Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Off The Press!

My life and good times in alternative journalism

Boston Phoenix
40th Anniversary Edition
November 2006

I can write the alternative press’s history — or one passably passionate version of it — because the institution’s trajectory matches my own. As a hard-core baby boomer (no apologies), born in 1948, I hit college in 1966, Walpurgis Afternoon, as it were, on the 20th-century cultural calendar. I was greeted there by the first issue of the redesigned and recently radicalized BU News. The cover overhead: rotc vs. education, accompanied by a photo of a ROTC cadet printed as a negative image. The editorial: abolish rotc; page-one story: president case, houston condemn war, slums. The latter pieces quoted university president Harold C. Case saying the US is “more alone in the world than we know” thanks to the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies, and cited student-body president Julian Houston (who became a respected Boston judge) calling for “a total re-evaluation of our educational purpose, and perhaps even a revolution.”

There was also an invitation to try out for the paper’s staff, codedly promising that “cool heads prevail” at the News. Needless to say, I headed straight to the BU News office and offered my services as a reporter and photographer, skills acquired in gentler times working on high-school publications.

There I met the strangest and most wonderful cast of characters I’d encountered in all my 18 years. Secular-humanist nerds on dope. Hyperventilating social activists. Blue-collar scholarship geniuses and eccentric millionaires’ children in mutually gratifying solidarity. Love at first sight. I became an overnight BU Newsnik, anxious to subvert and bedevil the university, its president, the government, the military, the church, and every other authority dedicated to holding back the flood of over-educated young people inadvertently created by America’s post-Sputnik frenzy to out-school the Russians.

I was not alone. My generation’s distinguishing shared experience was media; our common characteristic was a determination to do things our own way. Inspired by Elvis and Kerouac and Ed Murrow and Dylan and betrayed by the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam draft, we saw every advantage in re-invention and none in convention. And, thanks to the Cold War Space Race, the World War II establishment — the infamous hand that fed us — had given us the tools to re-work just about anything.

As budding know-it-all journalists, we threw out every playbook and rulebook in sight. One by one, we transferred out of the communication school that had admitted us and re-enrolled as English or poli-sci majors. We cozied up to progressive profs like Mad Murray Levin and Howard Zinn and made fun of the J-school instructors who limited the art of reporting to “who, what, where, and when.” We went straight to that most elusive “w” — why.

In the darkroom, we pushed standard black-and-white film to wantonly high speeds with specialty developing concoctions so we could shoot everything with available light — imparting an atmospheric, realistic look to our pictures and abandoning the flat, grain-less, over-lit direct-flash intrusiveness of standard press photography.

When we wrote, we never took shelter behind traditional “objectivity.” We reported what we saw; we wrote what we saw was true. We embraced narrative journalism — specializing in long (and often long-winded) personalized accounts. We wrote about what we participated in and vice versa. Our heavily personalized and opinionated approach wasn’t really anything new. The tradition went back to when English-language journalism began, with the early, and unabashedly partisan, British broadsides. But it violated what, through the 1950s and early ’60s, were considered the pillars of the free press — party-line facts and no interpretation. We saw through those fair-sounding constraints as self-administered shackles through which the established interests were able to protect themselves from scrutiny and effectively manipulated the press.

In those days, in the dailies, inconvenient truths and unpleasant details didn’t have a chance. Neither did black activists, gays, feminists, free thinkers, pacifists, birth-control activists, political dissidents, Beat poets, Socialist Workers’ Party candidates, Lenny Bruce, or rock and roll. Media left a lot of stuff out.

And we were above all else media’s children. Our worldview and belief systems sprang from a lifetime of being bombarded by Howdy Doody, Davy Crockett, Little Richard, Walter Cronkite, live images of Lee Harvey Oswald dying in the Dallas cop-house garage, James Bond, Catcher in the Rye , accounts of the Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney murders, Gunsmoke , and Cold War scare tactics by which ’50s governments controlled their citizens.

As we grew up, we’d bought into it all. What we saw on TV and read in the papers was, we internalized early, the way things were. Then, as we plodded through high school, read Elie Wiesel’s Night , Camus, and e.e. cummings, many of us began to doubt. ( Mad magazine was no small influence here, as well.) The world according to CBS and the local daily ceased to align with what we were discovering about the world we were entering, uncensored, at recklessly high speed.

But at our core, the equation was unbreakable. Media = truth. So when the media we were fed stopped adding up, we re-invented it, using the medium most readily at out disposal — student newspapers. We eschewed the varnished bull that filled the mainstream press and, most of all, the Pollyanna-mouthed PR that deans of students expected us to publish. We cut through the crap. We called bad things evil and evil things worse. We made enemies. We became a threat. That was power, and, man, it felt good.

Were we always right? No, but in retrospect, more often than not. Were we “fair and balanced”? Hardly, but then again, it was obvious that the grown-up media’s take on things was itself corrupted, grossly distorted, and incomplete. Were we “professional”? No, but then, the professionals were all in somebody’s pocket, and somebody had to contradict them.

They pacified; we agitated.

Over the next four years, across America — Boston to Berkeley — campus activists and the student press went nuts. We called for the impeachment of Lyndon Johnson, we railed against the Vietnam War, we championed birth control and abortion, we attacked slumlords for exploiting students and minorities alike, we campaigned for academic freedom, and we covered “The Movement” from the inside. We shilled for peace demonstrations and insulted jocks and frat-heads (and their sisters in snuggle, the sor-heads). We had things to report that people couldn’t read about anywhere else. Things that really happened.

Simultaneously, odd little grassroots commercial newspapers were popping up. There were genuinely profane underground-press rags like the East Village Other and the Berkeley Barb . Out in San Francisco a towering troublemaker named Bruce Brugman and his wife, Jean, started a weekly covering arts and politics called the San Francisco Bay Guardian , loosely modeled after New York’s Village Voice , the standard-bearer of progressive journalism since 1955. That same year, 1966, in Boston, Steve Mindich, not long out of BU, published a small arts-and-entertainment weekly called Boston After Dark , distributed free on campuses. A few years later, some refugees from the BU News and some fellow travelers over in Cambridge kicked off a news, arts, and politics weekly called the Cambridge Phoenix . My first BU News editor, Ray Mungo, set up camp in Washington, DC, and fed all these new papers material from a zoo-like news-gathering organization called Liberation News Service (LNS). Mindich’s Boston After Dark quickly began covering radical politics and local issues. The alternative press was being born.

It chronicled, in real time, the touchstone events, trends, and persons of its generation: Kent State murders and Watergate; Woodstock and Altamont; Janice, Jimi, and Dylan; McCarthy, Humphrey, and McGovern; the Black Panthers and the Yippies; brown rice and communes; SDS and the SLA; the Tet Offensive and Prague Spring.

Over the next few years, things blew up, fell apart, clashed, collided, shook down, evolved, hemorrhaged, and healed, and when the dust and squabbling finally settled, Boston had two alternative weeklies — the Boston Phoenix (published by Mindich, its owner and publisher to this day) and the rival Real Paper. I freelanced, writing and shooting for both Boston alts, then eventually signed on as a section editor for the Phoenix .

In 1978, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) was formed as a means of resource sharing and mutual support among America’s disreputable young journalists. AAN, of which I decades later became president, was also a forum for heavy sectarian/political grudge matches and bitter rivalries. The young alt press attracted extremely talented people, many of whom were also outspoken, opinionated, headstrong, ideologues — often operating at the top of their lungs and under the influence of various intoxicants and narcotics. An AAN convention was, in those days, never a quiet event. On the Boston alt-wars front, ultimately, theReal Paperfolded, consumed by thePhoenix, the culmination of a remarkable series of ownership changes best enumerated in some narrower context. Yet behind all the noise, there was a core solidarity — a shared vision of reform, a common dedication to producing publications that dealt with and promoted the world as we would re-invent it. You may have heard the now-dated term “generation gap,” by which was meant the cultural and political gulf between the Greatest Generation and its young-adult children. No hollow catch phrase, that. It was a very real thing, and the drastic polarization of Vietnam-era America made it a permanent part of psyches old and young.

In the mid-1970s, the Vietnam War had ended (as predicted, “we” lost, by the way), and the cultural vision was denied its primary momentum. The laid-back sharing of the marijuana ethic was elbowed out by the selfish greed of cocaine. Dedicated hippies and leftist radicals retreated to the fringes ( e.g. , Cambridge). The goddamn Me Generation was invented by mass marketers and too many people believed it. For the terminally self-centered, New Age spiritual pabulum or cultish scams like EST filled the void left by the departed anti-war orthodoxy.

But good things happened as well. The alt press, freed from the doctrinaire imperatives of Vietnam, took a deep breath and “professionalized.” We started paying better attention to the niceties of grammar and punctuation; we adopted the purest elements from standard reporting practice; we perfected our trademark headline puns, got narrative reporting under verbose control, and started to have fun.

And some of us got jobs with grown-up papers — a thin edge of a wedge that has since narrowed the difference between alt-press coverage and daily coverage. Of course, as the Cold Warriors faded away and the boomers inherited their tattered institutions, society’s goals and values changed as well. Conservative backlash and Christian-fundamentalist bullshit aside, the ’60s’ causes — civil rights, feminism, gay liberation, peace, political reform, ecology, public profanity — have all, to some extent, survived and blossomed.

The daily newspapers’ old-school taboos are now common topics of conversation. If you’re old enough, try to imagine the late-’50s press outing pedophile priests or airing Bush-Cheney conspiracy theories. Just remember, you read it all first in the alternatives, which, I note with no little modesty, have been America’s most reliable political, social, and cultural vanguards for almost half a century. That the alt press has prospered and attracts new readers even as print circulation declines nationwide attests to a continued need for social re-invention.

A few years ago, I realized that, aside from occasional forays into mainstream print, I’d devoted my “career” to the alternative press. As writer, photographer, and (mostly) editor, I’ve lived an unusual and precious life. The paths (from civil rights, to ban the bomb, to leftist activism, to anti-war crusades) from the radical student press to the alts are well documented, but obscured and neglected by the insidious agenda of much of today’s backsliding mainstream media.

Consolidated and corporate-driven, bolstered by a mediocre conservative government that values passivity over progress in any matter that doesn’t produce quick profits, today’s largest entertainment industries promote inertia at best, craven dependence at worst. Thanks in large part to the influence of the alt press, the mainstream news is, mercifully, a more open forum than existed in Joe McCarthy’s America. But — and to verify this, you have only to survey daily papers and five-o’clock newscasts in markets outside the Northeast’s liberal enclaves — the will and courage to challenge the status quo that prevailed post-Watergate has largely been bartered away to rich puppeteers.

The alternative press — the Phoenix , the Bay Guardian , and the hundred or so alt weeklies toiling in the red states — is anything but obsolete. It’s something to cherish, something proud to be part of. Something invented out of restless outrage to propel the cutting edge of things. It survives in a state of perpetual self-contradiction, a permanent instrument of change — something forever new and necessary. As I tell the youth of today who venture into our offices, we’re the good guys. We never got rich, but we are going to heaven.

Clif Garboden is senior managing editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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