Eccentrics, Gadflies and Offbeat Candidates in Arkansas (Part 4) Joseph Harry Weston (1911-1983)

Old State House Museum - Friday, December 04, 2020


Joseph Weston distinguished himself for a brief period in the 1970s with a career as a newspaper/tabloid editor who took aim at those he considered to be corrupt local officials. His harsh, personal commentaries put him in the crosshairs of the local political establishment in his home county, and he eventually sought to extend his one-man crusade statewide. His efforts led to the striking down of Arkansas’s century-old criminal-libel law. He then sought to translate his fame and notoriety into a political career but was met with resistance from the Arkansas Republican Party.

Weston was born in Little Rock in 1911, but few details of his early life are available. He stated on various occasions that he had delivered the Arkansas Democrat as a youth, and beginning at age 14, reported for the Little Rock Daily News, a publication that operated for a decade in the 1930s and 1940s. He also claimed to have reported for papers in San Diego and Salt Lake City, and for the National Geographic.

He married Louise Gulley of Portsmouth, Virginia and had four children with her, but they divorced during World War II, while he was serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In the early 1960s, Weston married Lou Jean Fairchild and moved with her and her daughter, Ann, to Sharp County in 1962. He later divorced Lou Jean Weston and married his stepdaughter so she could bear him a son; the son, named Benjamin Freepress Weston, was born in 1972. Two additional daughters grew up living with Weston and his second and third wives in a house near Cave City next to the place where he produced the tabloid that earned the elder Weston such notoriety: the Sharp Citizen.

Weston had been treated for acute diabetes at the Veterans’ Hospital in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, in 1971, and as he recovered, he resolved himself to start a paper. Unable to afford printing equipment, he recruited an old friend, Little Rock printing company owner John F. Wells, to print his paper. Wells, who also owned a weekly paper in the capitol city, told Weston to write his stories using a good typewriter with a quality ribbon and to write his headlines with a felt pen. Using the offset cameras in Wells’ plant, Weston could produce 2,000 copies of an eight-page paper for around $80. 

The first edition of the Citizen, which appeared on Feb. 1, 1972, was billed as “Sharp County’s metropolitan newspaper – professional journalism with conscience and vision.” Weston’s headlines were scurrilous attacks on local elected officials and other prominent people in his home of Sharp County and its environs. The first issues accused Eagle Street, a prominent banker and former state senator, of graft, blackmail and sexual misconduct. He referred to Street as the “Bastard Tyrant of Sharp County.”

Later, he went after powerful State Representative John Miller of Melbourne, a former speaker of the house, as the “Lizard of Izard.” The tone of Weston’s journalism, and the antagonism it created, was reflected in headlines like, ““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.” He extended his print venom into the Capitol, targeting Gov. Dale Bumpers, who he called “Bumpsy,” and Sen. John McClellan.

Weston published a story about how Highway Director Ward Goodman had embezzled millions from the department, and even when Weston was informed that Goodman had died a year earlier, he still put out the story.

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Roy Reed, an Arkansas native, wrote an editorial in the New York Times in December 1972 stating, “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 letter from Weston was printed in the 1973 journal of the American Association of Newspaper Editors; later that year, he appeared on a panel of the group’s annual conference in May 1973 alongside media critic Ben Bagdikan and Gloria Steinem, the feminist leader and editor of Ms. magazine. Shortly after Weston produced his first issue of the Citizen, he printed a story calling his neighbor “stupid” and claiming that he ran a moonshine still he inherited from his father. The neighbor swore out a warrant for Weston’s arrest under the criminal libel law in force at that time. A further article critical of the Izard County Sheriff in 1974 resulted in another warrant under the same law, and Weston fled the state for several weeks while secretly printing the paper. After showing up at a press conference in Little Rock, he was arrested and convicted in Izard County. Defended by Bryant attorney Ted Boswell, the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned Weston’s conviction, and also struck down the state's criminal libel law because it did not include truth as a defense or require proof of malice in the case of false statements about public officials. He had another case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court at the time of his death, which was a $39 million action against Independence County, the state Supreme Court, the Mormon Church and several public officials, claiming that all had conspired to violate his rights and close his paper. The court denied Weston’s suit in July 1982.

Weston sought to parlay his celebrity into a political career, and he filed as a candidate for governor in the 1974 Republican Primary. The party’s support was in free fall after the death of Winthrop Rockefeller, and the party’s low filing fees tended to attract fringe candidates like Weston. Initially, the state GOP denied his filing papers, but after he went to court, the party was ordered to accept his filing fee. Weston garnered 18 percent of the vote against the party’s executive director, Ken Coon of Conway.

Weston had also supported several other candidates in Sharp, Izard and Independence counties who running against candidates he opposed. In 1976, Weston announced he would run again for governor, and GOP leaders feared he would win unopposed as no one wanted to step up to run against popular Democratic Gov. David Pryor. After discreetly seeking to recruit former Gov. Orval Faubus, party leaders persuaded Pine Bluff plumbing contractor Leon Griffith to make the race. While Griffith won the primary, Weston won almost 43 percent of the vote, largely from name recognition. It was the highwater mark of his political life.

“Editor Weston,” as he called himself, continued to sporadically produce the Citizen until 1978, when his health began to decline. Living out his last days in Cave City, he died from diabetes-related complications at the veterans’ hospital in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, on Nov. 15, 1983, and was buried in Cave City. While Weston is chiefly remembered for his editorial venom and attempts to inject it into Arkansas political life, his sole positive legacy is the striking down of the criminal libel law, effectively outlawing criminalization of political speech in Arkansas.