Columnist

Tom Dillard: ‘Homemade’ newspaper often outrageous

When it comes to making irresponsible and outrageous statements, Donald Trump cannot hold a candle to the late Joseph Weston of Sharp County. During the 1970s, Weston's homemade newspaper, Sharp Citizen, viciously attacked public officials and local citizens from throughout north Arkansas.

While Weston was repudiated by the electorate when he twice ran for governor, he was able to convince the Arkansas Supreme Court that the state's libel law was unconstitutional.

Joseph Harry Weston was born Aug. 6, 1911, in Little Rock. Very little is known about his youth and early life. He claimed to have been a teenage carrier for the Arkansas Democrat and later a reporter for the short-lived Little Rock Daily News.

Weston told reporters he had worked for newspapers in San Diego and Salt Lake City. In one publication, Weston claimed to have been "a freelance political feature writer in Washington" prior to retiring to Arkansas due to poor health. We know he served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

At some point Weston left the Episcopal Church and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, though in later life he was excommunicated, which brought on a suit against the Little Rock Stake of the LDS Church. While still in the church Weston published at least two books on it.

In 1962 Weston moved his family -- wife Lou Jean Fairchild Weston and stepdaughter Ann -- to an 80-acre farm about three miles outside Cave City at the southern edge of Sharp County. For a decade Weston lived a quiet, secluded life. That came to an end when his health recovered in the early 1970s. He decided to start a newspaper, and thus, Sharp Citizen was born.

Editor Weston was wildly confrontational from the start. His first issue included a scathing denouncement of prominent Cave City banker and former state Sen. Eagle Street, referring to him as "the bastard tyrant of Sharp County."

He accused Street of being "an absolute dictator of all business, political, social and religious affairs of the county." Sharp County, Weston wrote, "was a medieval barony, at least 300 years behind the civilization of the portion of the U.S. outside of Arkansas."

In another case, he attacked John Cooper, developer of Cherokee Village, a large retirement community near Hardy where, Weston wrote, "a large population of retired older folks from Illinois, Indiana and Iowa have found themselves trapped in what amounts to a concentration camp ..."

Journalist Ernie Dumas, author of the excellent entry on Joseph Weston in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, offered a selection of headlines to further "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," and "Is Judge Ransom C. Jones Operating His City Court in Cave City as a Racket Under Orders from Elvis?"

Weston loved conspiracies. When denied a second-class postal permit for his newspaper, Weston blamed it on "a secret agreement" between President Richard M. Nixon, U.S. Senators John L. McClellan and J.W. Fulbright, and U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills "to see that I didn't get a second-class permit."

Weston found himself in court almost from launching the Citizen, and seemed to relish all the attention. On one occasion, Weston fled the state in order to avoid arrest, and the Citizen from that time carried a banner "Edited in Exile."

Weston was sued for criminal libel in 1973 by a neighbor whom he had ridiculed in print as "too illiterate to swear out a warrant." Weston concluded that "Junior Dickey" had no likelihood of making money "even if he ran his still (the one he inherited from his father) every night for a month." Weston had an excellent attorney, Ted Boswell, who had waged feisty reformist campaigns for governor in 1968 and the U.S. Senate in 1972, but that was not enough to save the day. He also faced two additional charges of criminal libel in Sharp County as well as four in Clay County.

In 1975, Weston was convicted in Clay County Circuit Court for a Citizen story stating that Sheriff Liddell Jones was guilty of drug trafficking, and perhaps even murder. Weston was represented on appeal by two able lawyers, Dent Gitchel and Robert Cearley, and they were able to convince the State Supreme Court that the existing criminal-libel statute was unconstitutional due to its failure to provide for truth as a defense and the absence of a requirement to show malice.

All the courtroom appearances did not prevent Weston from taking time out to run for governor on the Republican ticket in 1974 and 1976. It also did not prevent his fathering children at his advanced age.

Weston had four children by his first wife, whom he divorced after World War II. After moving to Arkansas, Weston divorced his second wife so he could marry her daughter, with whom he had a son named Benjamin Freepress Weston as well as two daughters.

Weston died Nov. 15, 1983, and is buried in a Cave City cemetery.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. A version of this column appeared on April 9, 2017. Email him at [email protected].

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