”Shooting Arrows & Slinging Mud: Custer, The Press, and The Little Big Horn”
By James E. Mueller
James E. Mueller’s “Shooting Arrows & Slinging Mud: Custer, The Press, and The Little Big Horn” is a fair-minded and nuanced dissection of how journalists played out the West’s most infamous battle, inflaming the public’s imagination for the first time on a subject that still casts large shadows. With two earlier books on press coverage in the modern political arena, Mueller, who teaches journalism at the University of North Texas, brings an astute awareness of the field’s contemporary concerns to “Shooting Arrows,” a finalist for nonfiction at this year’s High Plains Book Awards.
Mueller draws many parallels between the era of Reconstruction and our own, reminding readers that the past is always alive in the present. Tales of the Seventh’s slaughter tore through telegraph cables that just 30 years before had revolutionized connectivity across the widening nation. New voices flooded newspapers that mirrored our own political echo chambers, and, with little guidance, readers were tasked to find the difference between information and opinion. News coverage of the Battle of the Little Bighorn offers a provocative focal point for both sectionate and communal aspects of 1870s political discourse, especially as they concerned voters during the election of 1876, the closest presidential contest on record.
^pAt its best, “Shooting Arrows & Slinging Mud” works like ensemble theatre: Mueller describes and highlights the energetic interplay of opinion and occasional insult between newspapers providing coverage of the battle. Yet, in regard to readability, Mueller may cast his net too wide (though it’s perhaps inappropriate to fault an academic for at times allowing scholarly comprehensiveness to detract from narrative concerns).
^pInstead of giving in-depth attention to more individuals who lived the reportage, Mueller discusses a total of 61 different newspapers’ responses. Still, his approach is qualitative rather than quantitative, and through carefully selected quotations emerges an intricate map of the currents of political thought expressed in late 19th century American journalism.
^pMueller offers an interesting, if overly abstract, analysis of the importance reportage played in shaping the growing country’s response to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Perhaps more interestingly, however, he connects traits of past journalism to our current news environment. Just like our forebears, we are subject to the threads of media we consume.