The Battle Over Citizen Kane and the Emergence of Yellow Journalism

The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)
Michael Epstein
Thomas Lennon
David McCullough (host)
Orson Welles (archive)
William Randolph Hearst(archive)
Richard Ben Cramer(narration)

By Rebecca Doser and Yoshifumi Kobayashi

the battle over citizen kane
Fig.1: “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” aired on the Public Broadcast System in 1996.

The Battle Over Citizen Kane (Fig. 1) is a documentary that was broadcasted  by the Public Broadcast System as one of the episodes of the American Experience Series on January 29, 1996. It is about the clash between American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and actor, writer, and director Orson Welles in regards to Welles’ 1941 motion picture Citizen Kane

Fig. 2: William Randolph Heart owned The New York Journal.

Orson Welles based his movie Citizen Kane on the career of William Randolph Hearst (Fig. 2), who built the nation’s largest newspaper chain and influenced American journalism greatly. Hearst was a “God in the newspaper business” according to the documentary. He was born in 1863 and died in 1951. One in five Americans was reading a Hearst newspaper a week, according to the documentary. His great power came from all the media outlets he controlled. According to the documentary, the movies were more powerful than the newspaper ever could be, but no one understood this back then. Hearst was determined to make art and the written word the property of the masses. This segment of the documentary is important when comparing how different Hearst’s mindset was in using newspapers to attract the masses where as nowadays, films and television socially construct peoples’ perception of reality as seen in Fahrenheit 451, much more than the written word does.

Hearst first took hold of The San Francisco Examiner when he was very close to flunking out of Harvard. Then he took hold of The New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World, which led to the creation of yellow journalism, early 20th-century journalism highlighting sensational sex, crime and disaster news (Baran, 2015 p. 77). He created the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world but the competition between Heart’s Good Morning Journal and Pulitzer’s World was so intense that it devalued journalism and caused much skepticism especially when yellow journalism got out of hand.

Hearst exerted significant political opinion and constantly pushed his opinion during the period known as “Yellow Journalism” (1895-1898). He once hired a woman to collapse in the streets just to see how the community responded,  and further, so he could publish an article on how people treated indigent women in society, according to the documentary. Douglass Fairbanks Jr. says that Hearst once said,”You can crush a man with journalism and you can’t with motion pictures.” Hearst took yellow journalism to a whole new level with large headlines, big front-page pictures, extensive use of photos and illustrations and cartoons (Baran, 2015, p. 77). For example, many historians believe that the sinking of the Maine was engineered by Hearst in order to create a war that his papers could cover and build as much circulation as possible (Baran, 2015, p.77). The newspaper wars of this era were thus very sensationalized and exaggerated.

Fig. 3: Hearst’s front page depicting the destruction of the war ship Maine.

Take for example, the Spanish-American War of 1898. The terrible conditions in Cuba were dramatized for the sake of journalism. The most well-known story was that of Frederic Remington, a Canton, NY native, who telegraphed Hearst to tell him that Cuba was fairly quiet and that “there would be no war.” Hearst responded, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The conditions in Cuba was bad enough, but when the war started, Hearst basically took credit for the war itself when he ran a headline reading, “How do you like the Journal’s war?” on his front page. This drastic nature of yellow journalism was mainly in NYC. For example, in the Journal, Hearst focused on the enemy who set the bomb and he even offered a huge reward to readers (Fig.3).

Hearst played the role of a  public preacher by publishing political hype and opinions in his own publications. He succeeded in establishing the first nationwide newspaper chain in America, from L.A. to Chicago, by purchasing more and more newspapers. People were able to see his headlines everywhere, which allowed him to “dictate public opinion all across the country.” The narrator of the documentary, Richard Ben Cramer, interpreted this phenomenon saying, “It was a soapbox of a size no candidate had ever enjoyed.” Hearst, the most renowned owner of American newspapers at that time, was manipulating his readers. He elevated himself to make political statements that he deemed as newsworthy and attractive to the masses by enacting the harsh, sensationalized platform of yellow journalism. He stood atop his “soapbox,” which allowed him to transform newspapers in a way in which he directly effected the emotions and perceptions of reality of those who invested in his newspaper.

story-telling of war of the worlds
Fig. 4: Orson Welles telling the story of War of The Worlds on the CBS radio network.

While yellow journalism  was utilized to emphasize attracting readers’ attention, Orson Welles attempted to use the CBS radio network as a platform to tell an extremely terrifying  story, War of The Worlds, in real time (Fig.4). This daring and reckless decision caused a serious panic among the listeners in the United States because they believed the story was happening at that very moment. This event proved how “average” people were defenselessly influenced by the products that these mediums yield, which is known as the mass society theory and  hypodermic needle theory (Baran, 2015, p. 325). At the same time, this panic produced by Welles through the radio medium suggested a decline in the power of the mass society theory (Baran, 2015, p. 325), since there were people who had not taken any action after listening to the radio five times more than those who believed it. Therefore, this consequence showed the development of the limited effects theory, which used to be the hypothesis emerging that “media influence was limited by individual differences, social categories, and personal relationship” (Baran, 2015, p. 326).

As for the battle over Citizen Kane, Hearst seemed to beat out Welles since eventually, Welles needed to close his company due to its bad reputation intensified by Hearst’s obstruction. However, Hearst’s attack to seize the movie, Citizen Kane, by writing poorly about the movie in his newspapers would possibly be the greatest advertising of the movie ever, as his newspapers were read by countless people. Hence, some individuals may assume that his obstruction actually helped the movie and allowed Welles to be nominated nine Academy Awards in total.

Does yellow journalism still exist today? The answer is easy: 100 percent yes. Many newspapers display the most exaggerated picture on the front page to attract people and make them buy it, no mater how skewed the truth may be. There are even magazines that only deliver gossip, which is often exaggerated significantly by editors in order to actually persuade people to pick up the magazine in the store or click on the article headline on the internet. Also, due to the development of new technology and personalization, Youtube has become one of the largest platforms to portray exaggerated events, such as Hollywood gossip (Fig. 5) uploaded by so-called Youtubers. Now, yellow journalism is even easier to provide and create because of technological developments and it is clearly an element in today’s society that attracts many individuals of our current generation.

Fig. 5: An example of yellow journalism today.

Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 4.” Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. Print