Interview with Stephen Ives, director of “Citizen Hearst”, on William Randolph Hearst and Citizen KAne


The highly anticipated third season of Succession will continue to follow the Roy family, a dynasty of fictional media moguls who find themselves embroiled in all manner of business and personal drama. While we wait for the premiere, maybe it’s appropriate to learn more about the original Logan Roy of sorts – William Randolph Hearst.

A new PBS mini-series, Citizen of Hearst, explores the life and legacy of one of the world’s most famous information moguls. The title, of course, comes from the famous film by Orson Welles, Citizen Kane, whose main character was also said to have been inspired by Hearst. The comparison is true: in the 1930s, Hearst had the largest media empire in the country, with 28 newspapers, a film studio, an underwritten press service, radio stations and 13 magazines. (notably, City Country is a publication of Hearst.) He held enormous power in Washington and Hollywood and, as PBS describes it, “forever transformed the role of the media in American life and politics.”

The documentary series will air on PBS in two parts, September 27-28 at 9 p.m. ET. Before its release, CGV sitting with Citizen of Hearstby Stephen Ives, also known for his decades-long collaboration with Ken Burns. Read our conversation below and watch an exclusive clip from the series above.

What attracted you to the Citizen Hearst project?

Hearst, in many ways, is truly ingrained in the DNA of American media today: the way stories are packaged and moved from one platform to another; the influence of celebrity; sometimes the casual approach to the truth; the meaning of the spectacle; the volume of messages, all feel like the direct descendants of what Hearst started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So he seemed like an interesting and timely person to shed some light on and the deeper we got into his story the more it turned out to be.

William Randolph Hearst, an American information mogul.

Library of Congress

In the documentary, the focus is on Hearst’s political ambitions. Did you always know that would be such a big part of the movie?

Well, I think his politics are complicated in some ways. He was a Democrat when the Democratic Party was very supportive of a white supremacist and more anti-immigrant point of view. But they were also, in some ways, progressive in their attempts to reform the city government, and he was a true advocate of reform early in his life. And then he drifts more to the right and becomes more conservative as he gets older and richer and he starts to reflect a more classic and plutocratic view of the world.

So there’s this tension between his impulses to fight for the working man, which I think he really believed in, but it was also really good for business and for the traffic and for the eyes, which were the key to the success of his newspapers. And then he gets away from that considerably.

Then there is his own political ambition, which is just as interesting, as he seemed to crave higher positions no matter what blows he took at the ballot box. He has lost campaign after campaign after campaign and he dusted himself off and started over, even when he was cheated in the mayoral election by Tammany Hall in New York City. So, he’s a guy who lives and breathes politics and also has his own evolution.

There appear to have been two external draws for Hearst: Politics and Hollywood. How do you explain the shift towards entertainment?

I think it comes from his love of innovation. He was always on the hunt for the next big thing and he saw in early movies, news and soap operas this natural way of taking those often melodramatic stories that he put in his newspapers and magazines and reusing them as a whole. new audience in a whole new way that was immensely alluring and influential. And I think he liked this world. He has always loved people from the theater, that’s how he met Marian Davies [his longtime mistress]. That’s how he met his wife, Millicent, they were both showgirls. He liked creative people. He didn’t like stuffy aristocrats. So, he was naturally drawn to Hollywood, and once his relationship with Marion Davies was established, it was part of his determination to promote his career, but it was also his determination to simply dominate whatever industry he entered.

When he got to Hollywood he said, “I want the biggest budgets, the best directors, the biggest stars. I want ten great movies a year. He’s the kind of guy he was. And I think if there were two lonely stars – politics and Hollywood – there was also a North Star for him, which was power. Power and influence meant readership, viewers, moviegoers, and the way he developed his empire was a relentless search for bigger and more, and more readers meant more followers, meant more power.

william randolph hearts
Hearst and actress Marion Davies, with whom he had a decades-long affair.

Courtesy of PBS

Which part of Hearst’s life did you find most compelling?

One was how quickly he was able to master the news, the series, and those early films. He had a news theater that broadcast news all the time. And literally they would be updated hour by hour and that was almost a precursor to CNN. It was the first point of information you could go to and be bombarded with the news of the day and I found it really striking.

The other was that, for all the sensationalism and creepy ways his journals often found themselves faced with the lowest common denominator of certain stories, he loved good writing. He liked good writers. He liked interesting people.

william randolph hearts
Hearst with his wife, Millicent.

Library of Congress

What do you hope will resonate with viewers about Hearst?

I hope Hearst’s media empire, and the forms of media it helped develop, will sound remarkably familiar to you. And that his will to blur the line to a point of invisibility, between his editorial positions and his news pages will also seem familiar to him. And his tendency to reduce his messages to those blunt instruments that were just repeated over and over again to advance a political point of view, is something that I think we are seeing, to our regret, right now in our country.

In many ways, there is a caveat here of so much consolidated power in the hands of someone with such a consuming worldview and perspective. It was something that even sometimes eclipsed the American political arena. Hearst was so powerful that he was far more powerful than many Senators and Congressmen. This is something that I hope Americans recognize when they watch this series and I hope they see it as a bit of a caveat to our current situation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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About Karren Campbell

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