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Audio Recording of the article as Read by Suparnaa Chadda


WR Hearst – The Father of Fake News

“News is what people don’t want you to print. Everything thing else is advertising.”

In today’s time when terms like ‘fake news and ‘Yellow Journalism’ are as common as common salt or Coke, it may be interesting, if not enlightening, to know about a man who is credited to have brought into existence this phenomenon- the legendary if somewhat notorious- WR Hearst – The Master of Fake News.

Hearst’s philosophy was rooted in circulation-building sensationalism. A century or so later, some of the younger newspaper barons of India too, emulated him with varying degrees of success.

Best remembered in journalistic history for publishing the largest chain of American newspapers, and depicted as the inimitable protagonist in the celebrated and iconic film ‘Citizen Kane’, he was a remarkable and magnetic person by any standard. That he was multi-faceted, extremely ambitious and fiercely aggressive, defines and delineates his complex personality, but only partially.

The Rebel, the Maverick

He was a born rebel. Perhaps driven by an inherent maverick streak and aided by the easy opulence that he inherited, he always did what others could not dare do. The young Hearst attended Harvard College for two years before being expelled for antics ranging from sponsoring massive beer parties in Harvard Square to sending chamber pots to his professors, whose images were depicted within the bowls.

He inherited ‘San Francisco Examiner from his father but moved on to build a chain of 30 newspapers across America. He expanded into magazines and for quite some time became the owner of the biggest newspaper and magazine business in the world. At the peak of his fortune, in 1935, he owned 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines, along with several radio stations, movie companies, and news services.

Joseph Pulitzer

Soon the young, impatient and restless Hearst moved to New York and acquired the very prestigious New York Journal. Then ensued a bitter, no-holds-barred battle with none other than the redoubtable Joseph Pulitzer. It was a war for achieving higher circulation and a larger reader base. The outcome of this epic battle is the lore of journalistic history but the most significant upshot of this war between two titans was the birth of yellow journalism.

News Redefined

He defined an ideal newspaper that causes the following reaction, “When the reader looks at Page One, he says, ‘Gee-whiz.’ When he turns to the second page, he says, ‘Holy Moses.’ And when he turns to the middle page, he says, ‘God Almighty.’

His ideology crystallized later as fake news arguably arose from his own convictions regarding the purpose of a newspaper, a radical and shocking departure from the then prevailing mores of journalism.

This was later defined by American historian and journalist Frank Luther Mott as a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines and sensationalised stories to sell more newspapers. It sometimes also deceives the audience it is intended for, he elaborated.

Yellow Journalism and Penchant for War

Yellow journalism, Mott added, “is defined by five major characteristics”:

1) Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news.

2) Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings.

3) Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts.

4) Emphasis on full-colour Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips.

5) Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.

Hearst particularly chose the news about wars as his special penchant. He believed and very passionately that nothing could be more sensational and reader-appetising than a war? So when the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain began in February 1895, Spain’s use of brutal suppression was graphical – and imaginatively – portrayed by Hearst’s newspapers.

He backed the underdog Cubans fighting on America’s doorstep and agitated for the United States to declare war on Spain.

In 1897 he sent artist Frederic Remington to Havana with instructions to illustrate the tension. After some time the artist sent a note to Hearst saying: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Possibly this exchange never took place. Perhaps it is simply apocryphal. Yet, it is ingrained in the Hearst legend and seems overwhelmingly in line with his work and business philosophy.

In 1919 Heart’s mother Phoebe died and he inherited the family fortune, considerably boosting his already substantial personal wealth. Part of his inheritance was a 168,000-acre ranch at San Simeon, California. For several decades he was to spend millions of dollars on the property, creating a Baroque-style castle and filling it with hugely valuable treasures and works of art which he collected on his global travels. Now called Hearst Castle, it is run by the State of California as a museum and tourist attraction.

Pearls of journalistic wisdom

Known to his employees as “The Chief”, Hearst delivered some memorable observations about newspapers. Such as:

“News is what people don’t want you to print. Everything thing else is advertising.”

“Putting out a newspaper without promotion is like winking at a girl in the dark – well-intentioned, but ineffective.”

Post Script

‘Fake news and ‘Yellow Journalism’ may have become ‘Passe’ today, but how old is this phenomenon? Over 100 years ago, When WR Hearst introduced new standards of journalism defined by ‘sensation’ and ‘manufactured lies’ and driven by the sole motive of increasing circulation numbers, it took the newspaper world by storm. And as happens with all things unusually evil and sinister, its following continued unabated, ever on increase. What happens when the rich and powerful own and control the press Know this remarkable(?) man through the article.

Views are personal.  The author, Uday Kumar Varma an IAS officer, former secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry of MSME was also an esteemed jury member through SABERA 2021  You may also like his articles Have you and I learnt our lessons post COVID 19, New World OrderWho will Watch the WatchDog and  Digital Age: Future of Democracy

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