Hollywood and the Power of Myth: Zuckerberg, Jobs and Hearst

In this opinion piece, Kendall Whitehouse, director of new media at Wharton, looks back at movie history to offer his perspective on The Social Network, the new biopic about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

When asked about The Social Network in advance of the film’s release, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “People get remembered for what they build. People don’t care about what someone says about you in a movie.” While Zuckerberg — as well as others who have seen their lives portrayed on the big screen — may wish this were true, the history of the Hollywood biopic often tells a different story.

Rightly or wrongly, Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane has largely shaped our popular perception of William Randolph Hearst. And Hearst — for all his influence over the mass media of his day — was helpless to combat Welles’ interpretation of his life. In contrast, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs was depicted in an unflattering light in the television movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley, he moved quickly to deflate the depiction. In light of the wide release of The Social Network this past weekend, Zuckerberg may want to look back at how these other industry titans addressed their portrayals in the media. 

The tag line for The Social Network is, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” And, indeed, in the film, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, Zuckerberg comes off as obsessed, petulant, disloyal and immature.

The movie covers the period from Facebook’s launch in 2004 while Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard to when the site reached one million users a short time later. (It’s daunting to realize that Facebook — with reportedly more than 500 million active users — is still less than seven years old.) The film intercuts the meteoric rise of Facebook with the testimony in civil cases later brought against Zuckerberg by a number of his former friends and colleagues.

The film is permeated with the snappy dialog for which Sorkin is famous, and it is given additional punch by Jesse Eisenberg’s embodiment of the quirky mannerisms and clipped speech of Facebook’s founder and CEO. The cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, who previously worked with Fincher on Fight Club, adds a dark, film noir tint to the film. The score by Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) and Atticus Ross contributes to the film’s portentous tone.

Old Media vs. New

Writer Sorkin maintains that the film merely offers differing views of Zuckerberg, creating a portrait that leaves it up to the reader to determine what’s reality and what isn’t. “The movie doesn’t take a position on who’s telling the truth, on who’s right and wrong, on who’s good and bad,” Sorkin declared on “CBS Early Morning.”

Welles made the same claim about Citizen Kane. The year the film was released, he wrote that Citizen Kane shows “five different stories, each biased, so that the truth about Kane, like the truth about any man, can only be calculated by the sum of everything that had been said about him…. It is for the audience to judge.”

Yet despite Welles’s claim, one has to look hard to discover Charles Foster Kane’s more charming attributes. It’s equally difficult to warm up to Sorkin and Fincher’s rendition of Zuckerberg. Citizen Kane and The Social Network are both structured along the story arc of a classic tragedy about a man who gains the world, but loses his soul.

Of course, Welles’s Citizen Kane isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography of William Randolph Hearst. In addition to Hearst, the movie draws details from the lives of other industry titans such as Chicago utilities magnate Samuel Insull. Even before the film’s release, Welles penned an article titled “Citizen Kane Is Not about [gossip columnist] Louella Parsons’ Boss,” in which he attempted to convince critics that Citizen Kane was not a biography of Hearst.

Despite all this, much of the popular image of Hearst has been shaped by Welles’ fictionalized portrait. Welles and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz have Kane echo — nearly verbatim — Hearst’s words to Frederic Remington, whom Hearst sent to Cuba to document the Spanish American War. In response to Remington’s telegraph reporting, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Or did he? Writing in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, W. Joseph Campbell casts doubt on the veracity of this story, pointing to the desire of James Creelman, the story’s sole source, to characterize the arrogance of his boss at the New York Journal.

Hearst, of course, was himself no stranger to weaving myths from a gossamer thread of half truths. It was Hearst’s New York Journal, along with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, that gave rise to the “yellow journalism” that valued sensationalism over fact, circulation over truth. It’s a turn from which the media has never recovered, with a straight line leading from Hearst’s New York Journal to the New York Post, Fox News and TMZ.

The story of Citizen Kane is, in a sense, a struggle between two great giants of mythologizing, one representing old media — print journalism — and the other new media: Hollywood.

These days, of course, Hollywood is the old media. The Internet and social media sites like Facebook represent the new generation of mass communication. Yet Hollywood’s ability to shape an enduring narrative remains largely unchallenged by these upstarts. As Citizen Kane defined Hearst, the dramatized Hollywood portrayal of Zuckerberg may come to delineate the public perception of that young entrepreneur.

‘Take Back the Mojo’

Given this, is there anything Zuckerberg can do to offset his portrayal in the film?

Even before the film opened, scribes were offering Zuckerberg advice. Kara Swisher from the website All Things Digital outlined several ways Zuckerberg could mute the film’s impact and “take back the mojo.” One of her prescriptions is to present factual evidence to counter the claims in the film. She writes: “Unveil all the original documents — and I mean all — about those years, making them available on Facebook for all to see. The Winklevoss case and others are settled now, so there seems little need to hide what was clearly a rocky start. If Zuckerberg and Facebook truly believe in transparency, use the movie to get it all out there and be done with it.”

This, of course, assumes the facts are on Facebook’s side. The few statements made by representatives of Facebook on the matter imply that much of the story in the film is fictional and that Zuckerberg’s actual life is much more boring than the version depicted on screen. Screenwriter Sorkin counters that the “the movie is not fiction. The movie has been thoroughly sourced.”

Ultimately, however, it may not matter what the actual facts are.

At the end of John Ford’s great Western saga, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor discovers that the truth behind the story of the death of the title character differs from the legend that has grown up around it. When asked whether he intends to publish an accurate account of the event, the editor famously replies, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Rather than being an apologia for bad journalism, the film’s message is about the power of story to shape our view of the world. Facts matter, but unless those facts are woven into a coherent narrative, they seldom resonate enough to gain permanence. They lack what authors Chip and Dan Heath call “stickiness” in their book, Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Although legend doesn’t literally become fact, without legend, facts have little impact. Even if the facts support Facebook’s claim that the movie is more fiction than reality, it may do little to diminish the movie’s ability to shape the narrative of Zuckerberg’s life.

At the film’s dénouement, Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg realizes that, for all practical purposes, perception is reality. Attorney Marylin Delpy, played by Rashida Jones, causes Zuckerberg to understand that even if he is in the right regarding the intellectual property suits he is facing, in a court of law it’s what the jury believes that matters. Jones’ Delpy convinces him that any good attorney could easily portray him as perfidious (as the movie itself does to the real Zuckerberg). Besides, Delpy points out, the $65 million settlement in one of the cases is “the cost of a speeding ticket” for Zuckerberg.

In a similar vein, many have speculated that Zuckerberg’s donation of $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey, public school system — announced just as the film was opening in New York — was an attempt to deflect attention from the movie and gain control over his characterization in the media. It’s unclear what effect this charitable donation will ultimately have. The news cycle tends to move on quickly while movies often endure to create a legend that is perceived as fact.

Other than this major philanthropic gesture, Zuckerberg and company have been relatively silent about the film. In an interview with ABC Nightly News, Zuckerberg said he had no intention of seeing it.

This may prove to be a foolhardy tactic. After Hearst realized he couldn’t stop the release of Citizen Kane, he, too, tried simply ignoring it. David Nasaw’s The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst cites a Variety article from the period that states: “Hearst papers apparently now figure they can do Welles and the picture more harm by a campaign of silence.” The papers in Hearst’s media empire refused to print or even mention reviews of the film. Look how that turned out.

That’s the Ticket

Some of Swisher’s other suggestions for Zuckerberg may prove to be more salient, since they speak to controlling the narrative rather than disputing the facts or simply saying nothing. Among her suggestions are advising Zuckerberg to attend the film’s New York premiere and to throw a movie night at Facebook’s offices for the entire staff. Zuckerberg would do well to heed this advice.

When the 1999 television movie Pirates of Silicon Valley portrayed Steve Jobs — played by a young Noah Wyle — in an unflattering light, Jobs moved swiftly and deftly to diffuse the damage. The movie shows Jobs as a monomaniacal despot who abandons his friends, terrorizes employees and taunts job applicants by asking them if they are virgins.

The day after the movie’s initial airing, Jobs called Wyle and asked him to appear — impersonating Jobs himself — at the opening of his keynote presentation at the upcoming MacWorld conference in New York. At that event, following the introduction of Apple “iCEO” Steve Jobs, Wyle — dressed in Jobs’ iconic black turtle-neck and blue jeans — strode on stage and began the presentation in the character of Jobs, touting Apple’s “really, totally, wildly, insanely great new products.” Jobs interrupted the faux presentation saying, “That’s not me at all. You’re blowing it.” He then introduced Wyle, whom Jobs said he invited “so he can see how I really act — and because he’s a better me than me.”

Jobs turned the portrayal from tragedy to comedy and, in doing so, made it his own and stripped much of the mythic power of the movie’s depiction.

Orson Welles apparently met the real Hearst only once, at the Fairmont Hotel in advance of his film’s San Francisco opening, where Hearst may have had a similar opportunity to recraft the narrative Welles created. But the newspaper magnate let the moment pass. The account of their encounter comes from Welles himself — someone who certainly understood the power of myth making in shaping his own career history. Nonetheless, as John Evangelist Walsh points out in his book, Walking Shadows: Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, and Citizen Kane, there is contemporary evidence to support the case that Welles and Hearst were both at the Fairmont at that time.

As Welles tells the tale, he stepped into the hotel elevator to find that the only other passenger was none other than Hearst. Welles introduced himself, and with sly understatement, mentioned, “A movie of mine called Citizen Kane is opening tonight here in town.” Hearst, who had worked vigorously to suppress the release of the film, would certainly have known about the film’s local debut. Welles continued, “If you’d care to attend I’d be glad to have some tickets sent to your room.” According to Welles, Hearst icily ignored the overture and left the elevator without speaking.

In recounting this story later, Welles commented that Charles Foster Kane would have taken the tickets.

Perhaps Zuckerberg should do the same — take the tickets. Go to the movie. Have a dress-up-like-your-favorite-character-from-the-film day at work. Use the power of narrative to recast the story and make it your own.

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