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My Nevada 5: Journalists in the Silver State

From Mark Twain to Hank Greenspun, Nevada journalists both recorded history and changed it. Alumnus and historian Michael Green lists his favorites.
Business & Community  |  Apr 2, 2014  |  By UNLV News Center

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, spent only three years in Virginia City, but left a lasting impression on the profession of Journalism in the Silver State. (Image provided by the Library of Congress)

Editor's Note: 

This piece comes from Michael Green, ’86 BA and ’88 MA History. He is now a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada and recently received the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Historical Association. He has written numerous books on the Civil War and on Nevada gaming history and politics. He is currently writing a Nevada history textbook and editing a collection of essays on Abraham Lincoln. As an undergraduate, he worked as a reporter at The Valley Times.

As print and online publications regularly open or close, reduce or retrench, and social media has put storytelling into the hands of everyday people, conversation often turns the importance of journalism to our daily lives. Alan Barth, a legendary editorial writer for The Washington Post, was the first to call journalism "the first rough draft of history." And that's the point: It's a rough draft, not a perfect one.

Reporters (and historians) make mistakes or learn additional information that could alter the meaning or facts of what they originally wrote. Historians like myself examine a variety of sources, including news stories, to be able to describe, analyze, and flesh out the past, and sometimes those sources differ or may even be contradictory.

Those who study Nevada's history are no different. Nevada's journalists have been and remain an incredibly important source of information about what the state's residents did and thought at any one time. Some have proven to be more trustworthy than others.

Here's my list of Nevada's most important journalists:

1. Mark Twain (1835-1910)

He is undoubtedly the least important entry to Nevada's journalistic heritage on this list, but his existence attests to the impact of the state's newspapers. He arrived in Nevada Territory from Missouri in 1861 with hopes of striking it rich somehow. Neither an expected government job that evaporated nor the dirt and grit of mining did it. But his way with words saved him.

He began contributing to publications and wound up reporting for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. He left in 1864, meaning that he spent only three years or so in the state. But they were three incredible years.

Reporting on the territorial legislature and serving as a clerk, he helped start "The Third House," an informal group that still satirizes the Carson City proceedings at the end of each session. Walking the Comstock Lode, he reported on everything from murders to mining strikes. He learned the craft of reporting and developed his writing skills. And, he evolved from Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain--not just a writer but a persona, a literary stylist often considered the father of American literature. He cut his eyeteeth in Nevada among the characters of a mining rush.

More crucially, when news was lacking, he and his colleagues invented it. Roughing It is his hilarious account of going West in search of his fortune. What he learned in Nevada helped underpin Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and a galaxy of creations.

2. William Wright/Dan De Quille (1829-1898)

Twain's colleague, contemporary, roommate, friend, and perhaps even mentor, William Wright, spent three decades with the Territorial Enterprise. His news coverage of the Comstock Lode was thorough and knowledgeable; he actually could explain mining techniques. But he became better known for his "quaints" or hoaxes. When they lacked news, Wright, Twain, and other reporters had to fill the local news columns, they simply made it up. He chose the pen name Dan De Quille to fit his writing ability: He wielded a dandy quill indeed. DeQuille's classic was probably the magical "traveling stones of Pahranagat," but I love the one about the inventor of "solar armor" whose cooling machine worked so well that he froze to death.

DeQuille published all kinds of news stories and features about mining in Nevada, but he also ventured into other kinds of writing. He wrote numerous short stories and novellas. At the behest of several Comstock magnates, he wrote a history, The Big Bonanza, still an outstanding source on the history of Virginia City and its environs.

Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

3. Frank McCulloch (1920- )

Frank McCulloch was born in Fernley and earned his journalism degree at Reno (he edited the university newspaper, the Sagebrush). After World War II, he returned to Reno as a reporter and dodged occasional death threats from the mob. He went to work for Time in 1953, gaining renown for obtaining the last interview Howard Hughes gave. After a stint as managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, he covered Vietnam for Time-Life.

Back in the U.S. in the late 1960s, he headed an investigative unit that rooted out information about the mob and a fake biography of Hughes before becoming a top editor for McClatchy Newspapers from 1975 to 1985. In that job, he encouraged in-depth reporting that led to a libel suit from Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada over the Sacramento Bee reporting that the mob had skimmed money from a hotel that his family owned.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, McCulloch's work for United Press in Reno informed the world of what was going on in Nevada, and throughout his career, he or the reporters he supervised continued to dig into the state. He also served as a mentor and an inspiration to reporters in Nevada and elsewhere, from author David Halberstam to longtime Washington Post political reporter Lou Cannon.

4. Hank Greenspun (1909-1989)

Hank Greenspun came to Las Vegas in 1946 as a young lawyer and died in 1989 as a giant. Soon after arriving, he became publisher of an entertainment magazine, a publicist for Bugsy Siegel, and an investor in a radio station and the Desert Inn Hotel. He also ended up running guns to Israel during the war leading up to its founding in 1948.

In 1950, striking typesetters at the Las Vegas Review-Journal started their own newspaper. Greenspun bought it, turned it into the daily Las Vegas Sun, and soon earned national attention for taking on two powerful U.S. senators: Nevada's Pat McCarran, who engineered an advertising boycott intended to put the Sun out of business (it failed), and Wisconsin's Joseph McCarthy.

Greenspun objected to McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt, exchanged words with him at a political rally in Las Vegas in 1952, and published a series of news stories accusing McCarthy of being, among other things, a Nazi sympathizer and a secret communist. A federal grand jury indicted Greenspun for inciting McCarthy's assassination, but he was acquitted. The Sun continued to win attention for Greenspun's crusades and attacks when critics accused him of using the newspaper for personal gain.

Greenspun and his family developed the land that became Green Valley and built the cable television company now owned by Cox Communications. Greenspun remains a national hero in Israel, and support from his family led to the naming of UNLV's College of Urban Affairs, the School of Journalism and Media Studies, and the building that houses them for Greenspun.

5. Ned Day (1945-1987)

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Ned Day came to Nevada in 1976 and went to work for a struggling daily, The Valley Times. He quickly established a reputation as a brilliant reporter and writer, uncovering stories that organized crime figures and questionable politicians wanted kept secret. He reported on the mobsters at the Stardust depicted in Martin Scorsese's and Nicholas Pileggi's Casino, and on skimming up and down the Strip and downtown.

In the 1980s, he became a reporter, commentator, and anchor for KLAS-TV-8. His column, appearing in the much larger Review-Journal, was alternately civic conscience and high and low entertainment, combining investigative techniques and the Gonzo-style approach of Hunter S. Thompson. Mobsters threatened him and blew up his car in 1986. Day died a year later in Hawaii while on vacation. Rumors still persist that he was finally a victim of the mob, by then a shell of its former self, thanks in part to his reporting.