W. Joseph Campbell

Tarring Murdoch with Hearst’s evil ‘vow’ to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on July 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

Rupert Murdoch’s much-anticipated hearing yesterday before a Parliament committee was hardly very dramatic — save for the assault on the tough old media mogul by a chucklehead wielding a shaving cream-pie.

The hearing, which centered around the misconduct of journalists formerly in Murdoch’s employ, was more farce and tedium than high-noon encounter that threatened Murdoch’s far-reaching media empire.

Murdoch, who is 80 and clearly doddering, even won a measure of sympathy as victim of the none-too-bright shaving cream-pie attack.

What was fairly remarkable was that in the hearing’s aftermath at least a couple of U.S. commentators turned credulously to a hoary media myth to make points about Murdoch’s supposedly evil ways.

Hearst: Made no vow

The media myth is the tale that press baron William Randolph Hearst, in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

I describe in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, why that tale is almost surely apocryphal for reasons that include Hearst’s denial and the improbable context in which his message supposedly was sent.

One of the pundits invoking the media myth was Milos Stehlik, a commentator on WBEZ, an FM radio station in Chicago.

Stehlik likened Murdoch to Hearst and Charles Foster Kane, the fictional media baron in Citizen Kane, the 1941 movie loosely based on Hearst’s life.

“Kane, Hearst and Murdoch … share a political activism which pretends to help the media-consuming masses while, in reality, mostly helped their own privileged class,” Stehlik declared, before invoking the “furnish the war” myth as if it were genuine.

“Hearst,” he said, “told artist Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba, to send dispatches about the war. Remington sent Hearst a telegram saying there was no war in Cuba. Hearst famously told Remington to just provide him the pictures, and he would furnish the war.”

Meanwhile in Seattle, Jon Talton, a newspaper columnist on economic issues, posted a commentary that began this way:

“Press lord Rupert Murdoch isn’t accused of doing anything some of his notorious forebears wouldn’t have attempted given the technology. ‘You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war,’ William Randolph Hearst is said to have instructed his Cuba correspondents as he ginned up circulation on the eve of the Spanish-American War.”

If Hearst had made the vow, it wouldn’t have been “on the eve of the Spanish-American War,” as Talton wrote in his column for the Seattle Times. It would have been in January 1897 — 15 months before the war began.

That was when Remington arrived in Havana, on a brief assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

Remington soon tired of the assignment and, the myth has it, cabled Hearst, stating:

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

Hearst, in New York, supposedly replied by stating:

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

The anecdote’s sole original source was a blustering, cigar-chomping journalist named James Creelman, who recounted the tale in his 1901 memoir, On the Great Highway.

Creelman, though, did not explain how he heard about the Remington-Hearst exchange. It couldn’t have been first hand because at the time Remington was in Cuba, Creelman was in Spain, on assignment for the Journal.

That means Creelman could only have learned about the tale second-hand or, as is more likely, just made it up.

Significantly, the context of the supposed Remington-Hearst exchange makes no sense.

I write in Getting It Wrong that “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.”

The rebellion was a vicious conflict that began in early 1895; by early 1897, it had reached islandwide proportion. As such, the rebellion attracted much attention in U.S. newspapers, including those published by Hearst.

So what may prompt pundits to turn credulously and not infrequently to the anecdote about Hearst and his supposed wickedness?

Because it’s arguably the most deliciously evil tale in journalism history, a tale that reveals Hearst’s ruthlessness and his warmongering. It’s a tale about journalism at its most sinister and malign, a tale wrapped in a dark and arrogant pledge to bring on a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.

And these days, it’s a handy if indirect way of tarring Murdoch, by associating him with Hearst in the exclusive club of vile and villainous media magnates.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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