‘Under the Ground: The Story of Liberation News Service’ is definitely worth seeing.
SONOMA COUNTY, California — Let’s cut to the chase. Under the Ground, the new 80-minute documentary about the radical alternative to the UPI and the AP, is definitely worth seeing. It’s worth seeing for people who lived through the upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies, and also for those who have come of age with #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Proud Boys, and the insurrection in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021.
Dorothy Dickie’s fast-paced movie — which can be seen free on demand — is haunted by memories of the 1960s. It’s also as timely as today’s newspaper headlines. Armed with archival footage and buttressed by in-depth interviews with the likes of Ray Mungo, Allen Young, James Retherford, Alice Embree, Harvey Wasserman, and Thorne Dreyer, Under the Ground explores both the counterculture and the movement which overlapped one another and also went their separate ways.
Rhode Island PBS director Dorothy Dickie has a subject that allows her to use all her many talents. LNS serves as a mirror of the nation itself that was split apart by the War in Vietnam and along racial lines that gave birth to the Black Panther Party and Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”
Dickie’s emphasis is on LNS’s early years: the founding fathers; the big split that brought the press and the dissidents to rural Massachusetts; and Marshall Bloom’s suicide which takes place about midway through the documentary. There’s joy and sadness, utopian dreams and apocalyptic nightmares. The personal and the political merge.
In the film, someone calls LNS “guerrilla journalism.” Someone else calls it “gonzo journalism.” A third person calls it “participatory journalism.” Whatever one calls it, it clearly filled a void in the mass media, including radio and TV, that failed to report truthfully about Vietnam, Black Power, Student Power, Gay Rights, and Women’s Liberation. LNS reflected all the movements and the causes in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. In fact, in the group’s later years, the LNS staff collective always had a majority of women.
LNS enabled fledgling reporters and journalists to learn valuable skills.
LNS enabled fledgling reporters and journalists to learn valuable skills that they translated into jobs that actually paid salaries. The news service helped others, like Thorne Dreyer and Alice Embree, keep alive the spirit of the underground press which shaped the thinking and the actions of college students, hippies, GIs, and vagabonds who came together at mega protests and at immense music festivals. Rag Radio continues the tradition. In fact, Austin’s New Journalism Project is a sponsor of this movie.
Ray Mungo is a delight on camera; full of humor and wonderful stories including one about being called “insufficiently militant” by Tom Hayden. Lowell Bergman is informative on the San Diego scene. Someone, I’m not sure who, says, “We didn’t want stars. It was a collective.” Yes, it was that, but some, like David Fenton, stood out more than the others. David’s photos preserve a time and a place. They’re also timeless and iconic.
I wasn’t part of the collective, but I wrote occasionally for LNS, hung out in the office, shared food, watched the nightly news, and collated and stapled packets that went all around the country and to places like Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times.
Did LNS help to change history and the world? Under the Ground suggests that it did. The LNSers on camera are mostly a modest bunch who have remained true to their youthful ideals and unwavering dedication. They’re no longer young and beautiful. But they exude a kind of wisdom that’s born of experience, struggle, and cooperation. Watching them and listening to them on camera I can understand why Dorothy Dickie wanted to preserve their stories and help tell them again and again. See it and believe.
Watch the movie free on-demand anytime here.
[Jonah Raskin, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman recently translated into French and published in France under the title, Pour le plaisir de faire la révolution.]
- Read articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Jonah.
Thanks for bringing this wonderful documentary to my attention. RI PBS? who knew but glad they did it. I started reading articles from LNS in the late 60s, sometimes in the Freep but later in the Seed and other papers as I moved around. In graduate school in Madison, I had the perfect student job. I was told to organize tens of thousands of underground newspapers that had been subscribed to and loaned to University Microfilms in Ann Arbor to help create their Underground Press Collection. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin Library still has the largest collection of underground/alternative press in the country because we devoted resources to pay for subscriptions. As a student I used the various Radical Publications and Organizations Lists that LNS produced from 1969-71, maybe later, as I did my first book: Undergrounds: A Union List of Alternative Periodicals in Libraries of the United States and Canada (catchy, en?) which appeared in 1974. After I was hired in 1973 I used these lists to identify new titles to subscribe to. In the course of this work, I noticed that the Society was listed as a member, maybe under Organizations?, but I think it was with the papers themselves, along with a note that said, these people are not an underground newspaper but will pay to subscribe to any title. And we did. We also paid high subscription fee to get the issues of LNS which are preserved on 18 reels of microfilm (a separate reel has the Montague issues). When the New York office started producing the graphic parts of the packets, we would save those originals after microfilming and today there are three boxes of those photos and drawings in the Archives (I think they were printed on slightly better paper so that the photos would come through as they should). So thanks for the memories of LNS and all of the various things it meant to so many.
James P. Danky
Future of Print Project
School of Journalism & Mass Communication
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Thanks, James, for all you have done to save valuable items. I write this as someone involved in LNS for more than 3 years.