He was twice elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, and ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States in 1904, Mayor of New York City in 1905 and 1909 and for Governor of New York in 1906. Politically he espoused the left wing of the Progressive Movement, speaking on behalf of the working class. He controlled the editorial positions and coverage of political news in all his papers and magazines and thereby broadcast his personal views. He sensationalized Spanish atrocities in Cuba and called for war in 1898 against Spain. After 1918, he called for an isolationist foreign policy to avoid any more entanglement in what he regarded as corrupt European affairs. He was at once a militant nationalist, a fierce anti-communist, and deeply suspicious of the League of Nations and of the British, French, Japanese, and Russians. He was a leading supporter of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932–34, but then broke with FDR and became his most prominent enemy on the right. His peak circulation reached 20 million readers a day in the mid-1930s, but he was a bad money manager and was so deeply in debt that most of his assets had to be liquidated in the late 1930s; he managed to keep his newspapers and magazines.
His life story was the main inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, the lead character in Orson Welles's film Citizen Kane. His famous mansion, Hearst Castle, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Simeon, is now a State Historical Monument and a National Historic Landmark.
William R. Hearst was born in San Francisco, to millionaire mining engineer, goldmine owner and U.S. senator (1886–91) George Hearst and his wife Phoebe Apperson Hearst.
His paternal great-grandfather was John Hearst, of Ulster Protestant origin. He migrated to America from Ballybay, County Monaghan as part of the Cahans Exodus with his wife and six children in 1766 and settled in South Carolina. Their immigration to South Carolina was spurred in part by the colonial government's policy that encouraged the immigration of Irish Protestants. The names "John Hearse" and "John Hearse Jr." appear on the council records of October 26, 1766, being credited with meriting 400 and 100 acres (1.62 and 0.40 km2) of land on the Long Canes (in what became Abbeville District), based upon 100 acres (0.40 km2) to heads of household and 50 acres (20 ha) for each dependent of a Protestant immigrant. The "Hearse" spelling of the family name never was used afterward by the family members themselves, or any family of any size. A separate theory purports that one branch of a "Hurst" family of Virginia (originally from Plymouth Colony) moved to South Carolina at about the same time and changed the spelling of its surname of over a century to that of the immigrant Hearsts. Hearst's mother, née Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson, was also of Irish ancestry; her family came from Galway. She was the first woman regent of University of California, Berkeley, funded many anthropological expeditions and founded the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Following preparation at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, Hearst enrolled in the Harvard College class of 1885. While there he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the A.D. Club (a Harvard Final club), the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and of the Harvard Lampoon before being expelled for antics ranging from sponsoring massive beer parties in Harvard Square to sending pudding pots used as chamber pots to his professors (their images were depicted within the bowls).
Searching for an occupation, in 1887, Hearst took over management of a newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, which his father received in 1880 as repayment for a gambling debt. Giving his paper a grand motto, "Monarch of the Dailies," he acquired the best equipment and the most talented writers of the time, including Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Jack London, and political cartoonist Homer Davenport. A self-proclaimed populist, Hearst went on to publish stories of municipal and financial corruption, often attacking companies in which his own family held an interest. Within a few years, his paper dominated the San Francisco market.
Early in his career at the San Francisco Examiner, Hearst envisioned running a large newspaper chain, and "always knew that his dream of a nation-spanning, multi-paper news operation was impossible without a triumph in New York". In 1895, with the financial support of his mother, he bought the failing New York Morning Journal, hiring writers like Stephen Crane and Julian Hawthorne and entering into a head-to-head circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer, owner and publisher of the New York World, from whom he "stole" Richard F. Outcault, the inventor of color comics, and all of Pulitzer's Sunday staff as well. Another prominent hire was James J. Montague, who came from the Portland Oregonian and started his well-known "More Truth Than Poetry" column at the Hearst-owned New York Evening Journal.
When Hearst purchased the "penny paper", so called because its copies sold for only a penny apiece, the Journal was competing with New York's 16 other major dailies, with a strong focus on Democratic Party politics. Hearst imported his best managers from the San Francisco Examiner and "quickly established himself as the most attractive employer" among New York newspapers. He was generous, paid more than his competitors, gave credit to his writers with page-one bylines, and was unfailingly polite, unassuming, "impeccably calm", and indulgent of "prima donnas, eccentrics, bohemians, drunks, or reprobates so long as they had useful talents".
Hearst's activist approach to journalism can be summarized by the motto, "While others Talk, the Journal Acts."
The New York Journal and its chief rival, the New York World, mastered a style of popular journalism that came to be derided as "yellow journalism", after Outcault's Yellow Kid comic. Pulitzer's World had pushed the boundaries of mass appeal for newspapers through bold headlines, aggressive news gathering, generous use of cartoons and illustrations, populist politics, progressive crusades, an exuberant public spirit, and dramatic crime and human-interest stories. Hearst's Journal used the same recipe for success, forcing Pulitzer to drop the price of the World from two cents to a penny. Soon the two papers were locked in a fierce, often spiteful competition for readers in which both papers would spend large sums of money and see huge gains in circulation.
Within a few months of purchasing the Journal, Hearst would hire away Pulitzer's three top editors: Sunday editor Morrill Goddard, who greatly expanded the scope and appeal of the American Sunday newspaper, Solomon Carvalho, and a young Arthur Brisbane, who would become managing editor of the Hearst newspaper empire, and a legendary columnist. Contrary to popular assumption, they were not lured away by higher pay—rather, each man had grown tired of both the temperamental, domineering Pulitzer and the paranoid, back-biting office politics which he encouraged.
While Hearst's many critics attribute the Journal's incredible success to cheap sensationalism, as Kenneth Whyte noted in The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise Of William Randolph Hearst, "Rather than racing to the bottom, he [Hearst] drove the Journal and the penny press upmarket. The Journal was a demanding, sophisticated paper by contemporary standards. " Though yellow journalism would be much maligned, "All good yellow journalists ... sought the human in every story and edited without fear of emotion or drama. They wore their feelings on their pages, believing it was an honest and wholesome way to communicate with readers." But, as Whyte pointed out, "This appeal to feelings is not an end in itself...[they believed] our emotions tend to ignite our intellects: a story catering to a reader's feelings is more likely than a dry treatise to stimulate thought."
The two papers would finally declare a truce in late 1898, after both lost vast amounts of money covering the Spanish–American War. Hearst probably lost several million dollars in his first three years as publisher of the Journal (actual figures are impossible to verify). But the paper began turning a profit after it ended its fight with the World.
Under Hearst, the Journal remained loyal to the populist or left wing of the Democratic Party, and was the only major publication in the East to support William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Its coverage of that historic election was probably the most important of any newspaper in the country, attacking relentlessly the unprecedented role of money in the Republican campaign and the dominating role played by William McKinley's political and financial manager, Mark Hanna, the first national party 'boss' in American history. Only a year after taking over the paper, Hearst could boast that sales of the Journal's post-election issue (including the evening and German-language editions) topped 1.5 million, a record "unparalleled in the history of the world."
The Journal's political coverage, however, was not entirely one-sided. Kenneth Whyte says that most editors of the time "believed their papers should speak with one voice on political matters", Hearst "helped to usher in the multi-perspective approach we identify with the modern op-ed page". At first he was supportive of the Russian Revolution of 1917 but later he turned against it. Hearst fought hard against Wilsonian internationalism, the League of Nations, and the World Court, thereby appealing to an isolationist audience.
The Morning Journal's daily circulation would routinely climb above the 1 million mark after the sinking of the Maine and U.S. entry into the Spanish–American War, a war that some dubbed, "The Journal's War" due to the paper's immense influence in provoking American outrage against Spain. Much of the coverage leading up to the war, beginning with the outbreak of the Cuban Revolution in 1895, was tainted by rumor, propaganda, and sensationalism, with the "yellow" papers regarded as the worst offenders. Indeed, the Journal and other New York newspapers were so one-sided and full of errors in their reporting that coverage of the Cuban crisis and the ensuing Spanish–American War is often cited as one of the most significant milestones in the rise of yellow journalism's hold over the mainstream media. Huge headlines in the Journal assigned blame for the Maine's destruction on sabotage—based on no actual evidence—and stoked outrage and indignation against Spain among the paper's readers in New York.
Nevertheless, the Journal's crusade against Spanish rule in Cuba was not due to mere jingoism, although "the democratic ideals and humanitarianism that inspired their coverage are largely lost to history," as are their "heroic efforts to find the truth on the island under unusually difficult circumstances." The Journal's journalistic activism in support of the Cuban rebels, rather, was centered around Hearst's political and business ambitions. Perhaps the best known myth in American journalism is the claim, without any contemporary evidence, that famed illustrator Frederic Remington, sent by Hearst to Cuba to cover the Cuban War of Independence, telegrammed Hearst to tell him all was quiet in Cuba. Supposedly Hearst responded, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
Hearst was personally dedicated to the cause of the Cuban rebels, and the Journal did some of the most important and courageous reporting on the conflict—as well as some of the most sensationalized. In fact, their stories on the Cuban rebellion and Spain's atrocities on the island—many of which turned out to be untrue—were motivated primarily by outrage at Spain's brutal policies on the island, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Cubans. The most well-known story involved the imprisonment and release of Cuban prisoner Evangelina Cisneros.
While Hearst and the yellow press did not directly cause America's war with Spain, they did inflame public opinion in New York City to a fever pitch. However New York's elites read other papers, such as the Times and Sun which were far more restrained. The Journal and the World were local papers oriented to a very large working class audience in New York City. They were not among the top ten sources of news in papers in other cities, and their stories simply did not make a splash outside New York City. Outrage across the country came from evidence of what Spain was doing in Cuba, a major influence in the decision by Congress to declare war. That is, war was declared by Congress because public opinion was sickened by the bloodshed, and because leaders like McKinley realized that Spain had lost control of Cuba. These factors weighed more on the president's mind than the melodramas in the New York Journal.
Hearst sailed to Cuba with a small army of Journal reporters to cover the Spanish–American War in person, bringing along portable printing equipment, which was used to print a single edition newspaper in Cuba after the fighting had ended. Two of the Journal's correspondents, James Creelman and Edward Marshall, were wounded in the fighting. A leader of the Cuban rebels, Gen. Calixto García, gave Hearst a Cuban flag that had been riddled with bullets as a gift, in appreciation of Hearst's major role in Cuba's liberation.
In part to aid in his political ambitions, Hearst opened newspapers in some other cities, among them Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston. The creation of his Chicago paper was requested by the Democratic National Committee, and Hearst used this as an excuse for Phoebe Hearst to transfer him the necessary start-up funds. By the mid-1920s he had a nationwide string of 28 newspapers, among them the Los Angeles Examiner, the Boston American, the Atlanta Georgian, the Chicago Examiner, the Detroit Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Washington Times, the Washington Herald, and his flagship, the San Francisco Examiner.
Hearst also diversified his publishing interests into book publishing and magazines; several of the latter are still in circulation, including such periodicals as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Town and Country, and Harper's Bazaar.
In 1924, he opened the New York Daily Mirror, a racy tabloid frankly imitating the New York Daily News, Among his other holdings were two news services, Universal News and International News Service, or INS, the latter of which he founded in 1909. He also owned INS companion radio station WINS in New York); King Features Syndicate, which still owns the copyrights of a number of popular comics characters; a film company, Cosmopolitan Productions; extensive New York City real estate; and thousands of acres of land in California and Mexico, along with timber and mining interests inherited from his father.
Hearst promoted writers and cartoonists despite the lack of any apparent demand for them by his readers. The press critic A. J. Liebling reminds us how many of Hearst's stars would not have been deemed employable elsewhere. One Hearst favorite, George Herriman, was the inventor of the dizzy comic strip Krazy Kat; not especially popular with either readers or editors at the time of its initial publication, it is now considered by many to be a classic, a belief once held only by Hearst himself.
In 1929, he became one of the sponsors of the first round-the-world voyage in an airship, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin from Germany. His sponsorship was conditional on the trip starting at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, NJ, so the ship's captain, Dr. Hugo Eckener, first flew the Graf Zeppelin across the Atlantic from Germany to pick up Hearst's photographer and at least three Hearst correspondents. One of them, Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay, by that flight became the first woman to travel around the world by air.
The Hearst news empire reached a revenue peak about 1928, but the economic collapse of the Great Depression in the United States and the vast over-extension of his empire cost him control of his holdings. It is unlikely that the newspapers ever paid their own way; mining, ranching and forestry provided whatever dividends the Hearst Corporation paid out. When the collapse came, all Hearst properties were hit hard, but none more so than the papers; Furthermore, his now-conservative politics, increasingly at odds with those of his readers, only worsened matters for the once great Hearst media chain. Having been refused the right to sell another round of bonds to unsuspecting investors, the shaky empire tottered. Unable to service its existing debts, Hearst Corporation faced a court-mandated reorganization in 1937. From that point, Hearst was reduced to being merely another employee, subject to the directives of an outside manager. Newspapers and other properties were liquidated, the film company shut down; there was even a well-publicized sale of art and antiquities. While World War II restored circulation and advertising revenues, his great days were over. The Hearst Corporation continues to this day as a large, privately held media conglomerate based in New York City.
Hearst won two elections to Congress, then lost a series of elections. He narrowly failed in attempts to become mayor of New York City in both 1905 and 1909 and governor of New York in 1906, nominally remaining a Democrat while also creating the Independence Party. He was defeated for the governorship by Charles Evans Hughes. Hearst's unsuccessful campaigns for office after his tenure in the House of Representatives earned him the unflattering but short-lived nickname of "William 'Also-Randolph' Hearst", which was coined by Wallace Irwin.
Hearst was on the left wing of the Progressive Movement, speaking on behalf of the working class (who bought his papers) and denouncing the rich and powerful (who disdained his editorials). With the support of Tammany Hall (the regular Democratic organization in Manhattan), he was elected to Congress in 1902 and 1904. He ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1904, losing to a conservative New York judge, Alton B. Parker. Breaking with Tammany in 1907, Hearst ran for mayor of New York City under a third party of his own creation, the Municipal Ownership League). Tammany Hall exerted its utmost to defeat him.
An opponent of the British Empire, Hearst opposed American involvement in the First World War and attacked the formation of the League of Nations. His newspapers abstained from endorsing any candidate in 1920 and 1924. Hearst's last bid for office came in 1922 when he was backed by Tammany Hall leaders for the U.S. Senate nomination in New York. Al Smith vetoed this, earning the lasting enmity of Hearst. Although Hearst shared Smith's opposition to Prohibition, he swung his papers behind Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election. Hearst's support for Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, via his allies William Gibbs McAdoo and John Nance Garner, can also be seen as part of his vendetta against Smith, who was an opponent of Roosevelt's at that convention.
As biographer Ben Proctor explains:
During the 1920s he became an avowed Jeffersonian Democrat, warning his fellow citizens against the dangers of big government, of unchecked federal power that could infringe on the individual rights of Americans, especially if a charismatic leader was in charge....[After supporting FDR in 1932] Hearst soon became highly critical of the New Deal. With increasing frequency Hearst newspapers supported big business to the detriment of organized labor. With unabated vigor they condemned higher income tax legislation as a persecution of the "successful."
Hearst broke with FDR in spring 1935 when the president vetoed the Patman Bonus Bill for veterans and tried to enter the World Court. Hearst's papers were his weapon. They carried the publisher's rambling, vitriolic, all-capital-letters editorials, but he no longer employed the energetic reporters, editors, and columnists who might have made a serious attack. He reached 20 million readers in the mid 1930s, but they included much of the working class that Roosevelt had swept by three-to-one margins in the 1936 election. The Hearst papers—like most major chains—had supported the Republican Alf Landon that year.
In 1934, after checking with Jewish leaders to ensure a visit would be to their benefit, Hearst visited Berlin to interview Adolf Hitler. When Hitler asked why he was so misunderstood by the American press, Hearst retorted: "Because Americans believe in democracy, and are averse to dictatorship." Hearst's papers ran columns without rebuttal by Nazi leader Hermann Göring and Hitler himself, as well as Mussolini and other dictators in Europe and Latin America.
In 1903, Hearst married Millicent Veronica Willson (1882–1974), a 21-year-old chorus girl, in New York City. Evidence in Louis Pizzitola's book Hearst Over Hollywood indicates that Millicent's mother Hannah Willson ran a Tammany-connected and protected brothel near the headquarters of political power in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Millicent bore him five sons: George Randolph Hearst, born on April 23, 1904; William Randolph Hearst Jr., born on January 27, 1908; John Randolph Hearst, born in 1910; and twins Randolph Apperson Hearst and David Whitmire (né Elbert Willson) Hearst, born on December 2, 1915. Hearst was the grandfather of Patricia "Patty" Hearst, widely known for being kidnapped by and then joining the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 (her father was Randolph Apperson Hearst, Hearst's fourth son).
Conceding an end to his political hopes, Hearst became involved in an affair with the popular film actress and comedian Marion Davies (1897–1961), former mistress of his friend Paul Block, and from about 1919, he lived openly with her in California. The affair dominated Davies's life. Millicent separated from Hearst in the mid-1920s after tiring of his longtime affair with Davies, but the couple remained legally married until Hearst's death. Millicent built an independent life for herself in New York City as a leading philanthropist, was active in society, and created the Free Milk Fund for the poor in 1921. After the death of Patricia Lake, Davies's supposed niece, it was confirmed by Lake's family that she was in fact Hearst's daughter by Davies.
Beginning in 1919, Hearst began to build Hearst Castle, which he was destined never to complete, on a 240,000 acres (97,000 hectares) ranch at San Simeon, California, which he furnished with art, antiques and entire rooms brought from the great houses of Europe. He also used the ranch for an Arabian horse breeding operation. San Simeon was also used in the 1960 film Spartacus as the estate of Marcus Licinius Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier).
He also had a property on the McCloud River in Siskiyou County, in far northern California, called Wyntoon. Wyntoon was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, who also designed Hearst Castle and worked in collaboration with William J. Dodd on a number of other projects.
In 1947, Hearst paid $120,000 for an H-shaped Beverly Hills mansion, (located at 1011 N Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills CA 90210) on 3.7 acres three blocks from Sunset Boulevard. This home, known as Beverly House, was once perhaps the "most expensive" private home in the U.S., valued at $165 million (£81.4 million). It has 29 bedrooms, three swimming pools, tennis courts, its own cinema and a nightclub. Lawyer and investor Leonard Ross has owned it since 1976. The estate went on the market for $95 million at the end of 2010. The property had not sold by 2012 but was then listed at a significantly increased asking price of $135 million. The Beverly House, as it has come to be known, has some cinematic connections. It was the setting for the gruesome scene in the film The Godfather depicting a horse's severed head in the bed of film-producer, Jack Woltz. The character was head of a film company called International, the name of Hearst's early film company. According to Hearst Over Hollywood, John and Jacqueline Kennedy stayed at the house for part of their honeymoon. They watched their first film together as a married couple in the mansion's cinema. It was a Hearst-produced film from the 1920s.
In the early 1890s, Hearst began building a mansion on the hills overlooking Pleasanton, California on land purchased by his father a decade earlier. Hearst's mother took over the project, hired Julia Morgan to finish it as her home, and named it Hacienda del Pozo de Verona. After her death, it served as the clubhouse for Castlewood Country Club from 1925 to 1969, when it was destroyed in a massive fire.
Hearst was renowned for his extensive collection of art from around the globe and through the centuries. Most notable in his collection were his Greek vases, Spanish and Italian furniture, Oriental carpets, Renaissance vestments, an extensive library with many books signed by their authors, and paintings and statues from all over. In addition to collecting pieces of fine art, he also gathered manuscripts, rare books, and autographs.
His house was often visited by varied celebrities and politicians as guests who stayed in rooms furnished with pieces of antique furniture and decorated with artwork by several famous artists.
Beginning in 1937, Hearst began selling some of his art collection to help relieve the burden he had suffered from the depression. The first year he sold 11 million dollars worth. In 1941 he put about 20,000 items up for sale that were a good indication of his wide and varied tastes. Included in the items he put up for sale were paintings by van Dyke, crosiers, chalices, Charles Dickens's sideboard, pulpits, stained glass, arms and armor, George Washington's waistcoat, and Thomas Jefferson's Bible. Despite the magnitude of these sales, when Hearst Castle was finally given to the State of California there were still enough items for the whole house to be considered as a museum.
After seeing photographs of St. Donat's Castle in Country Life Magazine, Hearst bought the Welsh Vale of Glamorgan property and revitalized it in 1925 as a love gift to Davies. The Castle was restored by Hearst, who spent a fortune buying entire rooms from castles and palaces in Europe. The Great Hall was bought from the Bradenstoke Priory in Wiltshire and reconstructed brick by brick in its current site at St. Donat's Castle. From the Bradenstoke Priory he also bought and removed the guest house, Prior's lodging, and great tithe barn; of these, some of the materials became the St. Donat's banqueting hall, complete with a sixteenth-century French chimney-piece and windows; also used were a fireplace dated to c. 1514 and a fourteenth-century roof, which became part of the Bradenstoke Hall, despite this use being questioned in Parliament. Hearst built 34 green and white marble bathrooms for the many guest suites in the castle, and completed a series of terraced gardens which survive intact today. Hearst and Davies spent much of their time entertaining and held a number of lavish parties, the guests at which included Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Winston Churchill, and a young John F. Kennedy. Upon visiting St. Donat's, George Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying: "This is what God would have built if he had had the money." When Hearst died, the castle was bought and is still owned and used by Atlantic College, an international boarding school.
Mr. Hearst was particularly interested in the newly emerging technologies relating to aviation and had his first experience of flight in January, 1909, in Los Angeles. Louis Paulhan, the famous French aviator, took him for an air trip on his Farman biplane. Hearst also sponsored Old Glory as well as the Hearst Transcontinental Prize.
Hearst's crusade against Roosevelt and the New Deal, combined with union strikes and boycotts of his properties, undermined the financial strength of his empire. Circulation of his major publications declined in the mid-1930s, while rivals such as the New York Daily News were flourishing. He refused to take effective cost-cutting measures, and instead increased his very expensive art purchases. His friend Joseph P. Kennedy offered to buy the magazines, but Hearst jealously guarded his empire and refused. Instead he sold some of his heavily mortgaged real estate.
Finally his financial advisors realized he was tens of millions in debt, and could not pay the interest on the loans, let alone reduce the principal. The proposed bond sale failed to attract investors, as Hearst's financial crisis became widely known. His latest movies flopped for Marion Davies had lost her star status. As the crisis closed in, he let go of most of his household staff, sold his exotic animals to the Los Angeles Zoo, and named a trustee to control his finances. He still refused to sell his beloved newspapers. The trustee cut Hearst's annual salary to $500,000, and stopped the annual payment of $700,000 in dividends. He had to pay rent for living in his castle at San Simeon. Legally it was not bankruptcy, although the general public generally saw it that way as appraisers went through the tapestries, paintings, furniture, silver, pottery, buildings, autographs, jewelry, and other collectibles. His collections were sold off in a series of auctions and private sales in 1938–39. John D. Rockefeller, Junior, bought $100,000 of antique silver for his new museum at Colonial Williamsburg.
The old man was humiliated, but not defeated; he threw his energies into the editorials in his numerous publications, especially dealing with the fast-growing crisis in Europe. He still refused to attack Hitler. Fewer people listened, as Hearst for the first time in his career was treated as an outsider, a curiosity. He became a fit topic for ridicule in one of the most famous movies of all time, Citizen Kane, which was released on May 1, 1941.
In 1947, Hearst left his San Simeon estate to seek medical care, which was unavailable in the remote location. He died in Beverly Hills on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88. He was interred in the Hearst family mausoleum at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California. Like their father, none of Hearst's five sons graduated from college, but they all followed their father into the media business, and Hearst's namesake, William Randolph, Jr., became a Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper reporter.
As Martin Lee and Norman Solomon noted in their 1990 book Unreliable Sources, Hearst "routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events". This approach discredited "yellow journalism".
Hearst's use of yellow journalism techniques in his New York Journal to whip up popular support for U.S. military adventurism in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898 was also criticized in Upton Sinclair's 1919 book, The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. According to Sinclair, Hearst's newspapers distorted world events and deliberately tried to discredit Socialists. Another critic, Ferdinand Lundberg, extended the criticism in Imperial Hearst (1936), charging that Hearst papers accepted payments from abroad to slant the news. After the war, a further critic, George Seldes, repeated the charges in Facts and Fascism (1947).
Citizen Kane is loosely based on Hearst's life. Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz created Kane as a composite character of multiple men, among them Harold McCormick, Samuel Insull and Howard Hughes. Hearst, enraged at the idea of Citizen Kane being a thinly disguised and very unflattering portrait of him, used his massive influence and resources in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the film from being released—all without his ever even having seen it. Welles and the studio RKO Pictures resisted the pressure, but Hearst and his Hollywood friends ultimately succeeded in pressuring theater chains to limit showings of Citizen Kane, resulting in mediocre box-office numbers and seriously harming Welles' career.
The fight over the film was documented in the Academy Award nominated documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, and nearly sixty years later, HBO offered a fictionalized version of Hearst's efforts in its 1999 original production RKO 281. Hearst is portrayed in the film by James Cromwell.
Citizen Kane has twice been ranked No. 1 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (1998 and 2007).In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Hearst is anonymously described as the "newspaper fella near the coast" who "got a million acres" and looks "crazy an' mean" in pictures (ch. 18).
The character Gail Wynand, a newspaper magnate who thinks he can control public sentiment, but in reality is only a servant of the masses, from Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead (1943, also adapted for a 1949 Hollywood film), is inspired by and modeled after the life of William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst is a major character in Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire historic novel series.
James Hampton played Hearst in the 1964 episode "The Paper Dynasty" of the syndicated western television series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Stanley Andrews. In the story line, Hearst struggles to turn a profit despite increased circulation of The San Francisco Examiner. James Lanphier (1920–1969) plays Ambrose Bierce; Robert O. Cornthwaite, as Sam Chamberlain.
Hearst is played by Bill Ewing in the 1979 Episode "The Odyssey" of the television series Little House on the Prairie where he is depicted as a friendly and talented young San Francisco journalist.
The Cat's Meow is a 2001 drama film inspired by the mysterious death of film mogul Thomas H. Ince. The film takes place aboard publisher William Randolph Hearst's yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince's 44th birthday in November 1924. Hearst is portrayed by actor Edward Herrmann.
The novel Goliath (2011) by Scott Westerfeld depicts Hearst in World War I.
Hearst is mentioned in the 1992 Disney movie Newsies directed by Kenny Ortega, which depicts the Newboys' Strike of 1899. Hearst is never seen onscreen but is referenced by several of the newsies in various musical numbers, and is portrayed as an antagonist engaged in a bitter circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer.
In the 1997 television film Rough Riders, Hearst is played by George Hamilton, and is depicted as travelling to Cuba with a small band of journalists to personally cover the Spanish–American War.
Kevin Tighe played Hearst in the 1998 HBO movie Winchell.
The rivalry between Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer has been documented on National Geographic Channel's 2015 series American Genius.