OF THE MIND
TECH INSTRUMENT CENTER
TO BLACK MOUNTAIN
MAY UNLOCK MAD COW DISEASE
SPEECH WASN'T FREE
SPEECH WASN'T FREE
UM journalism professors Clem Work and Dennis Swibold spent their summer vacations in the early 1900s. For Swibold, that meant logging hours in his basement among years' worth of news-paper clippings and 3x5 cards to finish his first book, about the Anaconda company's control over a handful of Montana's newspapers (collectively dubbed "the copper press") from 1889 to 1959.
For Work, that meant a "spastic and random" writing routine to finish his first book, "Darkest Before Dawn" (to be published by the University of New Mexico Press in September 2005), which tells the stories of the 64 Montanans tried under the state's 1918 sedition law for speaking their minds during wartime.
"There's a historical parallel," Work says of his book and Swibold's. "They really come together in the World War I period. Dennis' focus is on Anaconda's control of the papers; my focus is the fear and hysteria that gripped the state at the time, much of which was promoted or touched off by the newspapers."
Work's first chapter was inspired by an item he read in a 1918 issue of the Anaconda Standard — one of the newspapers Swibold researched extensively for his book.
Work's opening scene is of a one-term Montana legislator mounting his horse in a remote, northeast corner of the state and riding 80 miles in a snowstorm to catch the train to Helena to attend the Feb. 23, 1918, special legislative session being held to pass the sedition bill demanded by the governor. That law, Work says, was "essentially criminalization with severe penalties of any wartime criticism of the government, so that just about anything said that was critical or insulting to the government would be punished with a penalty of up to 20 years."
Three months later, Congress adopted the law "almost word for word," Work says, and applied it nationally to convict about 2,000 people. In Montana, 41 of the 64 tried went to prison.
"These were dark, cruel events in Montana," Work says, "that eventually triggered a national backlash against excesses of fear that ultimately led to more breathing room for political dissent, and led to what today we consider our God-given right to freedom of speech."
A large part — and one of the hardest parts — of Work's project has been trying to piece together the lives of those convicted under the sedition law. "The problem is none of them was famous, none of them was rich," he says. "They didn't leave very many traces. So that's where I put on my genealogy hat."
That hat led to some surprising discoveries. For example, when Work, out of sheer frustration, did a Google search on prisoner Martin Wehinger, he "unbelievably" got a link that led to a Texas artist whose Web site showed an oil portrait of a man by that name. That artist told Work she had based the portrait on a photograph from a book her in-laws had given her as a wedding gift — a book by the famous photographer L.A. Huffman, who had worked in Miles City, in the county where Wehinger was convicted. Work ran to the library, found the book, and, sure enough, recognized the photo of Wehinger.
"The poignancy of this was the picture showed this incredibly virile young man with hands like baseball mitts," he says, "who had come to this country with all the promise that immigrants had." But when the war began, says Work, Wehinger "opened his mouth at the wrong time. He basically said, 'the Germans are going to whoop your ass,' to the wrong people," and was sentenced to 3-6 years in prison.
"The bottom line," Work says: "A guy who came to this country with all this hope, and who almost embodied the myth of the American pioneer, died a toothless felon because he spoke his mind. And that, to me, is the essence of [the book], and so the whole story is to trace the development of this fear and reaction and repression."
But it wasn't just convicts who were repressed in 1918. The journalists writing for what Swibold terms the "copper dailies" were repressed themselves. (These papers, owned by the Anaconda company, were the Butte Daily Post, the Montana Standard, two editions of the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, the Missoula Sentinel, the Livingston Enterprise, the Helena Independent Record, and the Anaconda Standard.) In his book, Swibold recreates a time in Montana's newspaper history when journalists "just pretty much learned the [unspoken] rules" about what to write and what not to write.
During the War of the Copper Kings at the turn of the century, "you have all these tycoons in Montana duking it out for political and economic control," Swibold says. One such notable tycoon was mining engineer Marcus Daly, who founded the Anaconda company in the 1880s and then, in 1889, "decided like all other tycoons in the state that he needed a newspaper to advance his political and economic agenda."
Thus, the Anaconda Standard was born, a newspaper that "had everything any metropolitan daily would have in Manhattan," Swibold says. "You picked up an Anaconda Standard in 1889, you could have been anywhere in America, and you couldn't have found a better newspaper. You wouldn't have found the depth of its national and international reporting."
you have found controversial stories about the Anaconda company
or any of its interests. And therein lies the thesis
for Swibold's project: "Corporate
ownership has lots of resources," he says, "but
it also breeds a kind of ambivalence at the papers." The
10-year anniversary of the Anaconda Standard in 1899
(which also was the 10-year anniversary of Montana's
statehood) was celebrated in high style by the Anaconda
company, which wined and dined journalists and also
provided a colorful opening narrative for Swibold's
book. But forging such controlling relationships was "bad
for journalism," says Swibold. "It was bad
for the company. It didn't work for anybody."
Swibold divides Anaconda's 60-year grip over the copper dailies into two distinct periods. "For the first 30 years, the papers were aggressively championing the company and attacking its enemies," he says. "But in the last 30 years, not only did they produce really bad journalism, but they had no credibility, so they weren't a good PR vehicle for the company." Because the company's first interest was mining, he says, they "really didn't understand or care about journalism."
So in 1959, when Gallatin Valley native Don Anderson, at the time the publisher of a Lee Enterprises newspaper called the Wisconsin State Journal, was asked by his boss to look into a rumor that Anaconda's newspapers were for sale, he contacted Anaconda executives. Anderson became instrumental in negotiating the deal that led Lee Enterprises — then a small, Midwest chain — to acquire Anaconda's papers.
Though Lee wasn't the highest bidder for the papers, it won out, Swibold says, "because Anaconda felt comfortable with Anderson. He understood Montana, and the company felt that not only would the papers be in good hands, but the company would probably get pretty favorable treatment from Lee."
In fact, Lee exercised "different goals and ethics than the Anaconda company," Swibold says. For instance, the day after Lee bought the papers, the Butte miners went on strike, and the papers went ahead and covered it — something that likely wouldn't have happened under Anaconda's ownership. "People were shocked," says Swibold, to see both the union's and Anaconda's sides of the story printed.
Swibold says he chose to write his book through the first few years after the ownership transfer because he felt it was important to show these differences as Lee transformed Montana's journalism from what Swibold says Don Anderson called a "futile press" to a free and independent one. (Anderson recently had UM's soon-to-be-built journalism building named after him.)
"My students didn't know anything about [this period], which struck me as strange" Swibold says, explaining why he decided to tackle this project. You can't really think about Montana journalism, he says, "without talking about this 10,000-pound elephant in the middle of the room, and that's Anaconda's journalism."
Swibold currently is finishing the second draft of his book and will begin submitting it to publishers soon. "I wanted to get everything in and feel fairly comfortable with [the manuscript] first," he says. "But I'm eager to get it in someone else's hands now."