W. Joseph Campbell

Fact-checking ‘Mother Jones’: A rare two-fer

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Spanish-American War on April 26, 2011 at 7:07 am

The most prominent media-driven myths — those dubious or apocryphal stories about the news media that masquerade as factual — include William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” and the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Mother Jones magazine, in the cover story of its May/June number, cites both tales as if they were genuine, in a rare, myth-indulging two-fer.

In an article written by Rick Perlstein and titled “Inside the GOP’s fact-free nation,” Mother Jones says of Hearst (who was no Republican):

“In a fearsome rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer, he chose as his vehicle the sort of manly imperialism to which the Washington elites of the day were certainly sympathetic — although far too cautiously for Hearst’s taste. ‘You furnish the pictures,’ he supposedly telegraphed a reporter, ‘and I’ll furnish the war.’ The tail wagged the dog.”

You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Couching it with “supposedly” allows no free pass for myth-telling.

It’s quotation most often attributed to Hearst. And as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s a durable media-driven myth that has survived “concerted attempts to discredit and dismantle it.”

It is, I add, “succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true.”

The purported recipient of Hearst’s telegram was not “a reporter,” as Perlstein writes, but Frederic Remington, the famous artist of the American West.

Remington, Davis in Cuba

Hearst had assigned Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis to Cuba to cover the insurrection against Spanish colonial rule. They arrived in Havana in early January 1897, and Remington six days later.

He parted ways with Davis in Matanzas, Cuba, and, before leaving Havana for New York, supposedly cabled Hearst, saying:

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

Hearst, in reply, cabled his famous vow, telling Remington:

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

Remington didn’t stay. He promptly returned to New York, where his sketches were given prominent display in Hearst’s New York Journal, appearing beneath such headlines as:

“Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal.”

That’s hardly an accolade Hearst would have extended to someone who had so brazenly disregarded instructions to remain on the scene.

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.”

What’s more, I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote “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 who read U.S. newspapers in early 1897 “would have been well aware,” I write, “that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war,” which gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The tale about the Remington-Hearst exchange is surely apocryphal.

So, too, is the presumed effect of the “Cronkite Moment” which, like the story about Hearst’s famous vow, is “succinct, savory, and easily remembered.”  It reputedly demonstrates the potency of broadcast journalism.

The “Cronkite Moment” was, I point out in Getting It Wrong, purportedly “an occasion when the power of television news was unequivocally confirmed,” a rare, pivotal moment when a truth-telling broadcast demonstrated the folly of a faraway war.

Perlstein writes in Mother Jones:

“Walter Cronkite traveled to Saigon after the Tet Offensive in 1968, saw things with his own eyes, and told the truth: The Vietnam War was stuck in a disastrous stalemate, no matter what the government said. That was a watershed.”

Well, no, it wasn’t.

Cronkite did indeed travel to Vietnam in February 1968 and upon his return to the United States aired an hour-long special report about the war, in which he concluded that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations offered the best way out.

But “mired in stalemate,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “was neither notable nor extraordinary” by February 27, 1968, when Cronkite’s report aired. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his study of the year 1968, Cronkite’s assessment was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, months before the program, the New York Times had been using “stalemate” to describe the war in Vietnam.

On July 4, 1967, for example, the Times said this about the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

And in a front-page analysis published August 7, 1967, the Times declared “the war is not going well.” Victory “is not close at hand.”

The Times published the analysis beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

And in an editorial published October 29, 1967, the Times offered this assessment:

“Instead of denying a stalemate in Vietnam, Washington should be boasting that it has imposed a stalemate, for that is the prerequisite – on both sides – to a negotiated settlement. That settlement, if it is to be achieved, will have to be pursued with the same ingenuity and determination that have been applied to fighting the war.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” represented no watershed, no assessment of exceptional and stunning clarity. Cronkite said as much in his memoir, which was published in 1997. He wrote that his special report represented for President Lyndon B. Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

In fact, public opinion had begun shifting away from supporting the war months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

It’s often said that Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” interpretation, snapped off the television set and said something to the effect of:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

LBJ: Not watching TV

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report went it aired. The president at that time wasn’t in front of a television set. And he certainly wasn’t lamenting the loss of Cronkite’s support. Indeed, it is hard to fathom how he could have been much moved by a show he did not see.

At about the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

“Today,” the president said, “you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”


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