The Uncrowned King

Canadian journalist Kenneth Whyte wants you to forget everything you think you know about William Randolph Hearst. In this lively revisionist biography of the newspaper icon, which covers the three years after his 1895 purchase of the New York Journal, Whyte argues that Hearst’s terrible reputation, solidified by Orson Welles’s thinly disguised portrait in the “scurrilous” Citizen Kane, is undeserved. True, Hearst’s Journal engaged in a cutthroat circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, pursued its share of lurid and sensationalistic stories (the phrase “yellow journalism” was coined in relation to the two men’s rivalry). But Whyte ably demonstrates that Hearst, barely into his 30s when he took over the Journal, just as often published substantive coverage of political and social issues. The book focuses on two key events in the paper’s maturation, the dramatic 1896 presidential election between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley and the 1898 Spanish-American War. W. A. Swanberg’s influential — and unflattering — 1961 biography, Citizen Hearst, called Hearst’s coverage of the run-up to the war “the most disgraceful example of journalistic falsehood ever seen.” Whyte, however, denies that Hearst attempted to instigate a war to drive up circulation, casting doubt on what he calls the publisher’s “most famous utterance,” a telegram to a Journal artist who’d asked permission to leave Cuba because “there will be no war”: “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” After the American victory, Hearst called a truce with Pulitzer, and both men toned down their papers’ excesses, bringing a close to a fierce and fascinating episode in the history of American journalism.