The misunderstood tycoon;
A Canadian newspaperman takes on William Randolph Hearst and uncovers a complex figure
Jamie Portman. Edmonton Journal. Edmonton, Alta.: Nov 14, 2008. pg. D.11
TORONTO - Mention the name of William Randolph Hearst and the negative images immediately surface.
Take your pick: the ruthless media tycoon who used his vast newspaper empire to foster his own political ambitions; the unscrupulous sensationalist who knew that a story about a headless corpse would sell lots of papers; the man who used his media power to trigger the Spanish-American War of 1898; the dying demagogue whispering the mysterious word "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.
Such judgments persist in the public mind, reinforced by the books written about Hearst in the years since his death in 1951. But now he has a new biographer in Toronto's Kenneth Whyte who is essentially saying: Wait a minute -- are we being fair?
In Whyte's view, Hearst was a great newspaperman -- and an unjustly maligned one.
"He was a serious journalist and people who worked with him closely said that he knew better about how every part of his organization worked than the people who were running them," Whyte contends. "He knew presses inside out, he knew distribution schedules and printing processes. He took seriously every part of the business. He really understood it, in a way our moguls today don't."
Whyte is talking about the early years which saw Hearst acquire The New York Journal and launch a ferocious battle with Joseph Pulitzer's World for dominance of the most competitive newspaper market in the Western Hemisphere. It is this era, the end of the 19th century, which is the focal point of Whyte's lively 560-page biography, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, published in Canada by Random House.
The more research Whyte did, the more his admiration for Hearst increased.
But he knows he's challenging much accepted dogma -- in particular W.A. Swanberg's Citizen Hearst and David Nasaw's The Chief, the two biographies considered to be the most authoritative accounts of Hearst's life.
And at the beginning, Whyte had no idea he would find himself taking on these writers.
"When I went into it, most of what I knew about Hearst was from Swanberg and David Nasaw and the other biographies," says Whyte, 48, an Edmonton native who was founding editor of the National Post and is currently publisher and editor-in-chief of Maclean's Magazine. "So I had pretty much the same low opinion of Hearst that they had when I started writing."
Whyte began to change his mind when he took a closer look at the New York newspaper scene as it existed in the turbulent three-year period following Heart's acquisition of The Journal in 1895.
He became increasingly troubled by the accepted wisdom -- "that Pulitzer and Hearst, in the midst of all this, had a great battle and drove newspapers down-market, did all kinds of unethical and nasty things and ruined reputations and started wars and lied in their papers and pushed crime and calamity and all kinds of nastiness, and had a great success because of it."
To Whyte -- the first working journalist to tackle a book about Hearst -- it wasn't making sense.
"I'd never really bought that they could build as big an audience as fast as they built it by putting out the shoddy product it was reputed to be."
So Whyte decided to take a closer look at Hearst's Journal in the months after he bought it -- and, in his words, found it "not bad." As he plowed through old microfilms, Whyte also examined the Journal's coverage of the presidential election of 1896, pitting William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan: "He was doing what the other guys were doing and putting on a pretty good show."
And then Whyte looked at the invasion of Spanish-ruled Cuba "where Swanberg and pretty much everyone else see Hearst as performing badly and getting America involved in an unnecessary war."
The journalist in Whyte became fascinated by the conflict between mythology and reality. He's quick to concede that Hearst's performance in the countdown to the Spanish-American War was "not terribly admirable" at times, but he also suggests that Hearst's detractors have taken much of what Hearst did out of context and failed to examine "the scope of his interest in Cuba and what he was trying to accomplish."
Whyte's journey into Hearst's complex, contradictory but always fascinating world began when Conrad Black named him founding editor of the soon-to-be-born National Post more than a decade ago.
Whyte had previously served as editor of Saturday Night magazine and as an editor with Alberta Report magazine, but his newspaper experience was confined to an early stint on an Alberta weekly, the Sherwood Park News.
"I hadn't really worked on a newspaper," he laughs. So he employed what he calls "an old reporter's trick -- you get an assignment that you haven't done before and you don't know much about, so you go to the library."
Whyte was conscious that the Post was seeking to break into a Toronto market which already contained three dailies.
"I spent a lot of time in the library reading about old newspapers and trying to find examples of newspaper competition, and that's a hard thing to find. There's a lot of stuff on 20th-century newspapers, but relatively speaking we live in an era of one-newspaper towns and there's a lot less competition than there used to be. The trick with the Post was going to be to run up circulation as quickly as possible -- and the guys who were really good at it were mostly 19th century."
This led him to Hearst. But a book wasn't on the horizon until Whyte left the Post. And initially he simply "wanted to write about that period which I think was the greatest period in the history of newspapers.
"That's how I got to the period, and the Hearst part sort of grew out of the research. I ended up just liking him a lot and liking his style and liking his newspaper. Everywhere I turned, things he had done that were supposed to be awful actually had a lot more merit to them than I expected. And that sort of overtook the story -- the Hearst character."
Hearst lived another 60 years after the period Whyte deals with in the book.
It was a period which saw Hearst expand his empire, fail in his attempts to run for public office, conduct a notorious love affair with actress Marion Davies, and see himself pilloried in Citizen Kane. But Whyte was fascinated by the early years which he feels have been woefully neglected by previous biographies where this period was deemed worthy of no more than "a chapter or two."
Credit: Jamie Portman; Canwest News Service
Photo: Journal Stock / Kenneth Whyte ; Photo: Supplied / A confident William Randolph Hearst on the eve of his New York adventure, painted by Orrin Peck ;; Caption: