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American Tycoons

Tycoon. The word comes from Japan, where it means the equivalent of shogun. But long ago America confiscated the title. It was in the U.S. that tycoons became paragons of power and influence. American tycoons swung deals, not swords, and changed the
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

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Hearst's alleged reply was in keeping with the tone of "yellow journalism," a style he helped create: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." The son of a millionaire gold miner turned senator, Hearst wasn't your average silver-spooned brat content to take over daddy's business. At 23, Hearst begged his father to let him run the San Francisco Examiner, which the elder Hearst had won as a gambling debt. Spending lavishly for writers, the son built circulation with sensational reportage on scandal and corruption. The newspaper became the cornerstone of an influential media juggernaut.

During the Spanish-American War, Hearst blurred the line between reporting the news and creating it. A Hearst reporter aided the escape of a Cuban political prisoner, and his New York Journal implied that the Maine, an American warship, had been sunk by Spain. A skilled editor, Hearst put his stamp on the empire. In memos, he dispensed helpful hints that became editorial guidelines. Among his dictums: "Don't print a lot of dull stuff that people are supposed to like and don't." Hearst's free spending built and ultimately endangered his empire, which at its height included more than 20 newspapers, nine magazines, telegraphic news facilities, radio stations and motion picture production syndicates. But projects such as San Simeon, his opulent modern-day castle, drained cash.

The Depression hit Hearst's empire hard, and he was forced to borrow money and sell holdings. Like his father, Hearst pursued political ambitions, serving as a U.S. representative from New York and losing gubernatorial and mayoralty races. His wife bore him five sons, before their relationship fell apart. Never bothering to divorce, Hearst lived his final 30 years with film actress Marion Davies. This and other peccadilloes were exposed in the 1941 Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, loosely based on the publisher's life. When he couldn't quash the film's release, Hearst instructed his media empire not to acknowledge it. The film was roundly hailed, but it is also credited with ruining Welles's promising career by tweaking the vindictive Hearst. Hearst passed his still-vital empire onto his sons. His granddaughter Patty became sensationalized in her own right when kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.--Jason Sheftell

DAVID SARNOFF (1891-1971) NETWORK NABOB

On April 15, 1912, when the Titanic plunged to the depths of the north Atlantic, David Sarnoff was a young telegraph operator manning the wireless machine atop the Wanamaker Department Store in Manhattan. Sarnoff glued himself to the wireless for a reported 72 hours, relaying news of the tragedy to newspapers and the families of the survivors.

"The Titanic disaster brought radio to the front, and also me," he would later say. Sarnoff would use his genius for self-promotion and sense of emerging technology to become the electronic media visionary who popularized radio and television. He created a multinational communication's powerhouse by turning the wireless radio into a mass device of entertainment and news.

He fathered the radio network NBC, which for a time had two programming stations (the Federal Communications Commission would force RCA to spin off one as ABC), and was instrumental in ushering in the age of television. A Russian immigrant, Sarnoff started working in his early teens hawking newspapers, became an office boy and then worked as a telegraph operator for Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America.

Although fascinated by wireless technology, he focused his efforts on commercializing radio. In 1915, Sarnoff advocated "bringing music into the house by wireless." Scoffed at by the Marconi executive team, Sarnoff repositioned his idea and moved on. A few years later at RCA, he would pen a memo to senior executives, saying: "We must have a suitable apparatus for sale before we can sell [the radio]."

Seeking that apparatus himself, Sarnoff pushed through the first radio sports broadcast in 1921. Radio owners listened as heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey dropped challenger Georges Carpentier. Radio sales skyrocketed as America scanned the radio dial for Glenn Miller and the news. As head of RCA, Sarnoff was the first to string together radio sounds through telephone lines.

In 1926, the National Broadcasting Company's radio network was born. People in Iowa could now listen to a news broadcast from New York. Sarnoff turned the company's resources towards an invention known as the iconoscope, an early television. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, he delivered another first: a television broadcast. He also felt a duty to deliver programming of high culture to the masses, creating an NBC orchestra and helping to develop high-fidelity FM. The tycoon also had a touch of the imperious. After offering Franklin Roosevelt "all the facilities and personnel" of RCA for the Second World War effort, Sarnoff was named a brigadier general. He liked the title, and was so addressed by colleagues and co-workers thereafter.--JS


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