US & Canada

Patty Hearst: How kidnap saga became a media feeding frenzy

Patty Hearst in front of the Symbionese Liberation Front logo Image copyright AP
Image caption This photograph of Patty Hearst in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army logo became an iconic image

Forty years ago the kidnap of a US newspaper heiress, and her reappearance as an urban guerrilla, made headlines around the world. For more than two years, America was gripped by a saga of high drama and farce.

Shortly after 21:00 on 4 February 1974, a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley was kidnapped from her flat.

The victim was Patty Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, on whom the film Citizen Kane was based, and an heiress to part of his fortune.

Her captors were an obscure group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), dedicated to the overthrow of the "Nixon-represented corporate dictatorship".

Their rhetoric was overblown and frequently absurd. They called the Hearsts a "superfascist ruling class family" and dreamed of "unleashing the most devastating revolutionary violence ever imagined".

The SLA used a communal toothbrush, practised free love, had a jazz-funk "national anthem", and proclaimed: "Death to the Fascist Insect that Preys upon the Life of the People!"

Within days of the kidnapping, hundreds of journalists had congregated outside the Hearst household, in a self-styled Press City.

From there, with relay trucks and camper vans, the media reported every development, layering it with hours and pages of commentary.

The veteran AP reporter, Linda Deutsch, told me: "Several of the news media groups, including mine, even had phones installed on the trees outside Patty's parents' home."

A placard was placed outside the house with the request "Please don't feed reporters".

Food riots

All communications between the family and the SLA were conducted via the media, with radio stations receiving taped communiques to be published - on pain of Patty's death - "in all newspapers and all other forms of media".

The SLA demanded the Hearsts provide a "goodwill gesture" by funding a massive food programme for millions of impoverished Californians.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hearst, nowadays known as Patricia, with her daughter Lydia in Los Angeles this month

But the early handouts were a disaster - goods were thrown from moving trucks, there was rioting and looting, and journalists - eagerly filming the havoc - were attacked.

The media engaged in a public debate about the tactics it helped promote - did the food programme highlight the nature of poverty in America, or was it "aiding and abetting lawlessness", as claimed by the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan?

Then, on 3 April, Patty made a remarkable announcement - she was, of her own volition, now a member of the SLA, taking the name Tania in honour of the martyred lover of Che Guevara.

Patty denounced her parents and described her fiance as "a sexist, ageist pig".

Accompanying the tape was an iconic poster, of Tania in full combat dress, standing with an automatic weapon in front of a flag of the SLA's insignia, a seven-headed cobra.

It was as Tania that Patty made her first appearance in public, when she was caught on camera robbing a bank owned by the father of her best friend.

The public was shocked and bewildered, and the press coverage intensified.

The SLA fled San Francisco for Los Angeles, where six of the group died in a blaze after a fierce shootout with the LAPD.

Incredibly, the whole gunfight was broadcast live on national television, using a new experimental technology called the mini-cam, which allowed journalists to report instantly while on the move.

Neither viewers nor police were aware that Tania was not at the scene, but watching the broadcast from a motel room near Disneyland.

Three weeks later, Tania issued her final communique, in which she derided "the fascist pig media" and offered a lyrical eulogy for her fallen comrades. She referred to one, Patricia Soltysik also known as Zoya, as "perfect love and perfect hate, reflected in stone cold eyes".

Tania and her remaining comrades spent the next year zigzagging the country, evading the FBI and intrepid journalists.

On 18 September 1975, Patty Hearst was arrested in San Francisco, and put on trial for the Hibernia Bank robbery - the only member of the SLA to be tried for the crime.

'Trial of the century'

The press called it the "trial of the century", and the prosecution offered the media memorable sound bites, describing Patty as "a rebel in search of a cause".

Patty Hearst was found guilty of armed robbery but served only 22 months, after her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. She was granted a full pardon by President Bill Clinton in 2001.

So great was the appetite for news of Patty Hearst that the editor of one San Francisco newspaper fabricated an interview with the SLA in order to increase circulation.

Both the Hearst family and the SLA felt the media's coverage lacked editorial judgment, but its influence was too great to ignore.

Between 1974 and 1976, Patty appeared on the cover of the Newsweek magazine on seven occasions.

John Lester, who began covering the story as a reporter before becoming the Hearst family spokesman, told me the press were "lap dogs to the SLA", unthinkingly amplifying each of their statements.

Patty's mother, who had married into America's most famous media empire, called the press "vultures".

The SLA exploited the culture of sensationalist journalism pioneered by Patty's grandfather, at a time when the media was creating an instant news spectacle. At the dawn of rolling news, Patty's captors lived and literally died in the media spotlight.

Listen to Captive Media: The Story of Patty Hearst, on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 22 March at 20:00 GMT or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer.

Related Topics