The Interview: Kenneth Whyte

The Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Maclean’s talks about his new book, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
Christopher Loudon

Kenneth WhyteQ: I know your intent for the book wasn’t to create a full-fledged bio of Hearst, but to focus on the early portion of his career and his rise to prominence in newspaper publishing. Why that specific focus?
A: Well, a couple of reasons. One, that’s what I’m interested in. I’m a journalist so I was interested in Hearst as a journalist and a publisher and a newspaperman. The biographies of Hearst generally consider him to be a failure in his chosen profession. And his reputation in the industry is about as low as you can get. It all goes back to the period of so-called yellow journalism in the 1890s when Hearst went to New York and engaged Joseph Pulitzer in a newspaper war. I was going to do [the book] just on the newspaper war originally, but the more I read about it the more I began to realize that Hearst had been seriously misrepresented in these accounts. And that he’d done some astonishing work–even heroic work–and hadn’t gotten credit for it.

Q: You actually started this before even the National Post, right?
A: I started in about 1997-1998 when we were planning the National Post. I hadn’t worked at a newspaper before, full-time—a daily newspaper—and had certainly not worked in a newspaper war. There hadn’t been a broadsheet newspaper war in North America for many, many decades, so I had to get a sense of what we were going into with the launch of the Post. Hearst-Pulitzer is sort of the grandaddy of all newspaper wars, so I read quite a bit about it. It was just a great story with a lot of interesting personalities. Newspapers mattered in a way that is sort of long since lost. They were so much more powerful, interesting and fun than they are today. I didn’t start writing until five years later and I’d left the Post.

Q: Research, I understand, was exhaustive.
A: When you start looking at an episode in history and the conceived wisdom and conventional biographical takes on it begin to fray, and the accounts you’ve read just don’t add up, you gotta start looking for, “Well, then, what really did happen?” You have to go back to the original materials, what was actually in the newspapers at the time. A lot of the biographies and the journalism histories I had originally read were relying heavily on the memories of journalists who wrote memoirs 40, 50 years after events. They got some things right but they got a lot of things wrong. And their memories were coloured by all of the rivalries and political shifts that had happened in the intervening years. So I had to go back and look at what was actually in the newspapers at the time, how the other newspapers–not just Hearst’s newspaper–performed. A lot of things that Hearst is criticized for—the way they were so fiercely partisan in their politics, they didn’t just have an opinion, they knocked people over the heads with it day after day after day, and this sort of fierce style of journalism—wasn’t at all unusual at the time. I was fortunate to find a bunch of trade journals, like Marketing Magazine at the time. They were fascinated by what was going on in the newspaper industry. They told a completely different story than the historians, the journalism histories and the biographies have told about what happened when Hearst went up against Pulitzer. They were much more impressed with what Hearst was doing and the quality of his paper, the quality of its writers, its standards and practices, than we’ve been led to believe.

Q: Much of the book is about the rivalry. The push-pull tends to be Hearst is all evil and Pulitzer is all good. But they were both guilty and innocent, right?
A: Yeah, and that’s where the afterlife of these guys has affected the historical record. Pulitzer came out of the war looking a lot worse than Hearst did, and spent the next 15 years of his life trying to rehabilitate his image and his standing as a journalist. He not only founds the Pulitzer Prizes but gives a lot of money to Columbia University for the journalism program. Over the years, he’s had a reputation as a standard-bearer for high-quality journalism, but he was a penny publisher in New York City, a sort of mass circulation man of the people in the late 19th century. And many of the tricks that Hearst was using to build circulation, develop his audience in New York, were things he’d learned from Pulitzer. The self-promotion, the circulation stunts—like when Pulitzer famously raised money to build the base for the Statue of Liberty—and he had reporters doing outrageous things, like getting themselves committed to mental asylums to report on the conditions inside. Hearst learned from his methods and applied them against Pulitzer with just a little more energy and a little more imagination. That’s what made it such a good fight.

Q: So would you, in the final analysis, consider Hearst a great editor?
A: Absolutely. There’s no question about that. He had as large a conception of what a newspaper could do as any editor who’s ever worked. He knew that it was a basic source of information for people. He knew that his job was to break stories and investigate stories. He led crusades and campaigned for changes—everything from poor school construction and bad textbooks used in the education system, better street-crossing lights, campaigns for an elected senate and an income tax. He was a community servant. Every time there was a fire or a flood or a shipwreck, his people were on the scene with blankets and food for relief. And he was an excellent promoter, an excellent self-promoter. His newspaper was entertaining. He understood that it wasn’t enough to give people information, if you could make it compelling and entertaining too—delight them, outrage them, but entertain them—that was an important function of the newspaper as well. That’s why his newspaper was a success. Now, we tend to overly concentrate with our newspapers, in my opinion, on just the basic information functions. They don’t try to lead as much and they don’t try to entertain as much as they used to. That’s one of the reasons that readership is not what it used to be.

Q: One thing that intrigued me is that prior to Hearst—and I don’t think this is solely Hearst—most stories didn’t carry bylines. He was influential, it seems, in ushering in the era of the celebrity journalist.
A: Pulitzer hired people to work for him and to express his views in the paper, but it was all about Joseph Pulitzer and his world view. If they got bylines they were little things at the end of stories. Generally, we consider Hearst to be this big megalomaniac who built a big house in California and had an outsized sense of himself. But for a megalomaniac, he sounded the death-knell of that grand vision of the editor as the all-pervasive force at a newspaper. He shared credit with his writers and deliberately worked to raise the profile of his cartoonists, his columnists, his editorialists, his star reporters. He went out and hired the best talent he could, novelists like Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis, and he gave them huge bylines on the front page, with pictures. I think he realized that he could make a bigger newspaper and a bigger splash in the marketplace if he not only had himself but all of these other fascinating personalities to sell.

Now, for a lot of people—myself included—our image of Hearst is coloured by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, because everybody knows that Charles Foster Kane is pretty much William Randolph Hearst. Do you think it’s a fair portrait?
A: Oh, no, it was a hatchet job—a brilliant hatchet job and a very interesting movie. In fairness to the film, it got a lot of the early days right, the images of Kane when he’s just starting out in the newspaper business [as] a very attractive, engaging figure. But the notion that profound corruption came with all of his wealth and power—I haven’t seen much in the record to support that portrayal. I don’t think he lived a lot differently than a lot of rich guys in the 20th century. That he was corrupted by his great wealth and power and became the psychologically crippled figure makes a good movie but it’s not really accurate.

Q: Now, a lot of the book talks about him campaigning on behalf of [Democratic presidential candidate] William Jennings Bryan in 1896, which is a fascinating case because he was the only major newspaperman supporting Bryan. Bryan didn’t win the presidency but came closer than people ever expected.
A: Exactly, yes.

Q: So how do you think Hearst fared as a kingmaker?
A: Politically, he didn’t do terribly well as a kingmaker. Considering all the effort he put into political campaigns, at the end of his life he had very little to show for it. I don’t think that’s really the important thing. It might have been important to him personally, but as a guy who was running the newspaper, his job was, at that time, with a whole bunch of different papers, to find an audience and speak for it—to lead that audience and communicate with it in an effective way. Hearst did that extremely well. Hearst was the only major paper who came out for Bryan and the Democrats—it not only came out for them but campaigned really, really hard for them. And because of his efforts, millions of people across the country got the information, the arguments that they needed to support their point of view, to answer a lot of the things that the Republicans were saying that deserved—needed—to be answered. That’s the best thing you can ask a newspaper to do: play an important role in any public conversation on behalf of people who don’t otherwise have a voice.

Q: So what do you think Hearst would think of Barack Obama?
A: You know, I can’t take that bait. One of the things that you learn when you look this far back—we’re talking over a century back—is that the politics doesn’t translate that well. What was Republican then is not Republican now. What was Democrat then is not Democrat now. Back then, Democrats were the party of small government and less spending in Washington, and more states’ rights. Now Republicans tend to want to spend less and are less interested in a strong federal government. And Hearst himself changed over time. His views didn’t change so much but things moved on, and what was progressive in the 1890s—and he was as radically progressive as any publisher out there—by the 1930s the progressives had rolled on and he looked like a radical, a radical reactionary. So it’s really, really hard to say that he would have liked one party or the other today because too much has changed.

Q: Considering the media-rich world we all grew up in, what would you consider—not just newspapers, across all media—the greatest contribution that Hearst made to what we’ve all experienced since?
A: I don’t believe that you can look back in newspaper history and say one man changed the direction. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of papers and they all watched each other. One would get a good idea [and] they’d all steal it. But Hearst worked as hard as any of them to build a popular audience and to do an intelligent, entertaining newspaper for a mass audience. He expanded the range of content in a newspaper—the amount of news, foreign news, sports, lifestyle coverage. And he did it a little more energetically than others. And he showed that a publisher could be an enormous political force. He probably was as influential an editor in his day as any editor has ever been. But if you’re looking for something particular that influenced the direction newspapers went in the 20th century, I think it would be what we talked about earlier, the way he opened up newspapers so they weren’t the vehicle of one editor but home to a variety of voices—and pleased a broader and broader audience as a result.

Q: So, obviously, he’s nowhere near as flawed as we’ve been led to believe, and nowhere near as evil. But what do you think was his, professionally speaking, Achilles’ heel?
A: He was extremely competitive and extremely ambitious, and as often happens in newspaper wars, people overreach. He, at the very height of the Spanish-American War, which riveted America and was selling a lot of newspapers, started running huge headlines and huge pictures on his front page. Overplaying stories to have a competitive advantage over his rivals, not because the stories really deserved the play. Also the self-promotion. It’s good for newspapers to talk to their readers about what they do well. To let readers know that they’re being a public servant and doing good things in the community. To let readers know that they’ve cracked a big story. That’s all good. But Hearst reached a point at the height of the competition where you could hardly turn a page of the paper without reading about how his New York Journal had done this spectacular thing or that spectacular thing. His newspaper’s activities [were] covered almost as much as the war. That got tiresome and probably, in some segments of the reading audience, hurt his credibility. It didn’t hurt his circulation—that kept going up—but some people began to doubt his methods.

Q: My take is that one of the keys to his success was he understood that he was as much in the entertainment business as he was in the news business. Do you think that’s true?
A: I do. He didn’t say that news was just entertainment. He thought that people would rather read a news story presented in an entertaining manner than one presented in a dry manner—which I think is nearly universally true—and that having high-entertainment value in a newspaper didn’t detract at all from its seriousness of purpose. He still believed that its first duty was to report the news, to have something interesting and important to say about it, and to lead public debate. But he thought a newspaper should have a full personality. That it should be able to inform, enlighten and entertain all at the same time. He is disparaged today for having been sort of an entertainer in the news business, but that’s because historians and biographers have highlighted the entertainment value of his newspaper and discounted the amount of very good journalism he did. I think it’s to the detriment of the newspaper industry that we don’t see that both of these things can be done together. If we only believe that really dry, earnest journalism is legitimate, we’re going to lose a lot of readers.