W. Joseph Campbell

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The impressive and enduring appeal of journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative

In 1897, Newspapers, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on May 29, 2021 at 4:50 pm

American journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative — the escape of Evangelina Cisneros from a Havana prison in October 1897 — once again has demonstrated remarkable and enduring appeal.

The jailbreak, which was organized by a Havana-based reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s brash New York Journal, is the centerpiece of a recently published fictional account —  the third treatment by a novelist since the early 1990s.

The rescue of Cisneros, then a teenage political prisoner, represented the zenith of Hearst’s “journalism of action,” a paradigm that envisioned newspapers taking high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

The jailbreak is central to Chanel Cleeton’s The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, which was published early this month. It also was a narrative centerpiece of Daniel Lynch’s amusing if improbable Yellow, which was published in 1992, and of Amy Ephron’s White Rose, which came out in 1999 and was billed as part romance, part thriller.

I read portions of Cleeton’s novel and was struck by the reminiscence to details first described in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. (I also reported findings about the jailbreak in an article, “Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros,” that was published in 2002 in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal American Journalism.)

Cleeton, however, acknowledges no debt to The Year That Defined American Journalism, which specifically rejected the persistent but evidence-thin notion that the jailbreak was a hoax, that Cisneros was freed because Spanish authorities then ruling Cuba had been bribed to look the other way.

I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Cisneros jailbreak instead was “the successful result of an intricate plot in which Cuba-based operatives and U.S. diplomatic personnel filled vital roles” — roles that had remained obscure for more than 100 years.

To her credit, Cleeton does not embrace the jailbreak-as-hoax notion.

But her discussion of the main actors who conspired to break Cisneros from jail certainly would be familiar to readers of The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Cisneros in 1898

Indeed, several characters discussed in The Year That Defined American Journalism figure in Cleeron’s novel.

They include:

Karl Decker, the jailbreak’s organizer who nominally was the Journal’s correspondent in Havana; Carlos Carbonnel, the Cuban-American banker who secluded Cisneros at his home after the jailbreak and who married her several months later; Walter B. Barker, the headstrong U.S. consular officer in north-central Cuba who acted as Cisneros’ guardian aboard the New York-bound steamer on the final leg of her escape from Havana, and William B. MacDonald and Francisco (Paco) DeBesche, who were Decker’s accomplices in the jailbreak.

Several previously undisclosed details about the Cisneros escape were found in my review of an unpublished manuscript of Fitzhugh Lee, the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1896 until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898. The manuscript offered insights “not to be found in other sources,” I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Lee’s manuscript and his other papers at the University of Virginia — which, at my urging, were opened to scholars in 2001 — also make clear that he, his wife, and daughter took exceptional interest in the plight of Cisneros (whose full name was Evangelina Cossio y Cisneros).

At the time of her escape, she was 19-years-old and had spent 15 months in captivity in Havana’s notorious jail for women, Casa de Recogidas, without being tried.

She was suspected by Spanish authorities of complicity in an assault on a senior Spanish officer on the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth); Cisneros said the officer, Colonel José Bérriz, had made unwelcome advances toward her. The Cisneros case unfolded during the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule, an insurgency that began in 1895 and had spread across Cuba by 1897.

Spanish authorities imposed harsh conditions on Cubans in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which eventually brought U.S. intervention and the Spanish-American War.

His manuscript suggests that Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was aware of the plot to free Cisneros. But he had plausible deniability, given that he was on home leave in the United States when Cisneros escaped in the small hours of October 7, 1897.

Two days later, Cisneros was dressed as a boy and brought aboard the steamer Seneca, which reached New York October 13.

In keeping with his paradigm of activist journalism, Hearst organized a thunderous outdoor reception for Cisneros and Decker, who, under an assumed name, had separately fled Cuba aboard a Spanish-flagged vessel. Nearly 75,000 people came to Madison Square, a turnout the Journal described as “the greatest gathering New York has seen since the close of the [civil] war” in 1865.

The jailbreak and flight of Evangelina Cisneros make for a remarkable story, one without direct equivalent in American journalism. It is a complex and untidy narrative, too. As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “to examine the Cisneros affair in any detailed way is to confront a tangle of contradiction, exaggeration, and misdirection.”

Scrubbing jailhouse floors (New York Journal)

The Journal, for example, probably exaggerated the conditions of her confinement, suggesting that among other indignities she was commanded to scrub the jailhouse floors. Fitzhugh Lee publicly scoffed at such accounts.

Cleeton hinted at the complexity of the jailbreak narrative, writing in an author’s note at the close of her novel, “There were times in telling Evangelina’s story that truth felt stranger than fiction,” adding that “there was no need for dramatic embellishment.”

She said her primary source was The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, which the Journal had arranged for publication in late 1897, based on reporting by Decker and others. The book, however, contained almost no detail about the plot to free her; no reference by name to Decker’s co-conspirators; no specific mention of Carlos Carbonell, the bachelor-banker who, as Lee’s manuscript makes clear, was vital to the success of the covert operation.

Story of Evangelina Cisneros was the only work cited specifically by Cleeton, who she said she “utilized” more than 100 sources “to research different aspects of the novel.”

Given the novel’s reliance on details first published in The Year That Defined American Journalism, acknowledging the book by name would have been fitting.

WJC

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Getting it right about a legendary newspaper editorial

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes on December 21, 2020 at 6:54 pm

The timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit, published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, long ago became the single best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism.

It also is a myth-distorted artifact, as suggested by errant media descriptions and characterizations over the years.

Such descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title and erred about its derivation. (Surely it cannot be churlish to expect news outlets to get it right about a legendary commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.)

Is There_NYSunThe editorial (see image nearby) was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” (as a commentary several years ago in the Tampa Bay Times maintained; that commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out”).

The phrase, “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the 1897 editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years afterward, recalled the excited speculation that led her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897 — as is often assumed — but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is likely that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, at the Sun for an extended period. In any case, the Sun did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as is sometimes claimed.

We know this because Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

It is sometimes said the editorial was an instant sensation and as such was reprinted yearly by the Sun. Neither claim is quite accurate.

Despite its odd timing, the editorial prompted no comment or response from rival newspapers in New York — at a time when newspapers were eager to point to the flaws, deficiencies, and misjudgments of peer publications.

And the Sun’s embrace of “Is There A Santa Claus?” was diffident, reluctant, and unenthusiastic. Not until the 1920s did the Sun routinely republish the editorial at Christmastime — a move that represented a triumph for the newspaper’s readers who, as I wrote in The Year that Defined American Journalism, frequently over the years had called for the editorial to be reprinted.

In the ten years that followed its initial publication, the Sun republished “Is There A Santa Claus?” at Christmastime only twice.

The first time was in 1902. On that occasion, the Sun reprinted the editorial with more than a hint of annoyance, stating:

“Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.” The newspaper added this gratuitous swipe:

“Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

The Sun next reprinted the editorial in December 1906, as a tribute to Church, who had died eight months before.

The Sun said then it was reprinting the editorial “at the request of many friends of the Sun, of Santa Claus, of the little Virginias of yesterday and to-day, and of the author of the essay, the late F.P. Church.”

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”

But it probably was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun soon after his death, in an editorial tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

Virginia O’Hanlon grew up to a teacher and a principal. She married unhappily but kept her husband’s surname, had one daughter, and lived till 1971. Her death in upstate New York at age 81 was reported on the front page of the New York Times.

So why, after more than 120 years, does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon lives on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis?

Here are some reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming; it also is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past, a time before the internet, social media, television, and even radio or manned flight; it is reassuring, somehow, to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers an evocative reminder to adults about Christmases past, about the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven to be a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

This post is an expanded version of an essay published at Media Myth Alert in December 2013.

WJC

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Of Trump’s chances and Mark Twain’s ‘exaggerated’ quip

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes on July 20, 2020 at 6:59 am

CNN (really) offered not long ago one of the more coherent recent assessments about the unfolding election campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

A commentary by two Democratic analysts argued against prematurely dismissing Trump’s chances of winning reelection, despite the polls of July that overwhelmingly are in Biden’s favor.

Twain in 1907

“It seems,” wrote Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan, “that Democrats are all too keen on taking a victory lap before they pass the checkered flag.

“Those declaring Trump politically finished,” they added, “should recall the words attributed to the famous American novelist Mark Twain. As the story goes, Twain’s death was rumored when his cousin fell ill and reporters couldn’t locate him while touring in Europe. Upon learning of his supposed demise, Twain, according to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, told a reporter that ‘the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.‘”

The analysis  is persuasive; but what most interests Media Myth Alert is the remark attributed to Twain, the American humorist and writer of the 19th and 20th centuries whose given name was Samuel L. Clemens.

The quotation itself is exaggerated — as it has been over the years — and is more emphatic than it really was.

What Twain said in an interview in early June 1897 with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal was subdued. Flat, even.

“The report of my death,” he simply said, “was an exaggeration.”

The more evocative version that appeared in the CNN commentary is not unusual. Twain’s line often has been presented as “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.” Or “grossly exaggerated.” And sometimes the Journal is said to have been the source of the erroneous report, not its prompt and thorough debunking.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism, Twain’s comment was prompted by an article published June 1, 1897, in the New York Herald.

The Herald reported Twain to be “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

Twain at the time was in London, about to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for Hearst’s Journal. That association allowed the Journal to quickly knock down the Herald‘s story.

In a front-page article published June 2, 1897, beneath the headline, “Mark Twain Amused,” the Journal skewered the Herald‘s account as false and presented Twain’s straightforward “exaggeration” comment.

The Journal’s article, which carried the byline of Frank Marshall White, began this way:

“Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him … of he report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London.

“He is living in comfort and even luxury in a handsomely furnished house in a beautiful square in Chelsea with his wife and children, and has only this week finished the narrative of his recent travels ….”

After invoking the remark about the “report of my death was an exaggeration,” White further quoted Twain as saying: “The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.”

Interesting, all that, but why bother with an exaggerated, long-ago quotation?

One reason is that quote-distortion happens often, to Twain and other prominent figures.

As I discussed in a chapter in the second edition of Getting It Wrong, exaggerated or bogus quotes are known to have become full-blown media myths. Consider the Hearstian vow, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” For many reasons, the well-known, often-invoked comment is surely apocryphal. Yet it lives on as an presumptive evidence of Hearst’s war-mongering ways in the late 19th century.

Consider, too, the unlikely remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson after Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared in February 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was stalemated. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president supposedly uttered in response to Cronkite’s televised comment, “I’ve lost Middle America.” Or something to that effect.

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong:

“Bogus quotations share many of the defining features of media-driven myths: They tend to be concise and simplistic, easy to remember, fun to retell, tenacious, and often thinly sourced.”

WJC

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Hearst, Remington, and the half-embrace of a hoary media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 17, 2019 at 10:31 am

It’s unusual for media myths to be embraced partially — a half-embrace, as it were, of those prominent tall tales about journalists and their supposed exploits.

On assignment for Hearst

But half-embrace is how a new book treats the hoary media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of 19th Century.

Hearst supposedly made the declaration in a telegraphic reply to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

The exchange of telegrams purportedly went this way:

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

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

Clay Risen’s new book, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and the Dawn of the American Century, does a half embrace of that well-known but thoroughly dubious tale. Specifically, Risen treats Hearst’s supposed reply as improbable but embraces the Remington portion.

And he does so flatly, writing: “Remington telegraphed Hearst to tell him that there was no war, and that there wasn’t going to be one.”

Risen repeats the purported Remington message: “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

He then says Hearst “allegedly, infamously, replied, ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’

“In fact,” Risen adds, “it’s unlikely Hearst wrote anything of the kind. … Whatever his reply, Remington ignored him and left Cuba.”

As sources, Risen cites two books, Frederic Remington and the Spanish-American War and The Chief, David Nasaw’s fine biography of Hearst. Both are secondary sources published before my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which devotes a chapter to dismantling the presumptive Remington-Hearst exchange. (I first addressed the Remington-Hearst tale in 2000, in an article for the peer-reviewed Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.)

The Remington-Hearst anecdote, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation” — the purported telegrams have never turned up; Hearst denied such an exchange, and Remington, apparently, never discussed it. The anecdote’s sole original source was an exaggeration-prone journalist named James Creelman, who mentioned the purported exchange in a book of reminiscences in 1901. But Creelman did not explain how or when he learned about it.

For those and other reasons, the tale is almost certainly untrue. And that goes for the Remington portion, which Risen, deputy op-ed editor at the New York TImes, embraced in his book. It’s highly unlikely Remington wrote anything close to “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war.” His work and words give lie to that supposed message.

Cuba at the time was scarcely trouble-free: It was in the midst of an island-wide rebellion against Spanish colonial rule and that armed conflict — that war — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington and Davis to the island. Remington hardly found everything “quiet” in Cuba when he arrived in early January 1897, in the company of the correspondent Richard Harding Davis.

As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, Remington sketches, as published in Hearst’s Journal, “depict unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of a rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatants 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.”

The subject matter impugns the notion that Remington had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.

Remington sketch, Cuba 1897

What’s more, the headlines accompanying the sketches emphasized the conflict in Cuba. Remington’s work appeared in the Journal beneath headlines such as “Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington” and “Frederic Remington Sketches a Familiar Incident of the Cuban War” (see nearby).

Following his return to New York, Remington wrote a letter to the Journal’s keenest rival, the New York World, in which he described the Spanish regime in Havana as a “woman-killing outfit down there in Cuba.”

In 1899, Remington described the assignment to Cuba in a magazine article that further challenges the notion “everything” was “quiet” in Cuba when he was there in early 1897.

“I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, Remington wrote, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” a fortress near Havana harbor. The country-side, Remington said, “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

He wrote that he shook his fist in anger at Havana as he left for New York aboard a passenger steamer in mid-January 1897, saying he looked forward to returning only in the company of 100,000 American soldiers.

Remington’s sketches and words, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “leave no doubt that he had seen a good deal of war-related disruption in Cuba. The island during his brief visit was anything but ‘quiet.'”

Still, I noted, “it remains some-thing of a mystery why Remington never publicly addressed Creelman’s anecdote.”

In any event, the evidence is overwhelming that the Remington-Hearst anecdote is false. And it is not divisible; if one half is apocryphal, the other must be, too.

A half-embrace is wholly untenable.

WJC

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In ‘Writer’s Almanac’ podcast, Garrison Keillor recycles ‘furnish the war’ media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on May 29, 2019 at 2:49 pm

Four years ago, storyteller Garrison Keillor dredged up the tale of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in 1898. It’s a hoary media myth that Keillor passed off as true on his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast.

Not long ago, Keillor recycled the same claim, in the same words, on the same platform.

As he had in 2015, Keillor declared on “Writer’s Almanac”:

“In 1898, Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

So let’s again unpack Keillor’s claims:

For starters, Hearst denied sending such a message (a denial typically overlooked or ignored) and Remington apparently never addressed it.

Moreover, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the tale lives on despite a near-total absence of supporting documentation. True, Hearst sent Remington to Cuba. That was in January 1897 and the artist’s assignment for Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal was to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — an island-wide uprising that gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The timing and context of Remington’s trip to Cuba undercuts the “furnish the war” anecdote. Indeed, it poses an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, as it would have been illogical of Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — the Cuban rebellion — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

In any case, the telegrams Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up. And Spanish authorities, who then controlled telegraphic traffic to and from Cuba, surely would have intercepted and called attention to an incendiary message such as Hearst’s — had it been sent.

Remington

The original source of the “furnish the war” anecdote was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author, James Creelman, was a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole, self-promotion, and exaggeration.

Creelman mentioned Hearst’s presumed “vow” in passing in On the Great Highway and did not say how or where he learned about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange.

Nor did he say exactly when the supposed exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana,” which was in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897, on the assignment for Hearst.

The Remington-Hearst anecdote is often invoked, as Keillor has, to promote a superficial and misleading image of Hearst as war-monger, as an unscrupulous newspaper publisher whose recklessness brought on the Spanish-American War.

But that, too, is a hoary if tenacious media myth.

By email sent last week through the “Writer’s Almanac” website, I asked why Keillor “periodically recycles the media myth about William Randolph Hearst and the purported vow to ‘furnish the war’ with Spain.” I shared links in the email to Getting It Wrong and to Media Myth Alert.

The email went unacknowledged and unanswered.

WJC

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Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on April 14, 2019 at 1:07 pm

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes, was the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

Now to that lineup of adulation, we can add the flattery of documentary-filmmakers.

PBS the other night aired an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism. Pulitzer’s talents and commitments, according to the PBS treatment, were exceptional and endlessly laudatory.

At various points in the program we’re told that Pulitzer was an avid reader, an accomplished chess player, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an unstoppable workaholic who devoted day and night to the office. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri could derail his career.

The effect of all the gushing wasn’t exactly stirring or uplifting. It was misleading.

True, Pulitzer led a crowded, remarkable life. He did have a Midas-like touch — he became enormously wealthy as a newspaper champion of the poor, and his riches allowed him to buy opulent homes and live out his infirmity-wracked final years aboard a luxury yacht.

Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his four three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth. In the end Pulitzer’s failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate in a program that may have been intended  as a tonic and reminder to contemporary American journalism.

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890 Pulitzer pursued a peripatetic life, traveling constantly in search of relief as his health declined. He suffered nervous ailments and depression. He was acutely sensitive to noise. He went blind. Pulitzer seldom returned to the World.

And yet for years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control. From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe, Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of  telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer.

The documentary-makers might have plumbed that correspondence for its insights. They might have considered how effectively, or poorly, Pulitzer ran his newspapers from afar, in a fin-de-siècle experiment in mobile, long-distance executive management.

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored. The topic is not unimportant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

Among the antecedents was the emergence in New York City journalism of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy miner’s son who was just 32-years-old in 1895 when he bought the moribund New York Journal and promptly challenged Pulitzer’s dominant but declining World.

Hearst’s arrival, as I discussed in my book, 1897: The Year that Defined American Journalism, was “a seismic event in the city’s journalism.”

The impression left by PBS was that Hearst came to New York from newspapering success in San Francisco to take on Pulitzer, mano-a-mano. But that was more effect than guiding objective. As Kenneth Whyte made clear in his outstanding biography, The Uncrowned King, Hearst recognized that success in New York was vital to his establishing and securing a media empire. His interests went beyond besting Pulitzer and the World.

Hearst, under the pen of Homer Davenport

Hearst, as drawn by Homer Davenport

Pulitzer’s correspondence showed that he was well aware of Hearst and his Journal, which offered aggressive, colorful journalism for a penny. The World sold for two cents.

While the PBS documentary makes no mention of this, the challenge of Hearst’s Journal prompted Pulitzer to halve the price of the World — an ill-advised move that disrupted the newspaper‘s revenue stream.

By 1897, Pulitzer was remotely ordering up staff reductions and cost-cutting measures. In May that year, for example, Pulitzer told the World’s general manager:

“I want a radical reduction of expenses from beginning to end of every department, wherever it is reasonable and feasable[sic]. … Retrenchment should be based upon the idea of absolute necessity. Unless you do something neither morning nor the evening [editions] can pay expenses the next three months. … There is a lot of deadwood on the payroll anyhow.”

War with Spain further battered the newspaper’s bottom line. That conflict was brief but enormously expensive to cover. While readership surged, advertising revenues dropped off, and newsprint prices climbed. (Hearst’s Journal figured its war-reporting expenses exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent today of almost $23 million. The World‘s expenses were likely less than that, but were substantial in any case.)

PBS seemed keen to excuse Pulitzer for the newspaper’s overheated coverage of the runup to the war, especially its graphic and at times exaggerated reporting of the destruction of the USS Maine.

For reasons that remain disputed, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor in mid-February 1898, killing 266 American sailors. It was a triggering event for the Spanish-American War, which was waged in theaters in the Caribbean and in Asia and ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba and the Philippines.

To his “great credit,” we’re told by one of the experts PBS interviewed, Pulitzer “later regretted his role in that episode.” Hearst, we’re also told, entertained no second thoughts. The apologia was emblematic of the program’s eagerness to look beyond Pulitzer’s failings and flaws.

Commendably, the treatment of the Spanish-American War veered clear of the hoary media myth that sensational newspaper reporting whipped up public opinion to such an extent that the conflict became inevitable.

But the documentary did present a clichéd description of “yellow journalism,” calling it “overheated, entertaining, and often inaccurate news reporting.”

In fact, “yellow journalism” was a genre of urban American journalism characterized by bold typography, frequent use of multicolumn headlines, generous use of illustrations, a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.

Shorthand for sensationalism “yellow journalism” was not.

WJC

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‘Fake news about fake news’: Enlisting media myth to condemn Trump’s national emergency

In 1897, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on February 17, 2019 at 12:15 pm

They’re pretty sure it’s apocryphal.

But they use it anyway.

Media myths can be appealing like that: Too good to resist. Too good for media outlets not to revive when they think the occasion is fitting.

So it was the other day when the Salt Lake Tribune editorially condemned President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to add miles of barriers along the country’s southern border.

In its editorial, the Tribune resurrected William Randolph Hearst’s debunked vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

“You want fake news?” the Tribune‘s editorial began. “Here’s some fake news about fake news.”

In other words, we’re turning to Hearst’s debunked “furnish the war” vow as seemingly a clever editorial device to impugn Trump’s claims about illegal cross-border immigration.

The Tribune went on, introducing Hearst and “yellow journalism“:

“William Randolph Hearst, impresario of yellow journalism around the end of the 19th century, was described as such a powerful press baron that, it was said, he basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales.”

Hearst “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales”?

Hardly.

The war’s causes went far beyond newspaper content, however exaggerated, and centered on the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s cruel tactics to put down a rebellion against its rule of Cuba. Of course, it’s far less complicated to blame that long ago war on young Heart’s flamboyant yellow journalism. Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

The Tribune then invoked Hearst’s purported but purported vow, declaring:

“The story goes that when he was told by Frederick [sic] Remington, the already-famous illustrator he had sent to Cuba to document supposed battles there, that there were no battles to record, Hearst famously replied, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.'”

The Remington-Hearst exchange supposedly was by cable, but the telegrams presumed to contain their words have never turned up. Had such messages been sent, Spanish authorities surely would have intercepted and denounced them as a clear case of Yankee meddling.

On assignment for Hearst

What’s more, the “furnish the war” anecdote is illogical because war — the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in early 1897. Given that context, it would have made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war.”

The Tribune acknowledges the Remington-Hearst tale is dubious but justifies its use as “too good” not to invoke when “appropriate”:

“That story is now thought to be apocryphal at best. But it was too good not to mimic in Orson Welles’ version of Hearst’s life, ‘Citizen Kane,’ and not to otherwise be brought out in appropriate moments.”

If it’s “apocryphal at best,” why would any news organization knowingly invoke the anecdote, especially as media myths undermine the normative, truth-telling objective of American journalism? Enlisting myth and falsehood hardly makes an editorial argument compelling. Or coherent.

Welles did paraphrase the Remington-Hearst exchange in an early scene in Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture that Hearst wanted to kill. As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the adaptation in Kane “firmly and finally pressed Hearst’s purported vow … into the public’s consciousness.”

And sometimes into the service of scoring points, editorially.

WJC

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Roster expands of journos who’ve invoked ‘furnish the war’ media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War on July 1, 2018 at 8:46 am

Although it has been recognized as a media myth for years, the list keeps expanding of journalists who’ve invoked William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to bring on war with Spain 120 years ago.

To the roster that includes writers for the Washington Post, Politico, and Forbes, as well as James Fallows, Garrison Keillor and Evan Thomas, we add the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Shribman.

In an essay the other day that praised the resilience of journalists in the face of threats and attacks, Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1995, offered up this paragraph:

“In American folklore, newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst ‘started’ the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the famous illustrator Frederic Remington cabled him that there was no sign of conflict in Spanish-controlled Cuba, Hearst cabled back: ‘You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.'”

Well, no, he didn’t.

Hearst didn’t start, foment, or otherwise bring about the Spanish-American War. As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the diplomatic impasse over Cuba that gave rise to the war was far beyond the control or influence of Hearst’s three daily newspapers.

Often cited as evidence that he did bring about the conflict is the vow attributed to Hearst, which usually is recounted as his having pledged to “furnish the war.”

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on even though the telegram that supposedly carried Hearst’s vow has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied having sent such a message. It lives on despite a a nearly complete absence of documentation.

And it lives on despite what I call an irreconcilable internal inconsistency. That is, it would have been made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent the artist Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Remington: Six days in Cuba

Remington was in Cuba six days in January 1897, a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been quite aware that Cuba was a theater of a brutal war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, the antecedent to the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the evidence against it is such that the Hearstian vow deserves relegation to the closet of historical imprecision.

But why does this media myth keep popping up? Why does it seem so inviting to senior journalists?

The reasons are several, and include the deliciousness of the quotation: It tells a story that seems too good not to be true.

Also, it’s an anecdote that caricatures Hearst’s arrogance and hubris exquisitely well.

And it illustrates the presumptive perverse power of the news media — that under the right circumstances, the media can act so disreputably as to plunge the country into war, much as Hearst did in the late Nineteenth Century. Which is nonsense, but that surely is a factor in accounting for the myth’s tenacity.

Yet another factor has to be the sloppiness of journalists, or their reluctance to check out the anecdote — even though ample documentation about its mythical status is but keystrokes away, online.

WJC

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Convergence encore: Now the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War on May 22, 2018 at 2:05 pm

Wasn’t I just blogging about the convergence of media myths — how disparate news outlets are known to cite the same tall tale independently, at about the same time?

Well, here we are again.

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

This time the Federalist online magazine, in a roundup posted today about memorable cases of media misreporting, invoked what is known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, which centers around a prime-time special report by CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

The broadcast, which Cronkite based on a reporting trip to Vietnam, aired February 27, 1968. At the program’s close, Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

The Federalist essay says “the proclamations he made on his broadcast that night — to which President Johnson is said to have reacted with ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!’ — were dubious at best, and not at all based on fact.”

“Dubious at best”? That’s arguable, especially as the war was widely regarded as having lapsed into a stalemate in 1967.

But what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s reference to President Lyndon Johnson’s visceral purported reaction — “‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!'”

It’s the stuff of a tenacious media myth.

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, that night, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” assessment (which was decidedly unoriginal), Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The show was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat analysis while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort.

The Federalist had company in invoking the mythical Cronkite-Johnson claim. The CBS outlet in Boston, WBZ, also turned to the myth today, stating in a post by the station’s political analyst:

“There’s a famous story from the Vietnam War era about the legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, known back then as ‘the most respected man in America,’ as hard as that might be for today’s news consumers to imagine. When President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite deliver a scathing report about the progress of the war, he reportedly turned to an aide and said: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

Actually, the report wasn’t so “scathing.” Cronkite’s assessments were, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “somewhat muddled and far less emphatic than those offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. ‘The war,’ McGee declared on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, ‘is being lost by the administration’s definition.'”

Not “mired in stalemate.” “Being lost.”

It is impossible, moreover, to know whether Cronkite was “the most respected man in America” in 1968. He was sometimes called “the most trusted man in America” — but was so anointed in 1972, in Election Day advertisements CBS placed in major U.S. newspapers.

Media myths can converge in another fashion — as when a single article or essay offers up more than one tall tale about media power or media failings. And that takes us back to the Federalist essay, which also invokes the hoary myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain 120 years ago.

The essay declares that “Hearst sent famed American artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to check on the progress of a rumored rebellion against the Spanish government there.

Hearst: Denied sending message

“Remington sent a telegram to Hearst that read ‘Everything quiet here. There is no trouble. There will be no war. Wish to return.’ Hearst famously replied ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Less than a month later, the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana.”

Let’s unpack the errors in those few sentences.

First, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule was hardly a “rumored” conflict. It was very real, having begun in early 1895. By the time Remington arrived in Havana in early 1897, the rebellion had reached islandwide proportions, prompting Spain to send about 200,000 troops to Cuba.

Additionally, the essay’s sequencing is off: Remington was in Cuba for six days in January 1897; the USS Maine blew up in February 1898, more than a year later.

Moreover, that telegrams were exchanged has never been proven. Hearst denied having sent such a message to Remington, and Remington apparently never discussed the tale, which gained wide circulation beginning in the mid-1930s, long after the artist’s death.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst 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 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, the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason he assigned Remington to Cuba in the first place.

It is highly likely that Hearst’s purported telegram (had it been sent) would have been intercepted by Spanish authorities. They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their surveillance, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

An incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been seized upon and called out by Spanish authorities as an example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

But they made no such outcry.

So what does the latest published convergence of media myths tell us?

It certainly testifies to the hardiness of media myths, and to their enduring accessibility. It reminds us that media myths, which fundamentally are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity, can be too apt and too tempting to be checked out.

They can seem almost too good not to be true.

WJC

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Imagining Richard Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War on November 14, 2017 at 6:34 pm

In an essay today in which he imagines returning to New York in 1961, storyteller Garrison Keillor demonstrates anew a fondness for seasoning narratives with media myths.

Keillor: seasoning with media myth (AP photo)

This time he invokes the mythical tale of Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” for the Vietnam War, supposedly made during the 1968 campaign for the presidency.

Keillor’s musings notwithstanding, “secret plan” was a campaign pledge that Nixon never made.

The essay was spun around Keillor’s iPhone dying on a trip to New York City. “It dawned on me,” he wrote, “that … if I decided to not get [a new] iPhone, it would be 1961 outside and my hero A.J. Liebling would be alive and still writing his gorgeous stuff….”

Nevertheless, Keillor added, “The thought of going back to 1961 was unbearable. I’d have to relive the 1963 assassination [of President John F. Kennedy] and stay in grad school to dodge the draft and hear Richard Nixon say that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

Even if he were to return to the ’60s, Keillor would never hear Nixon touting a “secret plan.”

Not only did Nixon never claim to have a “secret plan” to end the war, he pointedly and publicly disavowed such a notion. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But he did not run on a “secret plan”: It was neither a topic nor a plank of his campaign that year.

That much is clear in reviewing the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon claimed during the 1968 campaign to possess a “secret plan” for Vietnam, the top newspapers in the country certainly would have publicized it.

This is not the first time Keillor has indulged in a hoary media myth.

In a “Writer’s Almanac” podcast aired on NPR in April 2015, Keillor told listeners that “in 1898,” newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst “sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The Remington-Hearst tale is one of the best-known in American journalism. And it is surely apocryphal, for reasons described in detail in the opening chapter of Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book.

Among the reasons for disputing the tale is that it is unsupported by compelling documentation: Notably, the telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up.

Moreover, the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba at the time of Remington’s visit (it lasted eight days in January 1897), surely would have intercepted and called attention to a provocative message such as Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow — had it been sent.

The timing of Remington’s trip to Cuba casts further doubt on the “furnish the war” anecdote: It would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, Cuba’s island-wide rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Keillor, apparently, was unpersuaded by such evidence: Six months later, in October 2015, he repeated the “furnish the war” myth in a “Writer’s Almanac” podcast about the “Yellow Kid” comic, which was popular for a time in the mid- and late-1890s.

WJC

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