- Historic Sites
The Forty-year Run
November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
At the proper time Willie went off to Harvard. Although he had a high voice, “like the fragrance of violets made audible,” in the description of Ambrose Bierce (a longtime Hearst employee), he was tall and muscular, energetic and enthusiastic. He was also shy, abhorred public speaking, and had an eye for the girls, eventually taking up with a Cambridge waitress named Tessie Powers, the mistress of a rich friend, with whom he lived for years.
He was a dedicated enough prankster to get himself expelled for good toward the end of his junior year. But by then he had found what would eventually become his ostensible vocation, journalism, although he told his father if he failed at that, “I shall so into politics.”
Told he seemed to admire the early leaders who were great autocrats, Hearst said he thought Julius Caesar was democratic.
In 1880 Hearst’s father had bought the Democratic San Francisco Examiner , which constantly lost money but which George Hearst kept because of its value to his political career. Willie received the paper at school and became one of its severest critics. He wrote his father a long, perceptive letter outlining what was wrong with the paper and what he would do to correct it. The letter must have appalled its recipient, who realized that Willie had found something that really interested him. The senior Hearst always wanted him to do something important, like run a mine or a ranch.
In addition to his acquired interest in journalism, he told Lincoln Steffens during an interview for a landmark 1906 article in American Magazine , “I read history a great deal.… I studied especially the great political crises—Alexander’s and Caesar’s and Napoleon’s and in American history the great Democratic leaders Jeffer son, Jackson and Lincoln.” When Steffens commented that he seemed to admire the early leaders who were great autocrats, Hearst said he thought Julius Caesar was a democratic leader. He had fused in his mind the relationship between strong leadership and democracy.
When he left Harvard, Hearst asked his father to give him the Examiner to run, but his father said no: “It’s a sure loser.” So he went to New York and took a job as a cub reporter with the New York World , which Joseph Pulitzer had turned into a financial success. Young Hearst knew he could do the same thing with the Examiner , if only—. And then George Hearst gave in: Willie got the newspaper.
During Hearst’s eight years of running the paper (at the cost of an estimated $8 million), he championed the oppressed, discovering, as Steffens said, “that there was room at the bottom”; he fought the Southern Pacific Railroad, the trusts, the corrupt party bosses, the crooked city halls, the water companies. When a San Francisco water company official visited the Examiner office and offered a huge bribe to stop a story, the editor threw him out. But Hearst said: “You’re a fool. Why didn’t you take the money and keep up the fight.… He would never have dared say a word about it.”
Was he kidding, or did he mean it? And there were other concerns. A city editor named Alien Kelly became perhaps the first Hearstman to complain that his boss wanted him to slant the news to include “unwarranted insinuations.” He was transp ferred to feature assignments.
Years later the British writer Piers Brandon, conducting research for a book on the press, found in the Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley letters suggesting how malleable Hearst felt his stock in trade was. “The modern editor of the popular journal,” Hearst wrote, “does not care for facts. The editor wants novelty. The editor has no objections to facts if they are also novel. But he would prefer novelty that is not fact, to a fact that is not a novelty.”
In short, as A. J. Liebling said, Hearst “changed the rules of journalism.” And perhaps the biggest change was his injection of huge amounts of his father’s money into his papers—not to make more money but to increase circulation and not to enable him to sell more advertising at higher rates (although he did that) but to expand his communications network.
The biographer Ferdinand Lundberg demonstrated that Hearst could have made more money by keeping his three most profitable publications and selling the rest. And Liebling, commenting on Hearst’s losing $21 million to suDDort one paper in Atlanta, said that “the prerequisite for losing $21 million is not genius; it is to have $21 million.” But Hearst did not want to make money, he wanted to be President. Nevertheless, Senator Hearst was not happy with his son’s spending, and when he died in 1891, he left his $18 million fortune to Phoebe.