I recently had a chance to see “Citizen Hearst” on PBS’s “American Experience.” It was extraordinarily well done. Despite clocking in at nearly four hours, with much of the time given over to talking heads, my attention never flagged. Partly it’s because there was so much high-quality archival footage. Partly it was because the subject, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, is just so compelling.
There was only one aspect of Hearst’s career that I thought got short shrift. Years ago I read William Andrew Swanberg’s 1961 biography of Hearst. (Confusingly enough, Swanberg’s book was also called “Citizen Hearst,” but the documentary is based on a different book — “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,” by David Nasaw, who appears in the film.) I distinctly recall that Hearst’s papers were sympathetic to Germany during the early years of World War I, so he faced a crisis when the U.S. entered the war. His solution: adding the name “American” to many of his papers.
Another omission from the documentary is more conceptual than factual. The film seems to take it for granted that we’ll never see another media figure who wields power the way Hearst did. Well, what about Rupert Murdoch? If anything, Murdoch has more power and is more dangerous. His Fox News Channel has become the single most important force driving the crisis of democracy that we’re contending with at the moment.
In that sense, “Citizen Hearst” is not just a well-made film about a historical figure. It’s a cautionary tale.