Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about William Randolph Hearst and the Arkansas Gazette
May 16, 2009

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

The Arkansas Gazette of Little Rock was a newspaper of a now almost vanished breed. It was the kind of place where staffers wanted to spend the rest of their careers, doing pretty much what they had always done: covering their city and their state and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. The value of such a paper came to the fore in 1957, when its seventy-five-year-old editor-in-chief, John Netherland Heiskell, took a law-and-order editorial position, in effect endorsing integration of the Little Rock schools. (Heiskell was joined by the paper’s new executive editor, Harry Ashmore, and by its publisher, Hugh B. Patterson, his son-in-law.) The Gazette suffered severe losses in circulation and advertising, but recouped. Recouped, that is, until modern times, when the old newspaper fell behind its local competition, the Arkansas Democrat, and was sold to the Gannett Corporation. The faltering enterprise died in 1991, when Gannett turned it over to the Democrat, thus ending 171 years of continuous publication. Under the direction of Roy Reed, who worked for the paper and later for The New York Times, a Gazette oral-history project at the University of Arkansas has compiled more than a hundred interviews—with insiders, outsiders, friends, opponents. These are now distilled into a single volume. Looking Back offers a fine-textured recounting of the Gazette and its journalists, of a kind beyond the reach of conventional histories. (One staff memo, which may have marked a losing battle with propriety, warned, “No fucking on the roof.”) This group portrait contains more bitterness than nostalgia, especially at the way Gannett erased the local character of the old Gazette. Former staffers may have smiled grimly this year when they read that the newspaper that had put them out of business, the Democrat-Gazette, now has its own troubles—and is, like everybody else, scheduling layoffs. 

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.