Joseph Harry Weston (1911–1983)
Joseph Harry Weston was a journalist who retired to the mountains of Sharp County in 1962 and became famous for a crude but crusading newspaper called the Sharp Citizen. The paper’s lurid headlines and stories packed with scandal and scurrilous descriptions of business and political leaders kept him in trouble with the law. His arrests ultimately led the Arkansas Supreme Court to invalidate the state’s 105-year-old criminal-libel law. In the six years that he printed the paper, he twice ran for governor, unsuccessfully.
Joseph Weston was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on August 6, 1911. Little is known of his life from then until his retirement to a farm near Cave City (Sharp and Independence counties) except what he told reporters. He said he had delivered the Arkansas Democrat as a youngster and, at the age of fourteen, reported for the Little Rock Daily News, which operated for ten years. In 1934, he married Louise Grace Gulley of Portsmouth, Virginia, in Benton (Saline County), and they had four children. They divorced during or soon after World War II, when he was in the Army Air Corps. He married Lou Jean Fairchild, who, with her daughter, Ann, moved to Sharp County with him in 1962. He later divorced Lou Jean and married the stepdaughter so that she could bear him a son, whom he named Benjamin Freepress Weston. They also had two more daughters. The two women—mother and daughter—helped him produce the Sharp Citizen.
He said that he had been a reporter for newspapers in San Diego, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; and other cities. Salt Lake City was the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormon Church), a frequent subject of his writing, although he professed at different times to be a Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon. Weston told a reporter that he had once been a copyeditor for National Geographic.
After the Veterans Administration hospital in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, diagnosed him as having diabetes in 1971 and set him on the path to recovery, he decided to start a newspaper with the help of an old friend, John F. Wells, who ran a printing company and published a weekly newspaper in Little Rock. In 1973, shortly after he began printing the Sharp Citizen, Weston published a sixty-four-page booklet titled Incredible Story Of The Sharp Citizen and Its “Infamous” Editor, Joseph H. Weston—The Weekly Newspaper That Survived the Beating and Jailing of Its Editor to Become a National Institution, Creating a Political and Social Revolution in Arkansas and Changing the Leadership of the Congress of the United States. In it, Weston wrote that he had suffered from an incurable illness and had moved to eighty acres outside Cave City to live his last days.
The Sharp Citizen was a small, crudely produced tabloid. Since Weston could not afford printing machinery, Wells told him to write his stories on standard stationery using a typewriter with a good ribbon and compose the headlines with a felt-tip pen. Wells’s offset cameras would capture the images and print the paper at little cost. Two thousand copies of an eight-page paper cost eighty dollars.
Weston’s first paper came out on February 1, 1972, calling itself “Sharp County’s only metropolitan newspaper—professional journalism with conscience and vision.” His first issues attacked Eagle Street, a Cave City banker and former state senator, calling him “the bastard tyrant of Sharp County.” He accused the banker of graft, blackmail, and sexual misconduct. Subsequent issues branched out to adjoining communities.
A few headlines provide the flavor of Weston’s journalism: “Rat Poison Deliberately Fed into Public Drinking Water for More Than a Quarter of a Century,” “Immoral and Promiscuous Sex Scandal Continues in Batesville,” “Is Judge Ransom C. Jones Operating His City Court in Cave City as a Racket Under Order from Elvis?” and “Two Devilish Lawyers And A Sadistic Judge Conspire To Rob Young Chris McFadden, Aged 23, of His American Citizenship and Place the Entire McFadden Family into Political Slavery Because of Fear That Sheriff Roy Lee Barker Will Revoke Chris’s Parole and Send Him to State Prison for Five Long Years.” A favorite target was state Representative John E. Miller of Melbourne (Izard County), whom the paper referred to as “the Lizard of Izard.”
Weston thrived on tips from people who had grievances with local leaders, usually printing their stories of graft and illicit sex without corroborating them. Eventually, Weston turned his attention to state government and even the national government, often attacking Governor Dale Bumpers—Weston called him “Bumpsy”—and U.S. senator John L. McClellan. He barged into the pressroom at the Arkansas State Capitol one day, handing out his latest issue, which reported on the front page that State Highway Director Ward Goodman had secretly taken millions of dollars out of the agency. An Arkansas Gazette reporter told him that Goodman had died a year earlier upstairs in the Capitol while testifying on a labor bill before a Senate committee. “The hell you say,” Weston said, pausing briefly before continuing to circulate the paper.
While the Arkansas media treated Weston and his paper with ridicule or contempt, his fame quickly spread. A lengthy article in the New York Times in December 1972 began: “Joseph Harry Weston, 61 years old, is a one-man terrorist band. His weapon is a weekly newspaper, and he runs it on the creed that all the outrage that he can muster is fit to print,” a takeoff on the Times’s motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.” The American Society of Newspaper Editors printed a blistering letter from Weston in its journal and then invited him to address the group at its convention in May 1973. He was on a panel with Gloria Steinem, the editor of Ms. magazine and a leading feminist, and Ben Bagdikian, the famous media critic. Weston rebuked the editors for publishing organs for government propaganda.
Weston sought to convert his sudden fame into a political career. He opposed the Republican candidate for governor, Ken Coon, in the 1974 primary but lost badly. Weston ran again in 1976, and the party, lacking a strong candidate, scrambled at the last minute to find someone to run and prevent Weston from being the party’s standard bearer. The candidate, Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) plumber Leon Griffith, got fifty-seven percent of the votes against Weston but lost the general election to Governor David Pryor.
Weston’s paper had printed only a few issues when his next-door neighbor swore out a warrant for his arrest. Weston had written that the neighbor was stupid and ran a still that he had inherited from his father. Weston avoided arrest for several weeks by leaving the state and printing the paper secretly. The issues carried the banner “Edited in Exile.”
The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld Weston’s prosecution under the criminal-libel statute in 1973. In a second case in 1975 brought by the sheriff of Clay County, who complained about a Citizen story accusing him of running a narcotics racket and suggesting that he was complicit in a man’s murder, the court ruled that the law was unconstitutional.
In still another criminal proceeding in 1979, the Supreme Court refused Weston’s request that it quash an indictment against him in Independence County for perjury before a grand jury that was called to investigate his articles about a prostitution ring in the county. Weston told the Supreme Court that the grand jury was a tool of corrupt law-enforcement officers and judges who were trying to drive his newspaper out of business.
Another lawsuit (Weston v. Bachman), this one brought by Weston in the U.S. District Court in Little Rock, claimed that a number of people—he named all the Supreme Court justices, the attorney general, and the Mormon Church, as well as lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and grand jury members in northeastern Arkansas—had conspired to violate his civil rights and close his newspaper. The court denied Weston’s claims, but the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals returned the case in July 1982 for the district court to settle several legal questions.
Weston, his health failing, had ceased to print the Citizen. He died on November 15, 1983, at a veterans’ hospital in Poplar Bluff. He is buried in Cave City Cemetery.
For additional information:
“Editor Joseph Harry Weston, 72, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, November 17, 1983, p. 18A.
Hall, Holly K. “The Sharp Citizen: Applying the Lessons Learned from Joseph Weston to the Criminal Libel Outlook of the Future.” Communication Law Review 12 (2012): 29–39. Online at http://www.commlawreview.org/Archives/CLRV12I1/CLRv12i1_The_Sharp_Citizen_Hall.pdf (accessed September 14, 2021).
Joseph H. Weston v. Ann Bachman, et al., 682 F. 2d 202 (1982).
Joseph H. Weston v. State of Arkansas, 576 S.W.2d 705 (1979).
Reed, Roy. “Ozark Editor’s Attacks Arouse Fear and Anger.” New York Times, December 11, 1972, pp. 41, 47.
State of Arkansas v. Joseph H. Weston, 501 S.W.2d 622 (1973).
State of Arkansas v. Joseph H. Weston, 528 S.W.2d 412 (1975).
Little Rock, Arkansas
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