W. Joseph Campbell

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An easy caricature: PBS portrait of media mogul Hearst is unedifying, superficial

In 1897, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Television, Yellow Journalism on September 28, 2021 at 6:01 am

PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven.

They can devote fawning treatment to some subjects, such as the tyrannical publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whom it profiled a couple of years ago. They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, subject of an “American Experience” program early last year.

Citizen Hearst: A superficial treatment

And they can minimize complexity about their subjects, as is the case with Citizen Hearst, a mostly superficial “American Experience” portrtait of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

The first of two parts aired last night, and it proved unedifying. Hearst was presented as little more than a profligate rich kid who never quite grew up, who loved hi-jinks and fireworks, yet possessed scant commitment to truth-telling.

Such assessments have been around for decades, promoted by a succession of bad biographies such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s polemical Imperial Hearst in 1936 and W.A. Swanberg’s dreadful Citizen Hearst in 1961. A more considered and even-handed treatment of Hearst was offered in David Nasaw’s The Chief, which came out in 2000. 

So it is a bit odd that the PBS documentary presses the frivolous rich-kid theme, given that it claims to be “based on” Nasaw’s biography. And Nasaw is shown in the film frequently, offering comments about Hearst. (He is the sole Hearst biographer among the program’s several talking heads.)

It’s as if PBS producers settled on the frivolous rich-kid theme and ignored evidence of Hearst as a complex character whose journalism — his “yellow journalism” — defies easy caricature.

As practiced in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, “yellow journalism” was  more than merely sensational. It was a distinctive genre of newspapering. Its defining features, as I discussed in my 2001 book,Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, included:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines, some of which stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war,international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Those elements were adopted by newspapers other than Hearst’s. Pulitzer’s World was another exponent of “yellow journalism,” as were some titles in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco, where Hearst owned and published the Examiner. But Hearst’s Journal was the newspaper most closely associated with the extremes of  “yellow journalism,” which  the PBS documentary emphasizes in considering the Spanish-American War of 1898, a controversial chapter of Hearst’s life.

The Journal, the documentary claims, offered little more than unfounded, exaggerated, and unverified reporting about the destruction in Havana harbor of the U.S. battleship Maine, a triggering event for the conflict that ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba. At this point, the documentary would have benefited from the insight of Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding biography of the early Hearst.

Whyte pointed out that when stripped from the context New York’s highly competitive newspaper market — where the Cuban struggle against Spanish rule had been an important story for several newspapers for many months — Hearst’s reporting of the Maine disaster in February 1898 and other events in the run-up to the war seems extreme and repellent.

But context matters, Whyte observed, noting:

“Hearst’s coverage [in the run-up to the war] was part of an uproarious national dialogue. His voice sounds freakish when plucked out and examined in isolation, but in the context of the journalistic conversation that erupted as the Maine sank, it sounds quite different.”

Hearst’s Evening Journal, April 1898

Indeed.

PBS often ignores context in pushing its frivolous rich-kid portrait. It misconstrues the fundamental motivation of Hearst’s approach to news-gathering in the late 19th century. Hearst called it the “journalism of action,” which meant newspapers were obliged to take high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

Hearst deployed the “journalism of action” on several fronts — from solving crimes and aiding storm victims to springing a 19-year-old political prisoner from jail in Havana in 1897.

It was an energetic brand of journalism that allowed Hearst’s newspapers to stand out. But the “journalism of action” was not, sustained. It was expensive to pursue, and Hearst’s interests in the early Twentieth Century turned decidedly to politics. Hearst expanded his stable of newspapers but made them platforms for his unfulfilled ambition to win the presidency or the New York governorship.

That Hearst failed in politics ought to tell us something about the presumed power of the press. It’s a topic that PBS sidesteps even while insisting repeatedly that Hearst wielded great influence through his media outlets.

The PBS documentary, which resumes tonight, offers little that is fresh about its subject. It turns tedious at times, and often feels gossipy. It seems impressed by Hearst’s flamboyance but regards it as frivolous.

Hearst was flamboyant. But he and his journalism were scarcely frivolous.

WJC

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