The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst

Article excerpt

Whyte, Kenneth. The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst. Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint, 2009. 546 pp. $30.

No prominent figure in American journalism has been so cursed by pitiless biographers as William Randolph Hearst. Among the most unforgiving of his biographers were Ferdinand Lundberg, whose vicious little book, Imperial Hearst, came out in 1936, and WA. Swanberg, whose superficial Citizen Hearst (1961) was for years the best of a bad lot. All that began to change in 2000 with publication of The Chief, David Nasaw's admirably even-handed treatment of Hearst. In The Uncrowned King, Kenneth Whyte offers a welcome and well-researched revisionist portrait of young Hearst and his rise to national prominence in New York City in the 1890s.

Whyte, the editor-in-chief of the Canadian newsweekly Macleans, says his goal in The Uncrowned King was "to determine how Hearst was able to build, almost overnight, a publishing franchise with more than a million readers in a savvy newspaper city served by seventeen major dailies, some of them owned by the most talented and wealthiest editors the United States has ever seen." And he largely succeeds in what is an engaging, readable, and valuable book. He pokes continually and mostly successfully at conventional wisdom about Hearst: the cartoonish image of an unscrupulous, warmongering ringleader of "yellow journalism," who sought mainly to boost circulation with bizarre, outlandish, and sensationalized content.

Whyte bases his revised assessments on close reading of Hearst's provocative and aggressive flagship, the New York Journal, and of other important newspapers in fin de siecle New York: the World, the Herald, the Sun, and the Times. Taking the time to read the newspapers is more than can be said for some of Hearst's earlier biographers and having done so allows him to offer valuable context and insight. "Far from being shady, squalid, or trivial," he writes, the yellow journals "were big, rich businesses run out of towering buildings with elevators, telephones, and electric lights. There seemed no limit to their potential size and reach."

Young Hearst in New York was brash, innovative, fun-loving, and cutting-edge. Whyte says he effectively set the agenda in 1896-98 for the New York press and America's political class on the thorny question of Cuba, which then was in rebellion against Spain's harsh colonial rule. Spain tried to snuff the insurgency through the harsh and heavy-handed policy of "reconcentration," in which Cuban non-combatants were removed from the countryside to deprive the rebels of civilian support. …