W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

60 years after his death, media myth towers around Hearst

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on August 15, 2011 at 4:35 am

The BBC over the weekend marked the 60th anniversary of the death of William Randolph Hearst by posting a piece I wrote about the mythology surrounding the often-scorned media tycoon of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Hearst: Routinely scorned

Hearst, I wrote, “lives on 60 years after his death as the mythical bogeyman of American journalism, the personification of the field’s most egregious impulses,” and the inspiration for the epithet “yellow journalism.”

I discussed the hardy media myths that Hearst famously vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain and then made good on the pledge.

“The towering mythology that envelopes Hearst,” I noted, “began to take hold long before his death on 14 August 1951.

“The lore dates to the late 1930s and the first in a succession of wretched biographies about Hearst.

“Among them was Imperial Hearst, a truculent work that excoriated Hearst’s increasingly conservative politics and resurrected the ‘furnish the war’ myth.”

Even more important to the mythology around Hearst, I wrote, was Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

“The movie was based loosely on Hearst’s life and times, and received mostly mixed reviews when it was released in 1941,” I noted, adding:

“Hearst did try to have the film killed, which served to enhance its latent appeal. Kane was rediscovered in the 1960s and ultimately gained deserved recognition as a classic.”

I noted that a rollicking scene in Kane “borrows from and paraphrases the ‘furnish the war’ anecdote, which further helped to implant the myth in the popular consciousness.”

Hearst was a ready target for the contempt of his peers and rivals because of inherited wealth enabled him to enter journalism at the top — as publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and, later in the 19th century, the New York Journal.

Hearst’s quixotic personality also made his a target of media mythmaking. I quoted David Nasaw’s fine biography of Hearst, The Chief, which noted:

“William Randolph Hearst was a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds; a war hawk in Cuba and Mexico but a pacifist in Europe; an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress; a Californian who spent half his life in the East.”

It’s little wonder then why Hearst was, and remains, the object of so much myth and misunderstanding.

He also used his newspapers as platforms for pursuing his mostly unfulfilled political ambitions — which further accounts for the mythology, which further explains why he became a lightning rod for enduring scorn.

Hearst ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency in 1904, but fell well short. Later, he ran for governor of New York and mayor of New York City, and lost.

By 1910 or so, Hearst’s political ambitions were, I noted, mostly spent.

And now, 60 years after his death, the mythology surrounding Hearst is so firmly entrenched so as never to be expunged.


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BBC calls Hearst vow apocryphal, quotes it anyway

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 15, 2011 at 10:28 am

Apocryphal but still quotable.

That’s how Britain’s venerable broadcaster, the BBC, treated the mythical anecdote about media titan William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

In an article posted online yesterday, the BBC described Hearst as the “definitive [news] baron” and declared:

“He’s credited with the invention of tabloid journalism in the 1890s when his New York Journal began a bitter circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. He also had a reputation as a warmonger.

“‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,’ goes an apocryphal instruction he was supposed to have sent in a telegram to an illustrator in Havana.”

That’s right, the line is apocryphal. What, then, is the point in using it? As a none-too-clever, back-handed way of buttressing the dubious notion that Hearst and his newspapers were capable of fomenting a war?

That’s sloppy journalism from a leading international news organization.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is a particularly tenacious media-driven myth — a prominent but dubious tale about journalism that masquerades as factual.

I note that the tale about Hearst’s vow “has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.

“It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

Hearst: Didn't say it

Reasons for doubting the presumptive Hearstian vow are many, I point out in Getting It Wrong, and include the fact that the telegram in which Hearst supposedly made the statement — in an exchange with the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment to Cuba — has never turned up.

Plus, Hearst denied making such a vow.

Not only that, but the anecdote lives on lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war— specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule— was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

The artist was in Cuba for just six days in January 1897. By that time, the Cuban rebellion — a war for political independence — had reached islandwide proportions. “Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

Given the context, Hearst’s purported vow is utterly illogical.

And to invoke the anecdote knowing that it’s apocryphal is little short of disingenuous.

The BBC’s reference to Hearst’s being “credited with the invention of tabloid journalism in the 1890s” also is questionable.

Hearst’s style of flamboyant journalism certainly helped inspire the epithetyellow journalism,” but he was no father of tabloid journalism.

If anything, Hearst was a latecomer to that genre.

As David Nasaw wrote in The Chief, his admirably even-handed biography of Hearst, the press baron didn’t embrace the tabloid until the 1920s “because he was not comfortable with the format.

“He  had no interest in publishing a picture newspaper that had little room for political coverage, columns, cartoons, and the editorials he cared so much about.”


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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Myth and error: Recalling the rescue of Private Lynch

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the swiftly executed rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from a hospital in Iraq, an event long since steeped in myth and distortion. The prevailing dominant narrative has it that the rescue was contrived — much like the rationale for the war in Iraq.

Lynch rescued

But the dominant narrative is in error.

Lynch’s rescue, the first of a U.S. soldier held captive behind enemy lines since World War II, was the highly effective work of a team of Army Rangers and Navy Seals which extricated Lynch within minutes, and without injury.

But less than two days later, the Lynch case became swept up in myth and error that persist eight years on.

On April 3, 2003, the Washington Post published its famously botched story about Lynch, saying the young woman had fought fiercely against Iraqis attackers before being wounded, overwhelmed, and taken prisoner in an ambush at Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

The Post report, which appeared beneath the headline, “‘She Was Fighting to the Death’,” was an instant sensation, picked up by news organizations around the world. The Times of London, for example, said that Lynch’s battlefield derring-do surely had won her “a place in history as a gritty, all-American hero…”

Sgt. Walters

The tale of Lynch’s heroics turned out to be utterly false, a case of apparent mistaken identity. Although the Post never adequately addressed how it got the story so thoroughly wrong, the battlefield heroics it attributed to Lynch most likely were the deeds of a cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit, Donald Walters.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year,  Walters during the ambush at Nasiriyah “either stayed behind, or was left behind, to lay down covering fire as his fellow soldiers tried to make their escape. Walters fought his attackers in a fashion that the Post attributed to Lynch.”

Richard S. Lowry, in a fine account of the battle at Nasiriyah, wrote of Walters:

“He probably ‘fought to his last bullet.’ He was captured alive and taken to an Iraqi stronghold and later murdered.”

Walters, the father of three children, was executed by Iraqi irregulars.

Lynch, as it turned out, had never fired a shot in the attack. She was badly injured in the crash of a Humvee in trying to escape the Iraqi ambush.

As the Post’s erroneous report about Lynch’s purported heroics unraveled in the spring of 2003, suspicions arose that her rescue had been drama contrived.

“Such suspicions,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “reached full expression in May 2003, in a documentary broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation …. Relying almost entirely on the accounts of Iraqi medical personnel at the hospital, the BBC concluded that the rescue of Lynch was ‘one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived,’ a shameless bit of stagecraft done for propaganda purposes.”

The BBC version of the rescue, though vigorously disputed by the Pentagon, soon congealed into the dominant popular narrative about the Lynch case. “After all,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “the notion of a theatrical but counterfeit rescue operation fit well with the curdled popular view about the war in Iraq.”

But an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general — an inquiry requested by three Democratic members of Congress, including Rahm Emanuel — reported in 2007 that the BBC’s allegations had not been substantiated, that no evidence had been uncovered to support the notion the rescue “was a staged media event.”

In testimony to Congress in April 2007, Thomas F. Gimble, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, said the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war “under combat conditions.”

More than thirty witnesses were interviewed in the inspector general’s inquiry, including members of the Special Operations rescue team, Gimble said in written testimony.

Few if any of those witnesses had been interviewed by news organizations, he noted. In undertaking the Lynch rescue, Gimble said, the extrication team “fully expected to meet stiff resistance” and had come under enemy fire from the hospital building and areas nearby.

Gimble’s report, I note in Getting It  Wrong , represented “an unequivocal rebuke to the BBC’s account. Even so, by the time Gimble testified, four years had passed and the BBC’s version had become an unshakeable, widely accepted element of the Lynch saga.”

Gimble’s report, I add, “did not fit what had become the dominant narrative about the rescue. It made little news.”


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