Hearst inherited the San Francisco Examiner from his father in the 1880s. In 1896, while Hearst was trying to develop a readership on the east coast, he sent his cracker-jack reporter, Ambrose Bierce to investigate and verbally flay in the press railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington.
Huntington — by then in his late 70s, had the misfortune of being one of the few men who built the transcontinental line and was still alive to testify about it to a newly formed Pacific Railway Commission. By the 1890s, the U.S. government was pushing for repayment of millions in bonds owed to them from the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad companies.Huntington was flagrantly avoiding paying the money back, using intimidation and bribery to buy off members of congress so that he could ‘delay’ the repayment for the bonds another 75 years.Along comes Bierce, who startled the readership with his acerbic and prolific abuse of Huntington in the press. Calling Huntington a ‘inflated old pigskin’, and ‘promoted peasant’, he never let up, even when Huntington, in a historic scene Bierce relayed to the press, offered to bribe him to keep his mouth shut. Bierce famously told Huntington: “My price is seventy-five million dollars …. you may hand it to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.”
If any of this sounds familiar its because things haven’t changed too much since 1895. The more scandalous the headline and prominent the figure involved the more likely a reader will click on the headline in today’s digital world. It’s about money, not integrity. It takes an educated populous to know the difference when discerning the sources and intention of the journalist.