Hearst, William Randolph (1863-1951)

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Hearst, William Randolph (1863-1951)

Larger-than-life American publisher William Randolph Hearst acquired his first newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, in 1886. Over the next two decades, he built a media empire which revolutionized journalism. His dictatorial style and sensational approach to the news generated a fortune as well as controversy. Hearst's seemingly limitless ambition led him to campaign for social reforms, serve in Congress, run for the presidency, famously ignite the Spanish-American war, and become, according to recent biographer Ben Proctor, "arguably the best-known American, not just in the United States but around the world."

In the eyes of many, Hearst personified the American dream. Born to Phoebe Apperson, a Missouri school teacher, and George Hearst, a self-made millionaire miner and rancher, William Randolph Hearst parlayed family support, fierce independence, and a sense for drama into enormous wealth and power. In 1880 his father acquired the Examiner as payment for a gambling debt. "I am convinced," Hearst wrote to his father from Harvard six years later, "that I could run a newspaper successfully. Now, if you should make over to me the Examiner —with enough money to carry out my schemes—I'll tell you what I would do…."

At its height, Hearst's empire published twenty-eight newspapers and nine magazines. His motto was simply "Get Results." Within a year he doubled the Examiner's circulation. He modeled it after Joseph Pulitzer's newspapers, emphasizing human interest, crusading for worthy causes, and making up news stories if there were none to be found. His newspapers were among the first to offer obituaries and to regularly cover weather and women's issues. Hearst also made it a policy to pay for talent. He invested in stars like Thomas Nast, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and the great "sob sister" investigator Annie Laurie.

In 1895 he bought the New York Journal and entered into a circulation war with Pulitzer. Within a year the Journal's circulation tripled. Not even the comics pages escaped the competitive frenzy. Pulitzer ran the popular strip "The Yellow Kid." Hearst hired the cartoonist away. When Pulitzer hired a new cartoonist, the two newspapers' advertising departments plastered the city with yellow promotional flyers. The campaign gave rise to the term "yellow journalism," which subsequently became a derisive reference to the sort of sensational excesses in news coverage that characterized the Hearst-Pulitzer circulation war.

A legendary anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, describes the excessive competition between the two men, the increasing power of the press, and Hearst's reckless force of will. From roughly 1895 until the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898, Hearst and Pulitzer attempted to attract readers with trumped-up anti-Spanish atrocity stories from Cuba. Although Spain had consented to U.S. demands with respect to Cuban politics, Hearst sent artist Frederick Remington to the island. Remington cabled Hearst to say "[e]verything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return." Hearst replied: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."

Hearst's newspapers were distinguished largely by their style. They were among the first to use striking photographs and illustrations. They specialized in flashy headlines and sensational reports of topics like fires, crime, sex, and sports. Hearst encouraged his editors to conduct endless streams of lotteries, giveaways, and serials. He formed a "murder squad" of writers who chased criminals and a "detective corps" of investigative reporters paid to keep check on people in positions of power. Hearst also demanded his newspapers serve the masses. They ran stories calling for improved police and fire protection, better roads, sewers, schools, and hospitals. They promoted the eight-hour workday and public assistance after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Overt political stances taken by Hearst publications eventually provoked accusations of opportunism. Critics maintained that Hearst abused his First Amendment rights. They accused him of recklessness and insatiable greed, suggesting that he sparked the Spanish-American War just to sell his newspapers. Readers also grew wary of Hearst's tactics, boycotting his newspapers in the wake of the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 because they believed that relentlessly inflammatory articles and editorials endorsed by Hearst inspired the assassin.

Although he was often denounced for his nationalist politics, Hearst publications helped construct an American national identity, especially within burgeoning early-twentieth-century immigrant communities. In his efforts to reach the widest possible audience, Hearst directed his editors to seize upon the human element in the news, to encourage writers to craft stories which emphasized similarities among Americans by underlining universal fears and desires.

By the time he entered into politics at the turn of the century, Hearst was well practiced at using his media outlets to fuel his political interests. Although many believed he orchestrated both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt's successful presidential campaigns, he largely failed to realize his own political ambitions. He served two terms as a U.S. representative, but lost bids to become governor of New York and mayor of New York City.

Despite his unsuccessful foray into formal politics, Hearst and his movie-star mistress Marion Davies often entertained world leaders and celebrities at his California estate, San Simeon, a museum-like place many referred to simply as Hearst Castle. People accepted invitations to visit San Simeon out of friendship, curiosity, and fear. Hearst reveled in his role as eccentric kingmaker, unabashedly using his media power to promote his friends and ruin his enemies. In the end, however, he seemed to consider more people enemies than friends. He gained a reputation as a xenophobe, a red-baiter, and a fascist. He vehemently opposed anything or anyone who interfered with his profits, forbidding his employees to unionize, fighting against taxation, and demonizing hemp growers with a famous "reefer madness" campaign because they posed a threat to the profits he made supplying timber to the paper-making industry.

Hearst's life inspired the 1941 Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, a stirring portrait of a media tycoon ruined by his own excesses. After a Hollywood preview, Hearst launched a full-scale campaign against the movie and its director, effectively blocking the film's distribution by threatening lawsuits, running venomous reviews, and yanking advertising.

Even into his eighties, Hearst maintained firm control over his newspapers, regularly sending out memos to editors across the country. His print-media companies were among the first to enter radio and television broadcasting. He also produced movie newsreels and is widely credited with creating the comic strip syndication business. Hearst's King Features Syndicate became the largest distributer of comics and text features in the world. Threatening, inspiring, domineering, William Randolph Hearst was a genius entrepreneur with an appreciation for the value of information that was ahead of his time.

—Adrienne Russell

Further Reading:

Hearst, William Randolph Jr., and Jack Casserly. The Hearsts: Father and Son. Toronto, Key Porter Book, 1991.

Proctor, Ben. William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years 1863-1910. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Swanberg, W. A. Citizen Hearst. New York, Scribner, 1961.

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