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Friday, May 28, 2010

You Furnish the Myth, We'll Furnish the History

What William Randolph Hearst never said:

Notably, Thomas embraced the media-driven myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain–a vow supposedly contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment in Cuba.

It is perhaps American journalism’s best-known tale. But as I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal.

It lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though the telegram Hearst’s reputedly sent has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.

And it lives on despite an obvious and irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

A good narrative trumps good history about nine times out of ten. Hearst was one of the most powerful men in turn of the century America. That a media baron could drive a nation to war, overriding the wishes of its elected President, was perfect illustration of the new power of the fourth estate. Except it wasn't all that true or new. The term fourth-estate was probably coined by Edmund Burke, just before the French Revolution. Early newspapers helped drive the speculation of the South Sea Bubble. If something fits into a pattern, people are likely to believe it. If it's a clever anecdote, all the more so. If it becomes ubiquitous in print, it becomes gospel.

Posted by Richard Anderson on May 28, 2010 | Permalink

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