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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

You Furnish the Legend, I’ll Furnish the Quote   

Hearst's famous war quote most likely never happened.


By W. Joseph Campbell
Campbell, a journalism professor at American University, is author of “Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.”     

One hundred years ago this fall, a then-prominent journalist named James Creelman published a book of reminiscences called "On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent." It was a self-congratulatory work replete with undocumented passages--one of which was to become perhaps the best-known anecdote in American journalism.

The anecdote was about artist Frederic Remington and his assignment to Cuba for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Remington and Richard Harding Davis went to Cuba in January 1897 to cover the uprising against Spanish colonial rule, an insurrection that ultimately gave rise to the Spanish-American War.

According to Creelman's account, Remington soon wanted to return home and sent Hearst a telegram from Havana, saying: "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."

Because it so neatly captures conceit, arrogance and journalistic power, the anecdote has proved timeless. It has appeared in scores of books about journalism. It has been taught in innumerable high school and college classrooms.

But the exchange almost certainly is apocryphal.

Reasons for doubting Creelman's anecdote are many. They go beyond Hearst's denial, made in 1907 and repeated in the autobiography of one of his sons. They go beyond the fact that the telegrams Creelman described have never surfaced.

Notably: • Creelman wasn't in Cuba at the time of the purported exchange; he was in Europe, reporting for the Journal. He could only have received the information secondhand. • The contents of the purported telegrams are contradicted by the islandwide rebellion in Cuba in 1897. The Cuban insurrection, begun in 1895, had forced Spain to send 200,000 soldiers to the island. • Hearst's supposed pledge to "furnish the war" is at odds with his newspaper's editorial stance in January 1897, which anticipated the imminent collapse of the Spanish war effort. Spain, the Journal said, "has practically already lost her magnificent colony." The Journal was not urging U.S. military intervention in Cuba. • It is improbable that the telegraphic exchange Creelman described would have cleared the strict Spanish censors in Havana. • Despite Hearst's purported instruction to remain, Remington left Havana in mid-January 1897. Upon his return, the Journal prominently displayed Remington's Cuban sketches across its pages--not the kind of treatment that Hearst likely would have shown a disobedient correspondent.

Creelman, moreover, misrepresented the terms of Remington's assignment to Cuba. He wrote that it was open-ended, that the artist had been "instructed to remain there until the war began." In truth, Remington and Davis had agreed to go to Cuba for one month. Remington ended up staying about a week. Davis--whom Creelman failed to mention as having accompanied Remington--was in Cuba about a month.

Searches of Remington's papers produced no reference to his purported exchange with Hearst. But the correspondence of Davis, the most prominent American war reporter of the time, offers telling evidence that the exchange never happened.

In one letter, Davis said Remington left because he had "all the material he needs for sketches and for illustrating my stories." In a more expansive letter, Davis said he asked Remington to leave because Davis disliked "traveling in pairs."

So why does all this still matter?

Often and erroneously, the Spanish-American War has been termed "Mr. Hearst's War." And Creelman's 100-year-old anecdote has served as Exhibit A for that mistaken but undying belief. Debunking the anecdote serves, moreover, as a cautionary reminder about stories that sound too good to be true.

Edited by Jill Rosen