Wealth of new facts on Hearst

Friday, September 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

In July, the press went all aflutter when Time Warner decided that anything GE honcho Jack Welch would write was worth a record $7.1 million advance.

We shouldn't have been surprised. Check the want ads in The New York Times. You'll find a huge demand for business journalists. The boom market and the Internet frenzy have seemingly made our Darwinist cubicle culture a top reading assignment.

So let's learn how the big boys of business once made the country tremble. The last century's robber barons and press lords have undergone major reconsiderations lately – notably, Jean Strouse's excellent Morgan: American Financier (HarperPerennial, $18 paperback) and Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (Vintage, $16 paperback).

To this list you can add David Nasaw's The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (Houghton Mifflin, $35). Mr. Nasaw doesn't have Ms. Strouse's literate artistry. Nor does he fully explain – even contain – Mr. Hearst's rampaging creativity and childishness. What Mr. Nasaw does have is a warehouse of rich, previously unavailable material.

Rampaging Hearst

Mr. Hearst wasn't always a dour media tyrant and Red-hater. For much of his life, he was a populist warrior, a playboy and spendthrift. He was a loose cannon in politics and publishing.

Indeed, in reading about his life, you gain some respect for a man so feared by the powerful he was swindled out of electoral victories by both Republicans and Democrats. A man who scandalized society not because he had a mistress but because he loved her and took her out in public.

At the same time, Mr. Hearst had no deeper political vision beyond getting himself elected. Mr. Nasaw attempts to explain the publisher's development from ardent progressive to angry enemy of Franklin Roosevelt. He was an old-style liberal, a believer in both democracy and free markets who resented FDR's interventionist solutions for the Depression.

Always the epicenter

Perhaps, but Mr. Hearst's ego also had a firm grasp on the Great Man Theory of History, with Hearst as the Great Man. A choice moment in The Chief occurs during the Spanish American War. Following Teddy Roosevelt's hire-your-own-cavalry example, Mr. Hearst rented a steamship, stocked it with reporters and sailed to Cuba. When one reporter was shot, Mr. Hearst called it "a splendid fight" and sailed away to write his own account. He left the reporter bleeding on the beach. Such are editors. Such are great men.

As a press baron, Mr. Hearst was a genius–who went bankrupt. No big deal: Media trendsetters – USA Today, Amazon.com – have often been money-losers.

But like Henry Luce or Rupert Murdoch, Mr. Hearst had an instinct for popular tastes. Yes, he delivered scandal and bombast and exposes. But he also gave us Ambrose Bierce, Damon Runyon, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo and fiction by Edith Wharton.

His major innovations weren't related to muckraking at all. He pioneered media synergy (his newspapers hyped his magazines and movies). But his papers also specialized in turning the boring chaos of court cases and campaigns into thrilling fables. Let The New York Times win esteem for separating editorials from reporting, the Hearst papers were crusading heroes in their own morality plays.

In these re-evaluations, the robber barons' ruthlessness is not so much justified as their portraits are deepened, given more nuance. For his part, Mr. Nasaw is so reserved, he can be a wee bit dull. He tsk-tsks Citizen Kane, for example, for its inaccuracies. Sorry, Shakespeare got his history wrong, too, but that doesn't make Richard III a bad drama. Regardless of Pauline Kael's misguided Raising Kane. Kane is masterful, the myth-maker getting it from another myth-maker. But all that Mr. Nasaw musters up is that Orson Welles "may be a great filmmaker."

Whew, don't get all excited there. Luckily for Mr. Nasaw, with Mr. Hearst's life, he has an extravagant tale to tell – something the Chief would have appreciated.