tv Lectures in History Yellow Journalism the Spanish- American War CSPAN August 31, 2021 6:02pm-6:57pm EDT
myths about william randolph hurst, journalism and the lead up to the war at the end of the 19th century. he debunks a tale he telegraphed one of his correspondents on assignment in cuba saying, coat, you furnish the pictures, i'll furnish the war. >> morning, welcome. today we're going to be talking about one of the most tenacious media myths in american journalism. it has to do, it revolves around the supposed vow of william randolph hurst to furnish the war with spain at the end of the 19th century. this has become over the years an all-purpose media antic dote, useful in describing any number of media sins and shortcomings including the scourge of fake news. including the scourge of fake
news. so what are we talking about here? what are media myths? these are prominent stories about and/or by the news media that are widely known and often were told but which under scrutiny, under examination dissolve as apocryphal or widely exaggerated. media myths. and in a way media myths are cousins to fake news. maybe thought of cases as fake news that are masqueraded as accurate for many years, media myths. and also they could be thought of as sort of the junk food of journalism. the junk food of journalism. appealing, alluring, delicious perhaps but not terribly wholesome and not terribly
healthy. the junk food of journalism. some of the features of media myths, these invariably are pithy tales, succinct, short, to the point. they're almost always simplistic. and of course they are media centric. they revolve around media, media actors, journalists. they're easily remembered, easily told. they're almost too good not to be true. these were some of the defining characteristics, some of the defining features of media myths. they almost always place journalists at the center of the action, at the center of important events and do so in a
decisive way for good or evil. for good or evil. and this anecdote that we're discussing today, this media myth that we'll be deconstructing is often cited as evidence that william randolph hurst, a young newspaper publisher in new york city fomented or brought about the spanish american war. it is as i say a tenacious often invoked media myth. what are some examples of other media myths? this of course the furnish the war echo is one of the media myths out there. through their dogged reporting brought down the corrupt presidency of richard nixon in
1974. another well-known media myth is the notion walter cronkite in an on-air assessment of the war in vietnam declared the united states military to be mired in stalemate in 1968, an assessment that supposedly swung public opinion in the united states against the war. another example of a media myth revolves around the famous photograph of the napalm girl, taken in vietnam what then was south vietnam by an associated press fotog fr in june 1972. the image showed the effects on civilians particularly young children of an errant napalm bombing on a village of what was then south vietnam. the photograph supposedly was so powerful and so vivid that it
helped hasten an end to the vietnam war. and of course the media myth today, the media myth de jure, now this is an important anecdote. this is an important media myth to address and debunk because if this tale is true, if this is accurate it suggests and points to powerful effects by the news media. so powerful that they can bring about a war that the country otherwise wouldn't have fought. that is the implication here of this tale, of this anecdote, of this purported vow to furnish the war. the war with spain did take place. over about four months in 1898
beginning in april and ending in august was a brief but decisive conflict that ushered the united states onto the world stage. it confirmed the united states as an international power. the united states defeated spanish forces in the philippines and in the caribbean. the effects of the war was to oust spain from cuba and its other caribbean possessions and to leave the united states a colonial power, ruling far away land such as the philippines, puerto rico, guam. the united states became a colonial power after the spanish-american war. this was a decisive conflict for the country. this anecdote about furnish the
war with spain pops up often, pops up often. just earlier this month fox news in an article about fake news declared the granddaddy of dishonest journalists, william randolph hurst, once famously wrote to an illustrator you furnish the pictures and i'll furnish the war. the history news network a few months ago invoked this anecdote as if it were true. so, too, did the pittsburgh post gazette. cnn recently invoked this tale. and over the years "the washington post," politico, forbes are among the publications that have used and invoked this anecdote again in a credulous fashion, as if it were true. famous authors james fallows, garrison keeler are among those who have also invoked this
anecdote. so before we get into the deconstruction of this media myth, it's important to understand who's whom here? who are the actors? who are the principle players? who are the individuals who really mattered in this, in this making of a media myth? and we'll start with william randolph hurst. at the time he was a 32-year-old newspaper publisher in new york city. he had come to new york in 1895 after a successful stint in san francisco where he ran the san francisco examiner. hurst was the son of a wealthy california miner, a guy who had struck it rich in the silver mines out west. hurst was well-to-do, privileged we would say today, and came to
new york to run -- to acquire and run the new york journal. then a more abound newspaper. and under hurst's control, the newspaper took off. it became one of the most popular daily newspapers in new york city. hurst's plan was to begin or expand his emergent media empire. he realized that he had no chance of establishing himself as a media baron unless he was able to be successful in new york city. success in new york signaled success elsewhere for hurst. and by the 1930s william randolph hurst is a big time newspaper baron, big time media baron with newspapers across the country as well as media stations and interests in film
production companies. while in new york he developed what came to be called yellow journalism. often yellow journalism is characterized especially these days as synonymous with sensational treatment of the news. as it was practiced in the late 19th century yellow journalism was far more than the sensational treatment of the news. it was a distinct genre characterized by a number of distinctive features. including large headlines. sometimes they would stretch across the page, the front page. imaginative use of graphics was a feature of yellow journalism as it was practiced in new york and elsewhere in the late 19th
century. imaginative use of illustrations was another feature of this genre. at the time most newspapers were very dull, very boring. their layouts were very gray, did not make use of big headlines. did not make use of graphic images or later photographs. yellow journal was also characterized by the use of the newspaper's name prominently in a newspaper particularly on a front page. this is a copy of the new york journal from october 1987 in which the newspaper is announcing the successful jailbreak in havana of a 1990 political prisoner. the story has been largely lost in the journals of american
history to this day, but it was a big deal event back then because hearst and his new york journal helped to break this political prisoner out of jail and smuggle her aboard a passenger steamer dressed as a boy, and the steamer arrived in new york city where she was received in a tumultuous reception organized by hearst and his newspaper. her case was a big time example of the activism of william randolph hearst and his newspapers. and again, this front page characterizes some of the defining features of yellow journalism. big, bold display, photographs, self-promotion, a tendency toward activism. in fact, hearst called his
journalism the journalism of action thinking he had more responsibility than just reporting and commenting on the news. no, he said journalism had an important function in stepping in, taking an active role to right the wrongs of society, the journalism of action. also in the line of who was who was frederick remington, painter, sculptor, sketch artist. he sometimes did newspaper work, newspaper illustration, but he didn't think reproduction quality in newspapers at the time in the late 19th century was all that good. also in the line-up of who was whom was richard harding davis.
he's a conseated but well-known writer and playwright who becomes the most famous correspondent in the spanish-american war in 1998 after this myth took hold. he was a writer and one of his first books was titled soldiers of fortune. it's a book of sort of a romance novel in which he sort of depicted himself as a central character. he was the son of a newspaper editor and his mother was a writer. rebecca harding davis was her name. remington and davis were assigned by hearst to go to cuba in early 1987 and they were there to cover the rebellion on cuba against spanish colonial
rule. that was the assignment. hearst as he would want to do paid generously for the talent. he paid richard harding davis $3,000 for one months work. in 1987 money that was a lot. today it's worth about $90,000. $90,000 for a month's work. hearst pays generously for top line talent. also in the line-up of the who was whom around this myth is james -- canadian born, cigar chomping admirer of randolph hearst, he was the first to mention this telegram of purported exchange between hearst and remington, the first to furnish you furnish the
pictures and i'll furnish the war. here's a passage from the book titled "on the great highway." and it's an antic dote he doesn't make a big deal about. he just mentions in passing as a way to pay tribute to, to sing the praises of hearst's activest journalism. so this is the passage. he writes remington was instructed to remain in cuba until the war began, but after a short while he sent hearst a cable saying everything is quiet. in replay hearst cables remington please remain, you furnish the pictures and i'll
furnish the war. creelman goes onto write the proprietor of the journal was -- interestingly he offers no documentation for this antic dote. his book has no footnotes, no citations. he does not explain then or ever after that how he learned about this anecdote, how he learned about this purported exchange between hearst and remington. this is important because creelman at the time had a reputation for being a notoriously unreliable journalist. he claimed in 1894 that he witnessed a massacre of chinese civilians by japanese forces, an episode later investigated by the u.s. state department and found to be a gross examination,
a gross examination. during the spanish-american war in 1998 toward the end of the war creelman claimed he led a climactic charge of u.s. forces against the spanish position near santiago decuba, the second largest city in cuba. this was a climactic decisive charge, and he claimed he was the guy leading the way, an account nobody really embraced but nonetheless is emblematic of his tendency to exaggerate in his embrace of hyperbole. he was pompous this guy, james creelman. one of his specialties was interviewing prominent people, the pope, heads of state, european royalty. and often in these interviews, his write up to the interviews they were not q&a but a long,
lengthy account of interview in which creelman would talk more about himself than about the subjects of his interview. in 1897, january 1987 when this exchange between remington and hearst would have taken place, creelman is not with remington. he's not with hearst in new york city. creelman is in spain, he's in madrid on assignment from the new york journal. that tells us he could not have learned about this purported exchange of telegrams first-hand, that he only knew about it secondhand or that he made it up, that he exaggerated this account. it really is ironic that one of american journalism's best known
anticdotes is based on and owes its existence to unsubstantiated remunerations of an unreliable journalist, james creelman. as i say if this exchange of hearst and remington had taken place it would have taken place in january 1987 which was the only time remington was on cuba before the spanish american war which began in april 1898. at the time -- at the time that remington and richard harding davis went to cuba there was an island-wide rebellion going on against spanish colonial rule. this was an arms struggle that had begun in 1895, so by the time they got there it was two years old. it was two years old. this rebellion was the precursor to the spanish-american war of
1898. it was the precursor to the united states' entry into it conflict in cuba, a conflict that had been raging since 1895. and that rebellion, the one that began in 1895 was the latest in up risings by cubans against spanish colonial rule. cuba was an important possession of spain, had been for centuries. and spanish response was vigorous and expensive. spain sent 200,000 troops to the island to try to quell this rebellion. spain also imposed rigorous censorship of all telegraphic traffic to and from cuba. and it also instituted what
turned out to be a very cruel policy called reconcentration. reconcentration led to a humanitarian disaster on cuba by 1897 and early 1988. reconcentration was on attempt by the authorities to derb prive the cuban rebels from support from the countryside, from support by the cuban population. under reconcentration old men, women and children were herded by the spanish into garrison towns, into fortified centers on cuba to deprive them of support to keep them from supporting the cuban rebels. in these garrison towns these cuban noncom battants suffered
immensely. starvation, disease ran rampant. thousands of cuban noncombatants died because of the policy. by 1897 cuba was a full-blown humanitarian disaster. it was against this backdrop of the war in cuba that davis and remington together arrive in havana and they proceed immediately to try to get the lay of the land. one of their first meetings was with the butcher, the butcher. who you may ask is the butcher? he was general variano whiler. he was the spanish commander, military commander on cuba at the time.
he was the one who instituted and enforced the policy of reconcentration, of removing cuban non-combatants to garrison towns where they suffered immensely. general whiler was known in cuban newspaper as the butcher, butcher whiler. the original plan of davis and remington was to cross spanish lines and to hook up the cuban insurgents, the cuban rebels. that was the objective, the prime objective of their assignment to cuba, to cross spanish lines, meet up with the cuban insurgents. it's a plan that fell through, a plan that had really no hope of going anywhere. so they traveled around a bit in northern cuba from havana. and after six days they split
ways, they part ways. remington's a big guy. he suffers in the tropics. he didn't have a good time there. davis is a tough guy to work with anyway. he doesn't like working in pairs as he says. they split ways. they part ways after six days on the island. davis remains. remington makes arrangements to return home, to go back to the states, go back to new york onboard the passenger steamer the seneca. and upon his return home the journal begins prominent, prominent publication of remington's sketches. remington's sketches of the cuban conflict. and they praise these sketches and headlines saying they are the work of a gifted artist, frederick remington.
so before debunking, before getting into the details of the debunking of this antic dote, of this media myth let's recap real quickly. there's a rebellion going on in cuba. remington is there just six days. the first account of the exchange -- the supposed exchange between hearst and remington comes more than four years later in 1901. in creelman's book which contains no documentation about how he learned about it, the source of this purported exchange. and creelman is the lone person to have come up with this originally. this tale, you furnish the pictures and i'll furnish the war, lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation as is mentioned in our core text this semester.
a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. so to the debunking. hearst denied that there was ever such an exchange, that he sent such a message to remington. remington himself apparently never spoke about it, never spoke publicly about this. and the telegrams themselves, the artifacts that are central to this whole story have never turned up. the artifacts have never turned up. but there are other factors. another factor is that it's illogical. this whole tale is illogical on its face because why would hearst send remington and davis -- why would he have sent a telegram to remington vowing to furnish the war if war, the
rebellion on cuba was the very reason he sent them, remington and davis to cuba in the first place. it's illogical. given the context what's going on in cuba at the time, hearst's vow to furnish the war makes no sense. it's illogical. it's illogical. also this tale does not account for the censors. remember one of the reactions of spain was to impose rigid censorship on all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic to cuba. spain is running the show in cuba, and they are controlling all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic. why would spanish sensors have have let such an incendiary message flow freely between hearst and remington?
there's just no logic to this either. certainly the censors would have intercepted this message. they certainly would have done this. they certainly would have not allowed this message from hearst to remington to flow freely as creelman's account implies. nor does this tale account for william randolph hearst and his likely reaction. he's a young, wealthy newspaper publisher. according to creelman hearst's message to remington was please remain, you furnish the pictures and i'll furnish the war. but remington does not remain in cuba. he returns after six days and
then his newspaper gives remington's sketches big time treatment, prominent display. prominent display in hearst's new york journal. it seems unlikely that hearst would have tolerated this insubordination, he would have put up with what was a clear disregard of his instructions to remain in cuba. the tale was also contradicted by the writings of davis and remington who in the weeks and months afterwards describe scenes of violence and upheaval on cuba. davis in one of his letters home states quite clearly there is war here. make no mistake, there is war
here. and remember according to creelman remington's telegram to hearst said everything is quiet in cuba. but his own contemporaneous work and that of his travel companion richard harding davis contradicted that kind of assumption. further contradicting this tale are the letters richard harding davis sent home. he was very close to his mother. he kept in touch with his family by mail very often. his letters are kept in an archive at the university of virginia, charlottesville. his letters to his family at this time offer no support about why remington left, that everything was quiet. none of his letters, none of
davis' letters home suggest remington wanted to leave on the pretext that everything was quiet in cuba. he gave somewhat related versions, three somewhat related versions as to why remington went home. one of those versions was that remington had obtained all the material he needed for his sketches and needed to go. that was contained that message -- the first bullet point, that message was contained in the letter that davis wrote and remington carried with him back to the states. because remington presumably would have had an opportunity to have read the letter. another version, related version davis wrote was that remington went home at davis' request. he didn't like working in pairs, that remington was holding him up all the time.
he describes remington as a big blundering bear, asked him to go. said he was happy that remington did leave. a third and somewhat related version that davis included in his letters to his family was that remington got scared, became frightened by the prospect having to cross lines into cuban held territory and backed out -- and backed out. the second and third versions, if you will, were contained in private letters that davis sent to his family. in any case, these letters offer powerful and contemporaneous challenges to creelman's account that everything was quiet and
that remington went back home because there would be no war. of these elements in the debunking which do you find most persuasive? most persuasive and why? that hearst denied having sent this message and remington never spoke about it apparently, that the telegrams themselves, the artifacts have never surfaced? that had they been sent spanish censers would have intercepted this clear case of meddling. the reality that a message claiming a vow, claiming to furnish the war would have been
illogical on its face given the context in cuba at the time, that a war was going on. a war was the very reason hearst is sending davis and remington to cuba. or the element of the debunking that rests in davis' letters. davis' letters contradict the reasons creelman gave for remington's departure. of those elements do you find most persuasive and why? >> it was when you said earlier that hearst would have been
upset had remington not listened to him, and i think hearst is known for being kind of a volatile guy, and he wouldn't have celebrated his artistry if he had contricted him in that way and come back. >> very good point. what do you think of the argument, though, that hearst just kind of swallowed that because he had images from wartime cuba that no other newspaper had, so therefore he was going to run it prominently even if remington had been subordinate. >> i don't know. i think there would have been other ways that we found out that he was angry besides just the pictures. so you could have posted the pictures and also some sense of anxiety about remington. >> very good.
reprimanded him in several way. other arguments you find to be particularly persuasive in the line-up or other points that were mentioned, go ahead. >> so i think they would probably be the most persuasive just because those you could mess around with and find a counter argument to like maybe the telegrams were destroyed. that's why they didn't surface. but these letters are kept and provided, and why would he be writing letters of lies to his family? >> right, how would he have known about this anecdote because it didn'tback popular or hit the public domain since 1981. so these are contemporaneous letters. other thoughts as to which would be the most persuasive element of the debunking of the elements
we discussed here? emily? >> i'd just say it's so interesting. i would agree that's probably the strongest evidence. >> the letters. >> yes. but also it's so interesting that this like myth and quote itself in these telegrams, the fact they've never been seen is so interesting because it is so such commonplace even today in america, and it's so interesting how the roots or like background of where these things came from are often i guess not even there. >> very good. it is intriguing how this tale took hold, how this myth became a media myth. and it's also intriguing that the antic dote about furnish the
war stirred almost no attention, received almost no public attention or reaction when creelman's book came out in 1901. there may be a few passages, a few references to it in newspaper review, but by and large it generates no comment. there was a brief flurry of commentary when creelman published a magazine article that included this antecdote in 1906 and a british publication picked up on it and said they're going crazy and picked it up then and that's when hearst denied it, called it frankly false and nonsense. then the anecdote goes dormant, dormant for 30 years. and is resurrected in 1936. what might have happened in
1936? any wild guesses? >> the beginnings of world war ii start-up and also fdr is president so there's a lot of social and political change, a lot of economic change going on at the time, so just in general a very kind of turbulent, political and social climate. >> well-said, troubled, turbulent time. the economic downturn had begun six years earlier, seven years earlier. and it's a presidential election year in 1936. franklin roosevelt is running for re-election, second term. and hearst who is a lifelong
democrat as was franklin roosevelt, in fact hearst wanted to be president, he was using his platform, his media holdings in the early 20th century to become a viable candidate for president. he sought the democratic nomination for president pretty openly in 1904, lost, didn't stand as the standard democratic bearer that year but nonetheless was emblematic, a lifelong democratic. he breaks with franklin roosevelt in 1936 over roosevelt's new deal policies to restimulate the american economy, to get the country back on its feet after the depression. hearst breaks with roosevelt, supports a republican named alf landen, the governor of kansas for the presidency, and this was on ugly break.
hearst's newspapers in effect call roosevelt an agent of moskow because of his policies, because of his new deal. roosevelt's supporters punish hearst for his hypostacy, and one way they did this was to revive furnish the war, to dust off this old time antecdote, and invoke it as a way to damage hearst and his reputation, to sully his reputation. and it appears in a number of books and articles at that time in the mid-1930s. it appears notably in this
truculent, polemic -- this biography of hearst, thin but hostile to hearst. and this is one of the places where furnish the war is resurrected, revived and brought back into the public domain. what sealed this antecdote, what firmly planted it into the popular consciousness was a 1941 motion picture loosely based on the times and life of william randolph hearst. this antic dote was sealed by a movie. that film, any guesses? citizen kane. that movie was starred and directed by a 26-year-old prodigy named orsen wells who
played the hearst-like character charles foster kane. clearly it was a hearstian character, this guy. this movie wasn't a documentary. it wasn't intended to be, but is recognized as among the best motion pictures ever made. the american film institute occasionally has polls or surveys that place citizen kane at or near the top of the best motion pictures of all-time. and kane or citizen kane included an early scene in which charles foster kane mimics this exchange of telegrams. it's clearly -- it's clearly based on you furnish the pictures and i'll furnish the
war. and if technology doesn't fail us, let's take a look at that clip. >> i don't know how to run a newspaper. i just try everything i can think of. >> there's no proof this armad is up the jersey coast. >> i'd like you to meet mr. thatcher. my ex-guardian. we have no secrets. mr. thatcher is one of our most devoted readers. could send you prose about scenery, stop there is no war in cuba, signed wheeler. >> yes, you provide the prose poems, i'll provide the war. >> that's good, mr. kane.
>> i came to see you about this campaign of yours. >> the scene clearly inspired by you furnish the pictures and i'll furnish the war. so what do we conclude? what are we to conclude about this tale, about this antic dote about this purported vow to furnish war? it is almost certainly hippocrfal. it is almost entirely without documentation. this is an antecdote that lives on, but it deserves relegation to the fake news museum of
historical inaccuracy. under scrutiny this tale of hubris and a media power dissolves, which is the fate of most media myths when they're scrutinized, when they're looked at in detail and context with other sources of information examined. and as this tale of furnish the war dissolves, with it goes evidence that yellow journalism brought about the war with spain, that yellow journalism fomented the spanish-american
war. that war was not caused by newspapers. it was not caused by william randolph hearst. it was not brought about by yellow journalism. this conflict was the result as conflicts tend to be of an impasse between the united states and spain about spain's harsh colonial rule of cuba 90 miles from the u.s. mainland. and in particular spain's inability to put down this insurrection, this rebellion that had given rise to spanish policies that created humanitarian disaster on cuba. the humanitarian disaster that caused or resulted from spain's reconcentration policy. the yellow press of william randolph hearst did not cause those policy differences between the united states and spain.
the new york journal did not create the humanitarian crisis of reconcentration. spain did. so why does this matter? why does it matter now 120 plus years later to debunk this media myth? why not just let it live on as an amusing tale of hubrous and overweening power? thoughts, comments, observations as to why it matters to debunk this tale?
>> well, the quote you furnish the pictures and i furnish it war was true it would seem to be emblematic of american news media in general. and the fact it took place while the american news media was still forming an identity seems pretty important, i guess. so we need to debunk it. >> good point. i'd agree. i'd take your point a little further and say this demonstrates -- this antic dote embraces a sense of ominous power by the news media. a sense of ominous power under the right conditions they can bring about a war the country would otherwise not engage in. that they can act so disreputably as to whip up public sentiment to plunge the country into a war as hearst supposedly did to the spanish american war in 1998. so that's an important reason why it is important to address and debunk this tale.
because it is used as exhibit "a" in the line-up of evidence, thin evidence that hearst brought about the war with spain. i would argue that the notion that the media have this kind of power to plunge the country into war is nonsense -- is nonsense. i'll leave you with three straightforward reasons why it also matters. understanding media power and media influence, that matters. debunking this tale gives us a better understanding of how the media operate or how they do not operate. secondly, setting straight the historical record matters.
that historical record ought to be accurate, ought to be truthful, ought not to be plagued by media myths. and for that reason i would argue media migs and debunking thereof matter quite a lot. folks, that's it for now. i look forward to seeing you again soon when we take up and debunk additional media-driven myths. thanks very much.