William Randolph Hearst:
The Early Years, 1863-1910
By Ben Procter
Oxford University Press
346 pages; $30
Revisionist historians can be spoilsports, deflating cherished myths about past giants, so there is some trepidation in approaching this self-proclaimed "fascinating reassessment" of William Randolph Hearst.
Could it be that Hearst didn't personify yellow journalism, didn't foment the Spanish-American War, didn't deserve his leonine reputation as Citizen Kane the pooh-bah?
As it turns out, Ben Procter's new biography punctures few illusions. If anything it
reinforces Hearst's larger-than-life legacy.
The "reassessment," brought on by Procter's access to previously unavailable letters and manuscripts at Berkeley's library, seems mild at best and unnecessarily exaggerated. Hearst apparently romanticized his mother and father's courtship story (the horror!), and it appears his parents were married not in Stedville, Missouri, as earlier reported, but in Steelville (egads!).
Once past its breathless beginning, however, this account is a valuable contemporary retelling of Hearst's spectacular story. I found myself struck by a duality that pervades the book. In many ways, William Randolph Hearst was a thoroughly modern character, a tycoon who would be right at home in today's multimedia bedlam, an innovator and crowd pleaser with a genius for leaping ahead just far enough to attract everyone else. And in other ways his story seems quaint and far-removed, a throwback to days before Wall Street bullied newsrooms, when content ruled.
Hearst without question was a colossus, and probably would be today. Doted on by wealthy parents, he grew up with the confidence that comes from getting your way and the daring that comes from having resources to afford it.
A Harvard washout, Hearst talked his father into handing over the San Francisco Examiner to him at age 24. Over the next two decades, he built a publishing empire (28 newspapers and nine magazines), revolutionized journalism inside and outside the newsroom, campaigned for social reforms that make today's civic journalism pale, served in Congress, hungered after the presidency and became "arguably the best-known American, not just in the United States but in the world."
What seems most contemporary is that Hearst as a man of vision was an entrepreneur with a shrewd appreciation of the value of information. What seems most quaint is that he was a man of action, hands on in the newsroom and the civic arena, unwilling to yield leadership to others.
His credo was "Get results," and he did. Within a year, he doubled the Examiner's circulation. A year after he bought the New York Journal its circulation had tripled, and within five years it claimed "the greatest circulation in the world."
In part, his yellow journalism (he called it "new journalism") relied on flashy makeup (huge headlines, unprecedented use of photos and illustrations) and sensationalistic coverage of fires, crime, sex and sports, along with an endless stream of lotteries, giveaways, serials and gimmicks. He formed a "murder squad" of reporters to chase criminals and a "detective corps" of investigative reporters to harass the powerful.
But Hearst also showed a genuine reform streak. His papers crusaded relentlessly for better roads, sewers, hospitals, and police and fire protection. They promoted the eight-hour workday and public assistance to the poor and homeless. They mobilized massive assistance after the San Francisco earthquake.
Along with the sensational, he pioneered coverage of weather, obituaries and women's issues. And Hearst never hesitated to pay for talent. "Poor wages and mediocre talent will not do," he proclaimed as a young man; he invested heavily in stars like Thomas Nast, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain and the great "sob sister" investigator Annie Laurie.
Procter, a Texas Christian University history professor, traces the story well. There is little evidence here that Hearst worried much about the bottom line. Spending freely and chasing mass tastes, he pushed a canny combination of public service and public circuses. As circulation and ads followed, his papers could hardly help turning a profit.
It comes as no surprise that as Hearst's stature rose, his dark side emerged too. Procter reports that he tolerated invention and falsification by reporters, embraced a xenophobic brand of America-firstism and exploited his papers for partisan and ideological gain.
No better example could exist, of course, than Hearst's drumbeat drive to stir up a war with Spain. Procter sheds no new evidence on whether Hearst actually told Frederick Remington, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." But he certainly referred to it publicly as "the Journal's War," lobbied endlessly to "Remember the Maine" and churned out extras with stories of exaggerated atrocities. Ultimately, Hearst personally commanded Journal correspondents covering the Cuba fighting wearing a Panama hat, carrying a revolver at his belt and trailing the Rough Riders on horseback.
By the time he entered politics at the turn of the century, Hearst was a practiced master at using his empire to fuel his political interests. Procter suggests, for instance, that Hearst bought the Los Angeles Examiner and the Boston American in part to reach voters in those key states.
He made it to Congress, but lost in a New York City mayoral race and in a bid to be New York's governor. The presidential nomination also eluded him.
It would be wrong to consider Hearst an unalloyed hero, but Procter makes something attractively romantic and nostalgic of his story. Hearst was an editor not an executive, a battler not an observer. Journalism was more than his business. As Hearst himself once wrote, "It was one wonderful adventure after another."