Citizen Hearst

By Ochs, Martin | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Citizen Hearst

Ochs, Martin, The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. By David Nasau. Houghton Mifflin. $35.

A great many journalists devote their working lives to the principles of objectivity, fairness, and accuracy to which William Randolph Hearst paid little tribute. The Hearst newspapers and other elements of his media empire had other purposes: promoting the Chief's personal political ambitions; aiding in the film career of his longtime mistress; trumpeting his ideological views, which shifted from early liberalism to the clanging far right.

The author, David Nasau, a professor at the City University of New York, has written an exhaustive, 607-page account of Hearst's life, 1863-1951. He does not ignore many of Hearst's dingy qualities. Still, he seems just a little soft on the publisher.

And there are a few sweeping generalizations, as in the case with San Simeon, the famous West Coast castle he built: "He began making additions... until it was not simply the most beautiful place on earth but the most fun."

Nasau acknowledges that despite all the Hearst family and other papers made available to him, a central mystery remains: how did Hearst, on somewhat limited funds, manage to acquire, in his heyday, 28 daily newspapers in major cities, a number of Sunday papers, the Cosmopolitan Picture studio, the King Features Syndicate, radio stations, magazines and other properties?

It was not for want of family wealth.

Hearst was the son of George Hearst, a "barely literate" prospector who struck it very rich in the West and became a United States senator from California.

His father called Hearst "Willy" or "Billy-Buster"-if one could ever imagine Mr. Hearst being called that. But George Hearst was rarely around during his growing up.

W.R. Hearst had barely been kicked out of Harvard, for want of sufficient grades, when his father gave him the San Francisco Examiner, which the elder Hearst had used in his political campaigns. (Harvard's tuition in 1884: $150.)

Hearst years later blamed Harvard's action on "politics."

On the Examiner, Hearst quickly applied instinctive talents. These included acquisition of loyal henchmen, good printing, and the unbridled sensationalism that became his trademark. Many senior newsmen will remember such stories as appeared in the New York Journal on page one, under the headline KILLED BY HYDROPHOBIA.. . "Two Innocent Boys Barked and Snapped Like Dogs, Suffering Terrible Agonies. Little Ralph, In His Struggle Bit Through His Tongue and Lips Again and Again."

Another early aspect was a strong populist editorial policy, interestingly accompanied by a near-rabid denunciation of "Asians." Whipping boy is the modern phrase. As Nasau recalls, Hearst was not alone among American newspapers in this shameful direction.

His mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, was a Midwestern school teacher who as time went on became virtually in charge of the family's huge pursestrings. William was forever begging her for money; but she, for what she thought was his own good, often resisted. In the end, however, she sometimes relented.

With this the situation, Hearst usually was hard-put to come up with the funds for his acquisitions. But he not only did it but lived at an unbelievable pace: a castle in Scotland, town houses in New York, several opulent residences in California, a vast Mexican ranch. If he was not the last of the big spenders, he was just about the biggest. When the Depression came, he refused to believe it, despite a long period when his properties sank in value.

From San Francisco he branched to New York City, bringing with him somewhat incongruous political ambitions. His aim was no less than president of the United States. But aside from his election to Congress in 1902, many other campaigns, with his own papers his cheering sections, fizzled out.

In most of these, Hearst ran as a populist, condeming "the Trusts" and the like. …

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