George Hearst, a mining millionaire and U.S. senator from California, gave his only son the San Francisco Examiner in 1887 in hopes that he would settle down. The young man, who had been expelled from Harvard University for raucous behavior, had worked briefly for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. In the next decade Hearst spent more than $8 million of his family’s money making the San Francisco paper a success. He then challenged Pulitzer by buying the New York Journal. In their battle over Richard Outcault’s comic strip ‘The Yellow Kid’ (the first to be printed in color), these publishers acquired the epithet ‘the yellow press,’ referring to their sensationalism.
Hearst’s papers catered to urban working people, many of whom were recent immigrants. His papers favored labor unions, progressive taxation, and municipal ownership of utilities. They featured abundant pictures, advice to the lovelorn columns, and sentimental stories. Favoring Irish and German readers in particular, the papers condemned British influence and spread fears about the ‘yellow peril’ of Asian immigration.
In 1898, Hearst championed the Cuban rebels and welcomed the U.S. declaration of war against Spain. At the height of the crisis more than a million copies of the Journal were sold each day. Hearst ordered a reporter to scuttle a ship in the Suez Canal to stop the Spanish fleet and waded ashore in Cuba to accept the surrender of a group of Spaniards. In Hearst’s mind, a publisher and a president had equal right to act for the nation.
He wanted personally to lead the Democratic party to the White House, but the radicalism of his papers was a liability. They had endorsed political assassination as a ‘mental exercise’ and printed a poem by Ambrose Bierce that joked about the death of the president. When William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, Hearst was blamed. Nevertheless, he was twice elected to the House of Representatives from New York City and won 40 percent of the votes for the presidential nomination on one ballot at the Democratic National Convention in 1904. He lost contests to become mayor of New York and governor of the state by narrow margins.
Had Hearst died at about the age of fifty, he would have been remembered as a man who transformed a fortune based on natural resources into an information and entertainment empire. He owned seven dailies, five magazines, two news services, and a film company. His obituary would have called him an important American on the left. In 1903 the trade unions of Los Angeles asked Hearst to begin a paper there so that workers would have a voice. He was praised by many socialists, including Upton Sinclair who compared him to Abraham Lincoln.
But Hearst ultimately failed both as an entrepreneur and as a leader. He had rarely been an innovator in publishing, and others now beat him at his own game with more pictures, livelier writing, and more appealing politics. He lost touch with his blue-collar readers, denouncing the New Deal and mounting quixotic assaults on communists. He had overexpanded in the 1920s and spent recklessly on art and real estate. By 1937 he had lost control of his holdings. He sold part of his art collection and stopped construction on his fabled San Simeon estate in California. Of the forty-two papers he had bought or established, seventeen remained by 1940.
At the end of his life, Hearst still headed the largest news conglomerate in America, but this was a measure of his capital, not of his business acumen or the quality of his journalism. The 1941 film Citizen Kane suggests that Hearst was the victim of psychological trauma, had suffered for his abuses of power, and had outlived his time. The historical record supports only the last observation.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.