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Civility, 'Oregon style'.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Laments about the loss of civility in public discourse are widespread - indeed, we've played that violin ourselves on occasion. Evidence of a coarsening of the vocabulary of public affairs is easy to find on the radio dial, in the letters columns and in political advertising. The current degraded state of debate is usually contrasted, in tones of sorrow or scorn, to a vanished era when the clash of ideas was conducted in loftier and more respectful language.

But maybe earlier times were not so civil after all. The April 24, 1875, issue of The Oregon State Journal, published in what was then called Eugene City, recently came to hand. Here's the first paragraph of an editorial from that newspaper:

"The Salem Record, a little played-out swashbuckler of the pig pen and potato patch, emboldened by its failure in the agricultural field and clad in the brazen armor of impudence, struts to the political front again and begins a career of lilliputian madness by attacking the Republican office-holders of Oregon. There is something absolutely stunning in the belligerent attitude of this henpecked rooster, and the soaring cheek of its attempt to hector Mr. Mitchell for the manner in which he has disposed of the federal appointments for this state. It out-screams any farce and is bloodier than any tragedy the play-seeing people of the world have ever wept or laughed over - the wildest absurdity that ever backed itself for a heat against the credulity of the people and the forbearance of the gods."

That's just for starters. It goes on, at length, from there, excoriating The Record's publisher as "an irrepressible little diddler" with "no more political principle than a Berkshire sow."

The editorial was a defense of Sen. John Mitchell - or, rather, an attack upon one of his critics. Mitchell, a Republican, was a colorful figure. The Legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate on three non-consecutive occasions, in between accusations of land fraud and bigamy. He died in office while appealing a conviction for bribery. Perhaps the State Journal's support was misplaced.

The writer of the editorial was Harrison Kincaid, who published the State Journal for 45 years, retiring in 1909. Kincaid is respected as a pioneer of Oregon newspapering, and served a term as secretary of state. According to Warren C. Price's 1976 history of The Register-Guard, Kincaid's weekly was Eugene's "status newspaper" in the late 19th century, maintaining a relatively lofty tone while the Guard and Register wrestled to become the dominant daily publication.

George Turnbull's 1939 "History of Oregon Newspapers" describes the "Oregon style" of newspapering around the time of the Civil War, to which Kincaid conformed. Quoting an earlier summary, Turnbull identified the style as "a species of storm-and-stress composition, strong chiefly in invective. ..."

An example from Asahel Bush of the Statesman in Oregon City: "There is not a brothel in the land that would not have felt itself disgraced by the presence of The Oregonian of week before last. It was a complete tissue of gross profanity, obscenity, falsehood, and meanness. And yet it was but little below the standard of the characterless sheet."

So much for the lost civility of a kinder, gentler age. Placed alongside the commentary of an earlier era, today's public discourse seems polite to the point of bloodlessness.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; New depths of invective today? Think again
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 17, 2006
Words:553
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