Did William Randolph Hearst Really Manipulate News to Spin Up a War?


Public Domain

“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”.


By Ken Lawrence
Founder
Deep South People’s History Project


In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.

Abraham Lincoln, Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858, Debate with Stephen Douglas

Whatever is right can be achieved through the irresistible power of awakened and informed public opinion. Our object, therefore, is not to inquire whether a thing can be done, but whether it ought to be done, and if it ought to be done, to so exert the forces of publicity that public opinion will compel it to be done.

William Randolph Hearst, unpublished editorial memorandum, date unknown

William Randolph Hearst’s journalistic credo reflected Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom, applied most famously in his January 1897 cable to the artist Frederic Remington at Havana: “Please remain [in Cuba]. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

For the past two decades, journalism professor W. Joseph Campbell has argued in labored academese that the story of Hearst’s telegram is a myth. In an online monograph I have refuted Campbell’s inaccurate and misleading assertions, and have countered his analytical approach. Here I shall address the historiographical aspects of the debate: How can one write credible history from incomplete, ambiguous, and at times contradictory evidence? How can one test the reliability of witnesses?

In the absence of the actual telegram, or of confirmation by the sender or the recipient or both, historians must rely on second-hand reports. Each report must be independently and conjunctively evaluated in its respective context. Authors’ motives need to be understood, if any might influence their declarations. 

Most primary sources that quote or paraphrase Hearst’s cable to Remington are excerpts from personal memoirs. The passage of time often corrodes and corrupts recollections. Authors of integrity sometimes succumb to exaggeration and embellishment. With those cautionary concerns in mind, let us proceed to explicate two pertinent records.

Charles Michelson’s Reminiscence

In his 1944 autobiography The Ghost Talks, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press agent Charles Michelson recounted his youthful ordeal as Hearst’s New York Journal and San Francisco Examiner correspondent in Havana in 1895 and 1896:

All this time Hearst was plugging for war to free Cuba from the Spaniards. Fiery editorials and flaming cartoons came out daily picturing Weyler the Butcher, Weyler being the new governor-general of the island. One day the paper came in with a two-page illustration of Weyler flourishing a blood-dripping sword over the female figure supposed to represent Cuba. Just before this I had gone to a little town in western Cuba where a battle was being fought, according to reports. There wasn’t any battle. A rebel troop had marched in, had drilled in the public square, and the men had marched away again. A couple of hours later Spanish troops appeared, and there was some shooting; but as far as I could learn, the casualties were only among the civilian population. I had to show my credentials to the Spanish authorities, so they knew my identity. The night of the day on which the ghastly picture appeared, my door flew open and a Spanish secret service official told me that I was under arrest. They took me down to the water’s edge, put me in a boat, and took me over to Morro Castle, where I was locked up.

Through a combination of diplomacy and bribery, Michelson was released.

And I took the first boat I could get to Key West.

Later I was sent back to the Caribbean with Richard Harding Davis and Frederick Remington to join the rebels. Mr. Hearst kindly furnished us with his yacht Vamoose. That craft was a hundred and ten feet long with a ten-foot beam. It was a grand thing in the Hudson River, but I never could find a captain who would take us across the Gulf Stream to Cuba. Whenever we got to the turbulent current, something would go wrong with the machinery and the captain would insist that we go limping back to Key West. So the jeweled sword I was to present to General Gomez of the rebel forces was not delivered. It was in the course of this incident that a famous telegraphed correspondence between Remington and Mr. Hearst was supposed to have taken place. According to the story, Remington wired that he was returning, as he did not think there was going to be any war involving the United States; and Hearst is reported to have replied, “Go ahead, you furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

When Hearst’s war with Spain belatedly began in 1898, he dispatched Michelson to cover it, along with Stephen Crane. Michelson continued to work for Hearst until 1918. He disagreed with Hearst’s editorial stance that opposed United States involvement in World War I, so he switched to a paper that favored entry.

Michelson’s memoir falls short of affirming that Hearst had sent the telegram to Remington. But he had served as a close associate of Hearst for more than twenty years — during which national media had published the undisputed story in 1901, 1906, and 1912. It seems likely to me that if Hearst had credibly repudiated its essence, Michelson would have heard and reported that also. 

More than that, the story was consistent with Hearst’s editorial stance and with his assignments to Michelson. The excerpt I quoted from his book doesn’t prove the telegram’s authenticity, but it supplies a morsel of positive evidence.

Jimmy Breslin’s Version

On page 4 of the New York Daily News for Sunday, February 20, 1983, legendary columnist and feature writer Jimmy Breslin wrote:

In my past business, I sat one night in the sports department of the old Hearst paper, the Journal-American, checking the horse-race charts. On the other side of the space there was an old man from the wire room who one night showed me ancient copies, or maybe they were facsimiles, I couldn’t tell, of telegrams that were sent to and from the Hearst paper in 1898.

One was from Frederic Remington, the Western artist, who was at the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana. His wire was addressed to Mr. William Randolph Hearst Sr., and it read:

“Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

And the wire sent back to him from the New York Journal, as it was known then, read:

“The Chief says: Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.

“Signed Willicombe, Secretary to Mr. Hearst”

The lead article on page 2 of the paper was headlined “Libyans score U.S.” over a report about the Libyan government’s threatened reprisals if the aircraft carrier USS Nimitzwere to enter Libyan waters as President Ronald Reagan had commanded. In bold italic type above the article appeared this note, which established the context for Breslin’s report of his encounter with the exchange of telegrams between Remington and Hearst: “Jimmy Breslin remembers the Maine and hopes he won’t have to remember the Nimitz. Page 4.”

From mid-1959 to early 1962, Breslin worked as a sports reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal American. His published recollection came at least 20 years later, long enough for memory to fray and fade. Not surprisingly, he got at least two details wrong. The occasion for the telegrams was in January 1897, not 1898. Joseph P. Willicombe did not become Hearst’s private secretary until the 1920s, but he held that position for the rest of his career, and his was the only name widely associated with that title. 

Neither error is reason to distrust the essential truth of Breslin’s statement, which otherwise rings true. It is congruent with credible reports going back to July of 1901, and it adds information that previous authors omitted. Attributing authorship to Hearst’s secretary seems likely, but to my knowledge has not been reported by earlier writers who probably had not examined copies of the actual documents. 

(As one who collects artifacts of postal history and written communication, including some 19th century telegrams, I would add that written messages and signatures are often puzzling to read. An unintelligible scrawl might have appeared to be Willicombe’s name to a reader predisposed to identify his name with the title Breslin knew he had held.)

Conclusion

The sentiment Hearst expressed in his telegram to Remington represented a consistent application of his philosophy, which implemented Lincoln’s axiom as a business principle. No writer who knew Hearst personally seems to have doubted it. I can see no ulterior motive in either Michelson’s or Breslin’s report that would cause me to distrust or to disbelieve either one. If these were my only sources, they would be insufficient to press my case, but in the absence of credible contrary sources, they enhance my earlier exposition.


Originally published by History News Network, 11.24.2019, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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