Press past

Dennis Swibold on Montana’s copper-collared media


If there’s a lesson to be learned from the 70 years that Montana’s copper kings controlled the majority of the state’s daily news presses, it’s this: “Ownership matters,” says Dennis Swibold, University of Montana journalism professor and author of the new book Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics and the Montana Press, 1889-1959.

Released in September, Swibold’s book is the first to trace the extent, effectiveness and consequences of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s stranglehold on the Montana press from the earliest days of statehood until 1959. “Captive journalism” wasn’t unique to Montana during that period, but in terms of longevity, reach and reputation, the Anaconda Company’s control of the state’s press was unmatched. Swibold’s book details how Montana’s largest industrial employer, with vast mineral, timber and energy holdings, kept a “copper collar” on many of the state’s largest and most influential newspapers, known collectively as the “copper press.”

“I think in those days every sort of tycoon in Montana who wanted to be a player in politics or the economy had his own newspaper,” Swibold says.

And those tycoons used their newspapers as propaganda machines to forward their political and economic agendas. By 1888, copper king William A. Clark’s Butte Miner reigned as the state’s premier daily. The newspaper gave Clark a powerful voice in the debates leading to Montana’s statehood, as well as a platform from which to promote the future U.S. senator’s political and business interests up until his death in 1925.

But it was the Anaconda Company’s founder and “guiding genius,” Marcus Daly, who changed the landscape of industrial press ownership in Montana with the creation of the Anaconda Standard in 1889. Although his political and business nemesis Clark had already been at the game for a decade, Daly’s Standard immediately surpassed its rivals in terms of “fighting editors, the skill of its writers, the sweep of their coverage and the artistic talent, worldly features and technological innovation,” qualities that made Montana’s dailies famous throughout the Northwest. The Standard successfully cherry-picked journalists, artists and editors from New York newspapers, and those hires brought with them superior talent and technology to the small pioneer industrial community.

“You think about Anaconda in the mid-1880s, it was this tiny little industrial town. There were only about 4,000 people there, and yet by 1889 it’s got a daily newspaper that could compare favorably with just about any metropolitan newspaper in the country outside of New York, perhaps,” says Swibold. “You wouldn’t have found a better newspaper between Minneapolis or Chicago and San Francisco than the Anaconda Standard at that time.”

Though newspaper ownership was disguised and difficult to prove during the days of Montana’s copper-collared press, close observers discerned, and records later revealed, the Anaconda Company’s ownership of the state’s leading papers. In addition to the Standard, the company eventually acquired dailies in Butte, Helena, Billings, Livingston and Missoula.

The first 40 years of Anaconda’s reign over the state’s press was marked by a period of overt partisanship and company boosterism. The company papers’ editorial pages aggressively and blatantly attacked their enemies and their news stories promoted the company’s interests and image.

But for all their grandiose propagandizing and widespread influence, the company papers’ persuasive powers ultimately proved limited. Daly’s copper press editors failed to convince Montana voters that the state capital should be located in Anaconda rather than in Helena, a campaign for which the Standard was created. William A. Clark acquired the Great Falls Tribune and the Helena Herald to successfully fend off the Anaconda papers’ editorial attacks on his U.S. Senate bid in 1889. By 1920, with pro-union and anti-company sentiment running high, the copper kings were horrified that voters would elect one of two ardently anti-company gubernatorial candidates: Joseph Dixon, a Republican, and Burton K. Wheeler, a Democrat.

By the 1930s Daly was long gone and war, drought and economic depression had weakened the once-booming voice of the copper press. The papers lost much of their fire and retreated into what Swibold calls an “ambivalent slumber.” That “yawning editorial silence” would characterize the last 30 years of the Anaconda Company’s control over the state’s press and was, Swibold writes, “arguably more dangerous in its consequences for democracy and free expression than their thunderous crusades had ever been.”

Over the final three decades of Anaconda Company ownership, Montanans had come to see the copper press for the company tool that it was. Fearful of controversy and accusations of bias and constrained by lack of credibility, the Anaconda papers slipped into a period of news suppression and censorship that stifled political opposition and failed to provide a forum for public debate.

In 1941, for instance, “bad air” asphyxiated four Butte miners, among them a 62-year-old Finnish widower and a 39-year-old Austrian immigrant married three weeks before. Not a word of their deaths appeared in the local papers. A Montana Standard editor later remarked that, “No good, but much harm, can come from featuring mine accident stories.”

The papers’ blithe withholding of news fed the “debilitating sense that the state’s problems were largely beyond its residents’ control,” Swibold writes.

In 1959, the Anaconda Company finally sold its newspaper holdings to Lee Enterprises, which continues to control the majority of the state’s major dailies. But Anaconda’s 70-year chokehold on the press “provoked a suspicion” and “fueled a long-running anti-corporate response that proved remarkably resilient,” Swibold writes.

And while Swibold argues that the scars of the copper-collared press are still visible today, the state’s increasingly varied media ownership—including publicly owned television and radio stations, independent newspapers and Internet sources, to name a few—has gone a long way toward healing old wounds.

“Ownership matters. It sets a tone, even if it isn’t explicit,” says Swibold. “I’m confident that as long as there is diverse ownership, we’ll continue to have a strong press.”

Dennis Swibold will read from and sign copies of Copper Chorus in Missoula at Fact & Fiction on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m.


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