Annie Oakley and William Randolph Hearst


I mentioned in one of my comments about doing a story about Annie Oakley and William Randolph Hearst, and so, without further ado:

In the early 20th C., William Randolph Hearst, the archetype for Citizen Kane (though almost nothing in the story corresponded exactly to his actual life), was a sensationalist newspaper publisher with outlets all across the nation. The AP picked up a story that a woman named Annie Oakley, a cocaine-addicted prostitute, was arrested in Chicago for “lush-rolling” a black man (i.e., picking up a drunk, bringing him to a fleabag hotel and robbing him instead of having sex). The story was picked up and it ran across the country, not leastwise because it had drugs and race as a component. The AP covered itself in the article, saying to the effect of, “It’s not certain as of early reports if this ‘Annie Oakley’ is THE Annie Oakley, but if it is, it is a tragic fall from grace…” Now, this sort of story was right in WRH’s wheelhouse, and of course, HE ran it (supposedly without the “disclaimer,” and with a picture of the celebrity Annie).

Why this story would have ANY believability was that the celebrity Annie Oakley, the championship shooter and Wild West show performer, had more or less retired from touring due to medical conditions (which, it must be added, were not drug-related, and involved back surgery, among other things). It would not have seemed TOO far-fetched to think that she perhaps had gone broke, and was also drug-addicted, as a result of the situation.

Now, the day after the story ran, celebrity Annie supposedly strides into the offices of the Baltimore Sun, a paper which had run the story, and through her lawyer accompanying her, demands a “retraction.” actually a clarification, that “Mrs. Phoebe Anne Butler of Nutley NJ, professionally known as ‘Annie Oakley,’ on the night in question appeared at the [So-and-so] Country Club in suburban Baltimore at a meet-and-greet, which event was to sign up members of that club for private lessons that Miss Oakley is to give the members there– Miss Oakley, while she no longer tours nationwide, nevertheless supports herself through the occasional personal appearance of this sort throughout the Northeast, and through such private teaching. The [fill-in name of newspaper] regrets any inference that could be drawn from the original story that Mrs. Butler was the woman arrested in Chicago.” This clarification was picked up by the AP too, and widely circulated.

William Randolph Hearst, supposedly miffed that celebrity Annie went to his competitor first, decided that he would NOT retract the story, and in fact looked to dig up any more dirt he could find on her. He invited her to sue him for libel, which she promptly did. The trouble was that, due to the libel laws of the time and the corporate set-up of the Hearst chain, she had to sue in every city where there was a Hearst paper, fifty-five in all. While she won her cases, it ended up costing her more in lawyer fees than she received in judgments, mostly because she could not show damages in terms of lost money for canceled engagements (she continued to make good money with appearances and private teaching). But she was willing to sustain the financial loss THAT way, since it was personal vindication at stake for her, and also a shot across the bow of anyone else who might want to print scurrilous stores about her– and of course, knowing she would be in a city for a lawsuit allowed her to arrange a personal appearance and exhibition there, which would offset the cost of the suit (and contributed to the holding-down of the damages, alas).

Hearst, for HIS part, wanted to dig in his heels and defend these losing cases nevertheless, because it made for good copy and higher circulation, hence higher advertising rates. Like his fictional counterpart Kane might have put it, “At this rate, I go broke in about 19-never.” To HIM, it was worth not settling with Annie.

I don’t know exactly how this corresponds apples-to-apples with subjects like, e.g., “fake news,” “doubling down on lies,” obstinacy anyone else can see is foolhardy, persistence in pursuit of truth and damn the cost, etc. etc., but I can figure that, whenever you see examples today of falsehoods not only NOT being retracted but even amplified, consider that there MAY be (A) a financial motive (“D-U-H!”), or (B), some sort of “long game” played where the immediate loss can be sustainable. It matters not whether in fact the long game being played will ultimately be successful, only that the player is willing to buck the odds and chance it.

Here endeth my rant.

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