Politics Now the Focus of Underground Press
By John Leo, New York Times
Published September 4, 1968
The Underground Press, created to reflect and shape the withdrawn life style of hippies and dropouts, has taken a sharp turn toward radical politics.
Until recently, the formula for a successful underground paper was sex, drugs, rock music, Oriental religion and the “San Francisco look” in psychedelic art.
Now this material Is yielding to coverage of student uprisings, the peace movement, guerilla activities, draft resistance and muckraking attacks on the political and social Establishment.
The disruption in June by [some] people of a television panel discussion on the underground press, lavishly covered in underground papers, is regarded by many as symbolic of the shift toward confrontation. During the incident, which took place at the studios of Channel 13 while the “Newsfront” program was on the air, the invaders milled about in front of the camera, shouted and cursed the “Establishment media.”
“We’re not withdrawing,” said one underground editor,speaking of the trend, “we’re overturning.”
There are perhaps 150 underground papers, almost all of them less than three years old and most of them published under shaky financial conditions in large cities or college towns.
By the standards of traditional journalism, much of the underground writing is freewheeling, lurid, superficial and sometimes indecipherable.
However, much of it is imaginative and impassioned coverage of events sometimes slighted by established media.
Range of the Genre
The underground journals range from the brash young political papers, like The Great Speckled Bird of Atlanta, to the solid affluence of The Los Angeles Free Press, an established part of that city’s cultural scene; from the transcendental theory of Avatar to the “mind-blowing” visual effects and kinky sex ads of The East Village Other.
But the general trend is toward radical politics. The Free Press and Avatar (now published in separate Boston and New York editions) have stepped up political coverage. The Oracle of San Francisco, perhaps the most influential of the papers promoting salvation through mysticism and drugs, has suspended publication.
Many other papers that grew out of the LSD and Hippie culture, such as The East Village Other, are struggling for a new identity.
“The drug culture is dead,” said Jeff Shero, editor of The Rat, which bills Itself as “New York’s muckraking subterranean newspaper.”
“It’s now impossible to believe in any kind of salvation from drugs. Kids get drafted or hit by cops on real or phony drug raids. The outside world keeps barging through your door and you’ve got to confront it.”
Like many editors, Max Schorr of The Berkeley Barb believes that police “harassment” is the largest single factor in politicizing the alienated audience for underground papers.
“What the Germans used to call ‘the inner exile’ is over,”‘he said. “Whether your friends and neighbors are getting hit on the head by police, running around in despair, you’re involved whether you want to be or not. People are finding that they can’t hide from society as they thought they could.
For many, prolonged living in a hippie area has come to mean danger, poverty, overcrowding, police raids and a slow brutalizing of the spirit.
“The concept of flower people in America today is absurd,” said Peter Leagieri, publisher of The East Village Other.
Much of this disenchantment is now being channeled into political radicalism by the war in Vietnam, pressures from the draft and the recent student revolts at Columbia and the Sorbonne.
‘Lenny Bruce in Print’
“The repressive aspects of society are just being seen more and more clearly,” according to Paul Krassner, whose irreverent pre-underground journal. The Realist, has shifted from black humor (“It was Lenny Bruce In print,” Mr. Krassner said) to equally antic but more political coverage.
Since the first of the year, the few older political papers, such as The Barb and The San Francisco Free Press, have been joined by some 30 new radical underground papers, most of them heavily influenced by the leftist Students for a Democratic Society. Many of them, like S. D. S., consider American society hopelessly corrupt and advocate disruption of “the system.”
Traditional coverage is politicized, not eliminated. The Paper, at Michigan State, has turned sports coverage of the university/ football team into a sociological indictment of America. In New York, The Rat covers rock music as “the language of the revolution.”
“The point isn’t to talk to people who are already radical,” said The Rat’s Mr. Shero, a member and former vice president of S.D.S. “We use the rock section, or an occasional nude on the cov«r, as a way of opening us up to people who are 17 and 18 and thinking about their own problems, not politics.”
Columbia and Berkeley
Recently, The Rat published an exclusive story on a Mexican guerrilla band, first-person accounts and exclusive pictures of the Columbia turmoil, stories on the violence of the June demonstrations in Berkeley, Calif, (“the first off-campus white rebellion America has known in recent times”), and a “guide to survival” for demonstrators at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
In general, the underground papers keep a sharp watch for misconduct by the police (“psychopaths in blue”), anything dealing with Ernesto Che Guevara (“the saint who climbed mountains”), unflattering photographs of President Johnson (commonly touched up with swastikas) and for any evidence, however tenuous, that the United States is run by an Interlocking directorate of the selfish and complacent.
The Black Panther party gets heavy coverage, but otherwise race is not usually a priority issue. (“Most of our readers have been through that,” said Mr. Shero.) Timothy Leary and Alan Watts, heroes when drugs and religion reached their peak in the underground press, are now rarely mentioned.
Comics More Political
There are rambling personal essays laced with profanity and zany comic strips, both of which are becoming more and more political. “The San Francisco look – basically the curved line of art nouveau in psychedelic color – seems to be yielding to “the New York look” (“The New York look creates tension.” one editor said. “It’s the perfect art for the politics of confrontation.”)
News coverage is consciously subjective and onesided; (“A growing revolt against the selfish and reactionary American Medical Association came to a head here began a typical recent article in Open City, a Los Angeles paper.)
The theory is that truth is rooted in personal experience, and that the standard news media, by insisting on impartial and detached coverage, omit and distort the underlying reality of crucial news events. (In shorter form, the argument goes that no newspaper is objective – the underground papers are just the only ones acknowledging it.)
“Objectivity is a farce,” said Thorne Dreyer of Liberation News Services, which serves many of the underground papers. Mr. Shero added: “We made our biases clear. That frees our writers to talk about their guts.”
The papers are characteristically casual about checking facts before publication. One editor, who declined to be identified, when asked about a widely reprinted story about riots and murder at a Texas military base (actually no one was killed) replied: “Well, the straight press didn’t print anything, and we printed too much. It all balances out in the end.”
Another concern is that the goal of building a revolutionary movement can be endangered by turning down or questioning stories sent in by allies.
“We often print something for someone In the ‘family,'” said Daniel McCauslin of Liberation News. eration News. “If you get someone sending you stuff from the Midwest, you just have to trust him. We’re not held together by massive objectivity, but by trust.”
This same trust led to the Underground Press Service, an agreement among some 60 underground editors to reprint from one another’s newspapers without special permission, attribution or rechecking.
The underground papers are not a quality press,” Thomas Pepper, a former reporter and graduate student wrote recently in The Nation, “because they pander to their readers with a dexterity befitting the Establishment papers they criticize so bitterly. [They] offer nothing more than a stylized theory of protest.”
Nevertheless, he adds, they “have awakened virtually all concerned to a real deficiency in American newspaper journalism … the fact that regular metropolitan dailies do not communicate with subcultures.”
Paul Williams, 20-year-old Harvard dropout and publisher of Crawdaddy, the successful and highly regarded magazine of rock music, complains that the underground press generally cover the same subject matter as Look magazine.
“Very few are actually doing much work or original thinking, and the copy is getting sloppier,” he said. “Many start with enthusiasm and are trapped by business — they owe people money and pretty soon they’re on a treadmill, keeping the papers going by putting out what the readers are already interested in. There’s no longer much difference between the underground and the regular press.”
For most papers, financial pressures are heavy. Some editors who have lost their second-class mailing permits, usually for technical violations of the postal code, say they could be put out of business by a rapid subscription raise.
Eight out of ten papers would fail if a few phonograph record companies stopped advertising, according to John Walrus, business manager of The Seed ;in Chicago. His own paper, he said, receives $1,000 of its $1,400 in weekly advertising from record ads.
In talking about money problems and shifting reader tastes, an underground publisher can sound remarkably like an Establishment publisher. The East Village Other’s Mr. Leggieri, who said it costs $18,000 a month to publish (“we’re simply not geared to being an underground paper anymore”) thinks that EVO must move away from the psychedelic scene, but rejects a switch toward radical politics.
“The times are changing and we have to change too, but we don’t believe politics can lead to anything beneficial to mankind,” he said. “This is a political year, but when it’s over the political papers will be gone and we’ll still be here.” Mr. Leggieri said his astrologer, whom he consults regularly, reported that EVO’s new approach will begin to take shape this month.
The advantage of the political papers is that they know exactly what their goal is, and a good deal of the credit for their rise is being assigned to Liberation News Service. Liberation News was founded in Washington, in 1967 by Ray Mungo (Boston University, ’67) and Marshall Bloom (Amherst, ’66), both radical editors of their college papers. It provides inexpensive political coverage ($15 a month for two or three weekly packets) to 400 outlets, including 100 underground papers, and has reportedly persuaded many “drug culture” papers to emphasize politics.
C.B.S. a Subscriber
The agency has offered long reports from Hanoi, detailed round-ups of antidraft activities and a series on the latest chemical weapons stockpiled by the Pentagon. The Columbia Broadcasting System and Look magazine are among the agency’s subscribers, and Doubleday has commissioned a book from Liberation News on the Columbia dispute.
Its basic belief is that a “new journalism” is taking shape in America, totally outside the province of established journalism, and that radicals are leading the movement. It also assumes that the established media are incapable of printing the truth about anything important.
“The media is the enemy,” Mr. Mungo said. “I’d much rather put The Times out of business than the New York City police. It does much more damage.”
Many underground editors who have come to rely heavily on Liberation News are apprehensive that it may go out of business. In a bitter dispute last month, the agency split into two factions, both of which are attempting to continue publication as the one and only Liberation News Service.
Mr. Mungo, Mr. Bloom and several other staffers are publishing from a farm in Montague, Mass. Thirteen other staff members are publishing from the Liberation News offices at 160 Claremont Avenue in New York. They moved there from Washington last spring.
Mr. Bloom suggested that the 13 staffers were too doctrinaire, narrow and prone to jargon-ridden prose. He in turn was accused of being authoritarian and insufficiently militant.
Liberation News and the underground press are part of a loose alliance sometimes referred to as “the alternative media.” It includes high school and college papers (over 80 are served by Liberation (News), some prison and military papers, a string of 11 radical Spanish-language papers known as the Chicano press, a few “underground” TV and radio stations, and sympathetic “straight” journals such as Ramparts and The Village Voice.
This alliance is pugnaciously confident that it represents the wave of the future.
“We’ve educated a generation that no longer buys or needs daily papers,” Mr. Mungo boasted. ‘They believe us, not you. We represent an idea whose time has come.”