In still married. Photo of William Randolph Hearst

In this lesson, we’ll look at William Randolph Hearst: media tycoon, New York Congressman, and synonymous with the term yellow journalism. Learn more about the man and his exploits and then you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

Origins of a Media Empire

Unquestionably, William Randolph Hearst was the most influential journalist of his time. He was also the most flamboyant and sensationalist of journalists. Hearst was born in San Francisco in 1863 and the only child of George and Phoebe Hearst. His father was wealthy from mining investments, and a U.S. Senator.

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When Hearst was ten, his mother took him on a European tour which instilled in Hearst a lifelong appreciation for European art and architecture.At age 16, he attended St. Paul’s Preparatory School in Concord, New Hampshire and then Harvard but he was expelled for pranks. His father, concerned that he was too irresponsible, handed control of the San Francisco Examiner to him in 1887. The young Hearst threw himself into his new venture, and made the paper a success.In 1903, he married Millicent Wilson, a young chorus-girl from New York City. Though they had five sons together, the marriage was stormy and he eventually carried on a long-term affair with Marion Davies, with whom he fathered a daughter and lived openly at his Beverly Hills residence while he was still married.

Photo of William Randolph Hearst
Photo of William Randolph Hearst

Hearst and Pulitzer

When his father died, Hearst inherited his father’s enormous wealth and he used it to expand his business. Hearst had previously worked for Joseph Pulitzer, who owned the New York World. Hearst bought Pulitzer’s main rival paper, the New York Journal, and the two got into a well-published circulation war.

The extent to which he would go to sell papers is best seen in his coverage of the war in Cuba.

L-R Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst Political Caricature during the Spanish-American War
Pulitzer and Hearst

Hearst in the Spanish-American War

Hearst was the first newspaper outlet to establish a press corps in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. To sway public opinion to join the war effort, Hearst exaggerated much of his war coverage.

He dispatched his two leading reporters, Richard Harding Davis and Frederick Remington, to cover events. When Remington wrote to Hearst that there was little to report, Hearst responded in a famous telegraph that boasted ‘You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.’ Hearst was accused of fabricating stories to influence the McKinley administration to join the war effort and his name became synonymous with the term, ‘yellow journalism’ which was (and arguably still is) a form of journalism that valued sensationalism over fact.

An Empire is Born

At the height of his power, Hearst owned more than 20 papers, several magazines, a film studio, several comic strips, and extensive properties in California, Mexico, New York, and Europe. By the 1920s, it was estimated that 25% of all Americans read a Hearst-owned newspaper. Perhaps his most enduring symbol was his estate, the Hearst Castle, built in the hills of San Simeon, California. Designed by architect Julia Morgan, it was designed to showcase his extensive art collection and it soon became a famous hotspot for the Hollywood elite.

He also dabbled in public office and was twice elected to Congress in 1902 and 1904, but he lost his bid for mayor and governor of New York in 1905 and 1906. He flirted with running for president, but he suffered a PR problem after his paper ran a poem written by Ambrose Bierce following the assassination of Kentucky Governor William Goebel. One line in the poem suggested that the bullet was not found because it was heading straight for President McKinley. When McKinley was assassinated for real, many in the public saw an eerie parallel and the whole affair smacked of poor taste.Where Hearst failed politically, he achieved remarkable success financially as he amassed a fortune of over $200 million and once quipped that, ‘In suggesting gifts, money is appropriate, and one size fits all.

Advertisement in a Hearst Paper
Hearst Paper Advertisement

Hearst’s Declining Fortune and Reputation

The Great Depression hit Hearst’s media expire hard and his reputation suffered even worse. Though he had a political reputation as a progressive and working class supporter, he lashed out at the New Deal and FDR as overreaching. He also got into a very public feud with Orson Welles, best known for his ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast. Hearst took special issue with his 1941 film Citizen Kane. Welles directed the film and played the lead role of Charles Foster Kane, whose character centered on a successful but ruthless newspaper mogul that was partly based on Hearst.Furious at this insult, Hearst set out to destroy Welles and prevent the release of the film and he launched a smear campaign against Welles in his papers.

Hearst was somewhat successful – several studios passed on producing the film, and though it was nominated for nine academy awards in 1942, it won only one, which was partly attributed to Hearst’s influence.

L-R William Randolph Hearst, Robert Vignola, Arthur Brisbane at a New York Movie Studio
Hearst, Vignola, Brisbane in New York

Even worse, in 1934 he traveled to Germany and got a rare face-to-face interview with Adolf Hitler. Hearst, who saw Hitler and his Italian counterpart Benito Mussolini as well-intentioned reformers, circulated favorable opinions of the two in his papers. The horrid events of Kristallnacht in 1938 that ransacked Jewish neighborhoods, changed his views however, and he committed his papers to sounding the alarm on Jewish atrocities during the Second World War when other papers ignored them.

Lesson Summary

Few people could surpass William Randolph Hearst in influence and flamboyant behavior. Though he seemed a precocious youth, his inheritance of the San Francisco Examiner stirred a passion in him that led him to create the largest newspaper empire in pre-World World II America. His media war with Joseph Pulitzer led him to sensationalize his news stories through yellow journalism.His media influence led him to run for public office, though he was largely unsuccessful except for his congressional terms.

Though his feud with Orson Welles demonstrated his combative personality, he became a prominent advocate for assisting displaced Jews during the early years of the Holocaust. Lastly, a lifelong lover of art and architecture, he amassed a considerable collection that he showcased in his massive Hearst Castle.


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