W. Joseph Campbell

William Randolph Hearst mostly elusive in new ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Error, Furnish the war, Reviews on March 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

Citizen Hearst was a mostly unsatisfactory biography published in 1961 about media baron William Randolph Hearst. It was more caricature than revealing portrait.

Citizen HearstThe title, Citizen Hearst, has been reprised for documentary that opened in several theaters this week. The documentary — commissioned by the media company that Hearst founded 126 years ago — is no revealing portrait, either.

Hearst was an innovative yet often-contradictory figure, and this complexity is largely elusive in Citizen Hearst, an 84-minute film that had its Washington, D.C., debut screening last night at the Newseum. The director, Leslie Iwerks, introduced the film by saying it told “the wonderful Hearst story.”

The opening third of Citizen Hearst delivers a fast-paced if mostly shallow look at Hearst’s long career in journalism. After that, the film turns mostly gushy about the diversified media company that is Hearst Corp.

To its credit, Citizen Hearst steers largely clear of the myths that distort understanding of Hearst and his early, most innovative years in journalism.

His affable grandson, Will Hearst, is shown in the film scoffing at what may be the best-known anecdote in American journalism — that William Randolph Hearst vowed in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The anecdote is undocumented and utterly dubious, but it was presented at face value in the biography Citizen Hearst. It is an irresistible tale often invoked in support of a broader and nastier media myth, that Hearst and his newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Citizen Hearst the documentary doesn’t embrace the warmongering myth (although former CBS News anchor Dan Rather is shown saying he was taught in school that Hearst practically brought on the Spanish-American War).

The documentary, however, fails to consider the innovative character of Hearst’s newspapers of the late 19th century.

It notably avoids discussing Hearst’s eye-opening brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

This ethos was a motivating force for one of the most exceptional and dramatic episodes in American journalism — the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

Cisneros

Evangelina Cisneros

A reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, supported by clandestine operatives in Havana and U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, broke Cisneros from jail in early October 1897.

She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of an American-educated Cuban banker (whom she married several months later). Then, dressed as a boy, Cisneros was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.

The Cisneros jailbreak was stunning manifestation of Hearst’s “journalism of action” and it offers rich material for a documentary. It was, as I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history.

It receives not a mention in Citizen Hearst.

The documentary presents only superficial consideration of Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions — and avoids mentioning how he turned his newspapers into platforms to support those ambitions.

Hearst wanted to be president, and was a serious contender for the Democratic party’s nomination in 1904. He lost out to Alton Parker, a New York judge, who in turn was badly defeated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

Citizen Hearst presents the observations of no serious Hearst biographer: No David Nasaw, author of The Chief, an admirably even-handed biography published in 2000; no Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding work published in 2009 about Hearst’s s early career.

Instead, Dan Rather is shown speaking vaguely about Hearst’s journalism (“he played big”). Movie critic Leonard Maltin makes several appearances, discussing such topics as headline size in Hearst’s fin de siècle newspapers.

The documentary treats Helen Gurley Brown, she of Cosmopolitan fame, much like a rock star. And Hearst company officials are quoted often and sometimes at length.

HuffingtonPost was quite right in noting in a review posted Wednesday that the film turns into “something you’d expect to see playing on a loop on the lobby TV screen at Hearst’s headquarters”  in New York.

It leaves you wondering how many people would pay to see it. Or why.

WJC

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