William Randolph Hearst was a looming figure in American history, even before Orson Welles memorably transposed him into a half-fictional character. Even after his death in 1951, the media empire he built carried on and shows no signs of slowing down today. The Hearst corporation continues to operate a chain of newspapers and a fleet of glossy magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and Cosmopolitan; it maintains broadcast TV stations and expanded into cable with ESPN, A&E and History.
The HBO documentary “Citizen Hearst” (out on DVD) is the authorized version of the story. It relies heavily on employees and family members (Patty not among them) for its account of Hearst as a “champion of the people.” Measured dissent is offered by Dan Rather, who says the media mogul “oft times went too far” with sensationalistic reporting. The Spanish-American War? Hearst helped cook that one up with his headlines.
Some of the most interesting commentary comes from Leonard Maltin, the genial film historian who not only walks us through Citizen Kane with its similarities and dissimilarities to Hearst, but also offers little known facts such as Hearst’s role in inventing newsreels and his early forays into animation—a natural step given his dominance in syndicated cartoon strip. Marion Davies got a bad rap from Citizen Kane, but Hearst really did use his influence in Hollywood to promote her career and—not unlike the Xanadu depicted by Welles, built a castle and stocked it with the loot of the world.
The picture that emerges of Hearst is one of an innovator—always peering around the next corner—in a tradition carried on by the current management. The future of print? The Hearst barons aren’t worried about the death of paper as a medium. It will continue with a dozen ways of accessing news and information.