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The Hearst Corporation’s CHRONICLE: Corporate Propagandists in San Francisco’s Spectator Democracy

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The Hearst Corporation’s media empire — including the San Francisco Chronicle — began in 1880 with the acquisition of the San Francisco daily Examiner by gold mining mogul George Hearst. His son, William Randolph Hearst, took over the paper in 1887, following his expulsion from Harvard University and his father’s successful ascension to the U.S. Senate.

Willliam Randolph Hearst immediately left his imprinteur on the paper by embracing sensationalism — big, lurid headlines, illustrations, photos and comics used to pique casual interest from workingclass and immigrant readers. Eight years after assuming control of the Examiner, W.R. Hearst moved to New York, where he used $180,000 from a $7.5 million gift his mother had given him that year to acquire the New York Journal. Hearst’s Journal was soon to employ the same sales-stimulating sensationalism that marked the Examiner, and the continentspanning Hearst media empire was born.

Today, Hearst Corporation holdings include more than 100 separate businesses employing more than 15,000 people. CEO Frank Bennack, who has managed the Hearst Corporation’s fortunes from its New York headquarters for the past 20 years, has seen these holdings quadruple under his direction.

The Hearst corporate empire today encompasses 12 newspapers, 16 solely-owned television stations plus joint ownership of the Hearst-Argyle chain of 14 television stations and three satellites, seven radio stations, six book publishers, a news service, a features syndicate, partial interests in 14 cable television stations, and nine new media companies. It is also the world’s largest magazine publisher with 16 monthly title including Cosmopolitan and Esquire, as well as 14 trade publications like the Official Used Car Guide and Official Guide to Disneyland.

The Hearst Corporation is also a preeminent player in Northern California real estate, with its Sunical division’s vast holdings in ranch lands and logging tracts along California’s central coast, as well as the Hearst Realty and San Francisco Realty companies. 1998 placed Hearst Corporation revenues at $3.3 billion, while the estimated combined wealth of Hearst’s heirs rocketed from $4.5 billion in 1995 to $7.3 billion in 2000.

Yellow Journalism

The term “Yellow Journalism” — or what we today call tabloid journalism — was coined when William Randolph Hearst hired cartoonist Richard F. Outcault away from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to produce the Yellow Kid comics (a popular vehicle of the times for promoting racial stereotypes of Asian- American immigrants) for Hearst’s New York Journal. Soon, Hearst’s sensationalist editorial policies, with their heavy emphasis on sex, violence and crime, so marked SF’s Examiner and NY’s Journal that it was characterized in the newspaper industry as “yellow journalism,” and became synonymous with Hearst papers.

“Hearst’s War” is a nickname historians use for the Spanish-American War of 1898. Hearst, then embroiled in a circulation battle with rival publisher Pulitzer, was so eager to promote America’s involvement in this war that he reportedly cabled photographer Frederick Remington to advise him “You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war.” This, by the way, was before the USS Maine was blown up in Havana harbor. Hearst got his war, and by the end of it the New York Journal’s daily circulation topped 1.6 million.

Propaganda and Patriotism

State propaganda, when it is supported by the educated classes and when no deviation is permitted from it, can have a big effect. It was a lesson learned by Hitler and many others, and it has been pursued to this day.
Noam Chomsky

Today’s standard practice of government actively partnering with corporations and corporateowned media to create artificial public opinions can traced back to the 1916 administration of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson — who had been propelled to the presidency by an extremely pacifistic American public on the platform of “Peace Without Victory” — and his administration were actually committed to the World War that was then raging in Europe. To facilitate America’s entry to the war, they organized the Creel Commission as an official government propaganda organ, and with the help of America’s corporations and media, within six months they had turned a pacifistic American public into a war-mongering mob thirsting for German blood. Enlisting the support of the “progressive” elites of John Dewey’s intellectual circles, and adopting reports of awful German atrocities that were actually inventions by the British propaganda ministry, they succeeded in driving a “reluctant population to war by terrifying them and eliciting jingoist fanaticism.”

So effective was the Creel Commission that America’s media, mainstream politicians and their corporate owners were to soon use the techniques they learned from it again, fabricating a “Red Scare” aimed at breaking the back of America’s then-burgeoning labor movement.

Of San Francisco’s 1934 general strike, the late muckraker and media critic George Seldes writes: “It will be remembered that the press — with the exception of the Scripps-Howard News — conspired to smash labor as well as the strike, and that the news columns of the California papers generally lied and perverted the news and that false issues were created, and the public fooled into believing that a Red revolution was under way when what really mattered was an attempt of working people to better themselves.

“The San Francisco publishers won. They were led by James Francis Neylan, the Hearst attorney, acting directly on instructions received by cable from Mr. Hearst. The press announced it was a victory for public opinion, for the people, as against the Reds, but the labor unions passed resolutions for a boycott. Hearst was singled out for marked attention. The ‘I Don’t Read Hearst’ sticker was ruled off letters by order of Postmaster General Farley but it could not be ruled out of people’s minds. In Bridges’ seamen’s union it is a crime to be caught dead or alive with a Hearst paper in one’s possession. As a result you will find Bridges called a Moscow agent in the Hearst newspapers.”

Later, effective public relations strategies used by bosses against strikers became known as the “Mohawk Valley formula.” That formula is used to break labor union’s collective power to this day.

Fabricating Opinions for the “Bewildered Herd”

The value of early successes in this betrayal of the public’s trust by promoting policies and politicians serving the interests of America’s corporate owners was by then clear to those who could benefit most from it. Using propaganda techniques, business owners (and those who distinguished themselves by how useful they could be in furthering corporate interests) could “manufacture consent,” delivering public agreement for those things that the public didn’t actually want, or even knew it wanted.

Walter Lippmann — the dean of American journalists — pioneered this corporate perversion of journalistic integrity, arguing persuasively for its necessity under the rationale that “the common interests elude public opinion entirely,” and that the affairs of government are best left to a “specialized class” of “responsible men.” The task of this elite community is to lead the electorate, which Lippmann labeled “the bewildered herd,” in supporting candidates and initiatives benefiting the rich.

By reducing the vast majority of the American electorate to “spectators” of a political process that they are mostly prevented from having any real impact upon, the separation of these so-called “common interests” from the interests and issues of America’s average Working Joes and Josephines was perfected. The only issues permitted for popular decision through our democratic process represent a stacked agenda — the specifics of which have already been agreed upon by the corporate masters of our officeholders and media.

The last Presidential election was a perfect example of this “spectator democracy.” Corporate media coverage of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, or of the tens of thousands of citizens taking to the streets to protest for more direct expressions of democracy, was practically non-existent. It also explains the lack of discernable distinction between the platforms of the two major party candidates, or of the corporate interests that hedged their political bets by financing both major party’s presidential campaigns through avalanches of “soft money.”

It also explains why only 51.2 percent of eligible voters participated in the last Presidential election. In a recent Z Magazine interview, media critic Noam Chomsky cites Harvard University’s Vanishing Voter Project, which conducts polls and analysis to determine why voters have been losing interest in elections over the past 20 years. “One of the things they measure is the sense of helplessness; that is, that you feel you cannot do anything that will affect the political process. It hit a new high last year, far beyond anything before. Right before the election about 75 percent of the population felt that there was no election at all, that it was just some kind of game being played by rich contributors, party bosses, and the media. The whole public relations, or advertising, industry was crafting candidates, training them to use certain gestures and produce certain words that the research showed might increase the number of votes.”

Chomsky concludes, “But they didn’t mean what they said and you weren’t supposed to understand what they said and it was all meaningless, just some kind of public relations game.”

Spectator Democracy: Welcome to the Machine

All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.
Henry David Thoreau

The same citizen-disempowering public relations tactics are employed by California’s Brown-Burton democratic machine, which has consolidated itself locally in the Mayoral administration of Democratic Party machine-boss Willie Brown.

The Brown-Burton democratic machine was born in the mid-1960s as the vision of the late California Congressman Phil Burton, who sought to establish a political machine based in San Francisco. In 1964, Phil Burton’s vision became reality in the wake of his election to Congress, and the election of his brother John and John’s college chum Willie Brown to the California State Assembly.

Using a system of political patronage, the machine functions to maintain a core group of loyal elected officials. Machine soldiers with political ambitions of their own are groomed for future political office, with the implicit understanding that they are to follow the machine’s lead on key political issues in exchange. For loyal followers, the machine can offer assistance in the form of campaign fundraising, key endorsements from the machine’s officeholders, and political appointments from other successful machine officeholders — especially important for machine loyalists who term out or are voted from office. In time, this system of favors and paybacks creates a debt from which the machine’s officeholders can only rarely break free, ensuring their continued loyalty and the machine’s continued power.

Initially, the machine reflected working-class issues, and we still enjoy its early successes in legislation around civil rights, worker’s safety and the environment. More recently, however, the machine’s emphasis has been on consolidating power and the continued political survival of its leaders.

As former Board of Supervisors President Angela Alioto observes in her 1997 memoir Straight to the Heart: Political Cantos, “I’ve witnessed how the Burton machine, now largely controlled by Willie Brown, has moved away from supporting passionate issues to a focus on control and power. I’ve also seen how those who play ball are rewarded, and how those who don’t are attacked, made to appear ineffective, or exiled from party politics. In this way, good elected officials, who understand the real needs of constituents, often leave office, exhausted by their inability to secure real change and discouraged from trying to do battle on their own.”

Downtown soft money is the lifeblood of Mayor Brown’s political machine, and its muscle is most keenly felt in the ability to fill campaign war chests of its loyalists, and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to dry up the coffers of its many enemies. Of key importance is its proven ability to function as a conduit between downtown corporate dollars and political influence with the machine’s officeholders.

Public interest attorney Alioto writes of the machine’s financial sponsors: “These are the corporations that have historical power in a region, and that may have wielded a corrupting influence for decades. A lot of us want to believe that influence peddling disappeared earlier in the century, and that laws are now firmly in place to prevent the misuse of influence exposed by Upton Sinclair and other muckrakers.

Maybe so. But the massive political influence of the giants of industry have not gone the way of the land and railroad barons of history. And such historical political influence still exists at the local level. In fact, it exists nearly everywhere…”

Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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