W. Joseph Campbell

Doing more than casting ‘doubt’ on Hearst’s famous vow

In 1897, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 9, 2010 at 7:15 am

In a thoughtful essay posted the other day about “Hollywood and the Power of Myth,” the director of new media at the Wharton School invoked my research into William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, saying that I’ve cast “doubt” on the often-repeated anecdote.

I like to think that I’ve pretty much demolished that tale.

The Wharton new media director is Kendall Whitehouse, who referred in his essay to my 2000 article in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly that challenges the Hearstian vow as improbable. In that article, I wrote that the anecdote deserved “relegation to the closet of historical imprecision.”

I revisited the tale in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–dubious and improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Chapter One in Getting It Wrong is devoted to the Hearstian tale, which I flatly describe as a media-driven myth, calling it “perhaps the hardiest myth in American journalism.”

I note:

“Hearst’s famous vow to ‘furnish the war’ has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

Its versatility and its pithiness are two of the reasons the Hearstian myth has lived on.

The anecdote stems from Hearst’s assigning Frederic Remington, the famous artist of the American West, to Cuba, to draw illustrations for the New York Journal of the island-wide rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. Remington and the writer Richard Harding Davis, who also was on Hearst’s payroll, reached Cuba in January 1897. (Both are shown in the front-page image above.)

Remington was in Cuba six days before returning to New York. He suffered in the tropical heat and didn’t along with the self-important Davis, who called the rotund Remington “a large, blundering bear.”

Before returning, the media myth has it, Remington sent Hearst a telegram stating:

“Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst supposedly cabled the artist reply: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

In most tellings of the anecdote, Hearst supposedly made good on his promise and brought on the war with Spain, which was declared 15 months later.

The Remington-Hearst anecdote is riven with flaw and incongruity. For starters, Hearst at least twice denied ever having sent such a message. And Remington apparently never discussed the anecdote.

Moreover, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “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.”

And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington and Davis 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,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached islandwide proportions and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

Despite those and other flaws, the tale lives on as too good to check out, too good not to be true.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong:

“What firmly and finally pressed Hearst’s purported vow to ‘furnish the war’ into the public’s consciousness was Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture that was based loosely on Hearst’s life and times.”

In a scene early in the film, Orson Welles in the role of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper tycoon who readily invites comparisons to Hearst, paraphrases the purported Remington-Hearst exchange.

Whitehouse noted in his essay: “Rightly or wrongly, Orson Welles’s … Citizen Kane has largely shaped our popular perception of William Randolph Hearst.” True enough.

Kane certainly helped solidify a robust media-driven myth.


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