‘I’LL FURNISH THE WAR’
Often cited in support of the claim of “a newspaper-made war” is perhaps the most famous and most colorful anecdote in American journalism—that of Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, supposedly made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington.
Hearst sent Remington and Richard Harding Davis, to Cuba in late 1896 to report on the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule. The uprising was no trifling matter: Spain had sent some 200,000 troops to the island in a largely unsuccessful attempt to quell the rebellion. Economic devastation—notably the destruction of sugar cane production, Cuba’s most important industry—was widespread. The Cuban insurrection aggravated the economic conditions in the United States,18 which in 1893 had entered a severe recession that would last nearly five years. Davis in his correspondence from Cuba in early 1897 described a landscape blighted by “blazing fields of sugar cane” above which rose “great heavy columns of smoke.”19
Remington, the story goes, soon wearied of his assignment and sent Hearst a telegram that said: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst supposedly replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” The anecdote—which first appeared in a book of memoirs20 published in 1901—has been repeated by countless journalists, has appeared in scores of books about journalism, and has been taught in innumerable high school and college classrooms. 21 But the anecdote is another myth: The Remington-Hearst exchange almost certainly never occurred.
Reasons for doubting the anecdote are many and go beyond the denials that Hearst later made and the fact that physical evidence is lacking: The telegrams have never turned up. Those reasons include:
- The insurrection in Cuba : The contents of the purported telegrams are at odds with the reality of the rebellion that in Cuba. The passages “there will be no war” and “I’ll furnish the war” are incongruous, given that the armed uprising had spread throughout much of the island by early 1897, when the telegrams would have been exchanged.
- Spanish censorship : It is improbable that the Remington-Hearst exchange of telegrams would have been approved by Spanish censors in Havana. So strict were the censors that dispatches by American correspondents often were smuggled by steamship to Florida and transmitted by cable from there.
- Remington’s return : Had there been such an exchange, then Remington was guilty of insubordination: Disregarding Hearst’s supposed instructions to remain in Cuba, the artist left Havana for New York in mid-January 1897. Upon his return, the New York Journal prominently displayed Remington’s Cuban sketches in its pages—not the sort of favorable treatment that Hearst would have given a disobedient employe. Moreover, Hearst sent Remington to Cuba again, during the Spanish-American War.
- Davis ’s letters :The contemporaneous correspondence of Davis, with whom Remington traveled to Cuba, contains no reference to Remington’s wanting to leave because “there will be no war.” Rather, Davis gave other reasons in his letters for Remington’s departure, including the artist’s reluctance to attempt to travel through Spanish lines to reach the Cuban insurgents—the objective of their assignment. Davis also said in his correspondence that he grew weary of the rotund Remington (whom he called a “large, blundering bear”) and asked the artist to leave. Remington apparently never discussed the anecdote. Searches of the artist’s papers produced no reference to the purported exchange with Hearst.22
The notion that the yellow press brought on the Spanish-American War can be rejected for reasons that go beyond the dubious nature of Hearst’s purported vow. American newspapers, including the yellow press, quite simply did not beat the drums for war in the months before April 1898. While the Cuban rebellion against Spain was an important and ongoing story in the U.S. press, it was not the subject of unbroken attention. Coverage of the uprising tended to be intermittent and sporadic. During the fifteen months before the Spanish-American War broke out, weeks sometimes would go by without the insurrection in Cuba figuring prominently in leading American newspapers.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer exerted much agenda-setting influence at all for other newspapers. In reality, few newspapers “aped the ‘yellow press’ of New York.”23 Few newspapers were inclined to follow the lead of Hearst and Pulitzer. As we shall see in this volume, many U.S. newspapers disparaged the yellow press for its sensationalism and exaggerations. Nor is there evidence that the yellow press influenced the thinking or action of American policymakers. The diaries and private correspondence of McKinley administration officials reveal nothing to indicate that they took their cues from—or were much influenced by—the contents of the New York Journal or New York World . On rare occasions when U.S. officials did comment privately about the yellow press, they were scornful or dismissive.24
Even if newspapers did have the capacity to bring about a war, the financial disincentives would be considerable. Wars tend to increase newspaper circulations. But wars also tend to discourage advertising, the lifeblood of newspapers and other commercial media. Moreover, covering wars is very expensive. The Spanish-American War hewed to that formula. Newspaper circulation certainly did climb: During the war, the Journal and the World both claimed to have sold more than one million newspapers a day. But advertising dropped sharply, due “to the fear that the business world would be demoralized by war,” the trade publication Fourth Estate noted. Covering the Spanish-American War was extraordinarily expensive, especially so for the yellow press which deployed the most correspondents. The Fourth Estate estimated that the Journal spent $50,000 a week25—the equivalent these days of about $1 million—on cable tolls, reporters’ salaries, and dispatch boats to transport reporters and their dispatches to and from the cockpit of the war in eastern Cuba. The Journal at various times used ten steamers, yachts, and tugboats as dispatch boats.26 The Associated Press and the New York Herald each employed five vessels and the World had three.27 The additional expenses for the World were estimated at $30,000 a week.28 Hearst’s Evening Journal, the racy sister publication of the morning Journal, issued as many as forty extra editions a day during the war.29
Only the newsboys found the war especially profitable. “Day after day,” one of Hearst’s editors, Arthur Brisbane, wrote after the war, “the little newsboys sold their bundles of newspapers as fast as they could scatter them through the crowds,” together clearing thousands of dollars on occasion. 30 Without newsboys “and their instantaneous distributing power,” Brisbane wrote, “all the work [in reporting the far-flung war] would have gone for nothing.”31
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18. See John L. Offner, “McKinley and the Spanish-American War,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 34, 1 (March 2004): 52.
19. Richard Harding Davis, letter to his mother, 16 January 1897; Richard Harding Davis Collection, Alderman Library of American Literature, University of Virginia.
20. See James Creelman, On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent (Boston: Lothrop Publishing, 1901), 177–178.
21. See, for example, Ray Eldon Hiebert and Sheila Jean Gibbons, Exploring Mass Media for a Changing World ( Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), 151. See also, Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1978), 61–62; David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (New York: Dell Publishing, 1980), 295; Allen Churchill, Park Row (New York: Rinehart, 1958), 104; Willis J. Abbot, Watching the World Go By (Boston: Little, Brown, 1933), 217; H.W. Brands, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 306, and Philip Seib, Headline Diplomacy: How News Coverage Affects Foreign Policy (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997), 5. The anecdote also was recounted in a 1998 Spanish-language study of the press and the Spanish-American War. See Félix Santos, 1898: La prensa y la guerra de Cuba(Bilbao, Vizcaya: Asociación Julián Zugazagoitia, 1998), 42. For an example of the anecdote’s use by journalists, see Michael Powell, “How America Picks Its Fights,” Washington Post ( 25 March 2003): C1. See also, Mark Sauer, “It’s Taps for the Telegraph,” San Diego Union-Tribune ( 14 November 2002): E1. The New York Times repeated the anecdote in an article about the centenary of the Spanish-American War. See Clifford Krauss, “Remember Yellow Journalism,” New York Times ( 15 February 1998): sect. 4, p. 3. See also, “Forget the Maine!” Economist 346 ( 3 January 1998): 32, and “Off the Wall Street Journal,” American Prospect (March 2003): 10.
22. For a debunking of the purported Remington-Hearst exchange, see Campbell, Yellow Journalism, 71–95.
23. Foner, The Spanish-Cuban-American War, 238.
24. See Campbell, Yellow Journalism, 119–121.
25. “The Year’s Record,” Fourth Estate ( 12 January 1899): 2.
26. Arthur Brisbane, “The Modern Newspaper in War Time,” Cosmopolitan 25 (September 1898): 552.
27. Brown, Correspondents’ War, 446. Brown noted: “There were almost as many newspaper boats as there were major ships” in the U.S. fleet off southern Cuba.
28. “War Reporting,” Fourth Estate ( 28 April 1898): 1.
29. Brisbane, “The Modern Newspaper in War Time,” 547
30. Brisbane, “The Modern Newspaper in War Time,” 553.
31. Brisbane, “The Modern Newspaper in War Time,” 553.