Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Read All About It: The Rise of William Randolph Hearst
A revisionist biography of America’s most notorious press baron.
By Matthew Price. The National, February 6, 2009

The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, by Kenneth WhyteReading the newspaper, the German philosopher GWF Hegel wrote, is the “realist’s morning prayer”. As Hegel saw it, the daily paper — like God — provided an orientation to the world. The modern newspaper rose with the growth and expansion of cities: as the bounds of neighbourhoods stretched beyond the immediately knowable, and markets for goods reached overseas, demand for information stoked an appetite for a novel commodity: the news.

Early newspapers were primitive in design, with a mix of foreign and domestic items, many borrowed from other papers. Newsprint was expensive, and circulations tended to be small. All of this would change by the late 19th century, with the rise of a mass press. Telegraphs relayed news in a flash to editors, new printing presses allowed publishers to respond rapidly to breaking news, and bulging Sunday editions were born. Illustrations and bold headlines were deployed to grab readers, as were sections devoted to sport, women and the comics.

Few in the history of newspapering did more to exploit these developments than William Randolph Hearst. This buccaneering Californian, whose caricature was immortalised in Citizen Kane, was arguably the most powerful newspaper publisher in history. By the 1920s — the height of his fame and influence — he owned papers in nearly every major American city, and his interests extended to magazines, radio, motion pictures and real estate. His art collection was immense, as was his extravagant mansion in San Simeon, California.

He was also detested. In the annals of vilification, even Rupert Murdoch is no match for Hearst. A catalogue of his sins — actual and alleged — would fill a book. From his early days as a publisher in Gilded Age San Francisco and New York into his mature years as a titan, Hearst inspired an intense hatred. He was accused of cheap sensationalism and trafficking in falsehoods. He was blamed for causing the Spanish-American War of 1898 and pandering to the reader’s worst instincts with his craven brand of “yellow journalism”. His critics were legion—AJ Liebling, one of Hearst’s most eloquent foes, said he used money “like a club”. Others called him a megalomaniac and an unhinged madman.

The image of Hearst as a ruthless mogul is a part of journalism lore. Certainly, there is a good deal that was unsavoury about the man: in the 1930s, Hearst papers ran columns by Hitler and Mussolini and savaged Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. (He ordered that all his papers call it the Raw Deal.) But lately his reputation has been getting a second look. David Nasaw’s prize-winning biography, The Chief, published in 2000, presented a more complex flesh and blood Hearst, not some cartoon villain. Nasaw is tough when he needs to be, but also fair-minded. Now the Canadian journalist Kenneth Whyte has delivered a more radical revision to the Hearst reputation, with a biography focused narrowly on Hearst’s early career and his entry into the frenzied New York newspaper market in the 1890s. The Uncrowned King is very nearly an all-out hagiography, but it is a book of its moment. At a time when English-language newspapers are losing readers by the millions and laying off staff by the hundreds, Whyte’s biography is a lament for the glory days of print — for an era in which powerful men like Hearst owned newspapers and transformed the news business into a mighty force of its own.

For Whyte, the founding editor of Canada’s National Post, Hearst was nothing less than a genius. Whyte wants to recast the terms of the debate: the job of a newspaper publisher is to sell newspapers; Hearst did that spectacularly well. Hearst, Whyte writes, mastered the now “almost forgotten arts of attracting readers and building circulation against established competition” — yet many of Hearst’s critics act as if increasing readership was “a reprehensible activity”. Certainly, he pushed an agenda, but he also won an audience, and the proof is in the circulation figures.

The Uncrowned King is a journalist’s book, about the day-to-day business of gathering the news and putting out the paper in a hyper-competitive market. Whyte says nothing about the present moment, but his book is a stark reminder of how timid and dreary so many newspapers have become, and of how the newspaper industry has, of late, squandered the preeminent place it once held in the lives of its readers.

Journalism Hearst-style could be extreme and over the top, but it was also supremely entertaining and bold. Hearst came at the reader with a relentless style; he made reading the news an event unto itself. There may be nothing that can save the newspaper industry from the crisis it faces today, but the drab entities that own most American newspapers, corporations with bland names like MediaNews Group, have been their own worst enemies, producing colourless papers lacking in style and spirit — the very things the dynamic Hearst delivered daily.

Born in 1856 to a wealthy father who made a fortune in mining, William Randolph Hearst was a Harvard dropout and a natural newspaperman. At 31, he was given control of his father’s failing San Francisco paper, the Examiner, and quickly transformed it into a leading daily. Though Hearst was well-to-do, he fancied himself a crusader for the downtrodden; one of his employees noted that he had “a real sympathy for the submerged man and woman, a real feeling of his own mission to plead their cause.” Hearst’s sense of mission could curdle into a deranged messianism, but, from top to bottom, he had an unfailing knack for making a good paper. He considered the newspaper in its totality as a printed object, and few details escaped his notice: he obsessed over tone, design, illustration, advertising, circulation, and marketing in equal measure. (Whyte writes nicely that Hearst “was a nuisance about headlines, treating each one as though it would alone tease another hundred readers from the competition to his own sheet.”)

For Hearst, newspapering was a kind of democratic art, and this instinct propelled him into the greatest newspaper market in America — New York City. In the 1890s, the city hummed with a highly literate population of 3.8 million that supported no less than 17 major dailies. Casting around for an attractive property, Hearst settled on the ailing Morning Journal, which had been haemorrhaging circulation. Hearst’s acquisition of the Journal in 1895 set the stage for one of the greatest showdowns in newspaper history, pitting the arriviste from the American west against the king of the New York market, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the mighty World, whose slogan — “2 cents, circulation nearly one-half million per day” — neatly summarised its dominance.

A relentless self-promoter, Pulitzer created his own publishing revolution in Gotham, locking up New York’s working class readers, whose interests had been largely ignored by staid upmarket papers like the Herald and the Tribune, which were aimed at commercial elites. “Pulitzer’s World locked arms with working men and women, taking their enthusiasms, aspirations, and emotions as their own,” Whyte writes. For Hearst, Pulitzer served as both a model to be emulated and a competitor to be smashed. Hearst learned a great deal from his rival as he retooled the Journal — and lured away Pulitzer’s top talent. He mixed lurid crime stories with trustbusting campaigns, lengthy items about politics and exposes about municipal corruption, adding breezy columns like “Caught in the Metropolitan Whirl”. He cleaned up the paper’s design, and tweaked the visual side, adding realistic illustrations that broke up the columns of type. New pages were devoted to sport and business coverage. He launched a thick Sunday edition to compete with the Sunday World. He was not an aloof proprietor. The workaholic Hearst fussed over headlines and captions, often working late into the night. He priced the Journal at one cent, directly undercutting the more expensive World. The formula succeeded brilliantly: within three months, circulation doubled.

Whyte’s account of the Pulitzer-Hearst battle runs sharply counter to the conventional wisdom, which dismissed the populist tactics of the World and the Journal alike as “yellow journalism.” For Whyte, the term — like “sensationalism” — is meaningless and subjective. As Hearst’s Journal used to say, taunting the competition, sensationalism “is always the cry of the newspaper to the rival which passes it”.

Whyte argues that Hearst merely had a feel for the spirit of the time: “It was an age of sensation. The public space was awash in febrile emotions…. Hearst did not set the mood, but he revelled in it and amply exposed its less savoury dimensions to his readers.”

The Journal sported headlines like “Beheaded, cast into the river,” and dispatched the novelist Stephen Crane to Manhattan’s seamy Tenderloin district, where he caused a scandal of his own after testifying on behalf of a prostitute. But the paper also ran serious articles about politics and civic affairs. Hearst devoted hundreds of pages to events in Cuba in the months prior to the Spanish-American. His coverage there has a notorious reputation in the history of journalism, one that is largely undeserved, Whyte contends. The old canard that Hearst provoked the conflict does not withstand scrutiny; as for the legendary telegram he allegedly sent the illustrator Frederic Remington — “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” — it does not exist. Nor was Hearst the only publisher concerned with Spain — all of his major rivals gave prominent coverage to the conflict.

Whyte also takes Hearst’s populism seriously: “Hearst hammered away frenetically, day after day, week after week, at privately held trusts in ice, water, gas, sugar, rubber, coal and railways. As an activist and community servant, Hearst was operating with a vigour, scope and conviction unprecedented in American newspapers.” Whyte disputes the notion that Hearst was a careless businessman — he used family money to finance his purchase of the Journal, but he eventually made money. Even so, Hearst was “far more interested in making a great paper than in turning a profit.”

He also wanted to exert influence, no matter the cost. Almost alone among New York publishers, Hearst supported the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896. If the Journal’s pro-Bryan stance offended commercial interests, so be it: “Advertisers called on me and said they would take out every advertisement if I continued to support Bryan,” Hearst recalled, “and I told them to take out their advertisements, as I needed more space in which to support Bryan.”

Whyte has read deeply in the newspapers of the day, and his account challenges us to think afresh about the kind of journalism Hearst perfected, even if it is occasionally overzealous in his defence. Though Hearst may now be acquitted on the charge of “causing” the Spanish-American War, it is indisputable that the Journal was frequently reckless with the facts. Even Whyte meekly concedes the point, but he cannot do so without providing an alibi: “Hearst probably did publish more sloppy and inaccurate news than other papers, not to foment war but because he published more news than his rivals, good and bad.”

But this laboured defence still doesn’t dent Whyte’s case: if reading the paper is a kind of morning prayer, then Hearst created grand cathedrals. By focusing on Hearst’s early years, Whyte brings the man and his papers back into focus, out from behind the shadow of the larger-than-life Hearst of legend — the movie mogul and fixture of society pages; the populist-turned-red-baiting demagogue, who used his media empire to promote a dark, almost fascist agenda. The later Hearst is easy to vilify, but the young newsman is a complex, even sympathetic figure.

Lovers of newsprint have aired innumerable ideas to save the papers, from non-profit endowments to government bailouts; what most of them share is the sanctimonious presumption that newspapers, as guardians of the public trust, must be preserved at all costs.

It is ironic that many who would have heaped scorn on Hearst are now yearning for a modern-day William Randolph to ride to the rescue. Even Hearst probably couldn’t solve the papers’ current predicament, but his example is still relevant: newspapers, he understood, are businesses that deliver a valuable commodity, the news. When they do it well, with style and energy, readers will follow. Newspapers, in other words, must earn the public’s attention before they can guard its trust.

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