Meta-Textuality and Media Effects in Citizen Kane

Sitting at the breakfast table in a famous scene, Charles Foster Kane’s first wife, Emily, asks her husband “Really, Charles, what will people think?” only to be cut off mid-sentence by Kane’s authoritative command. “What I want them to think,” Kane responds abruptly and absolutely. Directed by and starring the young Orson Welles, this memorable scene describes the film’s moral debate within the narrative through one simple statement of will. The real-life moral debate about Kane’s inspiration, William Randolph Hearst, and the ideas of muckraking, social activism, and captains of industry are all presented together in this scene. Citizen Kane, as described by film critic Roger Ebert, is “one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece” (Ebert 1). As a masterpiece, the film has become well known as a landmark in the Mass Media field, containing a main character who is portrayed as a “double standard of the progressive reform movement: the idealism of Kane’s attempts at social and political reform is undermined by his own moral hypocrisy” (Belton 8). The film takes the positive image of an industry captain, post depression, and drags it through the mud, while at the same time showing the hypocrisy within his social activism. Furthermore, it all reflects on a real life figure, adding a slew of verisimilitude to the formula.

Due to the film’s incredibly potent critical success, though not initially financial, it occupied many top 100, top 10, and simply “Greatest Film Ever Made” lists, proving itself more than worthy of an analysis based on the concepts of Mass Media Effects. In its depiction of the three elements previously listed, the film uses many stylistic elements that were seen as revolutionary at the time to convey such quantity information as concisely as possible about the subject of morality within capitalism that it covers. As the Jennings and Thompson article “History of the Scientific Study of Media Effects” states, “History is biased toward recording instances when mediated communications seem to provoke action” (Jennings and Thompson 35), and through its controversy Citizen Kane’s stylistic techniques were even greater noticed, and because of that notice of new techniques the film’s controversy was, interchangeably, more historical. In the use of these techniques the film displays its message delivering powers, existing as a prime example of the potential “hypodermic needle” and “bullet” theories of the time, as well as limited effect theories that would come later.

One moment within the film that demonstrates Kane’s inability as a Captain of Industry, as well as destroys his portrayal of Social Activism, is during the “News on the March” sequence at the beginning of the film. In a series of quickly edited shots, Welles crafts a sequence in “the Soviet montage style of Sergei Eisenstein,” and in doing so makes a scene of “shock cuts created by sudden graphic or associative contrasts” (Fabe 88). Many different conflicting shots work together to define a character wrapped in enigma, such as a sequence of political accusations. An old friend of his, Thatcher, gives a press conference on Kane’s communist ties, shot from a high angle. Ironically, that mirrors later claims in which Hearst was “insinuating that Welles was a communist” (Fabe 79). The next shot details a large anti-Kane rally in Union Square cobbled together out of stock footage, in which Kane is being labeled as “what he has always been and always will be: a fascist.,” with the lead protester being shot from a low angle. Finally, the two images are further conflicted with Kane’s own opinion, voiced non-verbally via an onscreen title card simply saying “‘I am, have been, and will be only one thing- an American’” with Kane’s own name signed at the bottom. This shot is from an on level angle with many men in top hats applauding Kane for his candid and heartfelt statements. These conflicting media messages, depicted literally from all angles, keeps any one political theory on Kane and by extension Hearst, from being completely accurate—including the mogul’s own opinion.

This sequence most noticeably also has a shot of Kane as he is being narrated for “helping to change the world,” while at the same is shown trying to apply cement to a stone wall. The cement, in a split-second cut, spills gratuitously from the spade he uses all over him, and he continues to bumble around in an almost pathetic fashion. In the next immediate cut, the wall is completely fixed and Kane is smiling, as if he had covered up his mistake and it never existed all along. As noted in Lary May’s “Apocalyptic Cinema” essay in Belton’s Movies and Mass Culture, a film will take its spectators and “relax much of their active rational minds and let the images penetrate deep into their subconscious” (Belton 36). This theory of D.W. Griffith’s, and as was the Mass Media Effect of Birth of a Nation and its correlation with KKK membership, was so assumedly potent that one could understand Hearst’s fears of what Citizen Kane could do to his newspaper’s audiences. This sort of ideological damage could be just as potent as the racist motifs prevalent through Birth of a Nation. If an image such as this could hit an audience within a split second and imply the idea of a successful white pioneer failing at something and covering up his mistakes it could end up being not only revealing, but dangerous to those it depicted. The film itself even goes so far as portraying Kane within a friendly arm’s reach of the real-world fascist figure Adolf Hitler, making incredibly grim implications about the source material.

It is through certain scenes in the film that bullet-theory images, “messages like dangerous bullets, or messages like strong drugs pushed through hypodermic needles” (Jennings and Thompson 36) in Citizen Kane could effect “fragmented individuals receiving similar messages from the mass media of communication” (Jennings and Thompson 36), and may be why Hearst was so much further afraid of another form of media, in this case the film, “muckraking” his own image. Furthermore, in 1937, as Jennings’ and Thompson’s study shows, the public fear of propaganda through mass media was at an all time high as “Many worried that an evil tyrant like Hitler could gain power in the United States by flooding mass communication media with propaganda messages” (Jennings and Thompson 41) . With all the negative correlations within mass media theory at the time, it is clear that the verisimilitude within Citizen Kane of an Industry Captain using his media outlet to push social agendas regardless of accuracy could reflect back upon Hearst and his own out-of-touch tendencies. If the Kane of the film could help to fuel a war with Spain, as is known within the opening montage of the film, then perhaps a figure like Hearst could and would do likewise. Thanks to Citizen Kane, the Horatio Algers could now be seen as potential warmongers through Bullet Theory-laden propaganda.

Even after this one short segment, the idea of covering up mistakes for reputation’s sake becomes a huge theme of the film that it begins to follow Hearst’s public image. Even before it’s release

Citizen Kane had already begun to take over and change the public image of Hearst; Hearst and Kane had become inseparable, as Welles and Kane were, but Welles possibly didn’t really know in detail—or, more likely, simply didn’t remember—how close the movie was to Hearst’s life (Kael 1).

It is because this film is well known for criticizing at most and portraying at least a man in charge of a mass media industry that it can be read as nothing less than “meta-textual,” and in that idea it goes past the concepts of simple inter-textuality. Far more than just talk about someone well known such as Hearst, Citizen Kane uses its techniques and, through those mass media effects, goes into an entirely new phase of didactic messaging that is not just about who a man was, but what he stood for, and how what he did in his life portrayed both who he was and what he stood for. It is a medium of information transmission about a medium of information transmission. If one knew the history of the film as one was going into it, the connection between the creator of the project and the person who inspired it would be obvious. Just as when Welles notoriously approached Hollywood with the attitude that he was gifted his “electric train” (Fabe 79),

Hearst represented a new type of power. He got his first newspaper in 1887, when he was twenty-four, by asking his father for it, and, in the next three decades, when, for the first time, great masses of people became literate, he added more and more papers, until, with his empire of thirty newspapers and fifteen magazines, he was the most powerful journalist and publisher in the world. (Kael 1)

Welles was a new player in Hollywood, and his “hot commodity” in Citizen Kane would gain much media attention before it even came out, further affecting its Mass Media Effect impacts. In using his “new type of power,” Welles was setting himself out to be the W. R. Hearst of the film industry. His own version of muckraking melodrama would commence through his first and only true “masterpiece.”

As is well known, at the time of its production, Hearst was against Citizen Kane. Knowing what Welles was working on, Hearst “got wind of the news that Welles was making an unauthorized biography of his life…” a counter attack was enacted and “…he tried to destroy the picture” (Fabe 79). Aside from the obvious issue of identity ownership, what would cause such a malicious desire to destroy a piece of popular cinema? The answer was in the films purported subconscious ambition to crush the Horatio Alger myths of Hollywood yesteryear, and do so through the familiar depiction of a fictional Hearst. As a media mogul, Hearst was the perfect example of a Horatio Alger myth, an inspirational media legend in which white and young heroes “were rewarded for their gumption by gaining a successful career in industry, a valuable fortune, and the camaraderie of other businessmen” (Benshoff and Griffin 164-165). Typically these stories would have happy endings, but as is known by now, Citizen Kane constantly deconstructed the American Dream angle of the Alger myths in an effort to expose a shallow form of morality that was “increasingly understood by many as caused by greedy businessmen and the manipulations of unscrupulous stock spectators” (Benshoff and Griffin 170). As the movie continues on, it becomes a scene-by-scene breakdown of the Alger myths towards the final lesson of absolute power corrupting power absolutely.

In one of Citizen Kane’s more amusing moments, the film translates an almost direct quote of Hearst’s embodiment as the living Alger myth, as Pauline Kael states “Some of the dialogue was legendary long before the movie was made”, with one specific example being “When Hearst was spending a fortune in his circulation war with Pulitzer, someone told his mother that Willie was losing money at the rate of a million dollars a year, and she equably replied, ‘Is he? Then he will only last about thirty years’” (Kael 1). This exact quote was played up to an almost comedic flair when Kane has an argument with his ex-ward Thatcher over the purchase and running of the New York Inquirer. The scene starts with Thatcher’s discovery that Kane has forgone his interest in “gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate,” and continues using Welles’ “lightning mix” technique to pass the time and show how firm Kane’s stance on disappointing Thatcher becomes over years, but demonstrated over a brief period of time. Welles’ technique involves “images separated from one another by vast gaps in time and space” and then using the dialog of separated shots melds the scenes together. Thatcher questions Kane on why he thinks that’s how a newspaper should be run—through muckraking accusations and yellow journalism topics of overabundant extravagance in the headlines. This scene is a prime example of how Kane’s stubbornness could also be an example of Hearst’s real-world ego, as the sequence ends with Kane arguing with Thatcher that, should he lose one million dollars a year over The Inquirer, he shall still be in business for another 60.

This scene is ironically capped off with a scene of Kane selling the newspaper back to Thatcher some thirty or forty years later, utilizing the infamous Deep Focus Photography technique to heighten the artistic presence of the scene—the idea that even moguls can fall from being massive giants of industry to small, overshadowed and dreamless peons. The optical illusion created by deep focus heightens the reality of this scene, and when Kane is at his largest, and most stubborn, he chastises Thatcher by exclaiming that all he wished to be was everything that Thatcher hated, disowning his own intertextual identity as an embodiment of Hearst, and telling the audience through bullet theory how much more they should despise a character like Hearst for his manufactured idolatry. Thanks to the long take and deep, theater-styled focus, the cinematography of Citizen Kane helps in “adding dramatic resonance to this crucial moment in the film” (Fabe 85). The deep focus scenes stick out in terms of divulgence of moral (or amoral) information through this increased resonance, allowing the prevalent theme of the scene, in this case a depiction of a failed social activist and captain of industry giving his life’s work back to the banks that made him, to effect its audience all the more potently. It is scenes such as these in Citizen Kane that prove Klapper’s thesis on the effects of mass communication, that “instances of direct effects were apparent from some of the research findings he reviewed and he warned of the dangers of underestimating the power of media communications on audiences” (Jennings and Thompson 55).

Orson Welles’ critically bestowed title of “masterpiece” in regards to Citizen Kane is well earned if judged purely by the media effects prevalent throughout the film, in which muckraking, captains of industry, and social activism are put in completely new lights for public dissemination. Through the verisimilitude of a real-world character such as Hearst, the film breaks down Horatio Alger myths of similar films that would have happier and less realistic endings. The correlation between Kane and images of failure indicate the potential failure such media and industry giants are capable of, not only for themselves but for the society that may have initially welcomed them to power, and gives a warning of propaganda and bullet theories as presented through mass media. The film also deserves its masterpiece recognition through the integration of groundbreaking techniques such as “lighting mixing” and Deep Focus Photography, and how they impacted the film to an even greater degree. Regardless of its contemporary setting of pre-war 1941 and earlier Citizen Kane is a timeless example of cinema in society in relation to the power of media effects.

Works Cited

Belton, John. Movies and Mass Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,


Benshoff, Harry M., and Griffin Sean. America on Film: Representing Race, Class,

Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Ebert, Roger. “Citizen Kane (1941)”. February 20th 2009


Fabe, Maryln. Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film

Technique. Berkeley: University of California Press: 2004.

Jennings, Bryant, and Thompson Susan. Fundamentals of Media Effects. Boston:

McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Rossen, Paul. “Raising Kane”

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Meta-Textuality and Media Effects in Citizen Kane by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.