William Randolph Hearst: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
In this lesson, we'll look at William Randolph Hearst: media tycoon, New York Congressman, and synonymous with the term yellow journalism. Learn more about the man and his exploits and then you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

Origins of a Media Empire

Unquestionably, William Randolph Hearst was the most influential journalist of his time. He was also the most flamboyant and sensationalist of journalists. Hearst was born in San Francisco in 1863 and the only child of George and Phoebe Hearst. His father was wealthy from mining investments, and a U.S. Senator. When Hearst was ten, his mother took him on a European tour which instilled in Hearst a lifelong appreciation for European art and architecture.

At age 16, he attended St. Paul's Preparatory School in Concord, New Hampshire and then Harvard but he was expelled for pranks. His father, concerned that he was too irresponsible, handed control of the San Francisco Examiner to him in 1887. The young Hearst threw himself into his new venture, and made the paper a success.

In 1903, he married Millicent Wilson, a young chorus-girl from New York City. Though they had five sons together, the marriage was stormy and he eventually carried on a long-term affair with Marion Davies, with whom he fathered a daughter and lived openly at his Beverly Hills residence while he was still married.

Photo of William Randolph Hearst
Photo of William Randolph Hearst

Hearst and Pulitzer

When his father died, Hearst inherited his father's enormous wealth and he used it to expand his business. Hearst had previously worked for Joseph Pulitzer, who owned the New York World. Hearst bought Pulitzer's main rival paper, the New York Journal, and the two got into a well-published circulation war. The extent to which he would go to sell papers is best seen in his coverage of the war in Cuba.

L-R Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst Political Caricature during the Spanish-American War
Pulitzer and Hearst

Hearst in the Spanish-American War

Hearst was the first newspaper outlet to establish a press corps in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. To sway public opinion to join the war effort, Hearst exaggerated much of his war coverage. He dispatched his two leading reporters, Richard Harding Davis and Frederick Remington, to cover events. When Remington wrote to Hearst that there was little to report, Hearst responded in a famous telegraph that boasted 'You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war.' Hearst was accused of fabricating stories to influence the McKinley administration to join the war effort and his name became synonymous with the term, 'yellow journalism' which was (and arguably still is) a form of journalism that valued sensationalism over fact.

An Empire is Born

At the height of his power, Hearst owned more than 20 papers, several magazines, a film studio, several comic strips, and extensive properties in California, Mexico, New York, and Europe. By the 1920s, it was estimated that 25% of all Americans read a Hearst-owned newspaper. Perhaps his most enduring symbol was his estate, the Hearst Castle, built in the hills of San Simeon, California. Designed by architect Julia Morgan, it was designed to showcase his extensive art collection and it soon became a famous hotspot for the Hollywood elite.

He also dabbled in public office and was twice elected to Congress in 1902 and 1904, but he lost his bid for mayor and governor of New York in 1905 and 1906. He flirted with running for president, but he suffered a PR problem after his paper ran a poem written by Ambrose Bierce following the assassination of Kentucky Governor William Goebel. One line in the poem suggested that the bullet was not found because it was heading straight for President McKinley. When McKinley was assassinated for real, many in the public saw an eerie parallel and the whole affair smacked of poor taste.

Where Hearst failed politically, he achieved remarkable success financially as he amassed a fortune of over $200 million and once quipped that, 'In suggesting gifts, money is appropriate, and one size fits all.'

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