WR Hearst – The Master of Fake News

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: April 29, 1863
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA

“Fake news” has its roots, many people believe, in the birth of William Randolph Hearst on this day. Hearst was given the San Francisco Examiner by his father, George, a miner who had become a multi-millionaire and US Senator.

Relishing his role as an influential editor, the young Hearst later moved to New York City and acquired the New York Journal. As he fought a bitter circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, the age of yellow journalism was born.

This was later defined by American historian and journalist Frank Luther Mott as a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines and sensationalised stories to sell more newspapers. It sometimes also deceives the audience it is intended for, he said.

Yellow journalism, Mott added, “is defined by five major characteristics”:

1) Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news.
2) Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings.
3) Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudo-science, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts.
4) Emphasis on full-colour Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips.
5) Dramatic sympathy with the "underdog" against the system.

This all squares with Hearst’s view that an ideal newspaper is one that causes the following reaction:

"When the reader looks at Page One, he says, 'Gee-whiz.' When he turns to the second page, he says, 'Holy Moses.' And when he turns to the middle page, he says, 'God Almighty.'

Hearst went on to build a chain of nearly 30 newspapers across America, then expanded into magazines, creating the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world.

He did so by sticking rigidly to circulation-building sensationalism. And what could be more sensational and reader-appetising than a war? So when the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain began in February 1895, Spain’s use of brutal suppression was graphically – and imaginatively – portrayed by Hearst’s newspapers.

He backed the underdog Cubans fighting on America’s doorstep and agitated for the United States to declare war on Spain.

In 1897 he sent artist Frederic Remington to Havana with instructions to illustrate the tension. After some time the artist sent a note to Hearst saying: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

There is some dispute whether this exchange ever took place, but it is ingrained in the Hearst legend and seems to be well in accord with his thinking at the time.

In 1919 Heart’s mother Phoebe died and he inherited the family fortune, considerably boosting his already substantial personal wealth.

Part of his inheritance was a 168,000-acre ranch at San Simeon, California. For several decades he was to spend millions of dollars on the property, creating a Baroque-style castle and filling it with hugely valuable treasures and works of art which he collected on his global travels. Now called Hearst Castle, it is run by the State of California as a museum and tourist attraction.

Known to his employees as “The Chief”, Hearst delivered some memorable observations about newspapers. Such as:

“News is what people don't want you to print. Everything thing else is advertising.”

“Putting out a newspaper without promotion is like winking at a girl in the dark – well-intentioned, but ineffective.”

One girl he certainly winked at effectively was Marion Davies, a Hollywood actress whose career he managed and whose films he promoted through his newspapers. He had met her in 1917 when she was a showgirl and she became his mistress for many years.

Such was his devotion that when in 1925 he saw pictures in a magazine of the historic and romantic St Donat’s Castle in South Wales he bought it for her. Then he spent a fortune renovating it.

Few mistresses can have received such a lavish gift. The playwright George Bernard Shaw said of the castle: "This is what God would have built if he had had the money.”

In 1941, young film director Orson Welles brought out Citizen Kane, a biography in all but name of the newspaper mogul. It was nominated for nine Oscars and has since been voted one of the world’s greatest films. But Hearst hated it and used his money and influence in unsuccessful attempts to prevent the film’s release.

In 1947, afflicted by declining health, Hearst went to live in Beverly Hills at a mansion now known as Beverly House (where, incidentally, JFK and Jackie Kennedy were to spend their honeymoon). Hearst died there in 1951, aged 88.

Published: March 6, 2017

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