William Randolph Hearst Biography

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(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...

(The entire section is 2,577 words.)