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Originally published Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Hold the presses: Different story in a new Hearst account

Kenneth Whyte's "The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst" gives overdue credit to Hearst's role in advancing the cause of daily newspapers with journalism of enterprise, brashness, purpose and humanity.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst"

by Kenneth Whyte

Counterpoint, 512 pp., $30

William Randolph Hearst is known for the telegram he supposedly sent in 1898 to his employee Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba and wanted to come home: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." This seems to say it all: Hearst was a sleaze, the poster boy of "yellow journalism."

Kenneth Whyte disagrees. He says the major Hearst biographies — W.S. Swanberg's "Citizen Hearst" (1961) and David Nasaw's "The Chief" (2000) — make far too much of sensationalism and too little of Hearst as a giant of newspapering.

Whyte's book, "The Uncrowned King," focuses on three years beginning in October 1895, when Hearst, then 32, bought the small and struggling New York Journal. Before the decade was out, Hearst had beaten all the big New York papers of the day: the Sun, the Herald, the Tribune, the Times, the Evening Post and, especially, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.

Whyte, who works as editor of the Canadian weekly Maclean's, argues that if you read those papers, the picture of Hearst that emerges is one of daring. Hearst paid above-market wages to attract top talent, such as Richard Harding Davis and Ambrose Bierce. He hired away from Pulitzer the creator of the first nationally famous cartoon strip, "The Yellow Kid" — a slum kid who spoke bad English and lampooned the strait-laced. Hearst created a newspaper with humanity and attitude. Sometimes he overdid the attitude, but this book argues convincingly that as a newspaperman he was exceptional.

He took risks. In 1896, Hearst's paper was the only one in New York to champion the Democrats' rip-roaring 36-year-old presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan. Hearst's writers, says Whyte, "were among the most radical Democratic voices in America." Hearst also had a cartoonist, Homer Davenport, who pictured Republican nominee William McKinley as a sidekick of political moneyman Mark Hanna. Davenport brashly pictured Hanna in a coat covered with dollar signs — an image that stuck.

Hearst was a showman. In 1896, when the nation was gripped by a fad for the "safety bicycle" — the kind with two wheels of the same size — Hearst dreamed up a transcontinental bicycle relay. And when his Havana reporter found a beautiful young woman in a Spanish prison, Hearst not only championed her innocence, but hired a man to break her out and spirit her to the United States.

Hearst did favor military intervention in Cuba — a position that would today be called humanitarian intervention. In Cuba, Spain was trying to preserve colonial rule against a guerrilla insurgency. It had put people in concentration camps, and tens of thousands had died. Conditions were terrible, and Hearst showed how terrible they were.

His newspaper's voice, says Whyte, "sounds freakish" taken out of context. But the late-Victorian era was a different time, and though women's dresses were buttoned up, newspapers were not. Later biographers, says Whyte, have tended to accept the opinion of Hearst's critics, particularly publisher E.L. Godkin, "the great reactionary of late 19th-century American journalism — conservative, elitist and gloomy."

After soaking his brain in all that ink and newsprint, our modern defender of Hearst emerges an admirer. Hearst's journalism had enterprise, brashness, purpose and humanity. These qualities were real, and, Whyte suggests, today's newspapers should have more of them.

As for sensationalism, Whyte asks, are not some stories genuinely sensational? Hearst thought so, and so does his modern defender. What is "sensationalism," anyway? Whyte writes: "Sensationalism, in the end, is a highly subjective concept."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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