I learned a lot about William Randolph Hearst by watching the PBS American Experience documentary about him. He is best known as a purveyor of “yellow journalism,” promoter of the Spanish-American War, and the target of the Orson Welles film, Citizen Kane. The documentary shows that he has had a huge and continuing impact on our society, laying the groundwork for trivialization of the news – really fake news, and concentration of dangerous power in the hands of a small number of media leaders. You can see similarities with Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump.
Here’s PBS’s description of the documentary:
In the 1930s, William Randolph Hearst’s media empire included 28 newspapers, a movie studio, a syndicated wire service, radio stations and 13 magazines. Nearly one in four American families read a Hearst publication. His newspapers were so influential that Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Winston Churchill all wrote for him. The first practitioner of what is now known as “synergy,” Hearst used his media stronghold to achieve unprecedented political power, then ran for office himself. After serving two terms in Congress, he came in second in the balloting for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1904. Perhaps best known as the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and his lavish castle in San Simeon, Hearst died in 1951 at the age of 88, having transformed the media’s role in American life and politics. The two-part, four-hour film is based on historian David Nasaw’s critically acclaimed biography, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.
This post is based on some of the fascinating insights from the documentary.
Hearst’s initial claim to fame was as an ambitious newspaper publisher who built large-circulation newspapers around the turn of the 20th Century, first in San Francisco and then in New York City. His father was a wealthy mine owner who bankrolled his ventures. “The Chief,” as Hearst was known, was very competitive, seeking to run the biggest paper in each city. He catered to the working class with simple, sensational stories that grabbed their interest – and their pennies (which was how much newspapers cost those days).
Joseph Pulitzer has a positive image these days because of the Pulitzer Prize, but he apparently engaged in the same unethical journalistic practices as Hearst, who beat him in a newspaper war, presumably because Hearst had deeper pockets and was more ruthless.
In his youth, Hearst had contempt for economic and social elites. He took delight in being what we now call a “disruptor.” At the turn of the century, he rode the wave of the Progressive Era, editorializing against the trusts and in favor of statutes protecting workers’ rights. During the Depression, even before FDR’s New Deal, he favored substantial government spending to get the economy moving. Not surprisingly, these actions would advance his interests.
He turned against FDR because of his support of labor unions, and Hearst became a fierce anti-Communist. Even during the earlier Progressive Era, Hearst and Pulitzer teamed up to crush a union of poor newsboys who were essential for distributing their papers. During the run-up to World War II, he was an isolationist and strong critic of FDR. His papers lost circulation because he was no longer taking popular positions and because of the weakness of the economy generally. He financed his business ventures through debt. By the late 1930s, the bills came due and he had to liquidate much of his estate and live on a fixed allowance permitted by his creditors.
He wielded great political power by creating a chain of newspapers and magazines, with papers in most major cities. He also pioneered the newsreels shown in movie theaters, which was a major news medium of the time. Although he was twice elected to Congress, he lost most of his election campaigns – for mayor of New York City, governor of New York state, and president of the United States. But political leaders around the country and around the world courted his support because of his willingness to use his media empire to support his friends and attack his enemies.
He had a deep-seated prejudice against some nationalities, particularly people from Asia and Mexico. During World War II, he editorialized against the Japanese, which built support for their internment during the War.
He had a flamboyant lifestyle, building numerous homes and filling them with expensive art objects from around the world. His media outlets frequently provided flattering publicity about his activities. He had romances with a series of attractive young women – often stage performers. He married one and openly kept another as a mistress. Citizen Kane realistically portrayed his essence though not all the details.
William Randolph Hearst wasn’t the first, only, or last one to amass and wield great power by creating a vast media empire. Despite producing some useful contributions to journalism, his overall impact has been quite negative. He illustrates risks of great concentration of power, especially in media that prioritize their own financial and/or political interests over accuracy and fairness.