The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst | By Kenneth Whyte | Counterpoint | 546 pages, $30

It’s a story told and retold. Dynamic young Willie Hearst came out of the West, challenged the newspaper titans of Park Row, and outdid them all—even the master, Joseph Pulitzer. And in scrambling his way up, he not only got the United States into a war but created yellow journalism. That’s the folkloric version of William Randolph Hearst’s arrival in New York in the mid-1890s. Accordingly, early biographers portrayed him as a warmonger, crypto-fascist, amoral playboy, and despoiler of journalistic standards.

There have been reevaluations in the fifty-eight years since his death, most notably David Nasaw’s The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (2000), which anointed him a great media pioneer. But the legend persists. That may be why Kenneth Whyte, editor-in-chief and publisher of Maclean’s, the Canadian magazine, has produced still another hefty biography. Fortunately, he concentrates on the five years starting with Hearst’s purchase of the decrepit New York Morning Journal in 1895. Renting office space in the Tribune building, Hearst got down to business. The result was, according to Whyte, more than fun and games. Certainly there was tireless promotion. But the author also admires the Journal’s all-out coverage of the crucial 1896 Bryan-McKinley campaign. Hearst’s paper was far from impartial: like Pulitzer’s World, it was pro-Bryan. Yet it covered both sides substantially and fully. Hearst’s touch wavered during the Cuban crisis and the subsequent Spanish-American War. Too often, he relied on empty sensation—engineering, for example, the escape of the beautiful Evangelina Cisneros from a Cuban jail. Even worse was his wacky proposal to block the Suez Canal to stymie the Spanish fleet. But, argues Whyte, Hearst’s correspondents (including, briefly, himself) offered the best coverage of the conflict. Did he actually prod the United States into the war? In fact, Hearst ran a little behind a prowar tide set in motion by politicians. Once war came, he was as nationalist as the rest—and like his rivals, a bit let down when it was over. In the meantime, he had replaced Pulitzer as the alpha male of New York journalism. The Uncrowned King leaves the story there, merely hinting at what lay ahead: unsuccessful ventures in politics, the creation of a vast entertainment conglomerate, a sharp turn to the right, and the ultimate, indelible caricature in the film Citizen Kane. But this was all to come. In the waning years of the nineteenth century, Willie was first and foremost a journalist.

Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette: An Oral History | Edited by Roy Reed | The University of Arkansas Press | 295 pages, $34.95

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.