It is one of the most famous and enigmatic words uttered in film: as he dies, Charles Kane, wealthy newspaper baron, whispers his last word, "Rosebud." The scene from the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane, references the name painted on a small sled that Kane had as a child, implying that this was the only happy time in his life.
Kane was loosely based on real-life newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, whose own "Xanadu" is the famous Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California.
In real life Hearst, urged on by his top gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, tried to stop Citizen Kane from reaching the screen. His efforts to condemn the film to oblivion nearly succeeded. Today, it commands mythic status.
If, as British philosopher Mary Midgley argues, myths are not so much narratives, as they are systems of symbols to interpret the world, then the myth of Charles Kane provides a powerful resonance for the crisis that envelopes Rupert Murdoch, our century's most visible media baron.
But these parallels are not so aligned to personal character. Charles Kane, as played by Orson Welles, is articulate in ways that Murdoch, by all reports, is not. Yet both shared a youthful idealism — a desire to equal the playing field for everyone in the world. But this idealism rots into scheming manipulation and a zealous quest for power. Both use scandal, scare-mongering and yellow journalism with surgeon-like skill, determination and a ruthlessness to build their press empires. These men were both kings — and kingmakers.
Kane, Hearst and Murdoch also share a political activism which pretends to help the media-consuming masses while, in reality, mostly helped their own privileged class. Most striking is the collusion of money and power, with the role of the press retooled as a private instrument of propaganda. The overturning of antitrust rules, which allowed Murdoch to own multiple media outlets in the same market, parallels Hearst’s national newspaper empire, which dominated the American news landscape.
A famous story about William Randolph Hearst, which Welles integrated into Citizen Kane, was Hearst helping push America into the Spanish-American War following the 1895 Cuban revolution. False and sensationalistic reports from Cuba accomplished this feat. One soon-to-be famous man-of-adventure would use the so called “Fog of War” from this conflict to propel himself into the White House — Teddy Roosevelt. But these “war games” are not so distant from the Murdoch-owned media’s relentless fear-mongering about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction prior to America’s adventure in Iraq.
Hearst told artist Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba, to send dispatches about the war. Remington sent Hearst a telegram saying there was no war in Cuba. Hearst famously told Remington to just provide him the pictures, and he would furnish the war.
A Hearst newspaper editorial advocated political assassination just a few months before President William McKinley was killed.
Both the Hearst and Murdoch newspaper empires also relied on an endless stream of celebrity gossip. Louella Parsons was Hearst's Hollywood queen. In her heyday, she had 40 million readers. According to Mamie van Doren, the key to Parsons’ longevity was her opportune presence on Hearst's yacht, the Oneidam, when director Thomas Ince paid too much attention to Hearst's longtime girlfriend, actress Marion Davies. According to Van Doren, Hearst shot Ince in the head. The body was then taken off the boat and quickly cremated. Everyone present on the boat was paid off, van Doren claimed. Parsons's payoff was a permanent column in the Hearst papers: "Did I mention," she writes, that Parsons was "a power-mad, nasty, vengeful, destructive bitch?"
Such events — if true — could never happen again. Yet consider the present melodrama - and we still don't know all of the circumstances — of Sean Hoare, the first journalist to report the phone hacking scandal — being found dead yesterday. Then there’s Rebekah Brooks, whom Murdoch regards as his soul mate or daughter figure at the very least. Her husband denied that the bag the police found in a parking lot trash bin with her cell phone, paperwork and computer belonged to her.
This greatest tabloid story remains to be written — our age lacks an Orson Welles to bring to cinematic life.