W. Joseph Campbell

60 years after his death, media myth towers around Hearst

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on August 15, 2011 at 4:35 am

The BBC over the weekend marked the 60th anniversary of the death of William Randolph Hearst by posting a piece I wrote about the mythology surrounding the often-scorned media tycoon of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Hearst: Routinely scorned

Hearst, I wrote, “lives on 60 years after his death as the mythical bogeyman of American journalism, the personification of the field’s most egregious impulses,” and the inspiration for the epithet “yellow journalism.”

I discussed the hardy media myths that Hearst famously vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain and then made good on the pledge.

“The towering mythology that envelopes Hearst,” I noted, “began to take hold long before his death on 14 August 1951.

“The lore dates to the late 1930s and the first in a succession of wretched biographies about Hearst.

“Among them was Imperial Hearst, a truculent work that excoriated Hearst’s increasingly conservative politics and resurrected the ‘furnish the war’ myth.”

Even more important to the mythology around Hearst, I wrote, was Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

“The movie was based loosely on Hearst’s life and times, and received mostly mixed reviews when it was released in 1941,” I noted, adding:

“Hearst did try to have the film killed, which served to enhance its latent appeal. Kane was rediscovered in the 1960s and ultimately gained deserved recognition as a classic.”

I noted that a rollicking scene in Kane “borrows from and paraphrases the ‘furnish the war’ anecdote, which further helped to implant the myth in the popular consciousness.”

Hearst was a ready target for the contempt of his peers and rivals because of inherited wealth enabled him to enter journalism at the top — as publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and, later in the 19th century, the New York Journal.

Hearst’s quixotic personality also made his a target of media mythmaking. I quoted David Nasaw’s fine biography of Hearst, The Chief, which noted:

“William Randolph Hearst was a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds; a war hawk in Cuba and Mexico but a pacifist in Europe; an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress; a Californian who spent half his life in the East.”

It’s little wonder then why Hearst was, and remains, the object of so much myth and misunderstanding.

He also used his newspapers as platforms for pursuing his mostly unfulfilled political ambitions — which further accounts for the mythology, which further explains why he became a lightning rod for enduring scorn.

Hearst ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency in 1904, but fell well short. Later, he ran for governor of New York and mayor of New York City, and lost.

By 1910 or so, Hearst’s political ambitions were, I noted, mostly spent.

And now, 60 years after his death, the mythology surrounding Hearst is so firmly entrenched so as never to be expunged.


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