Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism

Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism

by W. Joseph Campbell


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Did the Washington Post bring down Richard Nixon by reporting on the Watergate scandal? Did a cryptic remark by Walter Cronkite effectively end the Vietnam War? Did William Randolph Hearst vow to "furnish the war" in the 1898 conflict with Spain? In Getting It Wrong, W. Joseph Campbell addresses and dismantles such prominent media-driven myths-stories about or by the news media that are widely believed but which, on close examination, prove apocryphal. In a fascinating exploration of these and other cases-including the supposedly outstanding coverage of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina-Campbell describes how myths like these can feed stereotypes, deflect blame from policymakers, and overstate the power and influence of the news media.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520262096
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/12/2010
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

W. Joseph Campbell is Professor in the School of Communication at American University. He is the author of four other books, including Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies and The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

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Getting It Wrong

Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism

By W. Joseph Campbell


Copyright © 2010 W. Joseph Campbell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94560-9


"I'll Furnish the War"

The Making of a Media Myth

You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war. Attributed to William Randolph Hearst in James Creelman, On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent (Boston: Lothrop, 1901), 178

As America prepared for war with Iraq in the early years of the twenty-first century, commentators at opposite ends of the political spectrum turned to what may be the most famous anecdote in American journalism to describe how poorly U.S. media were reporting the run-up to the conflict. The anecdote is more than one hundred years old and tells of the purported exchange of telegrams between William Randolph Hearst, the activist young publisher of the New York Journal, and Frederic Remington, the famous painter and sculptor of scenes of the American West. Hearst engaged Remington's services for a month in December 1896 and sent him to Cuba to draw sketches of the rebellion then raging against Spain's colonial rule. The Cuban rebellion gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War, in which the United States wrested control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

After only a few days in Cuba in January 1897, Remington purportedly sent a cable to Hearst in New York, stating: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return." In reply, Hearst supposedly told the artist, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."

Hearst's famous vow to "furnish the war" 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.

As debate intensified in the United States in 2002 about the prospect of war in Iraq, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer invoked Hearst's "furnish the war" vow to condemn Iraq-related coverage in the New York Times. The unbroken flow of antiwar reporting and editorializing in the Times, Krauthammer claimed, was so extreme and egregious as to invite comparison to Hearst's agitation for war with Spain in the late 1890s. A few months later, the editors of the liberal magazine American Prospect also turned to "I'll furnish the war" and claimed that Hearst "was a pacifist compared with the editors of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, who are not only fomenting a war with Iraq but also helping to orchestrate it."

Although its appeal is timeless and its versatility impressive, the anecdote about Hearst's vow and his exchange with Remington is a media-driven myth. It is perhaps the hardiest myth in American journalism, having lived on despite concerted attempts to discredit and dismantle it. The Remington-Hearst anecdote is often cited and widely believed. In most retellings, Hearst is said to have made good on his promise, and war with Spain "was duly provided." As such, the Spanish-American War has been termed "Mr. Hearst's War." But the factors explaining why the United States went to war with Spain in 1898 are far more profound and complex than the supposed manipulative powers of Hearst and his newspapers.

Like many media-driven myths, it is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true. Not surprisingly, Hearst's vow to "furnish the war" has made its way into countless textbooks of journalism. It has figured in innumerable discussions about Hearst and about the news media and war. It has been repeated over the years by no small number of journalists, scholars, and critics of the news media such as Ben Bagdikian, Helen Thomas, Nicholas Lemann, and the late David Halberstam.

Interestingly, the 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 even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message. It lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to "furnish the war" because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain's colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place. Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached islandwide proportions and not a single province had been pacified by Spain's armed forces.

The origins of the "furnish the war" anecdote are modest and more than a little murky. The story first appeared as a brief passage in On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent, a slim memoir by James Creelman, a portly, bearded, cigar-chomping, Canadian-born journalist prone to pomposity and exaggeration. Creelman relished making himself the hero of his own reporting, a preference that quickly becomes clear in On the Great Highway. In the book's preface, Creelman said he sought to illuminate "the part which the press is rapidly assuming in human affairs, not only as historian and commentator but as a direct and active agent." Figuring prominently in On the Great Highway are accounts of Creelman's meetings and interviews with Leo Tolstoy, Sitting Bull, and Pope Leo XIII. "The frequent introduction of the author's personality," Creelman wrote, "is a necessary means of reminding the reader that he is receiving the testimony of an eyewitness."

On the Great Highway was favorably received by critics when it appeared in the autumn of 1901. Few reviewers, however, noted or commented on the passage reporting the supposed Remington-Hearst exchange. Hearst's Journal in November 1901 devoted two pages to lengthy excerpts from On the Great Highway. But the passage about Hearst's vowing to "furnish the war" was not included in the Journal's selection. It also is noteworthy that Creelman invoked the Remington-Hearst exchange not as a rebuke but as a compliment, to commend Hearst and the activist, anticipatory "yellow journalism" that he had pioneered in New York City. Creelman wrote:

Some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana, the New York Journal sent Frederic Remington, the distinguished artist, to Cuba. He was instructed to remain there until the war began; for "yellow journalism" was alert and had an eye for the future.

Presently Mr. Remington sent this telegram from Havana: "W. R. HEARST, New York Journal, N.Y.: Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return. REMINGTON."

This was the reply: "REMINGTON, HAVANA: Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war. W. R. HEARST."

And Hearst was as good as his word, Creelman declared.

If such an exchange had taken place, it would have been in January 1897, the only time Remington was in Cuba before the Maine's destruction in February 1898. Remington had been hired by Hearst for a month and not, as Creelman wrote, for an indefinite period "until the war began." Moreover, Creelman had no firsthand knowledge about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange. Creelman in early 1897 was neither in Cuba nor in New York. He was in Europe, as the Journal's "special commissioner" on the Continent. Which means someone had to have told him about the exchange, or else he invented the anecdote from whole cloth. In any case, Creelman never explained how he learned about the anecdote.

Although Remington apparently never spoke publicly about the purported exchange with Hearst, the artist's conduct, correspondence, and recollections of the assignment to Cuba all belie Creelman's account. According to Creelman, Hearst instructed Remington to "please remain" in Cuba. But Remington did nothing of the sort. After just six days in Cuba, on January 16, 1897, the artist left Havana aboard the Seneca, a New York-bound steamer that carried six other passengers. The Seneca reached New York four days later, and soon afterward Remington's sketches began appearing in Hearst's Journal. The work was given prominent display. The Journal's headlines hailed Remington as a "gifted artist"—hardly an accolade that Hearst would have extended to someone in his employ who had brazenly disregarded instructions to remain on the scene. Far from being irritated and displeased with Remington, Hearst was delighted with his work. He recalled years later that Remington and Richard Harding Davis, the celebrated writer who traveled to Cuba with the artist, "did their work admirably and aroused much indignation among Americans" about Spanish rule of the island.

For his part, Remington chafed about how poorly his sketches were reproduced in the Journal. Although they hardly were his best work, the sketches serve to impugn Creelman's account that Remington had found "everything ... quiet" in Cuba. The sketches depict unmistakable (if unremarkable) 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. The sketches appeared 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." Accompanying the sketch of the captive noncombatants was a caption in which Remington said the treatment of Cuban women by irregulars allied with the Spanish was nothing short of "unspeakable." And "as for the men captured by them alive," Remington's caption said, "the blood curdles in my veins as I think of the atrocity, the cruelty, practiced on these helpless victims."

Following 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 1899, Remington recalled the assignment to Cuba in a short magazine article that further challenges Creelman's account that the artist had found "everything ... quiet" there. Instead, Remington wrote: "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," a grim fortress overlooking the Havana harbor. The countryside, Remington wrote, "was a pall of smoke" from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

Remington's sketches and correspondence thus 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, it remains something of a mystery why Remington never publicly addressed Creelman's anecdote, an unflattering anecdote that certainly cast the artist as timid, ineffective, and feckless. And Remington presumably had opportunities to confront Creelman. He lived until the day after Christmas in 1909, eight years after publication of On the Great Highway. Perhaps Remington kept his silence because the anecdote in the first years of the twentieth century had not yet become widely known or infamous. As we've noted, Creelman intended the anecdote as a compliment—a tribute to Hearst and his aggressive style of yellow journalism.

Although Creelman again recounted the Remington-Hearst exchange in 1906 in a magazine profile of Hearst, the anecdote stirred little public controversy until 1907, when a correspondent for the Times of London mentioned it in a dispatch from New York. The correspondent wrote: "Is the Press of the United States going insane? ... A letter from William Randolph Hearst is in existence and was printed in a magazine not long ago. It was to an artist he had sent to Cuba, and who reported no likelihood of war. 'You provide the pictures,' he wrote, 'I'll provide the war.'"

The Times's article was the first to give the Remington-Hearst anecdote an unflattering interpretation. It was an interpretation that stirred Hearst to anger. In a letter to the Times, he dismissed as "frankly false" and "ingeniously idiotic" the claim that "there was a letter in existence from Mr. W. R. Hearst in which Mr. Hearst said to a correspondent in Cuba: 'You provide the pictures and I will provide the war,' and the intimation that Mr. Hearst was chiefly responsible for the Spanish war. This kind of clotted nonsense," Hearst declared, "could only be generally circulated and generally believed in England, where newspapers claiming to be conservative and reliable are the most utterly untrustworthy of any on earth. In apology for these newspapers it may be said that their untrustworthiness is not always due to intention but more frequently to ignorance and prejudice."

The controversy soon sputtered out, and the unflattering interpretation of Creelman's anecdote was largely forgotten for years until it was resuscitated in the 1930s. At that time, public opinion was running strongly against Hearst and his newspapers. The media baron turned seventy in 1933 and seemed more roundly disliked and distrusted than ever. His anticommunist advocacy had become strident and harsh. His newspapers solicited essays from the likes of Hitler and Mussolini while campaigning viciously against Franklin D. Roosevelt, likening the president to a communist dupe. In the 1936 election campaign, Hearst's newspapers characterized Roosevelt as Moscow's candidate for president.

Americans then were deserting the Hearst newspapers. Given a choice between the publisher and the president, readers exiled Hearst newspapers from their homes, David Nasaw, Hearst's leading biographer, has written. By the late summer of 1936, unflattering characterizations of Hearst were etched so deeply in the nation's psyche, Nasaw wrote, "that Roosevelt and his advisers recognized that the worst thing that could be said of [the Republican presidential candidate] Alfred Landon was that he was supported by Hearst."

Against this backdrop, the Remington-Hearst anecdote reemerged and took on a permanently sinister cast. Notably, the anecdote appeared in several works in the 1930s that identified the press as an active agent in bringing about the Spanish-American War. Among these works was Joseph E. Wisan's The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (1895–1898), which influenced a generation of scholarship on the press and the Spanish- American War. Wisan argued that the "principal cause of our war with Spain was the public demand for it, a demand too powerful for effective resistance by the business and financial leaders of the nation or by President McKinley. For the creation of the public state of mind, the press was largely responsible."

Wisan argued that the "most widely circulated of the newspapers," such as Hearst's Journal, "were the least honestly objective in the reporting of news and in the presentation of editorial opinion.... Hearst's famous reply to the artist Remington's complaint that there was no war in Cuba—'You furnish the pictures; I'll furnish the war,'—well illustrates the degree of objectivity that prevailed."

Other works of the time helped revive the anecdote. A year before Wisan's book appeared, Willis J. Abbot, a former editor at Hearst's Journal, brought out Watching the World Go By, a memoir that invoked the supposed Remington-Hearst exchange. John Dos Passos cited it in his 1936 novel, The Big Money. Ferdinand Lundberg, the most unforgiving of Hearst's several biographers, cited Creelman's account of "furnish the war" in Imperial Hearst, a slim and truculent polemic that appeared in 1936. Lundberg erroneously suggested that Creelman had accompanied Remington to Florida.


Excerpted from Getting It Wrong by W. Joseph Campbell. Copyright © 2010 W. Joseph Campbell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 "I'll Furnish the War": The Making of a Media Myth 9

2 Fright beyond Measure? The Myth of The War of the Worlds 26

3 Murrow vs. McCarthy: Timing Makes the Myth 45

4 The Bay of Pigs-New York Times Suppression Myth 68

5 Debunking the "Cronkite Moment" 85

6 The Nuanced Myth: Bra Burning at Atlantic City 101

7 It's All about the Media: Watergate's Heroic-Journalist Myth 115

8 The "Fantasy Panic": The News Media and the Crack-Baby Myth 130

9 "She Was Fighting to the Death": Mythmaking in Iraq 144

10 Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of Superlative Reporting 163

Conclusion 185

Notes 193

Select Bibliography 249

Index 257

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Persuasive and entertaining."—Wall Street Journal

"Toting big guns and an itchy trigger-finger, Campbell flattens established myths that you were brought up to believe were true."—Slate Magazine

"It may be the best book about journalism in recent memory; it is certainly the most subversive."—Commentary Magazine

"Campbell's Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism is essential reading not just for journalists but all consumers of the news."—Reason

"The value of these studies is . . . in the detailed and illuminating research Campbell has applied to each."—Columbia Journalism Review

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