In 1879, the Reno Evening Gazette condemned the Chinese habit of smoking opium. Like numerous articles before in many Western newspapers, the Gazette’s journalist decreed the habit to be a ‘foul cancer’ and a ‘loathsome moral leprosy” (Ahmad, 2003). Along with his press corps colleagues the Reno reporter took it upon himself to become a moral guardian of society by condemning the use of smoking opium. Protecting American men and women from the alleged immorality of the narcotic became a passion for many of the West’s journalists in the 1870s and the 1880s.
In 1848, the first major wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States to participate in the California gold rush. Along with their hopes of riches, they brought with them the habit of smoking opium. Although few Chinese actually smoked the drug, the vice quickly became associated with all of them, as opium dens opened in practically every Chinatown in the West. The Chinese established dens throughout Nevada, Montana, Texas, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho. The animosity of the press rose with the increasing availability of the drug. To counter the perceived problem of opium smoking, journalists campaigned for the passage of legislation to end the traffic in the narcotic.
By 1871 so many dens existed in Nevada that the state legislature became the first in the nation to pass a statute banning the sale of smoking opium and the keeping of an opium den.
During the last four decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of newspapers existed in the American West. Most communities possessed at least one weekly or daily newspaper. One of the oldest, continuously published newspapers in the West was Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise. The newspaper began in 1858 in Genoa, Nevada, moved to Carson City in 1859, and established itself permanently in Virginia City in 1860. The Territorial Enterprise boasted several well-known editors and reporters, induding Dan DeQuille who worked for the newspaper for thirty-one years, and Samuel Clemens who worked for the newspaper in 1862 and 1863 just before changing his name to Mark Twain.
The tasks of the journalists were defined by the era in which they wrote. From the 1830s through the 1860s, journalists began to consider themselves agents of reform, and their papers began providing information to help their readers reform government and society. During the Civil War, newspapers became vehicles of information that provided the names of relatives who had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner during the conflict. In addition, readers learned to rely on the press for information about the war, government policies, and the outcome of recent events. As a result, Americans developed the habit of reading newspapers.
By the 1870s, and coincidentally at the beginning of the practice of smoking opium by the common Americans, journalists conceived of themselves as agents of moral and intellectual growth. In 1869, Richard Grant White, American author and Shakespearean scholar, wrote that the journalists job was to speak to thousands of people and ‘to lay before his readers accounts of the world’s doings that may be relied upon.’ White continued, It is to journalism that we should be able to look for a corrective of the evils from which our society is suffering,’ and it is to journalists that Americans should look to find our chastisement, our hope, and our salvation” (Ahmad 246-247).
With a tradition of acting as social reformers and believing that newspapers were the most valuable publication in the country, journalists felt that they had the power to protect the United States. Western journalists took the role of civilizing agent seriously. Some of them focused on eliminating prostitution or took up the cause of temperance, while others took on the chore of eliminating opium dens from their countries midst.
The journalists continued to believe they acted as moral guardians for their communities. Their campaign to abolish the narcotic was unrelentless as well as fruitless because physical addiction to opium went beyond the newspapers demands for laws or law enforcement.
By the mid-1870s bureaucrats and physicians joined the journalists in their demands against Chinese immigration. Smoking opium combined with Chinese labor competition and Chinese prostitution added weight to the call for Chinese exclusion.
By 1882 the anti-Chinese forces succeeded with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As with the campaign against smoking opium. Western journalists kept the debate against Chinese immigration alive in their newspaper columns Their desire was not to prohibit the Chinese from moving to the United States so much as attempting to keep America free from corruption and addiction.