The Book of the Week is “The Chief, The Life of William Randolph Hearst” by David Nasaw, published in 2000. This tome described not just the life of the media emperor, but the historical backdrop of his generation.
Born in April 1863 in San Francisco, Hearst was a mama’s boy. He grew up in a highly cultured family. However, its fortunes waned, and finally waxed in the 1870’s. The father was in the gold mining business; politics too– he was elected as a Democratic member of the state assembly of California in November 1865.
When Hearst was at Harvard, his mother “…redecorated his rooms [in Matthews Hall] in Harvard crimson, equipped him with a library, hired a maid and valet to look after her boy.” In those days, one student could live in an on-campus suite and have servants. Hearst was an outsider who bought himself a position in society by making the Harvard Lampoon profitable and donating big money to Harvard’s sports teams. But he lacked the manners to get invited to the elitist summer resorts.
In October 1880, Hearst’s father bought San Francisco’s Evening Examiner and turned it into a morning newspaper to win a future election. Father and son helped get Grover Cleveland elected president in November 1884. Two years later, Hearst’s father was elected to the U.S. Senate. Hearst eventually failed out of Harvard.
In his mid-twenties, Hearst got an opportunity to attempt a financial turnaround of the Examiner. He took various creative steps to achieve this goal. The Examiner‘s editorial bent was pro-labor, anti-capital and anti-railroad.
In the 1890’s, the culture of journalism was a mixture of “fact-based reporting, opinion and literature.” Readers liked emotionally-moving stories. They could tolerate a lot of fiction in their news. And they must’ve, when Hearst published made-up war stories to help Cuba gain its independence from Spain in 1898. However, toward the mid-twentieth century, journalism strove to be more objective.
In 1893 at the time Hearst bought the New York Morning Journal, there were eight established morning newspapers in New York. The Journal‘s editorial bent was pro-labor, pro-immigrant and anti-Republican. But it did have anti-African-American cartoons and jokes. According to Hearst, New Yorkers were overpaying for their gas, power, coal, ice, milk and even water due to monopolies (in those days called “trusts”).
In 1900 and 1901, the Hearst papers constantly criticized and even mentioned killing president McKinley. When the president was shot by a madman in September 1901, Hearst was accused of hiring the hitman. In 1902, Hearst was elected to Congress as a Democrat from New York, eleventh district. When he ran for a third term, he gave every man, woman and child in his district a free trip to Coney Island, including most of the Luna Park shows (thousands of tickets). Then he changed his mind and ran for mayor instead in 1905 in an attempt to “drain the swamp.” He wed in 1903, at forty years old. In May 1905, he bought Cosmopolitan magazine, kicking off his entry into the magazine business.
Hearst lived high on the hog and spared no expense when it came to gathering stories for his growing media empire. He paid his employees well, sent droves of them to cover stories which appeared in his newspapers that had more pages and special features than the competition’s. His business was losing more money than ever.
In the early 1920’s, “After 2 decades of debate and agitation, the rise and fall of Populist, Progressive and Socialist parties…” and lots of labor unrest, there was general consensus between government and American business “… that the role of government was not to supersede or control the corporation, but to legalize and legitimize it by regulating its excesses.”
Public relations at the turn of the twentieth century consisted of billboards and posters, newsreels and serial films, stunts, service features and contests. Radio was the next big thing in the 1920’s.
After recording political history for decades, Hearst concluded that “…politicians were, with few exceptions, mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent. The country needed a leader who was not tainted by the political process and was not dependent on the largess of machine politicians or big businessmen.”
On one trip on Hearst’s yacht, with a group of Hollywood celebrities, a movie director was celebrating his 43rd birthday. The director had a major heart attack and later died. All sorts of wild stories abounded in the newspapers that Hearst had killed him. A 2001 FICTIONAL movie called “The Cat’s Meow” was made of one wild-story version. No evidence of any crime has ever surfaced, except Hearst’s violating Prohibition– a crime whose exposure he wanted to avoid. That was the reason he didn’t want the media anywhere near the heart attack victim.
In late 1927, for nearly a month, Hearst had published front page articles based entirely on fictitious sources. He had libeled several nations, dozens of foreign statesmen, at least two prominent American journalists, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ernest Gruening, and four U.S. senators. Yet he wasn’t taken to task on any of that. There’s nothing new under the sun.
Read the book to learn the details of Hearst’s friendly relationships with William Jennings Bryan, Marion Davies, Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill and others; his wire service; his reporting on Tammany Hall; San Simeon and how his other estates with mansions came to be; his art collection; the size to which his media empire grew; his rabid anti-Communist activities; and how he worked his way out of financial ruin. Most of the aforementioned involved disgusting excesses.