William Randolph Hearst Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: By a paradoxical combination of sensationalism, support for reform, and innovative design, Hearst changed the fashion in which American newspapers reported and influenced the news. He made essential contributions to journalism but clouded these contributions when reporting the news fell second to advancing his own interests.

Early Life

William Randolph Hearst was the only son of George and Phoebe Apperson Hearst and grew up enjoying his mother’s total devotion and his father’s considerable wealth. Although personally shy, young Hearst had a passion for outlandish pranks; both the shyness and the desire for public sensation were traits he retained throughout his life. Other characteristics were his imperious desire to have his way in all things immediately, a nature that seemed both sentimental and cynical, and a passion for collecting.

George Hearst had come to California during the 1849 gold rush. Enjoying a combination of geologic skill and innate good fortune, he discovered or was a partner in some of the largest mines in the nation, including the Comstock Load (silver) in Colorado and the Anaconda (copper) in Wyoming. From these would flow wealth that seemed inexhaustible—until William Randolph Hearst began to spend it.

George Hearst’s enterprises grew to include vast land holdings in California and Mexico; almost his entire attention was on mining, and later, politics; he left young William entirely to his doting mother. Eventually, George Hearst realized his ambition with his election as United States Senator from California. To further his political career, he also acquired a small, struggling newspaper in San Francisco, the Examiner.

Young Hearst was given an extensive, if incomplete, education. He was sent east to a boy’s school but was asked to leave after two years, probably because of a prank. In 1882, he entered Harvard but was expelled during his junior year for sending his professors silver chamber pots, with their names engraved inside. For a while, he drifted through various jobs, including a stint with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

Hearst was a tall man—six feet, two inches—and his large frame carried his weight with grace and agility; he was an excellent dancer and often surprised friends and associates with vaudeville steps during conferences or conversations. His eyes were gray, and he had the disconcerting habit of staring unblinkingly. His voice was surprisingly high-pitched and soft; he had himself carefully coached in speaking during his long political career.

Life’s Work

As a young man, William Randolph Hearst declined a position with any of his father’s mining or ranching operations. In 1887, after several requests, he was given control of the San Francisco Examiner, and he immediately began to spend money and attention on the paper. He initiated a series of promotional efforts, joining articles advocating serious reform with those that were wildly sensational. He launched an attack on the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, the first of many battles he would have with big business and monopolies. Hearst’s efforts on behalf of municipal ownership of utilities and other services began with the Examiner; in San Francisco, they earned for him the title of “Socialist” among the well-to-do, but circulation of the Examiner soared. Hearst would continue this same basic pattern with his newspapers for the remainder of his long career.

In 1891, George Hearst died, leaving all of his money to his widow. Phoebe Hearst would frequently complain about her son’s spending, but she continued to provide him with funds. In 1895, she gave him $7.5 million; this was to finance Hearst’s attack on New York journalism.

At that time, the New York World was the predominant newspaper in the nation’s largest city. Purchased by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883, the World used sensational techniques: blaring headlines, promotional stunts, and popular crusades had established its large circulation and consolidated its power. The World was Hearst’s target.

His paper, the Journal, lagged far behind. Always impatient, Hearst wanted a huge circulation immediately and was prepared to pay for it. He increased the paper’s size, dropped its price, and splashed even larger and more startling headlines on the front page. He began raiding Pulitzer’s staff, attracting them with the lure of higher salaries; at one point, he hired away the entire staff of the Sunday World. Pulitzer won them back with a raise, but Hearst topped that offer the next day. This time the staff stayed bought.

Hearst and Pulitzer battled it out daily. The Journal coaxed the artist of a popular comic strip, “The Yellow Kid,” into leaving the World. Pulitzer immediately hired a new artist and continued to run the feature, and so “yellow journalism” was born. Aspects of the practice included a reliance on sensational stories, chiefly involving crime, sex, and political corruption; the growth of comics, pictures, and features at the expense of hard news; crusades for the good of the public, especially against big business; and countless gimmicks, such as contests, fireworks displays, and giveaways.

The most blatant form of yellow journalism was the hysteria the two newspapers whipped up over Cuba. Then a Spanish possession, Cuba had been struggling for independence for years. In 1897, Hearst turned his interest to the revolt, and the Journal carried stories about Spanish atrocities and Cuban heroics. The Hearst papers also attacked the United States government in general, and President McKinley in particular, for not taking action. One article by the satirist Ambrose Bierce went so far that it seemed to encourage McKinley’s assassination. The main target of the Journal, however, was the Spanish presence in Cuba; in effect, Hearst personally had declared war on Spain. He admitted as much when the artist Frederick Remington, sent to Cuba to sketch the revolt, asked to return because the island was quiet. The reply came quickly: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”


(The entire section is 2577 words.)