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William Randolph Hearst And The Birth Of 'Fake News'

April 29th, 1863 - “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.

Frank Mott

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.

marion davies randolph hearst
Marion Davies

Such was his devotion that when in 1925 he saw pictures in in Country Life Magazine, of St. Donat's Castle in Vale of Glamorgan, Wales, Hearst bought and renovated it in 1925 as a gift to Davies. The Castle was restored by Hearst, who spent a fortune buying entire rooms from other castles and palaces across the UK and Europe. The Great Hall was bought from the Bradenstoke Priory in Wiltshire and reconstructed brick by brick in its current site at St. Donat's. From the Bradenstoke Priory, he also bought and removed the guest house, Prior's lodging, and great tithe barn; of these, some of the materials became the St. Donat's banqueting hall, complete with a sixteenth-century French chimney-piece and windows; also used were a fireplace dated to c. 1514 and a fourteenth-century roof, which became part of the Bradenstoke Hall, despite this use being questioned in Parliament. Hearst built 34 green and white marble bathrooms for the many guest suites in the castle and completed a series of terraced gardens which survive intact today. Hearst and Davies spent much of their time entertaining, and held a number of lavish parties attended by guests including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Winston Churchill, and a young John F. Kennedy.

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.”

Circulation of his major publications declined in the mid-1930s, while rivals such as the New York Daily News were flourishing. He refused to take effective cost-cutting measures, and instead increased his very expensive art purchases. His friend Joseph P. Kennedy offered to buy the magazines, but Hearst jealously guarded his empire and refused. Instead, he sold some of his heavily mortgaged real estate. His San Simeon home itself was mortgaged to Los Angeles Times owner Harry Chandler in 1933 for $600,000.

Hearst Castle in San Simeon

Finally his financial advisors realized he was tens of millions of dollars in debt, and could not pay the interest on the loans, let alone reduce the principal. The proposed bond sale failed to attract investors, as Hearst's financial crisis became widely known. As Marion Davies's stardom waned, Hearst's movies also began to haemorrhage money. As the crisis deepened, he let go of most of his household staff, sold his exotic animals to the Los Angeles Zoo, and named a trustee to control his finances. He still refused to sell his beloved newspapers. At one point, to avoid outright bankruptcy, he had to accept a $1 million loan from Marion Davies, who sold all her jewellery, stocks and bonds to raise the cash for him. Davies also managed to raise him another million as a loan from Washington Herald owner Cissy Patterson. The trustee cut Hearst's annual salary to $500,000, and stopped the annual payment of $700,000 in dividends. He had to pay rent for living in his castle at San Simeon.

Legally Hearst avoided bankruptcy, although the public generally saw it as such as appraisers went through the tapestries, paintings, furniture, silver, pottery, buildings, autographs, jewellery, and other collectibles. Items in the thousands were gathered from a five-story warehouse in New York, warehouses near his San Simeon home containing large amounts of Greek sculpture and ceramics, and the contents of St. Donat's. His collections were sold off in a series of auctions and private sales in 1938–39. John D. Rockefeller, Junior, bought $100,000 of antique silver for his new museum at Colonial Williamsburg. The market for art and antiques had not recovered from the depression, so Hearst made an overall loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. During this time, Hearst's friend George Loorz commented sarcastically: "He would like to start work on the outside pool [at San Simeon], start a new reservoir etc. but told me yesterday 'I want so many things but haven't got the money.' Poor fellow, let's take up a collection."

He was embarrassed in early 1939 when Time magazine published a feature which revealed he was at risk of defaulting on his mortgage for San Simeon and losing it to his creditor and publishing rival, Harry Chandler. This, however, was averted, as Chandler agreed to extend the repayment.

Hearst and Davies

The film Citizen Kane (released on May 1, 1941) is loosely based on Hearst's life. Welles and his collaborator, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, created Kane as a composite character, among them Harold Fowler McCormick, Samuel Insull and Howard Hughes. Hearst, enraged at the idea of Citizen Kane being a thinly disguised and very unflattering portrait of him, used his massive influence and resources to prevent the film from being released—all without even having seen it. Welles and the studio RKO Pictures resisted the pressure but Hearst and his Hollywood friends ultimately succeeded in pressuring theatre chains to limit showings of Citizen Kane, resulting in only moderate box-office numbers and seriously impairing Welles's career prospects. The fight over the film was documented in the Academy Award-nominated documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, and nearly 60 years later, HBO offered a fictionalized version of Hearst's efforts in its original production in which James Cromwell portrays Hearst. Citizen Kane has twice been ranked No. 1 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies: in 1998 and 2007. In 2020, David Fincher directed Mank, starring Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he interacts with Hearst prior to the writing of Citizen Kane's screenplay. Charles Dance portrays Hearst in the film.

Citizen kane still
Orsen Welles' masterpiece, Citizen Kane

In 1947, Hearst paid $120,000 for an H-shaped Beverly Hills mansion, (located at 1011 N. Beverly Dr.), on 3.7 acres three blocks from Sunset Boulevard. The Beverly House, as it has come to be known, has some cinematic connections. According to Hearst Over Hollywood, John and Jacqueline Kennedy stayed at the house for part of their honeymoon. The house appeared in the film The Godfather (1972)

After the disastrous financial losses of the 1930s, the Hearst Company returned to profitability during the Second World War, when advertising revenues skyrocketed. Hearst, after spending much of the war at his estate of Wyntoon, returned to San Simeon full-time in 1945 and resumed building works. He also continued collecting, on a reduced scale. He threw himself into philanthropy by donating a great many works to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In 1947, Hearst left his San Simeon estate to seek medical care, which was unavailable in the remote location. He died in Beverly Hills on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88. He was interred in the Hearst family mausoleum at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California, which his parents had established.

His will established two charitable trusts, the Hearst Foundation and the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. By his amended will, Marion Davies inherited 170,000 shares in the Hearst Corporation, which, combined with a trust fund of 30,000 shares that Hearst had established for her in 1950, gave her a controlling interest in the corporation. This was short-lived, as she relinquished the 170,000 shares to the Corporation on October 30, 1951, retaining her original 30,000 shares and a role as an advisor. Like their father, none of Hearst's five sons graduated from college. They all followed their father into the media business, and Hearst's namesake, William Randolph, Jr., became a Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper reporter.


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