For the 34th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Caryl Cooper about the history of violence against the media from the Progressive Era to the present.
Caryl Cooper is an an associate professor of advertising at the University of Alabama. Her research combines her 14-year career in the mass communication industry and her academic research interests: Advertising history and the history and impact of women in the mass communication.
This episode is sponsored by the University of Alabama’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations.
Teri Finneman: 00:09 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
00:23 This episode is sponsored by the University of Alabama’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations, a place where students are prepared to become highly competent, socially conscious and engaged leaders to reshape the future of global advertising and public relations.
00:41 In recent years, violence against journalists has made national headlines for the shocking brutality against everyday people simply doing their jobs to inform the public of the news. While this may seem like a new phenomenon, the fact is that violence against the media in the United States can be traced back to 1725. Scholar John Nerone discusses this history in his book Violence Against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History. During the era of the American Revolution, for example, the Patriots – or those pushing for the country’s independence – were actually more likely to commit violence against newspaper printers than those loyal to the British. Nerone writes that Patriots “were frankly intolerant of loyalism and printers in New York received cautionary messages warning of death and destruction, ruin and perdition” if they printed Loyalist matter.
01:36 One New York printer faced consequences when he agreed to print a pamphlet that criticized Thomas Paine’s Common Sense argument. A mob descended on the office and destroyed all of the pamphlets. When Maryland Journal publisher William Goddard printed a piece in 1779 that was critical of George Washington, a mob showed up with a cart, rope, tar and feathers, forcing him to run a retraction. Jumping ahead in time, printers who published anti-slavery material also faced violence and intimidation with public burnings of abolitionist literature common in the South, as Nerone describes in his book.
On today’s episode, we have Caryl Cooper from the University of Alabama to talk about violence against the press in the early 1900s as well as in more recent times.
Caryl, welcome to the show. As I was just discussing, violence against the press in this country can be traced back to the early 1700s. So why were you interested in looking at violence against the media in the Progressive Era in particular?
Caryl Cooper: 02:40 Well, it started with an idea that one of my colleagues had. She had this idea for a panel to be at AEJMC and she wanted to know if I wanted to be a part of it, and I did. There were two reasons why I wanted to be a part of it. One was because I wanted to work with Sharon Bramlett-Solomon because she was one of the first people I met at AEJMC when I was a grad student. The other thing was in the– in my studies, I had looked at the Progressive Era once or twice and never really had the time to dive into it. So with this opportunity to address violence in the media, which I was passionate about, I thought maybe this might be the era to– the time to take a look at it.
Teri Finneman: 03:25 So you mentioned you were passionate about it. What makes you so passionate about this topic?
Caryl Cooper: 03:30 I’m just fascinated with the Progressive Era and the things that they did. When I just look at women in particular, even if you look at their clothing, there’s such a difference that women went through from 1900 to 1920. It’s just fascinating to me that there would be that much social change just by gender. I also have read about the, as every historian has, about the muckrakers and as much as I’m, I guess I’m a – I don’t think I’m a liberal, but they did good things and they had legislation that came up within policies that were enforced. So it’s always been delivered to my students as a favorable, a positive experience for journalists. I hadn’t really considered how much pushback there was at that particular time. And this opportunity gave me an opportunity to look at that pushback and really think about what it meant.
Teri Finneman: 04:30 So set the scene for us with some more context as to what was all happening during the Progressive Era.
Caryl Cooper: 04:37 Well, the timeframe I was looking at for the presentation had to do with about 1900. And I was loose with it because there are no firm dates in the history ‘cause there’s things that happened before and things that happened after, but I started looking at 1900 to 1930. And then I, when I started reading more, I said, “Well, let me expand this to the 1890s to 1930” because there was so much going on, particularly with the labor movement. So one of the things– well, there were way more than one of the things, but one of the things that happened in 1886 was the Haymarket Riot. And a lot of historians may know about that, but the Haymarket riot was a labor protest that was near Chicago’s Haymarket Square and it turned into a riot when someone threw a bomb at the police.
05:33 So there was quite a bit of violence there. The Homestead Strike in 1892 was a strike involving Carnegie Steel and the Pinkerton guards that were called out to control the mobs and control the violence. So again, this had to do with changing ideologies, I believe, changing populations, we have more of an, we– excuse me– the United States has always had an immigrant population, but we have more immigrants moving in and becoming involved in industrialism. President McKinley was shot in 1901, and that was in part due to, not necessarily labor, but just things that were going on and who was pretty much anti-labor, I believe. And so there was a little bit of– a lot of pushback there. He was shot on September 6, but died on September 14. He didn’t die immediately of his wounds.
06:42 It was a slow, slow, long, painful death. There was the murder of Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905, and he was assassinated by a bomb that was placed near his gate. And as he came back from a walk, he opened his gate and it, and it blew up. The Preparedness Day Bombing of 1916 in San Francisco was another one. There were at this particular time – the nation I believe was fairly divided on whether we should get into World War I or not get into World War I. And the Preparedness bomb went off in San Francisco on July 22, 1916, and 10 people were killed and 40 were wounded. And then the Wall Street explosion in 1920. Wall Street explosion was a cart that was full of dynamite that was sitting outside of JP Morgan and right across the street from the Stock Exchange. And with that one, 39 people were killed and according to what I’ve been reading, no one has claimed putting the bomb there and it remains unsolved today. So those are just some of the things that were happening in that era, even before we get to firmly into 1910, 1920 to 1930.
Teri Finneman: 08:16 You know, it’s interesting, I think you mentioned this during your prior talk that we like to think of the 1960s as being such a tumultuous time and it was interesting to you to see that this time period, it was also kind of crazy, right?
Caryl Cooper: 08:31 Yes. Yes. It was. I relate this to my students. I teach history now and I’ve gone, if you think this time period is crazy, you have to step back into the 1900s. And we’re going to, when I get to this particular like lecture, I’m really eager to share it with them. But yeah, I grew up a little – I’m a child of the ‘60s ,watching the Civil Rights Movement unfold. I was a Vietnam war protestor in my own way. You can’t do too much when you’re in high school, but you know, my heart was in it. And it was a – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And I’m glad I came of political awareness then. I think it gives me an appreciation of everything else that happened before. But I didn’t know that there was this much going on in the early 1900s.
Teri Finneman: 09:20 Your research focuses on the bombing of the L.A. Times on October 1, 1910. Give us some context to the factors that led to this incident and why the L.A. Times in particular was targeted.
Caryl Cooper: 09:34 That’s an awesome question. I’ll tell you that like most good stories this one is long. It just didn’t start in 1910 when the L.A. Times was bombed. It starts back around 1886 to 1890 with a man by the name of Harrison Gray Otis. He became the editor of The Times. He had also in his youth been a member of the ITU, the International Typographical Union. Well, he becomes editor and owner and his perspective changed as far as ownership was concerned. It– his perspective also changed because of his goal to be a formal part of the L.A. infrastructure where he was one that was putting together and approving the industrial initiatives in manufacturing and bringing companies to Los Angeles to work. Also within the state, we have a labor movement that really took hold in San Francisco. San Francisco wasn’t, largely, wasn’t anti-union, but once the unions got hold, some of the companies were leaving and moved down to Los Angeles.
10:55 So he saw a real opportunity to capitalize on that and I think making the stronger force in the L.A. infrastructure and how things were done. But he used his newspaper to really blast the labor unions and the people that were in the union. He was known to call them striking butchers or murdering thugs. He called one, he called the leader of San Francisco building trades union an industrial excrescent. “He is a putrescent pustule that indicates a suppurative disease. He is a pest, and he radiates the germs of moral and industrial pestilence.” And as I said, this was said way before 1910, but I’d say by the time we get to 1910 when the L.A. Times is bombed, it was a really toxic environment between the labor unions, the workers, and the– and the newspaper, specifically the L.A. Times.
Teri Finneman: 12:05 So tell us exactly what happened on October 1, 1910.
Caryl Cooper: 12:10 Okay. Well, you know, I’ve read there’s a really good book about it that goes into a lot of detail, the Nerone book goes into it a more edited detail. I don’t know if the historical record can really show or demonstrate what happened. We do know that the building blew up. It blew up at about 1:07 a.m. It was actually two blasts. One was a blast that was not as strong. The other was a full out blast that fully engulfed in flames, the building– fully engulfed it in flames. The second blast, heavy machinery fell and blocked the exits. So some of the workers were trapped inside. And at the end of the day, or when they finally were able to get to people, 21 people who had died. This was people that had – they were all newspaper workers, mostly men, some female, but 21 people had died.
13:23 And to my knowledge, and I hope I’m not wrong, this is the largest amount of media workers, or I’ll say newspaper workers that were killed at one time. That said, what the authorities did or what they figured out when they went through the ruins was that the first bomb wasn’t that big, knocked a hole in the building, but where it was placed was over gas lines. And that’s what created the huge blast, this huge second blast. People, workers had complained about there being gas leaks in the building. The night before or shortly before this particular blast, a man complained of getting sick because of the smell of gas and they had to open the windows. So, so this was a problem. The labor union people, I’ll put it this way, union leaders were– unions were quickly blamed for it, particularly by Otis.
14:31 He was very against the unions and quickly blamed them for the blast because it was caused by dynamite. I’ll take a short break to just say in the, in this research, I was surprised at how much dynamite was around. And it makes sense. There was a ton of mining being done and a lot of the miners were experts in dynamite. So it was a – it was a very popular thing to do at that particular time. But in any case, they also found– authorities also found an undetonated bomb at or near Otis who’s home and at the home of someone else that he, that he worked with. So that’s pretty much the gist of it. What happens afterwards? Of course, they start looking for people to blame for it. It took them awhile, but in April, they arrested two men, two of three, and they were brothers.
Caryl Cooper: 15:44 They were John McNamara and James McNamara and one of the brothers, that being John, was secretary of the IBEW labor union and so they felt like the authorities felt like they had a fairly big person, significant person from a union so that they could make the connection between the union and that this was a union– a union-directed bombing. It took them a while to find them, the blast was in October 1910. They didn’t find these guys and arrest them until May 1911. There was a trial, of course. The trial was just about to move forward. The men were kept– the two brothers were kept separately so they couldn’t talk to each other, that was by design. But they decided to plead guilty with no confessions on December 1, 1911. And before this, Samuel Gompers from the AFL-CIO was very supportive of them.
Caryl Cooper: 17:08 The public was supportive of them. So Gompers and the public were very surprised by it.
Teri Finneman: Why were they supportive of them?
Caryl Cooper: They didn’t believe that the union was behind it, from what I read. They didn’t believe the union was behind it. That’s what the historians say. And they just felt like, I think the union leaders felt like being framed even though they were union workers. They didn’t think that the union itself had conspired for this bombing. So they were supportive of them in that sense. And the investigators had kept the men separate. They were held in Chicago for awhile. There was a lot of stuff going on. It wasn’t a clean trial like you would see today. It was messy. It was messy. But in any case, they pled guilty to the charge, they were imprisoned.
18:03 John McNamara received a life sentence. His brother James received fifteen years, and they spent most of their time in San Quentin. They also– the authorities also rounded up about 54 other additional union leaders. Some of them were found guilty, but primarily of transporting explosives across state lines. And that was pretty much the end of it. The way I found this was that I was just doing a ProQuest search and I found this bombing and I hadn’t known anything about it and it was commemorative and I was looking at commemorative events and it was commemorative of course for the L.A. Times and the L.A. community, but I could find no mention of it in any other newspapers until I found an article where they were talking about the murders of the five journalists in Virginia, I think it is. And that’s when this incident came up.
Teri Finneman: 19:15 That’s interesting, so why don’t we expand on that a little bit. I mean, obviously the death toll in this L.A. Times bombing makes it noteworthy, but why else do you think it’s really important to remember this moment in media history?
Caryl Cooper: 19:27 I think there’s a narrative within our country about the press and press freedoms and I don’t think there’s– I think that there’s not a really firm belief that media workers ever put themselves in peril. And that freedom of the press and freedom of expression is not at times a violent activity. And it is. I haven’t even mentioned the bombings of the labor unions, newspapers, the militia coming, ordinary people getting their friends together forming these groups and raiding their presses. I mean the press was a very big thing to attack back then because within our form of public expression we have what’s called, I would call “norming” as a way of saying these are the things that should be talked about. This is the way they should be talked about. And it is a discourse that is really going up against an authority that people don’t want to change. It becomes a way of silencing– a way of censorship. And I think that’s an important part in our history of freedom of expression and freedom of speech that we need to acknowledge. And it would certainly explain at least the bombs being sent to CNN and the other attacks that we have seen most recently on the media.
Teri Finneman: 21:08 Yeah. Why don’t you talk about some of those. You mentioned some of those in your presentation before, like the one against the Arizona Republic, and the television crew, and the Capital Gazette, you know, talk some more about these cases.
Caryl Cooper: 21:21 Yes. I found a New York Times article was about the Capital [Gazette] murders. The most recent one of the guy that went into a newspaper office, and they started this with 1976. 1976, there was the Arizona Republic reporter, which you’ve mentioned, Don Bolles, who was killed by a bomb planted under his car. In 1980, nine employees at a Cincinnati television station were held hostage and it ended with the person I think that was doing the holding dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. What surprised me was this one from 1981 to 1990, five Vietnamese-American journalists were killed over a decade. And investigators think that these were political assassinations ordered by former Vietnamese military commanders. In 1992 Manuel de Dios Unanue, I think I’ve said that right, was shot in a Queens, New York restaurant. 2007, Chauncey Bailey, editor of a weekly newspaper in Oakland, California, was gunned down while walking to work.
22:30 2015, which is more to our memory, journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot and killed by a former co-worker in Roanoke, Virginia. And then of course in 2018, five newspaper employees were killed at the Capital Gazette. What this – journalists dying, this article was saying, this is not – this violence against the press is not episodic. That it is a constant and we need to acknowledge it as a constant. Based on some of the other things I was reading in my presentation, I also think that we need to look at it as far as this is a constant of the free speech process. I don’t think it’s separable, but I don’t think we should stand back and look at it and say, “Oh, this is unusual. It’s episodic. It’s not a trend. These are based on personal issues.” I’d say there’s enough evidence to say that it’s not, if we chose to look at it through a different lens.
Teri Finneman: 23:41 What can we do as researchers, as journalistic organizations to discuss this issue of media violence. I think maybe in this country we tend to think of it as, oh, this is other countries that have this problem of media violence. We don’t have a problem. What do you think we can do to address this?
Caryl Cooper: 23:59 I think we’re on our way to doing it. I was telling my students, we were talking about commemoration and the statues and what was the big deal about the statues that need, that people thought they needed to come down. So it’s about commemoration and it’s about your history. And if we are not protective about the narrative of our history of a people, or of a profession, it can be hijacked by anybody. And I’ve heard of this initiative from a foundation that is wanting to put together a memorial for fallen journalists. And I would say, well, it’s about time.
There’s so many other groups that commemorate people that have died for– within their profession or died for a cause. And I think journalists ought to be honored like that, too. They put their lives in jeopardy all the time to quote, “bring us the news” unquote so that you can lead your life in a way that – with all the information that you need to lead it. It’s not appreciated by many people. It’s certainly not appreciated by many young people, which I find alarming. And so if we’re going to honor the history of journalists, which we do, there’s statues of Horace Greeley, there’s statues of a lot of people that are out there. We need to honor the people and remember them in terms of the price they paid to bring people the news so they can develop and govern themselves appropriately.
Teri Finneman: 25:34 We’ve discussed John Nerone’s work in this episode and let’s delve into that just a little bit more. You note that he categorizes violence against the press in four ways against individual reporters, against ideas, against groups, and against the media as an institution. Tell us about your thoughts on these approaches to studying violence against media.
Caryl Cooper: 25:57 I think that he does a good idea of categorizing them. I don’t think that they’re necessarily clean categories. I don’t know how you can separate the violence against the person and against the group that they represent. There has to be a gray area there. And I think there is– there’s room to explore that. I think there’s room to explore, I called them typologies but to explore his categories within the framework of what we see today as a way of understanding what we see today. For example, for the bombs that were sent to CNN, is this just about an introvert digital reporter or is this about the commentary, the ideology, so to speak, that CNN is about? What is this? Where does the individual,
27:05 and the ideas of an organization of a people intersect and perhaps today with social media and everything. Gosh, we hadn’t even thought about that. Maybe those distinctions need to be reexamined and I would think it was time.
Teri Finneman: 27:27 Any final thoughts you want to share with our listeners on this topic?
Caryl Cooper: 27:31 Wow. I would just say to – if you’re a history reading person, read back on the history of what went on during the Progressive Era. Some of the readings that we have says that the muckrakers worked in tandem with the labor unions because they are – the muckrakers really exposed some of the injustices that were going on in industry and in business and in other places. On the other hand, there was a lot of pushback and I think that as a profession we need to recognize pushback when we see it historically and not fall into the myth of, you know, everybody was gung-ho with these, you know, with the things that needed to change. It would give an additional dimension I think to looking at the Civil Rights Movement
28:31 if we looked at people and the organizations they represented as one rather than separate. I think most historians do an accurate job about that. But I think it would help– you know, why do we study history? Why do we teach it? To give people, or at least for my students, give them an opportunity to see how we got to where they are. So that if they’re thinking that this is just a crazy media environment and they don’t like it, well let’s look at a crazier media environment so that you have some kind of perspective of what’s been done before and where you are now. The other is just– it’s about relevance and about making sure that the history of our industry, and I know a lot of historians doing journalism history, so I think it’s well documented, but making sure that those things are within the narrative of the general public. And I think that’s where we need to go. And I think the foundation that’s looking into a commemoration for fallen journalists, I think that will take it a long way to doing that.
Teri Finneman: 29:42 So you addressed this in your last answer, but our final question of the show is always, why does journalism history matter? So to expand on that, why did you get into journalism history?
Caryl Cooper: 29:55 Well, I like old things. I like old clothes, old books. I jokingly say I like old men, got a husband. It was just always something that was a part of me. But the biggest thing about this was every question that I had couldn’t be answered by a number. There was some other thing I was looking for. How I fell into journalism history was oh gosh, this was really by happenstance. I was working on my master’s thesis, which was a bit qualitative, qualitative study. And my professors said, “Gosh, you really liked the literature in the history of this, didn’t you?” And I did. That’s when I found it and I wasn’t looking for it. It found me. I just – I’m passionate about it. I love it. I’m a geek for history, I guess.
Teri Finneman: 30:54 All right, well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Caryl Cooper: 30:58 Oh, thank you for having, Teri. I appreciate it.
Teri Finneman: 31:01 Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, the University of Alabama’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations. I’m your host Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow,
Good night, and good luck.