FOR 28 YEARS, from 1923 to 1951, tens of thousands of Baltimoreans glimpsed the world every afternoon and evening through the eyes -- some would say, the distorted vision -- of William Randolph Hearst.
Ensconced in his palaces on the other edge of the continent, lord of the mightiest and most influential publishing empire the nation has ever known, he demanded absolute obedience from his editors and expected them to produce newspapers that profitably promoted his brand of Americanism.
Baltimore just happened to be on his list when Hearst (1863-1951) went on one of his buying sprees, relying as usual on gullible bankers to lend him vast sums that led his financial advisers to despair. In 1921 and 1922, he bought newspapers in Detroit, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, Oakland, Syracuse and Rochester.
Then, in 1923, he scooped up the Baltimore American and the Baltimore News, flagging papers both, for $5 million. Overnight, they splashed the big, bold, black headlines, the photos and cartoons and comics, the advocacy journalism, the human interest stories that had been Heart's formula for success everywhere.
His newspapers continued to shine until radio and especially television fulfilled the public craving for entertainment.
The Baltimore Sunpapers, staid bastions of respectability, objectivity and studious news coverage, stubbornly remained a sort of New York Times on the Chesapeake.
And, like the big gray paper on the Hudson, they would eventually (1986) bury their Hearst competition. But within a decade of his entry here, Hearst's Baltimore News/Post/American (the name kept changing) surpassed The Sun and the Evening Sun in circulation -- a position it held until 1972.
The co-inventor of "Yellow Journalism" was showing his mettle. Baltimore was a blue-collar-heavy manufacturing town in those days, and Hearst knew what his readers wanted: plenty of sensation, crime news, sports, populist crusades, pictures, contests and features.
A raucous, talented city room supplied the local news that gave the paper its authenticity as a made-in-Baltimore product. But there was another side to the Baltimore News/Post/American that is clearly on view in a cracking-good new biography of "The Chief," by historian David Nasaw.
After implanting his formula for success in his various newspapers, Hearst let them deal with local issues largely in their own way while he saw to it that they followed his own personal dictates on national and international affairs.
He did so by writing major editorials published in every one of his newspapers, by editing pieces written by staffers, by running articles that reflected his views on his International News Service (INS), by selecting subjects for his movie newsreels and slick magazines, and by keeping tabs on everything that mattered in an empire that at one point accounted for 20 percent of total U.S. newspaper circulation. He was, in short, a workaholic genius.
"The editorials I write are not written as individual policies," he once lectured his New York editor. "They are written to outline policies for the paper to be pursued at every opportunity thereafter until rescinded."
So what were some of the "policies" he dished out to his Baltimore readers for almost three decades? As a lifelong isolationist who had opposed U.S. entry into World War I and considered the Versailles Treaty dangerously punitive toward Germany, he hired Adolf Hitler to write commentary along the same lines in the early Thirties.
Though he detested racial and religious prejudice and was an early advocate of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, he thought he could influence Hitler to stop persecuting the Jews. Hence, his campaign to say out of World War II continued even after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Hearst, after all, was a control freak.
If editors could be made to salute, why not presidents and dictators? Increasingly conservative, he supported Calvin Coolidge, opposed Herbert Hoover for his internationalist tendencies and turned against Franklin D. Roosevelt after playing a major role in his nomination.
Indeed, Hearst's steady move to the political right after starting out as a progressive is cited by Professor Nasaw as one reason for the decline of Hearst newspapers. Opposing unions and New Deal regulation of business, he alienated his own constituency, probably including many in Baltimore.
Even before the Cold War began, he became a rabid anti-Communist, supporting Joe McCarthy and going on Red-baiting crusades to root out purported subversives on college campuses. He was all for women's rights, protecting dogs, eliminating Prohibition and censoring salacious literature (while living openly with actress Marion Davies).
While proper Baltimoreans found it easy to look down on William Randolph Hearst and all his extravagances, one local journalist of some renown was a far-from grudging admirer.
In a 1928 magazine article, H. L. Mencken lauded the "the old-time Hearst" of radical, Yellow Journalism days. "The American daily press, with Hearst leading it in a devil's dance, was loud, vulgar, inordinate and preposterous," said Baltimore's leading provocateur. "But it was not slimy and dull. Today it is both."
Joseph R.L. Sterne, a former editorial page editor of The Sun, is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.