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Angry mobs, deadly duels, presses set on fire: A history of attacks on the press

A political cartoonist parodies outbreaks of violence in Congress during the 1850s. (Library of Congress)
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To find the historical parallel to Thursday’s horrific attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom, you have to look really far back — to the days of horses and covered wagons, swords and duels and the country’s bitter fights over sovereignty and race.

In other words, 200 years.

During the country’s early days, as I wrote this year in a special Columbia Journalism Review issue on threats against the press, violent attacks on the media were so common that reports of such incidents did not even make the front page:

. . . journalists over the years have been attacked by angry mobs, kidnapped, beaten, even tarred and feathered. Their homes were egged, presses set on fire, horses stolen. Covering Congress was at times so hazardous that in addition to pencils and notebooks, some reporters carried daggers. The violence wasn’t just between journalists and those who didn’t like their reporting. Reporters and editors used to fight — even duel — among themselves.

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There was no Twitter for aggrieved subjects of news articles to vent against newspapers, many of which were more partisan than Breitbart News today. They would simply challenge reporters and editors to duels. And, it being a time of family and professional honor, the journalists would oblige. In 1852, a famous war general named James W. Denver challenged Edward Gilbert, the editor of a weekly newspaper in California, to a duel after the paper exposed corruption by him. It didn’t end well for the editor:

“Mr. Gilbert fell almost instantly,” the Daily Union reported, “having received the shot of Gen. Denver in the left side just above the hip bone.” Gilbert didn’t move. “Four or five minutes after the occurrence, and without a word or scarcely a groan, his spirit passed from the earth,” the Daily Union said. “Many a manly tear was shed.”

The Capital Gazette’s forebears — the paper was founded in 1727 — would have no doubt recognized the newspaper as a target, with authorities saying the alleged shooter had a vendetta against the paper. John Nerone, a University of Illinois journalism professor, painstakingly catalogued attacks on the press dating back to the late 1700s in his book “Violence Against the Press” and found hundreds of physical attacks, mob assaults and shootings.

Reporters once carried daggers to deal with unruly politicians.

As the stakes increased — Civil War, Reconstruction — so did the carnage. For example:

Anti-abolitionists were particularly dangerous. Nerone catalogued more than 100 mob attacks against papers that supported abolishing slavery, the most infamous of which was the attack on Elijah Lovejoy in 1837. The minister-turned-newspaper man was killed in a gun battle with anti-abolitionists. At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on a memorial to slain journalists, Lovejoy’s name is listed first. There were dozens of other less high-profile attacks. Newspaper buildings were set on fire. Editors were egged and attacked physically by ideological opponents, as well as in print by other papers.

This violence ultimately fizzled out, Nerone wrote, in the post-Civil War years, as stable governments formed and newspapers dropped their partisan ways in favor of objectivity, particularly as industrialization took hold. Why? To attract broad audiences for advertisers.

Now, with the rise of the Internet and the collapse of print advertising, a new generation of highly partisan news outlets has quickly shaken and divided the electorate. At political rallies, journalists are threatened. A year ago, a candidate for Congress in Montana body-slammed a reporter.

“In a sense, people say that the current media situation is reminiscent of the highly partisan journalism of the 19th century,” Nerone said in the Columbia Journalism Review article. “And what you see reappearing are some of the forms of violence associated with that 19th-century journalism.”

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