913 to a jeweler named Edwin Malcolm Douglas. They were the parents of Laura Virginia Douglas, who on Christmas Eve was 9-months-old.

The marriage to Douglas was not to last; he eventually left her. And the Sun’s writeup of the interview 100 years ago hinted at strains in the union.

Virginia’s husband was absent that Christmas Eve. His business, the Sun said “takes him away from New York frequently and keeps him away from the city for long periods and the [Douglas] home in Orange, N.J., would be too lonesome for the wife and child.” So Virginia and the baby decamped to her parents’ place.

Douglas “will be home to-night or early in the morning” Christmas Day, Virginia told the Sun’s reporter, “and we will have a lovely Christmas.”

She spoke at some length during the interview about the Sun’s editorial, which was written by Francis P. Church and published September 21, 1897. The newspaper’s reply surprised and elated her, and her parents, Virginia said.

“It used to make me as proud as a peacock,” she said, “to go along in the street in the neighborhood and hear somebody say, ‘Oh, look. There’s Virginia O’Hanlon. Did you see that editorial the New York Sun had about her?’ And father and mother were even prouder than I, I think. They still show the editorial to callers and just talk people’s arms off about it.”

The day the editorial appeared, her father, Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, “hustled out and came back loaded down with [copies of the newspaper] until he looked like a pack mule,” Virginia said. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.”

The editorial “was a wonderful thing in my life,” she said “and I mean it to be a wonderful thing in my baby’s. As soon as she masters her ABC’s it will be the first thing she will read. I’ll help her over the big words and hard spots, but I want her to get the beautiful spirit of it as quickly as she can.”

The writeup of the interview, published in the Sun on Christmas Day 1914, noted that the newspaper had “never quite lost sight of Virginia. … [I]t is impossible to forget the sort of little girl who wrote so sincerely and trustfully as Virginia did. The Sun knew when she left school, knew when she was married, knew when Laura Virginia opened her blue eyes, and remembered yesterday that Laura Virginia was on the eve of her first Christmas.”

I discussed the back story to the famous editorial in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. My writeup three years ago about the Sun’s interview with Virginia O’Hanlon is accessible here.

WJC

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No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Media-driven myths can be tenacious because they offer simplified, easy-to-grasp versions of complex events of the past.

That’s why, for example, the Watergate myth — that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is so hardy. It’s easy to grasp and easy to retell.

Not to blame: Hearst's 'Evening Journal'

Hearst’s Evening Journal

So it is with the Spanish-American War, a brief conflict in 1898 that confirmed the United States as a global power.

The media myth of the Spanish-American War — the simplified but inaccurate account of the conflict’s origins — is that it was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

But the notion is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the hoary myth made an appearance at Politico Magazine the other day, in a commentary titled “The Neocon Surge.”

The commentary said prominent neoconservatives “are going into overdrive to pin the blame for the collapse of Iraq on anyone other than themselves.” And it called out the scholar Robert Kagan, saying he had “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

What especially interests Media Myth Alert is not resurgent neoconservatism but the claim that the Spanish-American War was a “product” of Hearst’s yellow press, a claim Politico vaguely attributed to “most historians.”

Politico is wrong on both counts.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press 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, which had been 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 forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

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

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “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 newspapers of Hearst. The yellow press reported on but it did not create the terrible effects of Spain’s disastrous “reconcentration” policy.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused 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 — not the content of the yellow press, and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it.

Warmonger?

Young Hearst: No warmonger

Almost always unaddressed in claims that Hearst fomented the war is any discussion about how his newspapers’ content accomplished the trick: By what mechanism was newspaper content transformed into policy and military action?

It’s left unaddressed because there was no such mechanism.

The mechanism wasn’t an agenda-setting function: Hearst’s newspapers, attention-grabbing though they were, did not set the news agenda for the other 2,000 or so daily newspapers in the United States in the late 1890s.

A significant body of research compiled over the years indicates that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, and ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow journals in the run-up to the war. Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses and flamboyance.

Moreover, top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the yellow press. They certainly didn’t turn to it for guidance in policymaking. As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, diary entries of White House officials disparaged the yellow press as a nuisance but gave it no credit as a factor in developing or shaping policy.

The content of the yellow press, I further noted, was “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” over conditions on Cuba, negotiations that preceded the declaration of war.

At most, Hearst’s newspapers were irritants to policymakers in Washington. They did not, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century has correctly observed, “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

WJC

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The Remington-Hearst media myth invoked anew

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on June 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

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.

Remington, Davis in Cuba

The stuff of myth

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.)

As with all media myths, this one has some historically accurate scaffolding. But there is no evidence that Hearst ever sent such a telegram, or that he ever made such a war-mongering vow.

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.

The purported vow to “furnish the war” is at the heart of the media myth. It is one of the most familiar lines in American journalism, and it may be the most-quoted comment attributed to Hearst.

But as I discuss in the first chapter of my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal.

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.

Creelman: Sole source

Creelman: self-important

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.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2013

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2013 on the appearance of numerous and prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the five top writeups posted at the blog during 2013, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29): The year brought the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous and clever War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth. Welles’ show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly was so frightening that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

But as I discussed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong,  the radio dramatization produced no such effects. Panic and hysteria were wildly overstated by newspapers of the time.

PBS took up The War of the Worlds program in a documentary that aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary. The PBS program not only made The War of the Worlds seem tedious, it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.” It failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

My critique was seconded by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? (posted May 14): The online news magazine Salon found great significance in liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced tirade in May about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Stewart’s criticism, Salon declared, evoked “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” suggesting that negotiations could lead to a way out of Vietnam.Salon logo

Salon proceeded to step into media myth by describing how Cronkite’s commentary supposedly was received by President Lyndon Johnson:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon offered a muddled caveat by stating parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”? Simply put, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

Cronkite’s commentary about Vietnam was, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, no epiphany for Johnson, and it had nothing to do with his deciding not to seek reelection in 1968.

In fact, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that Jon Stewart’s rant has figured at all in Obama’s fading popularity. Far more decisive has been the botched introduction of the Obama administration’s health-care plan.

London’s Independent invokes Jessica Lynch-Pentagon myth (posted January 28): The year brought the 10th anniversary of the Washington Post’s stunningly inaccurate tale of the supposed heroics of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch during an ambush in Iraq.

In the years since, news reports sometimes have claimed — without citing supporting evidence — that the  Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch. In January, for example, London’s Independent newspaper declared “the Pentagon exaggerated [Lynch’s] story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

Lynch_headline_Post

Stunningly inaccurate

But that was not the Pentagon’s line. Not according to Vernon Loeb, the then-Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in a front-page story published April 3, 2003.

Loeb’s story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which 11 American soldiers were killed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported.

Although the newspaper has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its botched story, Loeb said in an interview with NPR in December 2003 that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

The erroneous report about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, by the way, did little damage to Loeb’s career. He left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times. Later, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as deputy managing editor for news before returning to the Post in 2011 as metropolitan editor.

And next month Loeb will join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor.

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post can be an arrogant news organization.

This tendency was on display last summer in its refusal to acknowledge and correct an inaccurate reference to Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The reference was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

WaPo’s Thomas obit

The obituary, written by Patricia Sullivan, claimed that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

But there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question. The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. Peace plan: She didn’t ask about a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error had broader dimension in that it suggested an embrace of the notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war  in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House touting a “secret plan.” The belief that he did, though, circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Sullivan, said as much, telling me by email:  “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”

In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”

I brought all this to the attention of the Post’s reader representative, Douglas Feaver, noting that if the newspaper can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if it could back up Sullivan’s claim, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, I wrote, then a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than 2 1/2 weeks to reply to my query and when he did, he absolved the Post of error, stating: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

If that sentiment does become policy, it certainly will be none too soon.

Hearst mostly elusive in ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary (posted March 15): The Hearst Corp., founded in 1887 by William Randolph Hearst, commissioned a documentary about the company and its much-misunderstood founder that promised to tell “the wonderful Hearst story.”

At least that’s what the director, Leslie Iwerks, said in introducing the film at its Washington, D.C., debut in March.

Citizen HearstThe documentary, titled Citizen Hearst, turned out to be something less than a revealing portrait. Its consideration of Hearst’s long career in journalism was  fast-paced but superficial.

The film notably avoided discussing young Hearst’s aggressive brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

The zenith of the “journalism of action” came in 1897 in the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

The Cisneros jailbreak, organized by a reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, offered rich material for a documentary. But it received no mention in Citizen Hearst.

The film, moreover, only superficially considered Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions of the early 20th century. It made no mention about how Hearst then turned his newspapers into platforms to support those goals.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2013:

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