We all know that Orson Welles drew his inspiration for the film “Citizen Kane” from the life of William Randolph Hearst. But over time, the character called Kane has become so conflated with the man named Hearst that we tend to think of the movie as a biopic. Kenneth Whyte’s The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst separates the myths from the reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last month, a right wing blogger caused a scandal when he posted a speech by a government official that was selectively edited to make her appear racist and unethical. It was slammed as yellow journalism. Of course, the term is just a frequently lobbed against the left because no matter where you sit on the political spectrum, it’s agreed that being accused of yellow journalism is a powerful insult, conjuring all that’s tawdry and manipulative. And so, it’s been since the term was coined during a New York City newspaper war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst at the end of the 19th century. But yellow journalism’s durability as an epithet has obscured its origins and its accuracy, or so American University Professor W. Joseph Campbell told us last year when we spoke to him about his book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. He says that Hearst described his own particular style of journalism as, quote, “journalism of action.”
W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: He meant that newspapers had an obligation to do more than just comment on the passing scene of news and events in the world, but to actually engage in making society, making the city, making the country a better place, and confront corruption in a very direct and forthright manner. Do something about it rather than just to editorialize about it. You know, a lot of newspapers today tend to be staid, boring, predictable, and those are the features that you would not typically associate with yellow journalism, as it was practiced 110 years ago.
ORSON WELLES AS CHARLES FOSTER KANE: I'm going to get the truth in The Enquirer, quickly and simply and entertainingly, and no special interests are going to be allowed to interfere with that truth. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens, and as human beings. Solly? Solly?
ACTOR JOHN ECKERT: Yes, Mr. Kane?
ORSON WELLES AS CHARLES FOSTER KANE: Here’s an editorial, Solly. I want you to run it in a box on the front page.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We all know that Orson Welles drew inspiration for the film Citizen Kane from the life of William Randolph Hearst. By 1941, when the film was released, Hearst had built and lost an empire that included the largest newspaper chain in America. But over time, the character called Kane has become so conflated with the man named Hearst that we tend to think of the movie as a biopic. The book The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearts, written by Kenneth Whyte, separates the myths from the reality. Whyte says that when Hearst took over The San Francisco Examiner from his father it wasn't just his first real test as a newspaperman.
KENNETH WHYTE: It was his first real test at anything, really. It was the first job he'd really had, and he'd been something of a failure as a student. He'd left Harvard under a cloud, without a degree. But he takes over The Examiner and in a very short period of time manages to turn it around and make it the most exciting paper on the West Coast. It was a smart, well-written paper with courageous crusades and a real sense of public service.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So eventually Hearst picks up and he moves from San Francisco to Gilded Age New York, where there is a ferment of newspapers. Can you describe the town?
KENNETH WHYTE: There were probably 40, 45 newspapers at the time, daily newspapers, morning papers, afternoon papers, highbrow papers, lowbrow papers.
A newspaper could put out seven editions.
KENNETH WHYTE: It could put up as many as 20, 25 editions. They even had billboards around town with the latest headlines, and they kept updating that constantly. So it was hugely competitive. It brought in the best talent from around the world, at the time. New York probably had five or six of the best editors in newspaper history, not only Pulitzer and Hearst, but Charles Dana, the legendary editor of The New York Sun, and Adolph Ochs, who'd just bought The New York Times, Whitelaw Reid at The New York Tribune and James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who sent Stanley in search of Livingston.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where did Hearst first set up shop? Where did he get his reporters?
KENNETH WHYTE: Well, he buys this little newspaper called The New York Journal, and it has a staff. He decides to keep a lot of the rank-and-file people but brings in some of his best editors from San Francisco and some of his best writing talent - sportswriters and columnists and editorialists. And within three months his circulation has doubled and people around town are all talking about him as a young newspaper genius. This allows Hearst to go around and start talking to some of the better journalists at other papers, including Pulitzer’s, and begin luring them over to his shop. They wouldn't have left had he not already made a splash.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's stop here and talk about Pulitzer. His paper, The New York World, towered over the newspaper environment at the time? He was Hearst’s archrival?
KENNETH WHYTE: Pulitzer at the time was everybody’s archrival. He was the king of the heap in New York journalism. He had the biggest paper, the biggest circulation. He had the biggest building in New York City, the World Building. It was the tallest commercial structure in the world, at the time. That gives you some sense of what a big deal Joseph Pulitzer was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it gives you a sense of how bold William Randolph Hearst was, because the rivalry played out big-time during the presidential election of 1896, when each publisher was backing a different candidate.
KENNETH WHYTE: The election of 1896 is generally considered the most exciting election in American history. It was William Jennings Bryan and the Cross of Gold speech up against the Republicans and William McKinley. Pulitzer was the key Democrat editor in New York and in all of America, and he broke with Bryan over the Free Silver plank and left Hearst alone as the leading champion of the Democratic Party. He was hoping that Bryan would die and Hearst would die along with him.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] But the race got really close, and Pulitzer decided that he would, instead of attacking the Democrats, he would attack Hearst, saying that Hearst was only supporting the Free Silver plank because he'd make a fortune with his family silver mines, which wasn't the case. His family actually owned more gold. But Pulitzer tried to make Hearst the issue of the campaign, and failed rather miserably at it. And at the end of the campaign Bryan loses but Hearst has emerged with the highest circulation in New York and as the leading Democratic publisher in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that was 1896. We get to 1898, and probably the biggest black mark against Hearst, at least historically. According to legend, he fomented the Spanish-American War of 1898 to sell papers. True or false?
KENNETH WHYTE: Absolutely false. I think this is the greatest misconception in Hearst’s life - that he was trying to get America to intervene in Cuba, simply because he thought a war would sell newspapers. For Hearst it was a philosophical issue. Cuba was fighting for its independence from colonial Spain. Hearst looked at America’s own history and he thought that the Cuban people had the same right to self-determination that Americans had had. And so, he was on their side right from the outset.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are we talking then about the - history is wrong when it comes to motive but not when it comes to action? The fact is he did whip up people in order to get America into that war, even if he didn't do it to sell papers.
KENNETH WHYTE: He didn't whip them up to get into a war immediately. After a year or two, as Spain’s unable to put down the rebellion in its Cuban colony, Spain resorts to more and more desperate measures and, you know, it begins to herd the civilian population from the countryside, which it believed was supporting the rebels, into what were effectively concentration camps, where they were left without food, without medical care, often without shelter, and they began to die by the tens of the thousands, and then by the hundreds of thousands. And Hearst thought this was an abomination, rightly so, and began urging Washington to intervene. Now, Hearst wasn't alone in this position at the time. Most of Congress and a lot of international opinion viewed the issue the same way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do we think that Hearst did this as a cynical ploy to sell papers?
KENNETH WHYTE: It was because by defeating Spain, America found itself in possession of the Philippines and wound up effectively at war with the Philippine people and with an independence movement there, and they got bogged down for decades. And as a result of that, the whole Spanish-American episode has tended to be in ill repute with historians. And looking at it retrospectively, Hearst was responsible for the war because he had been a leading voice in favor of intervention.
So a couple of years after the war, in the early 1900s, Hearst, like his father before him, became active in politics himself, not unlike Charles Foster Kane. You know, it’s hard not to confuse the personality of Orson Welles’ Kane with that of Hearst because the movie looms so large.
KENNETH WHYTE: Well, Kane’s a cartoon-like caricature of a man. He’s sort of hollowed out in the inside and forlorn and defeated and solitary because he can't command the total obedience and loyalty of those around him. Hearst never recognized defeat. Peter Bogdanovich who spent a lot of time with Orson Welles pointed out that the story of Charles Foster Kane [LAUGHS] in the end more resembled Orson Welles’ own life than Hearst’s. Welles was the boy wonder who ended his life alone and disappointed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the most persistent, pervasive myth about William Randolph Hearst that you hope to correct with this massive doorstop of a book of yours? [LAUGHS]
KENNETH WHYTE: [LAUGHS] Oh, I think the whole of the Hearst legend is based on his performance as a journalist, and it’s generally considered that he was a failure in his chosen profession. I found quite the opposite, that he was an exceptional journalist and that he was perceived, at the time, as a young man, as a journalistic genius, and there’s every reason to believe that he was such a thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kenneth, thank you very much.
KENNETH WHYTE: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kenneth Whyte is author of The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst.