William Randolph Hearst is the much-maligned inspiration behind the lead character in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane — a megalomaniac publishing tycoon who left no stone unturned to bring his readers the latest news. It is fitting then that nearly 60 years after Welles' film, Kenneth Whyte, a leading Canadian journalist, redeems this enigmatic personality and his reputation in the absorbing The Uncrowned King.
William was the son of millionaire senator George Hearst, who in the late 1880s was struggling with the San Francisco Examiner, a bleeding newspaper. Still an undergrad at Harvard, William sent his father a detailed proposal to rescue the paper, and, against the wishes of his mother (who thought a career in mining offered better prospects), persuaded George to make him proprietor and later editor of the Examiner.
In Whyte's view, William ran "a smart and well-written paper. Its crusades were often courageous and marked by an unmistakable sense of public service." At a time when it was unheard of, the Examiner routinely carried specials on photographically striking news events such as arson and drowning. Further, it frequently plied its readers with special offers and freebies.
The Examiner's circulation grew by leaps and bounds, and by 1895, Hearst had his eye on New York. Most of the book concerns the bitter circulation wars that ensued between Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Both newspapermen had a touch of the obsessive about them, and the saga of their rivalry is brought out in racy detail by Whyte.
The author overturns a few commonly held assumptions about William Hearst. Quashing charges of yellow journalism leveled against Hearst, Whyte emphatically points out that rigorous scholarship has borne out the veracity of the reports carried in his papers. The Uncrowned King is a sympathetic doff of the hat from one newspaperman to another.
Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi, India.