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By Bob Stepno
(Dime-novelist Ned Buntline served as a bad example for reporters on Gunsmoke, but he did look a bit like actor William Conrad, at least in this picture.)
Sheriff Matt Dillon, played by William Conrad on the long-running radio series, encountered a variety of journalists in Dodge City, all of them from “back East,” and all in need of some editorial correction. As an “adult” Western, Gunsmoke distanced itself from the romantic stereotypes of Saturday matinee cowboy movies and the dime-novel popular culture that preceded them. Part of the way it accomplished this was to treat its cast of characters as the “real West,” and visiting journalists as myth-makers and scandal-mongers.
Conrad, coincidentally, had his share of reporter roles, including journalists on “Night Beat” (where he also played other parts from time to time) and a memorably gruff city editor on screen in Jack Webb’s newsroom melodrama, “–30–,” named for the news writer’s traditional end-of-story mark. His lecture to a young reporter about the value of a newspaper still made its way into journalism textbooks a half century later.
In Dodge City, however, Conrad’s Sheriff Matt Dillon had bigger problems keeping reporters from getting themselves or other people killed. He did not always succeed.
In 1952, the first episode of the series began with Dillon dictating the text for a wanted poster to Mr.Hightower, Dodge City’s printer and newspaper editor. The enterprising editor had already snitched a tintype of the wanted man and carved a woodcut for his front page, which he offers Dillon for the wanted poster. The marshal laments the cynicism that makes the editor celebrate having a sensational story for his front page. But soon it’s clear the editor is not alone, when the town doctor jokes about his profitable autopsy business, and a killing suspect faces a lynchmob, and a runaway boy dreams of having a gun to carve notches on.
The story quickly turns to Gunsmoke’s general critique of the “wild west” cultural cliches of gunfighters, lynch mobs, six-guns, violent death as routine, and the era’s media stars, like the young man whose name is in the title of the episode, “Billy the Kid.” And the editor returns at the end, adding to his cynical Wild West income with one more wanted poster.
Media ethics and stereotypes
In a later episode, “The Photographer” who came to Dodge was not presented as a newspaper reporter, but his problem was similar: A total lack of ethics in getting his evidence of the stereotypical violent frontier West that Easterners expected from popular myths and dime-novels.
In the “Sunday Supplement” episode, two “dude” reporters from an unnamed New York paper were looking for violence and sensationalism even before they robbed an Indian grave for a clan totem. In a frontier tip-of-the-hat to public relations, Miss Kitty, co-owner of the local saloon, welcomed the reporters to town in hopes of some free publicity that might bring visitors to Dodge City.
However, the reporters’ desecration of the grave sets off an Indian attack on settlers, followed by battles between Indians and cavalry. Whether the reporters expected the bloody outcome or not, their response to the carnage is a cynical observation that it is “about time” they saw some action.
Looking for sensational, entertaining stories of carnage to meet audience’s expectations about the frontier, the “Sunday Supplement” reporters mention dime-novel writer Ned Buntline (E.Z.C. Judson) and his tales of “mountain man” and scout Jim Bridger as a role model. In that conversation, Marshal Dillon says he knew Bridger, and that Buntline’s stories were lies that made Bridger look foolish. (Gunsmoke’s writer John Meston did his research. A recent Bridger biography says Judson, “got enough adventures out of Bridger that winter of 1860-61 to keep him writing the rest of his life,” p. 295, Jim Bridger, J.Cecil Alter, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).
Before the two reporters are done, they not only take that artifact from a grave, they lie about it, attempt to implicate a soldier, and make racist “good Indian” comments about the tribe that is massacred as a result. Matt Dillon can’t hang them, but says he wishes he could — or that he could turn them over to the chief whose burying ground they desecrated. But the chief is dead, and all Dillon can do is punch the man who makes the “good Indian” remark, and send them out of town. John Dehner, who played the hero journalist of the series “Frontier Gentleman,” is no hero here — cast as the quieter of the two reporters. At least he doesn’t say anything that gets him punched by Dillon.
A Journalist Who Listened
The first bright spot for journalism in Dodge City was the reporter in the episode “The Correspondent.” In the script by Marian Clark (with editorial supervision by Meston), Dillon finally met a tough-minded but fair reporter willing to learn the truth about things from the marshal.
Both are still suspicious of each other in the beginning. The reporter, Reid Norton “a correspondent out of St. Louis,” literally runs into Dodge City’s Doc Adams, says he’s heard of a stage holdup a few days earlier, and wants “the real story, not some romanticized account.” Doc, skeptical, sends him to Marshal Dillon, who Norton expects will be a swaggering braggart.
Norton tells the marshal he’s looking “somebody who can tell a straight story” so that he can report it to his readers.
“It’s about time somebody wrote a story about the frontier the way it really is and not the way it’s pictured in exaggerated accounts, as in Harper’s Weekly,” he says. The correspondent adds that he’s been hearing “tall tales” from cavalry troopers and others.
Norton: “It seems to be a habit here in the west. A story isn’t a story unless it’s three times life size.”
Dillon: “You’re not going to get a tall tale from me. In fact, you’re not going to get a story at all.”
The two spar back and forth about whether Dillon should be out chasing the stage robbers, or whether the trail is cold, and whether Norton is already jumping to conclusions about how well Dillon does his job.
Later, Norton is still making sarcastic comments about Ned Buntline’s style of galloping frontier justice when he, Dillon and deputy Chester stealthily approach the bandits’ suspected hideout. The reporter provides a running commentary, to which the deputy responds:
Chester: “Mr. Dillon, Mr. Dillon, couldn’t we just tie up this smart-aleck and leave him with the horses?”
Norton: “It’s just that I want to get things right, Dillon. I want to do you justice in my story.
Dillon: “If you don’t start being a little quieter you won’t be alive to write a story.
Dillon orders the bandits to come out of the shack. Instead, in cowboy-movie tradition, they shout, “You come get us,” and push a hostage into the line of fire. He is hit. Angrily, Dillon tells the reporter, “Looks like you’ve got your story: ‘Marshal shoots unarmed boy instead of bandit.'”
Luckily, it’s a flesh wound, and Dillon leaves the boy to be bandaged up by Chester and Norton while he crashes into the gunmen’s hideout alone.
After the smoke clears and Dillon has dispatched both desperados, the reporter is put to work digging graves for the two bandits, which finally gets some approving comments from Chester. (“He sure can handle a shovel.”) Norton comes away from the experience a bit philosophical, but at first Dillon doesn’t want to hear his ideas.
Norton: “These are revised ideas, Marshal. I thought you ought to be the first to know.
Dillon: “I don’t care what you print in your newspaper, I answer to my own mistakes.
Norton: “What I was going to say is I’ve come to see the West as a place to live, just like any other place. A man has a job there, just like any other man. It’s no different because he wears a gun.
Dillon: Yeah… A little noisier sometimes
Norton: A man makes mistakes in the West, just like he makes mistakes in St. Louis. But he goes ahead just trying to do his job like they do everywhere else
Dillon: “Well… Maybe you’ve learned something after all.”
Dillon even lets Norton buy him a drink when they get back to town.
An Unwelcome Woman Reporter
“Gunsmoke” listeners were treated to a new twist on the “frontier journalist” theme when a rule-breaking woman journalist set foot in Gunsmoke’s West. Sounding as much “participant observer” anthropologist as journalist, Phoebe Appleby created her own problems by wearing men’s clothing and trailing a cattle drive, not fitting the trail boss’s image of proper feminine behavior.
“She was pesky as a tick… You got an idea what a woman can do to a cattle drive? … She’s an unwomanly woman; that’s what she is, unwomanly!”
The cattle boss wants her locked up.
Appleby: “A journalist has to become accustomed to not being welcome.”
Dillon: “A journalist?”
Appleby: “That’s right marshall. I’m here to write a true picture of the West, and I must say I’m not impressed.”
Dillon: “A woman dressed in man’s clothes isn’t giving a ‘true picture’ of herself…”
Appleby is as feisty as Nellie Bly, but has to learn not to alienate the people she was trying to write about. Dillon locks her up long enough to have a brief debate about careers for women, and to arrange a room and a more feminine outfit with the help of Miss Kitty at the Longbranch Saloon.
Appleby also asserts her “right to observe” and breaks the taboo on unescorted women in the saloon, where she strikes up a conversation with two strangers. They at first claim to have struck it rich, but the reporter quickly figures out they have come by their sudden wealth illegally. She tells them so — and luckily Matt Dillon walks in and shoots the gun out of one desperado’s hand just as they attempt to take Appleby hostage.
In the end, she and Dillon part on a first-name basis, apparently first for any of the journalists in his radio career. By 1960, when the episode was broadcast, the television version of “Gunsmoke” was well underway.
Coincidentally, Appleby was played by actress Jeanne Bates, who also appeared in the 20th century newsroom dramas Night Beat and Shorty Bell.
Those newsies in Dodge