American-Statesman at 150: Here's a history of how the newspaper covers conflict
On the front page of the first edition of the Democratic Statesman, on July 26, 1871, a short article announced that Lt. Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan was taking command of the U.S. military forces operating against the Native Americans in this part of the country.
“General Sheridan is most emphatically the man to operate against the wild Indians, who have been depredating on our frontier for so long,” reported the story, credited to the Sherman Patriot newspaper. “Captain Fitz Williams, of Fort Richardson, who arrived on Wednesday from the fort, informs us that the two chiefs, Santee and Big Tree, are held by the military authorities until further notice from Washington City. When these orders are received, it is thought that they will be tried by the civil authorities of Jack County.”
During their first 150 years, either by deploying their own correspondents or by running wire service copy, the newspapers that became the American-Statesman reported on more than a dozen major American wars. They also published stories on at least two dozen other conflicts that directly involved American military forces.
The Statesman’s coverage strongly supported the Army’s campaign during the last phases of the Texas-Indian Wars, which raged from 1820 to 1875.
Sheridan had served as a Union general during the Civil War, during which he used scorched-earth tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. Immediately after the war, he spent three months fighting Native Americans in the Texas Hill Country. In 1867, Gen. U.S. Grant assigned him the bloody task of “pacifying” Indians on the Great Plains, a campaign that modern scholars now describe as ethnic cleansing, including the strategy of starving Native Americans by hiring professional hunters to kill vast herds of buffalo.
Although he denied saying it, Sheridan is credited by one eyewitness and by many historians with coining the infamous slogan: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
The Statesman’s coverage of its first American war saw no reason to disapprove of Sheridan, his statements or his tactics. But the newspaper, founded by the explicitly white supremacist wing of the Texas Democratic Party, did publish negative stories about Sheridan’s earlier role in enforcing Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War.
This year, as we continue to mark the sesquicentennial of American-Statesman, it is clear that, in its various incarnations, the newspaper tended to publish war stories uncritical of American leadership well into the 20th century. It also depended heavily on wire copy until the 21st century. Among the first war correspondents on staff covered war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East after the shattering events of 9/11.
American-Statesman at 150:At turn of 19th century, Texas and Austin’s newspaper began to grow up
20th century wars
It should be made clear right away that the Statesman, unlike some national newspapers and chains, did not routinely indulge in sensational war coverage. For instance, in contrast with the “yellow journalism” — which included headlines such as “Invasion!” and “Spanish Treachery” — that pushed the U.S. into war with Spain in 1898, the Austin dailies took a sober and fact-based approach to the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, the proximate cause of the U.S. invasion.
As it often did in later U.S. wars, the Statesman localized national or international stories. For instance, on Aug. 26, 1898, it ran a story on McLeary Weller, an Austinite who signed up in San Antonio to serve with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and fought in Cuba before returning home among those hailed as heroes.
Another Statesman strategy was to report generously on area war anniversaries and reunions. This included Confederate reunions well into the 20th century; Austin hosted the state’s residential homes for disabled or indigent Confederate veterans and their wives, or their widows.
As for distant American interventions and colonial entanglements, such as the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Filipino-American War (1899-1902), and many later conflicts, especially in Central America and the Caribbean, Austin newspapers ran only short contemporaneous wire stories.
The Mexican Revolution, or Border War (1910-1920), hit much closer to home. The activities of colorful figures such as Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and U.S. Gen. John Pershing were tracked closely. A good deal of the coverage focused on “bandits” and “raiders” who crossed the border from Mexico into Texas. Yet military and paramilitary movements — as well as extrajudicial killings — occurred frequently on both sides of the Rio Grande. Austin reporters might have produced some of these border stories, but bylines were not common during this period, so it is difficult to tell.
Well before America entered on the side of the Allies, World War I (1914-1918), known then as the Great War, dominated the news, and coverage intensified when Americans were fighting. The Austin Statesman and the Austin American — the latter supported the Woodrow Wilson wing of the Democratic Party — did not at first call for the country’s entry into what seemed like a faraway war among imperial powers.
Yet once U.S. troops sailed for Europe, the war effort very much became local news. The University of Texas campus was mobilized, and schools were set up at Camp Mabry and Penn Field to train vehicle mechanics and radio operators. Once peace was declared Nov. 11, 1918, local newspapers ran follow-up headlines such as “Armistice Signed, Victory Won, War Is Over,” and “University to Have Record of Texas Men’s History Who Entered Great War.”
World War II (1939-1945) received blanket coverage in Austin. Reports from the home front included the latest news from Camp Swift in Bastrop County, San Marcos Air Base in Hays County and Bergstrom Air Force Base in Travis County, now Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The American-Statesman also ran regular stories about wartime rationing, victory gardens, USO dances, war bond rallies and everyday diversions, including escapist or propagandistic Hollywood movies.
News from the front lines was detailed and often dark. The American-Statesman paid particular attention to reports about the “Texas Army” of National Guardsmen later based at Camp Mabry. Banner headlines greeted VE Day and VJ Day, along with pictures of dancing on Congress Avenue.
One famous Austinite, Wick Fowler, a former Statesman reporter perhaps better known as a humor columnist, a 1971 Austin City Council candidate, and inventor of the popular 2-Alarm, 3-Alarm and 4-Alarm Chili products, served as a war correspondent for The Dallas Morning News during the war. The first staff writer of a Texas newspaper to be accredited as a war correspondent, he was attached to the Texas Army. Fowler returned to war reporting briefly for other Texas publications during the Vietnam War.
A note on editorial cartoons during the war: Political cartoonists often portrayed German and, especially, Japanese soldiers by means of extreme physical stereotypes. Headline writers were no less free to refer to the enemy troops in demeaning terms that fit in with the official government propaganda of the day.
The Cold War (1948-1991) was harder to cover consistently. Although Americans lived in constant fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union and, later, China, and they kept track of the country’s proxy wars abroad, it was only during the Korean War and the Vietnam War that reports focused consistently on combat.
Coming so soon after the end of World War II, the Korean War (1950-1953) — which pitted America, South Korea and their United Nations allies against North Korea, the Soviet Union and China — gripped the nation. After President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur over differences about the execution of the war, the jaunty military leader was greeted by crowds in Austin at the airport, on Congress Avenue and at the state Capitol on June 13, 1951, during a Texas tour deliriously covered by the Statesman.
The Vietnam War (1955-1975) divided the city as it did the country. Former Austin congressman Lyndon B. Johnson was serving in the Senate when America sent its first military advisers to the war-torn Southeast Asian country. Johnson was president when fighting escalated a decade later.
Depressed by the war news and his increasing unpopularity, Johnson and his personal struggles were duly noted back home, even after LBJ decided not to run for reelection: “Over Dominoes, LBJ Ponders Vietnam, Brother Sam Houston Tells About That Night” was the headline on one such story. Even more typical: “LBJ Vows to Uphold Duty Despite Polls and Elections.”
A good number of Austinites continued to back Johnson and the war effort, as was reflected in the Statesman’s pages. Yet anti-war protests, which had begun on or near the UT campus in the late 1960s, spilled out into the streets with the first large march from campus to the state Capitol on Oct. 31, 1970. The Statesman covered these sharp local conflicts with some care, which differed from the more discordant tone of the national press: “Peace Parade Goes ‘Quietly.’”
21st century wars
One could say that the Statesman finally went to war in person during the Afghanistan War (2001-present) and the Iraq War (2003-present). These assignments grew out of the newspaper’s steady coverage of Bell County’s Fort Hood — the world’s largest military base, located in Austin’s backyard — which often sent soldiers to these hot zones. (If the Statesman sent a staff war correspondent overseas before this, I could not find a reference to it in the newspaper’s archives.)
Bob Gee had never dreamed of serving as a war correspondent.
“I was always interested in other cultures and becoming a foreign correspondent,” said Gee, now state editor at the Statesman. “It was an opportunity: 9/11 presented itself. I took it.”
In late 2001, the Washington bureau of Cox Newspapers, which formerly owned the Statesman, needed a Jerusalem correspondent. American-Statesman editors Rich Oppel and Fred Zipp asked Gee to step up.
"I got back from a morning assignment about 11 a.m., and there was a note on my desk saying to go to Rich's office when I returned to my desk. Fred was in there, too," Gee said. "I thought I was in trouble. They asked me to sit down and Rich asked, 'Do you have any weekend plans?' I said, no, not really. This was on a Thursday. And he said, 'Well, how would you like to go to Jerusalem?' I said, 'Great! When?' He said, 'Monday.'"
His first tour of duty, which lasted three months, came during what was known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israel. (The first one was in the 1980s.)
“I loved the excitement of it, the drama, the exhilarating reporting,” he said. “There were suicide bombings. I suppose it was dangerous, but not like a war, more like sporadic violence. We took certain precautions. Never idle behind buses in traffic, because they might explode. Never go to a movie theater or a shopping mall, because people gathered there.”
Cox asked Gee to go back, while the conflict was still pretty hot, and he stayed for two more months.
“When I came back the first time, my first assignment was a rodeo story,” he said with a laugh. “I guess to remind me of my position in the pecking order. Over there, I had been working alongside reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I got the bug.”
The long runup to the Iraq War gave Cox time to prepare for a full deployment there — nine or 10 reporters representing the chain’s four biggest papers. Beforehand, Gee received a week’s military training, a sort of boot camp for reporters, at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
“My father served as a doctor in Vietnam, and was concerned that I had never picked up a gun and that I wouldn’t know what to do in a life-or-death situation,” Gee said. “I asked a reporter who knew a few things about shooting a gun. We went out to a ranch in western Travis County to meet the 'Hog Man,' a guy who had an assortment of guns. We shot all manner of them into this creek. I ended up not needing this knowledge.”
Gee’s first role this time was to cover the war from Kuwait.
“I tried to do some embeds, to tag along with the military for short periods,” Gee said, “but I was not embedded for the whole invasion. Eventually, I traveled up to Baghdad.”
To do that, he teamed up with a Swiss broadcast reporter and rented a Chevy Tahoe.
“We unscrewed the Kuwaiti license plate so we would not be easily identified,” Gee said. “It was a very eerie time, before any insurgency had started. There was no law or authority. Occasionally, convoys of American military.”
Gee reported from towns on the way up and the way back.
“I did not witness any kind of carnage,” he said. “I only reported during the day. Once night fell, we never left the hotel. There were always explosions in the distance. The only real danger I felt was while leaving Iraq, close to Iran, this time alone. I was followed by a pickup truck with guys in the back with guns. I didn't want to take any chances. We were going 90 or 100 miles an hour. But I knew my car could outrun any car in Iraq, and I made it to the Kuwaiti border.”
It was in southern Iraq that Gee reported perhaps his most rewarding story, about the “Marsh Arabs” who live in the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, quite apart from other peoples around them.
“These are people who have lived in a very traditional way, unchanged for a long time,” he said. “They slaughtered a lamb for me. As a guest, I was held in the highest honor.”
After this assignment, Gee went on to study Arabic and earn a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies. He also studied in Egypt and Jordan; spent time in the West Bank; and did his master’s thesis on Palestinian nationalism. He wrote for Cox from Jerusalem again from 2007 to 2009, but then the newspaper chain shuttered all its foreign bureaus.
"When I was looking for a job, I asked the editors back in Austin if they would hire me back as an editor," Gee said. "I thought I had something to offer as an editor and figured it would be a different kind of challenge. I was worried I'd feel a letdown returning to Austin as a reporter.”
For his part, Jeremy Schwartz, award-winning former Statesman reporter now with ProPublica, traveled with photographer Kelly West, who now runs her own photo business, to report on Fort Hood units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Fort Hood was then the busiest deployment hub in the nation for soldiers shuttling to the war zone, and the trips were a chance to connect our readers to the realities our local service members were facing,” Schwartz said. “Central Texas was dealing with the fallout of the twin wars: high rates of traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress and alarming suicide and overdose numbers. Those reporting trips allowed the newspaper to show what local service members were thinking and experiencing, and hopefully strengthened those connections between readers and combat veterans.”
Schwartz filed many stories, but one really stuck with him. Command Sgt. Maj. Isaia Vimoto returned to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan five years after his son was killed there.
“To me, every time I see the soldiers out here, it reminds me of my son,” Vimoto told Schwartz and West the day before he returned to Killeen. “They are all my children. Even though some are older than him, I have that pledge to take care of them. That’s why I am still in Afghanistan. I am the father of this division.”
Photographer and videographer West went to Iraq and Afghanistan without illusions.
"I was never someone who had the goal of being any kind of war photographer," she said, "and I certainly don't think these trips qualify me as one. When the discussion came up it just seemed like a unique opportunity to document something that was important and relevant to the community we covered — plus I think I was one of the few people on staff with an unexpired passport. Working in Central Texas, I had covered Fort Hood for many years, but the access was very limited, so I was excited about the possibility of seeing more of an insider's view of what the troops were experiencing."
West doesn't remember feeling in danger.
"Nervous, yes. Uncomfortable, definitely, " she said. "I was so far out of my comfort zone, but that was part of what made it such a challenging and interesting assignment. Honestly, the scariest thing was the time that one of the female soldiers walked me to the bathroom on post and asked me if I had a knife or weapon I could carry if I needed to go there by myself at night — she was worried about the other soldiers."
Still, there were some hairy moments.
"There was one night in Afghanistan when we had to go in a small bunker because of indirect fire coming from outside the walls of the base," she said, "but we were hunkered down with some very seasoned journalists who seemed so unfazed by the whole thing that it made it seem almost unreal."
West came away from her assignment with an assortment of memories.
"There were some funny, amateur moments that still make me laugh, like how I brought a rolling bag for my camera gear to a country covered in sand," she said, "or how we jumped off a helicopter, running after a three-star general, with our headsets still attached to the inside. And there were moments that were just so human, like finding the Army band performing in a coffee shop on Camp Victory, or sitting down for lunch with an Iraqi general — women are not usually allowed, but they made an exception for me.
"And, of course, the moments that reminded you of what was at stake, like seeing soldiers treated for traumatic brain injuries and gunshot wounds, or watching U.S. military personnel run training exercises with Iraqi soldiers."
Statesman at 150:We found images of 13 newspaper homes
•The United States almost never has been at peace during the past 150 years, fighting in dozens of declared wars, undeclared conflicts, transitory interventions and covert military operations. Although rarely with its own staff, the Statesman reported on them all.
Schwartz believes that foreign reporting for local outlets helps journalists understand their communities better, whether it is service members and veterans, or immigrant groups and other newly arrived Austinites.
“As the Statesman's last correspondent in Mexico City, it pains me to see the lack of foreign reporting, not just at the Statesman, but in regional newspapers across the country,” he said. “Increasingly, we get our foreign news from just a few outlets, and that is not helpful when it comes to exploring the links of Austin and Central Texas to the world.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About this series
The American-Statesman is marking its 150th year of publication with a series of stories examining the newspaper’s history and its role in Austin’s rise.
The first installment of this series examined the newspaper’s founding and its first issue on July 26, 1871, and its role in post-Civil War politics in Texas. Future installments will appear regularly in the months leading up to the newspaper’s 150th birthday on July 26, 2021.
Previous stories in this series: