W. Joseph Campbell

‘Good narrative trumps good history’

In 1897, Cinematic treatments, Furnish the war, Media myths, Reviews, Yellow Journalism on May 28, 2010 at 1:53 pm

The Shotgun Blog today quotes an excerpt from my recent review of Evan Thomas’ disappointing new book, The War Lovers, and offers this telling observation:

“A good narrative trumps good history about nine times out of ten.”

The Shotgun Blog excerpt carries the headline, “You Furnish the Myth, We’ll Furnish the History,” and includes this passage from my review of War Lovers:

“Thomas embraced the media-driven myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to furnish the war with Spain–a vow supposedly contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment in Cuba” in 1897.

The Remingt0n-Hearst anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal, as I discuss in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

I revisit the anecdote in the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths—false, dubious, or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The Shotgun Blog’s observation about good narrative routinely trumping good history is worthy of rumination, as it does often seem to be the case. It is a topic that I address in Getting It Wrong.

A reason narratives like the Remington-Hearst anecdote triumph is that they are succinct, savory, and easily remembered–as are many media-driven myths.

The Remington-Hearst anecdote is almost too good to be false, a narrative so delicious that it deserves to be true.

The anecdote lives on “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation,” I note in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“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.

“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 Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

“Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached island-wide proportion and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

What pressed the “furnish the war” anecdote unequivocally into the public consciousness–what sealed the narrative’s triumph over history, if you will–was Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture based loosely on Hearst’s life and times.

Kane was not a commercial success, in part because of Hearst’s attempts to block its release, but the film is consistently ranked by critics among the finest ever made, as I note in Getting It Wrong.

A scene early in the film shows Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper tycoon who invites comparisons to Hearst, at his desk, tie untied, quarreling with his former guardian. They are interrupted by Kane’s business manager, “Mr. Bernstein,” who reports that a cable a just arrived from a correspondent in Cuba.

Bernstein reads the contents and Kane, who is played superbly by Orson Welles, dictates a reply that paraphrases Hearst’s purported vow.

Orson Welles

“You provide the prose poems,” Kane says, “and I’ll provide the war.”

Bernstein congratulates Kane on a splendid and witty reply.

Saying he rather likes it himself, Kane instructs Bernstein to send it at once.



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