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.
Here’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.”
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: 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.”
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.
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