W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Cuba’ Category

‘I’ll furnish the war’: 25 reasons why it’s a towering media myth

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 10, 2022 at 9:30 am

If William Randolph Hearst ever promised to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century, the vow would have been made 125 years ago next week, in a purported exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington.

Young publisher Hearst

Although Hearst’s supposed vow is one of American journalism’s most memorable anecdotes — it has been presented as genuine in innumerable histories, biographies, newspaper and magazine accounts, broadcast reports, podcasts, and essays posted online — the evidence is overwhelming the publisher made no such pledge.

The anniversary of what is a towering media-driven myth offers an appropriate occasion to revisit the “furnish the war” anecdote and understand why embracing it as accurate is little more than sloppy history.

Considered dispassionately, the evidence offers a powerful case that Hearst, then the 33-year-old publisher of the New York Journal and San Francisco Examiner, never made such a vow.

Here are 25 reasons why:

  1. The artifacts — the telegrams between Remington and Hearst — have never turned up. Remington was in Cuba for six days in January 1897, on assignment to draw sketches for Hearst’s Journal of scenes of the Cuban armed rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. The artist purportedly cabled Hearst, requesting permission to return to New York, saying “everything is quiet” and “there will be no war.”
    Hearst supposedly replied by stating: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.
  2. The anecdote — which I have examined in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong and in an earlier work, Yellow Journalism — founders on an internal inconsistency. That is, why would Hearst pledge to “furnish the war” when war — the island-wide Cuban rebellion against Spain — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place? The armed struggle had begun in February 1895, or almost two years before Remington traveled to Cuba on assignment.
  3. Hearst publicly denied the tale in 1907 as so much “clotted nonsense.”
  4. His eldest son also quoted Hearst as denying the anecdote. In a memoir published in 1991, Hearst’s son wrote: “Pop told me he never sent any such cable. And there has never been any proof that he did.”
    Of course, Hearst’s denials have never counted for much. That’s because he’s routinely caricatured as one of American journalism’s most disreputable characters.
  5. The anecdote lives on because it represents apparently unequivocal evidence for the  notion that Hearst brought about the Spanish-American War. That dubious, media-centric interpretation is, however, endorsed by no serious contemporary historian of the Spanish-American War.
  6. Spanish censors who rigorously controlled Cuba’s in-coming and outgoing telegraphic traffic surely would have intercepted the telegrams — had they been sent. Hearst’s presumptive vow to “furnish the war” was so provocative that undoubtedly it would have caught the attention of the censors.
    At the time of Remington’s assignment to Cuba, Spanish censorship was reported by the New York Tribune to be more rigorous than ever.” As such, telegrams would not have flowed freely between Remington in Cuba and Hearst in New York.
  7. The censors not only would have intercepted Hearst’s provocative message, they could have been expected to share its incendiary contents with friendly Spanish (and American) newspaper correspondents on the island — leading to contemporaneous publication of the “furnish the war” exchange. There was, however, no such reporting.
  8. No one can say precisely when the purported exchange of telegrams took place. Some sources have placed the date in 1898, which clearly is in error. Remington’s only trip to Cuba before the Spanish-American War of 1898 was in January 1987. He spent six days there before leaving for New York on 16 January 1897 — 125 years ago next week — aboard the passenger steamer Seneca.

    Cuba in War Time: Repurposed dispatches

  9. After returning from Cuba, Remington privately criticized Hearst but made no mention of the presumptive exchange of telegrams. Rather, Remington complained in a letter to the journalist and author Poultney Bigelow about the mediocre techniques at Hearst’s Journal’s for reproducing artist sketches.
  10. Nonetheless, the illustrations Remington made in Cuba depicted unmistakable scenes of a rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban noncombatants 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, and a formation of Spanish troops firing at insurgents.
    Although they hardly were his best work, Remington’s sketches from Cuba belie the notion that he had found “everything … quiet” there.
  11. Additionally, Remington’s writings make clear he had seen a good deal of war-related violence and disruption in Cuba. Soon after his return to New York, Remington wrote a letter to the Journal’s keenest rival, the New York World, in which he disparaged the Spanish regime as a “woman-killing outfit down there in Cuba.”
    In a short magazine article in 1899, Remington recalled his assignment to Cuba for the Journal,  stating: “I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” the grim fortress overlooking the Havana harbor.
  12. Richard Harding Davis, the writer with whom Remington traveled to Cuba, never discussed the anecdote. His private correspondence, though, made clear that he loathed Hearst, indicating that Davis would not have kept silent had he been aware of a vow to “furnish the war.”

    On assignment for Hearst, 1897

  13. It was Davis who persuaded Remington to return home after just six days in Cuba. Davis’ role is quite clear from his contemporaneous correspondence, which includes no mention of Remington’s exchanging telegrams with Hearst.
    That Davis was the prime mover in Remington’s departure significantly minimizes Hearst’s presumed role in Remington’s leaving Cuba — further diminishing the likelihood the artist ever sent Hearst a telegram seeking permission to return to New York.
  14. Davis’s contemporaneous correspondence underscores that, contrary to the content of Remington’s purported telegram to Hearst, “everything” was hardly “quiet” in Cuba at the time Remington would have sent the cable. In fact, Davis bluntly declared in a contemporaneous letter from Cuba: “There is war here and no mistake.”
    Davis repurposed his dispatches to the Journal (as well as Remington’s sketches) in a book published in 1897; its title: Cuba in War Time.
  15. Commentary in rival New York newspapers also disputes the notion that “everything” was “quiet” in Cuba in January 1897. The New York Sun, a fierce critic of Hearst’s Journal, described the rebellion as a Spanish-led “war of extermination” and condemned the Spanish leader on the island, Captain-General Valeriano Weyler, as a “savage” who had turned Cuba into “a place of extermination.”
    Even the New York Herald, which advocated diplomatic resolution to the Cuban war, referred in late January 1897 to the “destructive conflict in which neither side is able to vanquish the other by force.”

    The U.S. consul-general in Havana, a former Confederate cavalry officer named Fitzhugh Lee, wrote in early February 1897: “As a matter of fact, the war here is not drawing to a close. Not a single province is pacified.”
  16. The “furnish the war” anecdote first appeared in 1901, in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a self-important journalist with acute and widely known credibility problems. In the period from 1894 to 1898, Creelman’s reporting was respectively disputed in an official U.S. government report, condemned by Spanish authorities who kicked him out of Cuba, and openly mocked by fellow journalists. Given his blighted credibility, it is not out of the question that Creelman concocted the tale for the book, On the Great Highway.
  17. Creelman never explained how, where, or when he learned about the purported anecdote. It had to have been second- or third-hand, as he was not with Remington in Cuba, nor was he with Hearst in New York. Creelman at the time was in Spain.
  18. Reading Creelman’s 1901 account in context makes clear that he intended the “furnish the war” anecdote as a compliment to Hearst, as an example of Hearst’s aggressive, activist, and forward-looking “yellow journalism.” Creelman did not mean the anecdote as the condemnation it has become.

    Creelman, of blighted credibility

  19. The anecdote lie mostly dormant for years after Creelman’s book came out. It was resuscitated about the time of Hearst’s political break with the Democratic party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hearst, a lifelong Democrat who had served in Congress, endorsed Republican Alf Landon for president over Roosevelt in 1936. Ferdinand Lundberg, the most truculent of Hearst’s biographers, uncritically cited Creelman’s account of “furnish the war” in Imperial Hearst, a slim polemic that appeared in 1936  and called for “a Congressional inquiry into the Hearst enterprises from top to bottom lest they smash American democracy.”
    The Remington-Hearst anecdote was paraphrased and incorporated in Orson Welles’ outstanding (if unmistakably anti-Hearst) film, Citizen Kane, ensuring that the tale would live on. Kane, which was released in 1941, is recognized as one of the best motion pictures, ever.
  20. It is far-fetched to suggest that Remington’s supposed claim that “everything is quiet” in Cuba, and Hearst’s presumed “I’ll furnish the war” reply were encrypted messages. In describing the Remington-Hearst exchange, Creelman gave no indication that the purported telegrams were coded, or an indirect expression, in any way.
  21. Credulously embracing this tale is to believe that Hearst — a tough-minded young publisher seeking to establish a permanent foothold in New York City journalism — would have tolerated insubordination by Remington.
    Hearst gave prominent display to Remington’s sketches in the Journal, touting them in headlines as the work of the “gifted artist.” It is extremely unlikely that Hearst and his flagship newspaper would have been so generous to Remington had the artist disregarded the publisher’s explicit instructions to “remain” in Cuba.
  22. Far from being irritated and displeased with Remington, Hearst, as I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, “was delighted with his work.” He recalled years later that Remington, and Davis, “did their work admirably and aroused much indignation among Americans” about Spain’s harsh rule of the island.
  23. Hearst’s supposed vow to “furnish the war” runs counter to the Journal’s editorial positions in January 1897. In editorials at the time, the Journal was neither campaigning nor calling for U.S. military intervention in Cuba. It was, rather, anticipating the collapse of Spanish efforts to put down the rebellion.
    For example, the Journal declared at the end of January, while Davis was still in Cuba, that the insurgents needed only to persevere to secure the island’s independence. “They must now know that it is but a little more battle and struggle to win, even without the help of the great Republic where dearth of action matched verbal exuberance of sympathy,” the newspaper said in an editorial. The Journal added that Spain had “practically already lost her magnificent colony.”
    It is highly unlikely that Hearst, a hands-on publisher, would have contradicted his newspaper’s editorial views by pledging to “furnish the war.”
  24. The epigrammatic character of the purported reply to Remington is atypical of Hearst’s telegrams. He usually offered specific suggestions and instructions in messages to his representatives assigned to important tasks and missions. Had Hearst exchanged telegrams with Remington in January 1897, his messages likely would have contained such detail.
  25. The purported anecdote bears hallmarks of other prominent media myths, in that it is (a) pithy, (b) easy to remember and retell, and (c) suggestive of the presumed vast power of news media — in this case the malign power to bring about a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have entered.

As those 25 factors make clear, the Remington-Hearst anecdote is an exceedingly dubious and improbable tale, richly deserving the epithet “media-driven myth.” The weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly against the veracity of the “furnish the war” anecdote, which bears no resemblance to conditions prevailing in Cuba in January 1897.

The tale, in a word, is untenable.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert about the Remington-Hearst myth:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2021

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, PBS, Scandal, Television, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on December 28, 2021 at 9:01 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention periodically in 2021 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here’s a look at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert, a year that featured the media’s retelling a variety of dubious tales.

Watergate myth, extravagant version: Press ‘dethroned’ Nixon (posted April 24): The dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal — the signal crime of which took place nearly 50 years ago — has it that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post uncovered the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Nixon, before being ‘dethroned’

That I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate and it lives on as a mythical and irresistible fillip to journalists seeking inspiration amid the gloom pervasive in their field.

Rarely has the Watergate myth been presented as extravagantly as it was in an Esquire UK essay pegged to the 45th anniversary of the release of All the President’s Men, the movie that did much to embed the heroic-journalist trope in popular consciousness.

“It’s easy to romantici[z]e a time when people bought newspapers and presidents could be shamed,” the essay stated. “We think of simpler as better. Which is perhaps why, on its 45th anniversary, All the President’s Men, is ostensibly heralded as something of a shiny art[i]fact from an even shinier era.

“Because back then, presidents couldn’t only be shamed by the free-ish and fair-ish press, but dethroned entirely – a rare event that serves as the true life narrative backbone of All the President’s Men as it retells the Watergate scandal and The Washington Post reporters behind its excavation.”

Dethroned entirely? Heh.

All the President’s Men, the movie

Of course that’s not what happened in Watergate. Forces far more powerful than Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post brought about the fall of Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

As I wrote in the media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, breaking open the Watergate scandal “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, I noted, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the foiled break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

It is, moreover, instructive to remember what Woodward has said about Watergate. He told an interviewer in 2004, 30 years after Nixon resigned:

To say that the press brought Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

PBS’ Hearst: uneddifying portrait

■  PBS’ ‘easy caricature’ of media mogul Hearst (posted September 28):  PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven. The public broadcaster seldom hesitates to make clear which subjects it favors and which it deplores.

Fair-minded the documentaries tend not to be.

For example, the tyrannical publisher Joseph Pulitzer received fawning PBS treatment a couple of years ago, while his younger, late 19th century rival, William Randolph Hearst, was the subject of an unedifying, two-part documentary that was long on stereotype and short on fresh insight.

PBS presented Hearst essentially as a profligate rich kid who never quite grew up, who loved hi-jinks and fireworks, and possessed scant commitment to truth-telling in journalism.

Such assessments, I noted, “have been around for decades, promoted by a succession of bad biographies such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s polemical Imperial Hearst in 1936 and W.A. Swanberg’s dreadful Citizen Hearst in 1961. A more considered and even-handed treatment of Hearst was offered in David Nasaw’s The Chief, which came out in 2000.”

So it was rather odd that the PBS documentary pressed the frivolous rich-kid theme, given that it claimed to be “based on” Nasaw’s biography. And Nasaw was shown in the film frequently, offering comments about Hearst. (He was the sole Hearst biographer among the program’s several talking heads, nearly all of whom seemed eager to describe Hearst in unflattering terms.)

It was as if PBS producers settled on the frivolous rich-kid theme and ignored evidence of Hearst as a complex and innovative character whose journalism — especially his “yellow journalism” or “journalism of action” of the late 19th century — defied easy caricature.

The PBS portrait was at times tedious, and often gossipy. It emphasized Hearst’s flamboyance but regarded it as frivolous.

Hearst was flamboyant. But he and his journalism were scarcely frivolous.

■  Botched Afghanistan withdrawal was ‘Biden’s Katrina’? (posted August 27): The death and chaos that accompanied Joe Biden’s botched and precipitous withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan was likened to a kind of Hurricane Katrina for the president.

Misreporting Katrina, 2005

The allusion was to the damage done to President George W. Bush’s administration by its fitful federal response to the hurricane that tore into the U.S. Gulf Coast in late summer 2005, leaving much of New Orleans under water.

While faintly interesting, the analogy was cliched and badly misplaced: the hasty and unprovoked flight that Biden ordered from Afghanistan after a 20-year military commitment there, and the country’s swift takeover by Taliban extremists, was a foreign policy debacle of towering dimension.

The Afghanistan withdrawal was hardly “Biden’s Katrina.” It was scandalously worse.

Katrina was a powerful, destructive natural disaster, the aftermath of which was badly misreported. The dominant media narrative in late summer 2005 told of mayhem and unimaginable horror supposedly unleashed across New Orleans.

But as I discussed in Getting It Wrong, much of the reporting about Katrina’s aftermath — the horror, the anarchy, the city’s social disintegration — was highly exaggerated and erroneous. Few if any of the nightmarish accounts that coursed through the media proved true.

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan, on the other hand, was a bloody, self-inflicted disaster, borne of Biden’s blundering and impatience.

Hundreds of Americans and their Afghan allies were stranded as Biden’s ill-planned withdrawal effectively turned Afghanistan over to the Taliban and undid years of effort to stabilize the country where the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were plotted.

The president’s ineptitude brought reminders of the devastating observation by former defense secretary Robert Gates who, in a memoir published in 2014, wrote that Biden had “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

■  Challenging the mantra that 9/11 ‘changed everything’ (posted September 10): From the first hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, news outlets have promoted a mantra that the assault on commercial and military landmarks in New York and suburban Washington “changed everything” in America.

To posit that 9/11 “changed everything” has been a way to make fathomable the shock, horror, and grim theatricality of that infamous day, a way to invest September 11, 2001, with exceptional and enduring significance.

But exactly what “changed everything” meant has remained definitionally elusive — and subject to dispute. “Nothing changes everything,” columnist George Will wrote at the fifth anniversary of 9/11. (The activist Jesse Jackson said at the first anniversary that “9/11 did not change everything. It did change the subject.”)

In September, at the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the Washington Post determinedly took up the “changed everything” mantra. It devoted much of its Sunday magazine (see cover image nearby) to a collection of brief, solicited opinions purporting to describe how 9/11 wrought change in journalism, television, movies, art, fashion, theater, policing, architecture, editorial cartooning, and other fields and pursuits.

The collection was introduced with a sweeping claim that “9/11 changed the world in demonstrable, massive and heartbreaking ways.” But it ultimately was a superficial and unpersuasive attempt to support and bring dimension to the “changed everything” catchcry.

Indeed, it was striking how the Post’s collection presented at best mixed evidence of significant change incontrovertibly linked to the attacks. Many of its entries were impressionistic. Or vague. Or both.

Here, for example, is one puzzling contribution: “The post-9/11 fashion industry puts a premium on fresh faces and wily entrepreneurs. And while those celebrated young talents often move with reckless speed, the desire to create and a belief in the impossible were salvaged from the wreckage.”

The attacks of 9/11 certainly led to change — and fresh intrusions — in airport security and personal privacy. The reach of the federal government was expanded. The country went to war in Afghanistan.

But when considered closely, it is quite clear that the 9/11 attacks did not “change everything.”

They were not fatal to American political or economic power. Public opinion polls taken after 9/11 found that many Americans sensed a surge of patriotic fervor, a deeper commitment to the religious and spiritual side of life, and a newfound sense of political unity.

Such responses, however, proved fleeting. Given time, they faded.

■  The impressive and enduring appeal of journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative (posted May 29): The remarkable and enduring appeal of American journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative — the escape of Evangelina Cisneros from a Havana prison in October 1897 — was demonstrated anew in 2021.

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

Jail-breaking journalism, 1897

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

I read portions of Cleeton’s novel and was struck to find that it included 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, acknowledged no debt to The Year That Defined American Journalism, which 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.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the Cisneros jailbreak 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 did not embrace the jailbreak-as-hoax notion.

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

Given her novel’s reliance on details first published in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Cleeton’s acknowledging the book by title would have been appropriate. And appreciated.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2021:

An easy caricature: PBS portrait of media mogul Hearst is unedifying, superficial

In 1897, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Television, Yellow Journalism on September 28, 2021 at 6:01 am

PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven.

They can devote fawning treatment to some subjects, such as the tyrannical publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whom it profiled a couple of years ago. They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, subject of an “American Experience” program early last year.

Citizen Hearst: A superficial treatment

And they can minimize complexity about their subjects, as is the case with Citizen Hearst, a mostly superficial “American Experience” portrtait of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

The first of two parts aired last night, and it proved unedifying. Hearst was presented as little more than a profligate rich kid who never quite grew up, who loved hi-jinks and fireworks, yet possessed scant commitment to truth-telling.

Such assessments have been around for decades, promoted by a succession of bad biographies such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s polemical Imperial Hearst in 1936 and W.A. Swanberg’s dreadful Citizen Hearst in 1961. A more considered and even-handed treatment of Hearst was offered in David Nasaw’s The Chief, which came out in 2000. 

So it is a bit odd that the PBS documentary presses the frivolous rich-kid theme, given that it claims to be “based on” Nasaw’s biography. And Nasaw is shown in the film frequently, offering comments about Hearst. (He is the sole Hearst biographer among the program’s several talking heads.)

It’s as if PBS producers settled on the frivolous rich-kid theme and ignored evidence of Hearst as a complex character whose journalism — his “yellow journalism” — defies easy caricature.

As practiced in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, “yellow journalism” was  more than merely sensational. It was a distinctive genre of newspapering. Its defining features, as I discussed in my 2001 book,Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, included:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines, some of which stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war,international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Those elements were adopted by newspapers other than Hearst’s. Pulitzer’s World was another exponent of “yellow journalism,” as were some titles in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco, where Hearst owned and published the Examiner. But Hearst’s Journal was the newspaper most closely associated with the extremes of  “yellow journalism,” which  the PBS documentary emphasizes in considering the Spanish-American War of 1898, a controversial chapter of Hearst’s life.

The Journal, the documentary claims, offered little more than unfounded, exaggerated, and unverified reporting about the destruction in Havana harbor of the U.S. battleship Maine, a triggering event for the conflict that ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba. At this point, the documentary would have benefited from the insight of Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding biography of the early Hearst.

Whyte pointed out that when stripped from the context New York’s highly competitive newspaper market — where the Cuban struggle against Spanish rule had been an important story for several newspapers for many months — Hearst’s reporting of the Maine disaster in February 1898 and other events in the run-up to the war seems extreme and repellent.

But context matters, Whyte observed, noting:

“Hearst’s coverage [in the run-up to the war] was part of an uproarious national dialogue. His voice sounds freakish when plucked out and examined in isolation, but in the context of the journalistic conversation that erupted as the Maine sank, it sounds quite different.”

Hearst’s Evening Journal, April 1898

Indeed.

PBS often ignores context in pushing its frivolous rich-kid portrait. It misconstrues the fundamental motivation of Hearst’s approach to news-gathering in the late 19th century. Hearst called it the “journalism of action,” which meant newspapers were obliged to take high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

Hearst deployed the “journalism of action” on several fronts — from solving crimes and aiding storm victims to springing a 19-year-old political prisoner from jail in Havana in 1897.

It was an energetic brand of journalism that allowed Hearst’s newspapers to stand out. But the “journalism of action” was not, sustained. It was expensive to pursue, and Hearst’s interests in the early Twentieth Century turned decidedly to politics. Hearst expanded his stable of newspapers but made them platforms for his unfulfilled ambition to win the presidency or the New York governorship.

That Hearst failed in politics ought to tell us something about the presumed power of the press. It’s a topic that PBS sidesteps even while insisting repeatedly that Hearst wielded great influence through his media outlets.

The PBS documentary, which resumes tonight, offers little that is fresh about its subject. It turns tedious at times, and often feels gossipy. It seems impressed by Hearst’s flamboyance but regards it as frivolous.

Hearst was flamboyant. But he and his journalism were scarcely frivolous.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

%d bloggers like this: