A Bird that is Always in Season: Journalism and Violence in the Old West



An Armed Neutrality
An Armed Neutrality

In his post on the increasing intolerance towards dissenting opinion from both sides of the political divide in the USA, Nathaniel said that I wish someone could tell me it’s gonna get better–or at least that it’s been worse–because it’s kind of lonely and scary to feel that not only have the loonies taken over the asylum, but they broken down the walls, invaded city hall, and took over there, too.

Well, I’m happy to oblige. It has been worse. In the Old West- from St. Louis to San Francisco- free speech often came down to how well you could throw punches or wield a Bowie knife. As David Dary chronicled in his 1998 Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West, newspapers in the West were highly partisan, deeply personal, and frequently inflammatory.1. While they covered important issues such as the evils of slavery, the reporting often devolved into an editorial feud where each side smeared the character and reputation of the other. Tempers flared, and if the offensive material was not retracted, then it typically resulted in a duel, if not outright murder.

Susan B. Anthony’s lesser-known brother, Col. Dan Anthony, carried two large horse-pistols with him throughout his career as an editor in Kansas. He had good reason, as he was frequently attacked by his opponents for articles he published, and even survived an assassination attempt, as well as other attempts to prevent certain stories from being published.

With characteristically dry wit and black humor, Ambrose Bierce described this occupational hazard of journalists.

The restrictions of the game law do not apply to this class of game. The newspaper man is a bird that is always in season; sportsmen and pot-hunter alike may with assured impunity crack his bones with a bullet, or fill his skin with buckshot. . . Although the American public will not deny itself the pleasing pageant of some blameless citizen accomplishing serpentine contortions under the editorial pen, neither will it inhibit the flight of the blithe bullet through the editorial body.

The trends that Nathaniel outlined are certainly concerning, and ought to be reversed or halted, but things could always be worse. Some sort of comfort, I suppose.

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