Time, biographers and Orson Welles have been unkind to newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, according to Kenneth Whyte, the author of The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst.
Whyte, editor-in-chief and publisher of Canada’s leading current affairs magazine Macleans, has a daily newspaper background himself (he launched Canada’s National Post paper in 1998) and embraces Hearst – the most famous, perhaps infamous newspaper man of all - for what he achieved in print.
Numerous biographies dating back to the 1940s have vilified Hearst and the brand of journalism, nicknamed Yellow Journalism, he helped create, but Whyte focuses on the pioneering nature of the man and the huge influence of the newspaper industry as the 19th century ended. Welles’ acclaimed movie, Citizen Kane, also shows him in a negative light through its thinly veiled portrayal of a Hearst-inspired media magnate in pursuit of power.
“When I was planning the launch of the National Post in 1998, I started reading about newspaper competition and discovered the granddaddy of all newspaper wars between Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer,” said Whyte. “Hearst was young but Pulitzer had already been on a 15-year ride as a leading publisher in the US. The conventional view of Hearst is that he produced down-market newspapers selling unreliable news. He was actually a very good newspaper man.”
The Uncrowned King examines the brutal newspaper war between Hearst’s New York Journal and Pulitzer’s New York World in the late 1890s. Two major stories – the famous campaign for the 1896 election eventually won by Republican William McKinley and Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain – are showcased as prime examples of how Hearst influenced the American political landscape.
In the election, Hearst’s paper supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate, and took a pioneering role in attempting to influence voters. In terms of Cuba, Hearst campaigned – successfully - for US intervention as Spain brutally suppressed the island’s bid for independence.
The Uncrowned King concentrates on the election and Cuba “because each day Hearst’s papers covered hundreds of topics and I didn’t want to list them all. The election and Cuba received the most attention and most criticism, but both stories helped to increase his circulation.
“The election established him as the leading Democratic paper in the country. He became interested in Cuba before others thought it was newsworthy. He was genuinely outraged by Spain’s actions and spent three years campaigning on behalf of the Cuban people and helped encourage US intervention.”
Whyte admits that Hearst’s journalists did sometimes produce untrue copy. “There were some (false stories) but there was a lot of politically motivated criticism of Hearst at the time,” he adds. “The newspaper environment in those early years had no ethical guidelines or standard practices. Newspapers were unclear on whether a story should include the author’s voice, speculation or just the facts.
“I admire him as a newspaper man. He produced a great paper, but I wouldn’t have liked to work for him. There was too much talent in his newsroom."
Hearst already had a track record in newspapers when he arrived in New York in 1895. His father, a wealthy California senator, owned the San Francisco Examiner and installed Hearst at its helm upon his son’s graduation from Harvard. The young WRH turned a failing paper in a vibrant media pioneer and then took his innovative ideas to New York where he was desperate to succeed on the larger stage.
“Hearst was fortunate,” said Whyte. “His parents were wealthy and well connected. He got a newspaper from his father but made it a success on his own. Hearst’s single advantage was his bankroll but all kinds of rich people were in newspapers at that time. He had vast skills and worked an apprenticeship at the Examiner. His parent’s money wasn’t what made him great.”
At that time, mass produced newspapers were still a relatively new phenomenon but it was already an intensively competitive industry – New York alone had dozens of newspapers in the 1890s. An interesting question to pose is what would Hearst be doing if he was alive today?
“He probably wouldn’t be working in newspapers,” said Whyte. “He was in touch with the spirit of the times and embraced new technologies like the telegraph and the telephone. He’d be running Google or something.”
With newspapers struggling to survive in the rapidly changing media landscape, Hearst’s legacy may be fading even though his company is still a powerful organization. The Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle and many more famous names are all part of the Hearst empire.
“He was grossly misunderstood and considered to be a failure but he was a huge figure in North American life and built an empire,” explained Whyte. “I’m not sure that the Hearst Corporation appreciates the basis of quality upon which it was built. There are no pictures of Hearst in the lobby of the Hearst headquarters in New York. They should not be shy about the fact that he founded the company.”