Digging the Underground Press
The Sixties’ scrappy alternative newspapers were the
oxygen that kept the era’s movements going.
By RICHARD GREENWALD
MARCH 30, 2011
History books rarely speak as trenchantly to contemporary
issues as John McMillian's Smoking Typewriters: The
Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative
Media in America (Oxford University, February). As the
cascading revolts in the Muslim world demonstrate,
communication systems matter.
Communication is the oxygen of social movements, but
scholars have rarely focused attention on the organs of
social protest. In the 19th century, the labor and radical
movements all had their own press, as did various ethnic
communities, and each was vital to its cause. The medium
has changed (from small magazines, to cheaply printed
local community newspapers to Twitter), but the message is
the same: Social movements need organic forms of
communication because without it, they die.
Smoking Typewriters chronicles the pioneers of what today
we call "independent media." McMillian meticulously mines
the rich archive of the alternative press to reveal these
newspapers as products of their era, tied to activist
communities as well as powerful personalities, and linked
through ideology and more than a little hustle and
business moxie. During the Sixties (the author refers to
the era as the Sixties, and the decade as the '60s) such
newspapers became the lifeblood of the movement,
connecting both isolated pockets of resistance and
individuals to larger communities and happenings in
Berkeley, Madison, Ann Arbor and New York. They told the
world what was going on.
These pioneers, angered by the mainstream press, sought to
create their own version of the news, a true alternative.
McMillian profiles the founders of famed '60s papers, such
as Art Kunkin, a counterculture figure whose LA Free Press
(the "Freep") provided sophisticated coverage of the 1965
Watts Riots. We see the dynamic duo of Ray Mungo and
Marshall Bloom, who founded the Liberation News Service, a
sort of alternative Associated Press, which published
weekly news. We also learn how John Wilcock willed the
Underground Press Syndicate into being. We see the egoism,
petty fights and arrogance, as well as the real fiscal
woes of these organizations.
McMillian makes these actors real without tearing them
down. We see their flaws, warts and messes. We also see
the sweat equity and almost maniacal focus it took to get
out a paper. Above all, we see the vision and drive
necessary to make change.
"While on the one hand remaining deeply enmeshed in the
cultural stirrings in their own community," McMillian
writes, "the era's literary demimondes also conceived of
themselves as crucial social agents who would chart the
New Left's progress, champion its goals, and--by
establishing an alternative media universe that paralleled
that of straight society--meet the Movement's demand for
the creation of viable 'counterinstitutionalisms.' "
People turned to papers like the Berkeley Barb for news
and information that mattered most to them. At these
papers, the pioneers invented a new style of journalism,
part Marxist theory, part muckraking journalism, part
cultural reporting, part political humor and part gossip.
This informal style intentionally blurred the lines
between participant and reporter, destroying the myth of
objectivity in the process. A whole generation of
journalists grew up writing and reading these papers.
Today, many of them, such as Joe Conason, Lowell Bergman,
and Mike Shuster write for magazines such as this one, The
Nation, The New Yorker and other outlets.
Smoking Typewriters is as much a history of the '60s as it
is of the era's "alternative media," a phrase we hear a
lot these days (if you replace "alternative" with
"independent"). It often seems like there is nothing new
to learn about the '60s, but McMillian provides a fresh
history by putting the role of media at the center. He
helps us better understand the decade by providing a
window into the institutions this anti-institutional
In the past decade, there has been a renewed interest in
the '60s by a younger generation of scholars who have
complicated the narrative, making the era come more fully
alive. Lost in much of this revisionism, however, has been
the radicalism that seemed to define the era. The pendulum
might have swung too far. McMillian and his academic
comrades have embraced radicalism, not just as a topic of
academic study, but also as a calling. They have tried to
put radicalism back into the narrative of the '60s, to
write history that speaks to current activists. They
remind us that a radical impulse defined the era.
McMillian's is an engaged history, modeled on that of
Howard Zinn. He takes sides. His goal is to remind readers
that we need to "recapture that spirit" of the '60s to
revitalize American democracy.
But the spirit McMillian presents is both brilliant and
pockmarked. McMillian writes, "Before the advent of the
underground press, the youth revolt was marked more by
fragmentation than cohesion." We forget that part of what
the New Left did was to break the hold of what had become
a stagnant media culture, replacing it with an expectation
for partisan reporting and a commitment to community.
These papers were consciously creating a space that sought
to further radical politics and celebrate an alternative
culture. In this, as McMillian shows, they were
The real strength of Smoking Typewriters is to demonstrate
that a few dedicated activists could create media to
further their movements. In the '60s, the revolution in
offset printing opened the doors to hundreds of small
papers. Now, with the Internet, a blogosphere has emerged
with hundreds of thousands of micro-news outlets.
McMillian has some hope that this new freedom can be taken
advantage of by a movement, but I wonder if the moment has
passed. One reason for the '60s alternative presses'
success was their financial model, which relied on
advertising revenue. The underground press provided an
alternative to the mainstream press; advertisers
recognized that and helped the scrappy papers keep
Today, there is simply so much noise that it is hard to
get noticed. And the financial props for community
newspapers are shrinking. Yet "independent
media"--including magazine like this one--still offer hope
that speaking truth to power matters. McMillian's book
shows us the important history of this fundamental
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate