- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

By Kenneth Whyte
Counterpoint, $30, 546 pages

For we journalists of a certain generation, hooting J-school pedagogues pointed to William Randolph Hearst as the personification of evil — an editorial demon who shamed our trade, a sensationalist willing to perform the rankest of stunts to sell papers. Newspaper lore has it that illustrator Frederic Remington, who had been dispatched to Cuba in the expectation of war with Spain, became bored and wired Hearst, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. I wish to return.”

Whereupon Hearst supposedly — mark that word “supposedly” — replied, “Please remain. You supply the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war. W. R. Hearst.”

That anecdote, like so much else written about Hearst, had a serious failing. It is pure bunk. The exchange never occurred. And it is one of many myths dashed by Canadian editor Kenneth Whyte in a superb and highly readable biography, “The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst.”

He focuses on a relatively brief period of Hearst’s career, the 1890s, when he and Joseph Pulitzer vied for dominance in the hyper-competitive New York market, creating a raucous style known as “yellow journalism.”

Hearst was a relative novice. While still in his 20s, his pockets sagging with family mining wealth, he had already transformed the San Francisco Examiner into the West Coast’s strongest paper. In 1893, he bought the New York Journal for $200,000, and challenged Joseph Pulitzer’s World — and 16 other dailies — for supremacy in New York.

So what happened next? Mr. Whyte became interested in Hearst several years ago when he started a new national newspaper “in a relatively crowded Canadian market.” For guidance, he read widely in the history of the North American press, “paying particular attention to editors proficient in the almost forgotten arts of attracting readers and building circulation against established competition.”

A fast spin through microfilm copies of Hearst’s Journal initially did not cause Mr. Whyte to “question the conventional view of Hearst: that his paper was commercially successful, but otherwise a hollow spectacle … tireless self-promoter who lowered the standards and tone of American newspaper; that he twisted facts and invented stories in the course of ruining reputations and promoting unnecessary wars.”

Five years of experience having given him a “new appreciation of the dynamics and difficulties of newspaper competition,” Mr. Whyte decided to take a closer look at Hearst and the “actual content of his newspaper and that of his competitors.” If Hearst truly was such a rotten apple, how did he manage to build, almost overnight, “a publishing franchise with more than a million readers in a savvy newspaper city serviced by seventeen major dailies, some of them owned by the most talented and wealthiest editors the United States has ever seen?”

In the main, by hiring writers of literary talent, who focused on stories of strong human interest. High-society divorces. The police beat, and stories about the innovative ways people found to harm one another. Splashy headlines and displays. Artwork splattered over the page at twice the traditional size.

And, of course, the Spanish-American War, prompted by atrocities against the Cuban people that qualified as genocide. Here Mr. Whyte makes plain that a majority of Americans shared Hearst’s view that the Spaniards were cruel colonial overlords who should be ejected from the Western Hemisphere. And when a strikingly beautiful Evangelina Cossio y Cisneros suffered unspeakable abuses by captors, Hearst smuggled her out of Cuba and onto his front page for day after day. Then came the event that directly started the war, the still unexplained explosion that wrecked the USS Maine.

Concerning Cuba — coverage of which provided most of the latter-day indictments of Hearst as a warmonger — Mr. Whyte makes several points. Pulitzer and other rivals covered the story more or less as did Hearst. The Journal’s story about the cause of the explosion were well-sourced (although the cause remains debated to this day). To be sure, the Journal did whoop and holler in favor of war — but so did Pulitzer and other rivals.

The demonization of Hearst, Mr. Whyte feels, originated in broadsides by E.L. Godkin in The Nation and Evening Post, published during the war. These charges, most of which are not substantiated, gave fodder to “biographers, journalists, military historians, political scientists and novelists.” He well might have added Hollywood, with the classic “Citizen Kane,” based in the main on a 1930s biography by the muckraking writer Ferdinand Lundberg.

To be sure, Hearst earned enormous amounts of money from yellow journalism. At the peak of his prowess, in the 1920s, he owned 26 papers in 18 cities, a profitable stable of magazines (Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Harper’s Bazaar), a radio network, a movie studio, properties hither and yon, plus one of the world’s largest art collections. He also had what was essentially a second wife, the sometime actress Marion Davies.

And his politics went far to the right. He detested FDR. His anti-communism sometimes got the best of his judgment. But his papers, in large part, pressured Congress to pass one of the most significant pieces of 20th-century legislation: the GI Bill, which was opposed by the education establishment, not wanting riff-raff cluttering their campuses.

But what he lacked, Mr. Whyte opines, was the lack of any true political power. He writes, “… at the very pinnacle of his achievement in New York, he had slammed face-first into the hard limits of his profession. The role of the press, however grand his aspirations for it, was essentially one of observation and criticism.”

H.L. Mencken was one of the few journalists who gave Hearst his due. Writing in The American Mercury in the 1920s, HLM said, “Hearst deserves more and better of his country than he will ever get. It is the fashion to speak of him contemptuously, with dark references to matters that are nobody’s business. I think there is a great deal of envy in all this: not many Americans, even among millionaires, have ever been accused so beautifully.”

As every literate American realizes, the modern newspaper is nearing endangered species status. I suggest that every publisher in the land — and editor as well — spend a weekend with this book. To be sure, Hearst’s excesses were real, and many. But the fellow knew how to produce newspapers that the public bought and read. Which in the end, is what journalism is all about.

Joseph C. Goulden spent 10 years as a newsman, with the Dallas News and Philadelphia Inquirer. He is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail address is [email protected]



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