The Rag: Home

The Movement and the New Media

by Thorne Dreyer and Victoria Smith

The following article about the underground press was originally distributed by Liberation News Service on March 1, 1969. Dreyer was the founding Funnel of The Rag. Smith, now an associate professor of media studies, started out as a reporter with the St. Paul Dispatch. Dreyer and Smith worked together at Liberation News Service and at Space City in Houston.

“These smut sheets are today’s Molotov cocktails thrown at respectability and decency in our nation.”
—Joe Pool, late Texas congressman and Acting Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

When a nation like America, which holds its parliamentary “democracy’ so dear, which swears by its inalienable rights, will blatantly abridge ‘freedom of speech,’ somebody must be pretty uptight.

Dallas Notes: Office torn apart twice by cops, in search of “pornography.” Cops confiscated four typewriters, cameras, darkroom and graphic equipment, business records, books, posters, a desk, a drafting table, everything that could be ripped loose and carted off. Kept the spoils. Arrested staffers for possession of “pornography.”

Kaleidoscope (Milwaukee): Editor found guilty of “obscenity” — $2,000 and two years probated; being appealed. Obscenity law was written especially for paper. Editor’s car firebombed and windows show out. Office firebombed.

Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta): Local Parents’ League for Decency starts smear campaign against paper. Leaflet says, “…responsible persons are rightly disturbed by the sacrilege, pornography, depravity, immorality and draft dodging… Let’s put a stop to this flow of filth before it hurts any MORE children than it already has.” City initiates campaign of harassment, threatens grand jury investigation.

Xanadu (St. Louis): Police chief wages war against paper and its predecessor, the Daily Flash. One of the editors busted on grass charge by plainclothes cop masquerading as hippie.

Kudzu (Jackson, Miss.): Staff members busted on “obscenity” rap. Fourteen staffers and friends beaten up by deputy sheriffs. Cameras confiscated, paper evicted from office.

Open City (Los Angeles): Editor convicted of obscenity. Gets six months and $1,000 fine. Busted second time, same charge.

Every other underground paper in the country: Salesmen busted, advertising lost, phones tapped, retail shops intimidated, staff members arrested, attacked or drafted, hassled in every way imaginable.

The underground press has evolved from the sweetness and light of its early days and is becoming culturally outrageous and politically revolutionary. It has produced anger and fear among those whose interests it opposes.

As the radical media grows, and as it grows more radical, so do the attempts to repress it.

An Awakening

The underground press was born of necessity. Something was happening, and it demanded visibility. Pockets of life began to dot barren America. A strange breeze of discovery was sweeping through the land, carrying with it the pungent odors of pot and cum. Kids began to smoke, fuck, to discover their heads and their bodies and, most important, their lack of freedom. And as they came together, the Man came down—making joy and paranoia the bedfellows of the new awakening.

It was these two states of mind that demanded expression. To spread the glorious word, and to publicize the harrowing realities of the system, a medium was needed. The versatile tabloids lent themselves nicely to colorful shouts of freaky glee. And the necessity of consolidating forces against the enemy (yet to be defined but certainly omnipresent) made journalism an exceedingly wise tactic.

It is these same two elements—the positive and the negative, the vision of a better way and the need to destroy the old, the loving and the burning—that have been engaged in a dynamic interplay as a new kind of left has emerged in America.

In the beginning there was much faith that joy and freedom could be realized in the here and now, in the very guts of the leviathan. Just cleanse your soul of bad vibrations, get stoned a lot, tell a friend. The Word will spread so fast that the old order will come tumbling down quicker than you can say acid-head. And if it doesn’t, we can still create our community of love.

What crashed wasn’t the old order. It was the disillusionment of objective reality that sobered many a prophet. The Word came in loud and clear: it would take more than a whisper and a pill to make those walls come down. And no matter how beautiful the vibrations you emanated, you couldn’t create the good society in the entrails of the decaying body.

The lesson was learned: that we cannot individually remold our lives, that the institutions of the capitalist system define too much, that collective struggle is the necessity and that a new freedom can only be built on the ashes of the old order. Not that we negate or repress our joy, for that would make our vision merely academic, but that we must understand the limits of its possibility, continually attempting to make better lives for ourselves in the context of the greater struggle.

We report on this dynamic, because to grasp it is essential to an understanding of the changes the underground press has gone through from its birth to the present, and where we think it must go from here.

“(These papers) encourage depravity and irresponsibility, and they nurture a breakdown in the continued capacity of the government to conduct an orderly and constitutional society.”
—Joe Pool

Our Underground Roots

The underground papers have evolved in less than five years, from often rough-hewn rags, extolling the virtues of dope and goodness (especially of the Eastern mystical variety), to fairly sophisticated and attractive tabloids, beginning to develop a synthesis of the cultural and political aspects of making a revolution in this country.

The media of the revolution came together for the first time at Thanksgiving, 1968, in Madison, Wisconsin. The underground press had met three times before, but this meeting was a new thing. For the first time, people realized that the old underground press had undergone some mighty basic changes. (Even the name was becoming an anachronism. It had always, in fact, been a misnomer.) Previous national meetings of the underground were full of hassle. They featured mammoth splits between politicos and mystics—there was little common ground, just common enemy. But the Madison conference was a coming together of revolutionaries. Differences were tactical, stylistic, but the common ground was there.

Representatives of the new media held their virgin get-together in 1967 at Easter time. The conference was sponsored by the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) which had formed the previous summer. The San Francisco Oracle issued the call for a “pow-wow”; some 30 people got together at Oracle guru Michael Bowen’s house at Stimson Beach near San Francisco. No more than a half dozen papers were represented.

The tone was set by the more mystically oriented papers. The conference call, signed by Ron Thelin, Oracle managing editor and owner of Haight Ashbury’s then fledgling Psychedelic Shop, was apocalyptic in style:

“Well, here we all are, Uncle Sam on the verge of death. A sleep-stupor symbol-addicted environment haunts our hearts, and what are we going to do about it? …We extend this most urgent invitation that our fellow journalistic tribesmen will come together for spiritual guidance and fun.”

The conference was chaotic. Highlight for many was a long session with a Hopi Indian who had dropped by to establish communications. The Indian style was quite the thing in the early days of the underground—The Oracle even suggested that UPS rename itself Tribal Messenger Service. The conference did get around to making some decisions concerning the functioning of UPS, but set up no mechanism for democratic participation of the papers. And it really wasn’t important that UPS be anything more than a name at this point in history. It served as a symbol, creating a sense of national community that new papers could plug into and feel just a little less isolated in their efforts.

The three qualifications for membership were simple, and no central coordination was required. Papers were expected to exchange gratis subscriptions, occasionally print a list of UPS papers with addresses, and, most important, agree to a policy of free reprints: papers could reprint from each other without asking permission or paying money. Thus the concept of copyright was done in from the start. New papers could draw on the experiences of the more established ones, learning valuable techniques, gaining a source for national news. These practices set a tone of cooperation that was extremely important in the development of the new media.

UPS had been concocted by Walter Bowart and John Wilcock of the East Village Other (EVO) in New York and Mike Kindman of The Paper in East Lansing, Mich. For some, it was intended as a “pseudo event,” to fool the commercial press. To create the illusion of a giant coordinated network of freaky papers, poised for the kill. But this mythical value was to be extremely important: the shoes could be grown into.

UPS started with six papers: The Oracle, EVO, The Paper, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Berkeley Barb, and Detroit’s Fifth Estate. Of these, none, except perhaps The Paper, was consciously into the political movement. The Fifth Estate, the Free Press and the Barb had some political content, EVO was purely freaky and sensational, and the Oracle was sincerely mystical (and, incidentally, gorgeous). The next paper to join UPS, The Rag from Austin, Texas, was probably the first underground paper to grow out of a movement community and consciously see itself as an organizing tool.

The early papers were by no means a monolith. They varied greatly in visual style, content and even in basic conception. But they had a similar vision, and same Man was breathing down their necks. Most impressive of all was that the underground press developed essentially out of a journalistic vacuum. There was little precedence for these freaky, raving, irreverent little tabloids.

The beatnik scene of the fifties had its literary manifestoes and esoteric anthologies like Beatitude and Entrails. But their distribution was limited and they certainly never pretended to be newspapers. And there were the polemical rags of the sectarian leftists, like the Daily Worker and The Militant, ranting in such drab rhetoric that their impact was negligible. Only, perhaps, Paul Krassner’s Realist, started in 1958, set a style that the new media could draw upon heavily—though his removed “satirizing everything” approach lacked the commitment and advocacy so inherent in the radical press. But the zany iconoclasm, and, in fact, of Harvey Kurtzman of Mad and Humbug and Help, gave the underground a precedent for its irreverence.

The Village Voice was perhaps the most direct predecessor to the underground press. It was founded in 1955, and its tabloid format, layout and style, and “hip” content set a pattern for the underground. But the differences outweigh the similarities. Even Norman Mailer, certainly no raving radical, found the Voice too tame. Though associated with the paper in the beginning, he soon split and later wrote:

“They wanted it to be successful; I wanted it to be outrageous. They wanted a newspaper that could satisfy the conservative community, church news; meetings of political organizations, so forth. I believed we would grow only if we tried to reach and audience in which no newspaper had yet been interested. I had the feeling of an underground revolution on its way, and I do not know that I was wrong.”

The Voice, by then quite entrenched and comfortable, could have cared less about the underground press. John Wilcock wrote in Other Scenes:

"The Village Voice, ironically, is in the position of a teacher outsmarted by its students. It was the Voice with its pseudo-liberalism and willingness to print what at one time seemed far-out that paved the way for all the underground papers that followed. But publisher Ed Fancher’s basic conservatism (and greed) wouldn’t allow him to cooperate with UPS papers. Any paper that wanted to pick up something from the Voice had to write for special permission (sometimes refused) and was not allowed to pass it cooperatively among other UPS papers.”

The Voice’s lack of cooperation is probably something to be grateful for. The underground press escaped the danger of pollution from the Voice’s chickenshit liberalism.

EVO, started as a Christmas present to New York’s lower east side in 1965, was a direct reaction to the Voice, its initiators being Voice refugees. Where the Voice was mild and extremely cautious, EVO was outrageous and intentionally offensive. And it had a fairly direct relationship with the community born on Manhattan’s lower east side. But EVO has never served much more than a mind-blowing function, being a freak’s National Inquirer. As EVO had been a reaction to the Voice, another paper, Rat, was started early in 1968to fill the void EVO left.

Art Kunkin started the Los Angeles Free Press a good year and a half before EVO hit the streets in New York. The “Freep” was modeled somewhat after the Voice. Though its politics are more radical and its stands more courageous, it has never been very experimental and remains rather staid. By traditional standards it is the most successful underground paper, serving as an alternative to the Los Angeles dailies for southern California’s immense left-liberal community. Radicals criticize the Free Press, because it is organized much like a commercial newspaper. Staff member John Bryan quit the Free Press and started a freakier paper called Open City. He criticized the Freep for its hierarchical structure, time clock and rules which he claimed were more constrictive than those of Scripps Howard (for whom he had previously worked).

Perhaps most revolutionary of the early papers was the San Francisco Oracle whose graphic innovations were an inspiration to other underground papers and gave ideas to many an establishment journal. About the Oracle John Wilcock said:

“Its creators are using color the way Lautrec must once have experimented with lithography—testing the resources of the medium to the utmost and producing what almost any experienced newspaperman would tell you was impossible… it is a creative dynamo whose influence will undoubtedly change the look of American publishing.”

The Oracle placed little emphasis on copy and was generally hard to read, but it showed the underground how print could be used as a visual as well as an intellectual medium. Later papers, like the San Francisco Express Times and Kaleidoscope, would work at synthesizing these two aspects of the new journalism.

The other original UPS papers, the Barb and The Paper, served academic communities. The Barb, whose editor Max Scherr is an old-timer in his forties, reflected the chaotic Berkeley scene. Never very attractive, it covered the more sensational aspects of the left, thriving especially on sexual freedom orgies dope busts and splashy rumors. The Paper, on the other hand, was low key. Recognized as a second campus paper at Michigan State, it helped to build a radical community where none had existed before. New endeavors drew heavily, in inspiration and reprints, from these forerunners. Perhaps the most influential was the Oracle; many papers were modeled after it and almost all were inspired by its creativity.

But the underground press moved beyond the Oracle. From the birth of UPS, and that first flipped-out meeting at Michael Bowen’s house, to the conference in Madison, one trend had been dominant: the papers have become increasingly political. The underground press, now grown to nearly 200 papers with a circulation which Fortune magazine (a “usually reliable source”) claims to be a cool million, is now a political force to be reckoned with.

As the hippie papers have gone political, another interesting dynamic has been at play. As the underground press was moving steadily in the direction of the New Left, many of the leftist political organs have become more visually oriented and more readable. The Guardian, formerly a dull Old Left weekly, has undergone a political and cultural upheaval that has resulted in an attractive and interesting paper. Though it speaks more to people who already consider themselves radicals, its appearance is similar to the more political underground papers. The Movement, an SDS-oriented monthly published on the West Coast, is very much an underground paper in style and format. And New Left Notes, the SDS national newspaper published in Chicago, was hopelessly ugly and dull, buts layout has become more attractive and its copy more readable. Even the Communist Party’s Daily World is using Liberation News Service articles and graphics. One week Allen Young of LNS found his articles reprinted in the Daily World, the Trotskyist Militant and the colorful hip-oriented Chicago Seed. Perhaps the vital spirit of the underground will break through even the sectarian cliquishness of the Old Left.

The papers most influential in the underground no longer resemble EVO and the L.A. Freep. The vibrantly radical San Francisco Express Times (which we will describe later) has taken the conch from the Oracle. Its layout is clean and hip, its writing sharp and imaginative—the best the underground has produced.

And The Rat in New York, started by Jeff Shero, former vice president of SDS and a founder of Austin’s Rag, has taken EVO’s place as journalistic inspiration on the East Coast.

And Kaleidoscope, with editions published in Milwaukee and Chicago, is perhaps the most impressive paper in the Midwest, extremely imaginative in its use of color and graphics. Still, Kaleidoscope sees itself as a radical organizing tool, using much LNS material, with its content largely political.

And the Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, the Deep South’s first major underground paper, its layout styled after the Express Times, is published by southern radicals, many of whom are veterans of the civil rights struggle.

It’s these papers, and such others as Distant Drummer in Philadelphia, Connections in Madison, the Ungarbled Word in New Orleans, the Peninsula Observer in Palo Alto, and Helix in Seattle, and such holdovers from the early days as the Fifth Estate and The Rag, which set the tone for the struggling new papers popping up everywhere in America.

It was in Madison that the papers for the first time discussed their new identity. That first UPS conference had been followed by two other get-togethers, one in Washington, D.C., just prior to the Pentagon march in October of ’67, and again in Iowa City in the summer of ’68. Both were dismal failures. Both events were dominated by a few individuals wearing costumes and emitting poetic proclamations. At Iowa City people were so much into their own bags that communication proved impossible: many were so disillusioned that they had their doubts whether a good conference could ever be pulled off.

Madison was a success for several reasons. It came at just the right time—the radical media had been mushrooming. Repression was also escalating. People felt the need to work together and, for the first time, to begin the development of a political strategy for the underground press.

These concerns reflected those of the movement itself: the times were very chaotic, confrontational tactics had peaked and people didn’t know where to turn. It was clearly a transitional period. The movement needed new direction and its media was realizing the necessity of molding a new definition for itself.

The papers that came to Madison were not all politically sophisticated, but all felt the need to be politically relevant to an America beset by potentially fatal traumas and to a movement just realizing the fantastic complexity of the enemy and of the task at hand.. It was a far cry from the San Francisco Oracle’s original pow-wow.

“They know that the more obscene and dirty their newspapers are, the more they will attract the irresponsible readers whom they want to enlist in their crusade to destroy this country.”
—Joe Pool

We Go Through Changes

The commercial press, months after the fact had ceased to be news, came up with a real scoop: the underground press had gone political! Simplistic articles such as the one by John Leo which appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 4, 1968, theorized that Liberation News Service was the culprit—responsible for leading the hippie papers into the pandora’s box of politics.

This was wrong. Conditions in the society led the papers to politics. But it was likewise undeniable that LNS was instrumental in this development, if only in helping to make it technically possible.

In the fall of 1967, when LNS started sending sporadic packets of news out of a chaotic commune-office in Washington, D.C., major changes were advancing on the movement from without and within. Large scale ghetto rebellions in Detroit and Newark had infected America and the movement with a sense of violent apocalypse. The inescapable presence of repression, breathing down the necks of white radicals as well as blacks, stimulated the birth of a “new militancy” among youth.

In one month, October 1967, we saw bloody confrontations between cops and kids at the pentagon, at the University of Wisconsin and in Oakland, California, during Stop the Draft Week. Young people were battling the forces of law and order on campuses and in the streets. And it wasn’t just the kids who were taking the lumps.

Straight America was outraged, but the movement was drawing energy from its new self-image. These struggles, and the coverage which they garnered in the establishment media, made the new left a reality America could no longer ignore. To those whose interests demand maintenance of the status quo, one thing was made clear: these kids were dead serious. They weren’t just indulgent hedonistic middle class mutants seeking inner peace; they were developing an analysis that named the institutions of the state as the enemy and they were beginning to act on that analysis.

The people who made the underground papers happen were the same people who were in the streets. Many had been flower children: their prophetic insights had been clubbed to the ground by the cops and had been marketed to the populace by the masters of cooptation. But, though the trappings proved co-optable, the vision was not. It was how you achieve that vision that demanded reevaluation. It could not come (the lesson was being pounded home) in isolation from the society. You could not escape external reality—it would bust you sure as shit. And even if you could create a heaven-on-earth, a pocket of utopia, what about the rest of the world? What about those who did not start from a position of material privilege, for whom doing-your-own-thing was unthinkable?

It was these kinds of changes kids were going through. The papers, which were merely extensions of the hip communities, mirrored these changes.

And the papers had an extremely important role to play in this process: to generalize the gut reaction. To place local events into a national context. Isolated papers needed fast news about movement events in other parts of the country. What was happening outside the realm of individual experience was gaining new significance as we began to understand the necessity of showing that events are indeed interrelated.

Changing your head wasn’t enough: objective conditions create those bad vibrations. It was now necessary to analyze those conditions on a national and international level. The movement had developed a variety of dynamic organs—now the obvious need was a central nervous system.

A national news service was clearly the next step. It was only a matter of who would make it happen. An imaginative young man named Marshall Bloom happened to be the one.

Bloom was to be director of the United States Student Press Association—a left liberal grouping of college papers. He turned out to be more of a freak than they had reckoned with, and was purged—for reasons both personal and political. Marshall made the most of the incident, pulling together a small group of friends, including former college editor Ray Mungo, and started Liberation News Service. In doing this he assumed a collective responsibility—the need for an effective news service was generally felt in the underground press. It was certainly not Bloom’s private property. Later a giant rift was to develop, as many on the staff and in the movement felt that Bloom’s possessiveness with LNS was making it impossible for the news service to evolve with the rest of the new media.

Liberation News Service was hardly the movement’s answer to the Associated Press, nor did it intend to be. Incorporated under the name The New Media Project, it was an attempt at a new kind of journalism—developing a more personalistic style of reporting, questioning bourgeois conceptions of “objectivity” and reevaluating established notions about the nature of news. But, in its early days, LNS related to the movement primarily on a hip cultural level and lacked serious political content.

Although LNS did provide some national framework for local events, it did not become the vital nervous system so badly needed by the increasingly radical new media. Many on the staff seemed to consider the whole matter a big game—“seriousness” was viewed as a concept of the old order. LNS had few reliable stringers and copy came in sporadically and haphazardly. At a time when many underground papers were struggling to develop a political self-consciousness, the LNS staff was not responding to that need.

But, almost in spite of itself, LNS began to attract movement journalists who were able to see the dynamic possibilities of the news service. Allen Young, a refugee from the Washington Post, was greatly responsible for keeping LNS together as he gathered in good people and churned out consistently readable and reliable copy. By the time LNS decided to move its headquarters from Washington to New York in the spring of 1968, a politically diversified group of writers, editors and photographers was working full-time with the news service.

It was soon after the move to Manhattan that a bitter factional dispute developed among the staff. The split was far too complex to adequately deal with here (or, perhaps, anywhere) but there were two major issues: democratic control of the news service, and more political content in the news packets. Personality clashes were also at play in the fracas. After several bitter all-night meetings, a vote was taken: ultimate decision-making power for the organization would be given to the entire working staff.

A minority faction, claiming corporate control and led by Marshall Bloom, absconded with thousands of dollars worth of production equipment and a large chunk of cash earned from an LNS benefit. Bloom had secretly purchased a farm in Massachusetts with LNS funds. For some time he had advocated leaving New York, which he considered psychologically corrupting, and establishing LNS on a farm, but had received little support for the idea.

This move left most of the staff in an empty New York office, stunned, broke, and without a printing press. The New York staff, choosing, on principle, not to go to the cops, made an attempt to physically reclaim the collective property. There ensued a bizarre midnight raid on the farm. The equipment was not located and the Massachusetts group filed kidnapping charges against the invaders, claiming they had been held against their consent. The New Yorkers were forced into the harrowing Massachusetts courts. Deals were made, charges were lowered and fines were paid.

Both groups are now printing and distributing packets of news on a regular basis, each calling itself LNS. By any objective standards the New York group has been the more successful. Its mailings are more regular (twice a week), its technical quality is higher and its copy is used by almost all the papers. Most of the new left and a large percentage of the underground papers boycotted the Massachusetts group, especially because of the infamous kidnapping charges. It is a basic tenet of the movement that we work out our problems among ourselves, without going to the Man’s courts. But the main reason LNS in New York has done so well, we believe, is that it is far more in touch with the needs of the movement, both in its form of organization and in the content of the copy it makes available to the papers.

The New York LNS staff, of which we are a part, works out of a 14-member collective. It has attempted to develop a democratic work situation, with all members sharing responsibility for LNS decisions. There are no bosses—a situation which would be unthinkable in the establishment press, and a difficult enough relationship to establish in the movement.

In the last few months, LNS has played an extremely important function for the underground papers. It has distributed first-hand analytical articles on such events as the uprisings at San Francisco State College, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the student rebellion in Mexico, as well as creative photography, humorous artwork, satirical poetry and cultural material.

LNS has provided coverage of events to which most papers would have otherwise had no access, and has put these events into a context, helping new papers in their attempts to develop a political analysis. And when those papers are unable to pay the $15 a month for the LNS service, they get it free. In many places, where few radicals exist and journalistic experience is lacking, papers have been made possible primarily because LNS copy has been available to supplement scarce local material.

“The plan of this underground press syndicate is to take advantage of that part of the First Amendment which protects newspapers and gives them freedom of press.”
—Joe Pool

How Our Media is Different

Every day, millions of sheets of gray print come off the big commercial presses of America. Every day these gray sheets find their way into American homes, American minds. But into this sea of gray came a colorful splash—the underground press. Small offset presses filled their fountains with vari-colored inks, as graphic artists let their imaginations run wild. Writers freed the personal pronoun from journalistic exile and released creative forces taboo in the establishment press. Poems read themselves to their readers. Print became a visual as well as an intellectual medium. The pages of the underground press shouted an often tacit (and sometimes explicit) “Fuck You” to establishment papers everywhere.

The underground press is a revolutionary departure from the traditions of American journalism. Radical journalists came and went throughout the last century, but their work never approached the stylistic or contextual impact that today’s movement press is having. For one thing, there is a serious revolutionary movement struggling to be born; there’s something to write about. Equally important, the movement press is experimenting with new ways to communicate, new ways for people to relate with people.

A journalistic “given” that the new media refuses to accept is “objectivity.” Journalistic objectivity is so basic to the trade that journalism schools don’t even need to discuss it much. Newsmen take it as axiomatic. The principle of objectivity assumes that a writer’s distance from and non-involvement with his subject insures accuracy. Fact is valid and opinion invalid (except on the editorial page). In the movement media, however, involvement and experience are prerequisites for good journalism, for a liberated journalism. Once freed from the illusory constraints of objectivity, you can explore new levels of creativity and communication. Nobody expects you to call on “a spokesman for reliable and authoritative sources close to an informed spokesman…” When you want to say something, you say it. And if you’re really into what you’re talking about, it’ll come across. Here’s an example of what we’re talking about from Paul Samberg, LNS and Rat, on a demonstration at Columbia University, months after the 1968 insurrection there.

“We gathered on the lawn under Low Library. Cordier {acting president} wasn’t in We milled restlessly. A student yelled, ‘We need someone to take command… Someone take command!’ Rudd and other authority figures were missing. Someone hooked up the sound system. ‘…over the last decade, Columbia has evicted 10,000 tenants…’ Maybe he thought we’d forgotten. I climbed onto a ledge and tried to break Cordier’s window. Plexiglas. It yielded like soft plastic: bullet proof. The sound of smashing glass. Someone had broken a side window. I ran around the ledge. There was blood on the sill.”

And Todd Gitlin in the San Francisco Express-Times, during a strike at San Francisco State College that started in the fall of 1968:

“Instead of sealing ourselves in a building, apart from the student body, we’re outside, everywhere, among them. For educational theater, we can rely on the rigidity of the State College Trustees, and the desperate incapacity of the administration, to drive students and faculty into the movement, into radical senses of who they are, what they need, who their enemies are.”

Both writers, while involved in the action, maintain an analytic perspective. The certainly don’t assume the role of detached presence, seeking only the hard “facts.” Compare this to any commercial paper’s coverage of the same strike—information, minimal; analysis, non-existent; bias, implicitly toward the side of “law and order” (under the holy pretense of “objectivity,” of course).

The involvement of most movement journalists goes beyond a sporadic engagement in specific actions. Gitlin, for example, one of the founders of SDS, has been into various movement projects for years. At the time he wrote his series on San Francisco State, he was an important force in the Express Times. People involved with movement papers generally see themselves as activists or organizers first, and journalists second. A primary commitment to journalism as journalism smells of bourgeois professionalism to many of us: you’re a radical organizer, not a journalist who just doesn’t dig the establishment’s definition of work. More about journalist as activist/organizer later. Right now let’s look at the commercial press, and the way it uses “objectivity” to disguise its own biases.

Radical journalism puts isolated events and data into a context. Not only does the commercial media fail to tie together the facts it presents, but it actually destroys a sense of continuity and history in the minds of the American people. In the name of journalistic objectivity, it reports events; the readers are supposedly free to make their own judgments but the people read their daily papers and make no judgment at all, except that most of what they read doesn’t relate much to their lives. It relates to Jackie Onassis, Lyndon Johnson, the UAW bosses, Charles De Gaulle, the local police department. To any number of figures and institutions that the media makes into legends. Generally, people respond to what they read in the paper on an unconscious or semi-conscious level. The Columbia University uprising is bad. The astronauts’ flight to the moon is good. The United States will negotiate its way to an honorable settlement in Vietnam.

“Neutral” issues, like the make-up of the president’s new cabinet, usually draw a blank. The American press would never permit reporters and analysts to research the economic interests behind these government figures. Even if some enterprising reporter thought to do it, and even if such research appeared, the reading public wouldn’t know what to make of it. The press has succeeded in fragmenting the consciousness of its audience. A strike of black students at a New York college, a transit workers’ strike in Chicago and a drawn out, inflationary war in Southeast Asia are inter-related events, but this perspective isn’t part of the American consciousness.

Why can’t people connect these events for themselves, why can’t they put phenomena into a context? The answer would entail a discussion of the manipulation or the American mind by all forms of power, the American press being perhaps the crucial institution in this context, along with the American educational system. What it comes down to is this: the attitude in the commercial press that serves to divide the understanding of its readers has become second nature to members of the news hierarchy, from publisher to editor to headline writer.

The press assumes that one thing, like the Vietnam War, can be discussed in complete isolation from another thing, like the U.S. economy. The radical press responds with cries of “fallacy” and “bullshit”: phenomena necessarily relate, and it is more accurate to draw those connections.

The commercial press, from the prestigious Washington Post to the provincial St. Paul Dispatch, has a common language. It is a hackneyed language, but a language that most Americans recognize, internalize and accept. The distortions in both language and general reportage around the Vietnam War demonstrate how journalistic “objectivity” operates in the American press. Despite the mounting disaffection with the war and increased sympathy with the National Liberation Front among Americans, the press consistently refers to the NLF as the “enemy.” “Enemy mortars blasted U.S. troops today… and enemy ambush… enemy infiltrators in Saigon…” If it’s not the “enemy,” then it’s the “Communists.” You frequently hear or read about “Communist machine fire,” or “Communist forces.” But Communism is an economic-political system. When was the last time you heard about “Capitalist machine guns?” The press makes “official” synonymous with “truth.” When “official” statistics are reported they are given the weight of God’s word. The terminology that originates with “official” American sources quickly becomes journalistic commonplace. Like such loaded terms as “pacification.”

Of course, the NLF Tet Offensive, early in 1968, made public the way the press had distorted the course of the war. That event came as such a shock to the American people because the press had given no indication that the United States was losing the war.

What we have said here about commercial papers represents only a part of the total analysis of media that the movement sees as necessary. As one radical film-maker put it, “If you have a critique of media, you have a critique of society.” That critique must go way beyond bemoaning the consolidation of media, for instance. What’s the difference if a city has one or two or even three establishment-oriented papers? Or if the country has one or two wire services? Competition among commercial news agencies is dead; we doubt it ever existed. As an integral part of corporate capitalism, the press must serve only the controlling interest of big business: So a radical critique of media talks about manipulation, control of the press’ relation to the entire capitalist order.

The movement doesn’t have that critique yet. As the movement press becomes more political, it is realizing the impossibility of working effectively in isolation from the enemy. It must understand the capitalist order and its vital parts. And it is building a strong “counter-institution,” in which movement people can work, fight, groove and maybe support themselves. So radical journalists have a new conception of news, new thoughts on communication and journalistic involvement. But what forms do these innovations take? What techniques are used to fuse style and content into a totality that means something to people?

The movement press is struggling to transform the linear and literal medium of print into a visual medium that communicates on more levels than the strictly intellectual. Each issue of a well-done paper is designed as an artistic whole, not just so many pages of print. The offset press has made creativity in these papers possible. The offset process is cheaper, more versatile, and easier to operate than letter-press. Copy and graphics are laid out and pasted-up as they will look when the paper comes off the press, giving artists a valuable sneak-preview of the final product. A copy cameraman takes a picture of the layout, makes a plate of the negative and the printer takes over from there. Photo-offset is so inexpensive and simple compared to other forms of reproduction that graphic imaginations have free rein to run rampant, as it were.

When the stoned freaks looked through the pages of the old San Francisco Oracle, it was the colors that really did them in. And the use of color has remained a major distinguishing characteristic of the movement papers, dazzling color made financially feasible because of the offset process.

Some papers never use color, but rely on other graphic techniques, such as line shots of photographs, screening, unusual and often hand drawn headline typefaces, superimposition of pictures over print, collage and montage. Artists have always been a crucial factor, filling the papers with strange and beautiful drawings. More and more, the papers are making use of creative photography, like the sun-spotted nudes of Belmer Wright (Rag) and Miriam Bokser’s incisive social portraits (for LNS).

Poetry is undergoing something of a rebirth in the movement press. To radicals, a poem can be a form of political communication in the broadest sense, even if it doesn’t talk directly about political revolution. You often see a two-page spread with drawings devoted to one or two poems, printed in large, imposing type. And, in fact, much of the better writing in the movement papers reflects the language of poetry—free, imaginative, unfettered, almost visual.

Comic strips and cartoons are another medium in which print becomes visual. Ron Cobb, a cartoonist for the L.A. Free Press, turns out some of the most biting satire to appear in cartoon form in America today. Thanks to UPS reprint policy, movement papers all over the country run his work. Cobb makes sense to even the least radical papers, because he achieves the right blend of cultural and political content in one starkly simple cartoon frame.

The movement papers make use of a variety of comic strips, most of which are ten times as flipped out as B.C. or the Wizard of Id. Many think that the comic strip comes close to being the ideal communication form, and they naturally attract readers, like poetry, the most effective comic strips are seldom directly political, but their conception is considerably different from that of the commercially syndicated comics. Of course, not all comic strip artists can cut it. We’ve seen issues of EVO, for example, full of comic strips that are no more than sadomasochistic existential pomposities. On the other hand, there’s R. Crumb, a widely reprinted comic strip genius. His concern is existential, but he builds simple constructions of gentle wisdom which communicate with profound humor. He’s way out, but somehow, way in, too. Gilbert Shelton, who’s more satirist than existentialist, is another influential artist whose Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (the trials and tribulations of every beatnik’s next door neighbors) appear in papers all over.

Don’t get us wrong: underground papers are not all stunning works of art. Many are difficult to read, much of the writing is lousy and incoherent, layout can often confuse more than communicate. Lack of funds and experience accounts for deficiencies in some papers. But the San Francisco Express Times probably best utilizes the forms and techniques we have been talking about.

The Express Times was started by Marvin Garson in early 1968. The readership, being a San Francisco crowd, is pretty hip. Layout and design are striking, but simple. The front page often recalls the New York Daily News, with a huge picture and headlines in bold type, headlines like HAYAKAWA BLOWS STATE and DON’T VOTE FOR SHIT. The pages are filled with large photographs, poetry, drawings and columns of clean, justified type. The paper is readable: it almost compels you to read it, a quality many papers lack because of junky layout.

The Express Times has developed a core of brilliant writers like Lenny Heller (Alias lenny the black and blue, lenny come down, lenny the whatever the hell strikes his fancy at the time), Todd Gitlin, Marjorie Heins. And talented photographers like Nacio Jan Brown and Jeff Blankfort. There’s lots of news, lots of graphics and no one has any hang-ups about “objectivity.”

The creativity and imagination that has been put to use in building a radical press proves, it would seem, that print is still a vital medium. But other radicals are moving into electronic communications, like film and radio.

The Newsreel project was started in late 1967 by a group of radical filmmakers in New York who wanted to make films for and about the movement. The experiment of radical film-making caught on quickly and other Newsreel groups sprang up around the country. The films themselves are generally documentaries of action, like at Columbia and Berkeley, edited carefully to convey political messages. For the most part, Newsreel people are tough, politically sophisticated radical artists who, like most movement journalists, integrate their activism with their art. They manage to get footage on just about every new left event and, because of the movement’s antipathy toward commercial newsmen, Newsreel’s camera crews have access to places no NBC reporter would dare set foot in. Newsreel people have performed as some of the movement’s hardiest militants, making news while they’re recording it.

Also in New York, Peter Sutheim gathered a small group of radio-electronics freaks, and started a service called Radio Free People. Knowing of the expense and equipment involved in radio communications, the group began modestly. They’re into projects like taping sound mixes and making recordings for the movement. Some of these tapes get on the air through WBAI, New York’s left liberal, listener-sponsored station, which is part of the Pacifica chain.

Of course, every radical wants a real live radio station for the movement, but so far this has remained only a wild-eyed dream. We’ve heard talk of pirate radio stations, operating off both coasts, carrier current radio, citizens’ band, short wave ham networks, across the country, illegal mobile units with transmitters traveling a city during a crisis. Generally the people who have been devising these grandiose schemes to beat the system at its own game have known little or nothing about radio. Any of these projects would be too costly, too risky or ineffective. Anyway, once you start tampering with the airwaves, the FCC will swoop down on you the moment your politics start to show.

So print remains the primary medium of mass communications in the movement. It’s a realistic, workable medium and the movement’s starting to use it for all it’s worth.

But starting a newspaper isn’t easy today. America, the land of monopoly capitalism, offers infertile soil for the planting of small newspapers. Some 400 have folded in the last 20 years. In the commercial journalism scene these days, it’s big business or no business, and there’s no room for competitive little upstarts. Then why have more than 200 radical papers been able to start and function in the last few years? For one thing, these papers aren’t in the same market as the commercial media. The threat they present can’t be called “competitive.” But perhaps the big reason that radical papers have succeeded where new commercial papers have failed is the absence of a profit motive in the movement. Capital investment in a paper is minimal, so even in bankruptcy there’s little loss. Radical papers are as a rule financially unstable, but the people who publish them don’t care much. Movement labor is seldom sold, on principle—it’s given on the basis of love or conscience. Most radical journalists get their bread outside the movement, or draw no more than subsistence “wages” from their papers.

In fact, it has proved almost impossible for a paper to be politically effective and financially sound at the same time. Some papers, like the L.A. Free Press and the East Village Other, have money, but their content is relatively harmless to the establishment. Also, they cater to a large and diverse audience and can sell lots of commercial advertising. The more political papers find it difficult to get enough advertising to support themselves. Radicals aren’t so pure that they won’t take the establishment’s money, but it’s hard to get if you’re true to your politics. So you don’t find many big-time record ads in a political paper like Connections. Instead, there are little hand-drawn ads for head shops, sandal stores and eating co-ops, small businesses on the margin of the movement. In any case, advertising plays a relatively unimportant role in the financing of the radical press, although some groups have tried with little success to set up underground ad agencies. Advertising never takes up a twentieth of the space it occupies in the commercial papers, which always contain more ads than editorial copy. Street and shop sales, subscriptions, contributions and proceeds from various kinds of benefits (with rock bands, underground films and political raps) are the main source of support. It isn’t much, but as long as people can keep publishing, no one really minds.

Case History: A Paper and Its Community

Perhaps more significant than the economic organization, than stylistic innovations, than the papers’ approach to news, is the way that many radical newspapers have brought people into the movement, have sustained political communities and have sparked organizing efforts and militant actions. This function has been especially important to cities where there existed little or no previous radical activity. In such virgin territories, papers have catalyzed radical action or, at least, have begun the task of educating and coalescing a community out of which such activity can eventually grow.

Papers often give new radicals a place to function in the movement, and in fact, working for a paper can be a radicalizing experience in itself. Most papers try to create a democratic work situation and decision-making process. Often staffers are listed alphabetically or in random order as part of an attempt to avoid establishing hierarchies of power. Trying to work collectively is always a struggle—we are all corrupted by the ego-tripping ethic of capitalism. Staff conflicts are often great, tensions sometimes run high on layout night, but people gradually develop the ability to work together, sharing responsibility for policy, beginning to purge themselves of the need to give or take orders.

But real problems exist. The pressure is so great at times that people who wander into the office are frequently ignored or treated in a brash manner. Shitwork often falls to the same people. Most staffs are still male-dominated—girls, in keeping with their established roles in the society, are often automatically stuck with the typing. But people are aware of these kinds of problems, talk about them, and attempt to deal with them.

We want to discuss some of the experiences of The Rag, in Austin, Tex. We know it personally and think it shows how a movement paper can establish a dynamic relationship with its community. The Rag is also important to study because it seems to be losing much of its relevance. We think its problems relate to those faced, or possible soon to be faced by other radical papers.

From its inception in the fall of 1966, The Rag was the common ground of the Austin radical community. Its offices were a gathering place and communications center, its pages reflected the thinking of the community while they served to pull it together around common issues. There was a simple reason for this: the people who put the Rag together were the same people who conceived demonstrations and love-ins, who were among the leaders of confrontations with local authorities, and who were at the forefront of local cultural happenings.

In 1967, University of Texas radical and the university administration clashed in a big way, sparking the University Freedom Movement. Six leaders were placed on probation by the University: five of them were staff members of The Rag. Three activists were dragged out of the student union by local and state cops as an outgrowth of the conflict: all three counted the Rag among their radical activities. The Rag not only reported news of the new left community, but was integrally involved in creating the situations out of which the news emerged.

Not only were its staff members involved in radical organizing, but the paper itself was news. Through its clashes with university and local authorities, it rallied support form the academic and drop-out communities. For example, when the first issue was hot off the press, a gutsy staff member rushed to the middle of campus and began selling papers. This act violated a vague state law against commercial solicitation on a state campus. He was dressed in colorful garb, held a large helium-filled balloon inscribed RAG, and began a vociferous side-show hawker spiel. “Commie propaganda—get it while it’s hot. Page 6 is soaked in LSD—it’s a cheap trip. Read about the freaks!!” A large crowd of students gathered around to buy Rags and jive with the kook. Deans and cops ordered him off campus, he defied them gleefully, and the crowd mushroomed. They dared not bust him. The thousand copies, which Rag prognosticators had thought would be more than enough for the first issue, were gone within hours. The presses were oiled and another 1500 copies were run off that night, only to disappear quickly the next day. The enthusiasm and vitality of the Rag’s style excited the community.

Austin had always had a large “underground” scene—lots of radical politicos, ethnic folk-niks, academic left-libs, peyote freaks and bearded bikers. They were all there, dispersed around the campus area, but there was nothing to pull them together, to give them political direction, to bring them into actions, to give them a sense of identify. The Rag was primarily responsible for bringing together a coherent left-hip scene, and for its first two years was a prime focus of this community.

The office itself played a central role in this development. You called The Rag or dropped by to find out about demonstrations, busts or lost dogs. Or just to rap politics. And often you get pulled into working on the paper. Rag benefits brought together hips and politicos for musical celebrations, and gave a forum to young artists. And The Rag helped spread pot bust rumors, perhaps the function which best exemplified the paper’s feeling of responsibility to the community. More than once, layout night was interrupted when an urgent phone call came from someone “in the know.” And layout would break up as Rag freaks headed for their wheels to spread the word. The busts seldom came off, but people appreciated the fact that their Rag was thinking about them in such times of grave concern.

Certainly not all the papers have been as successful in creating these kinds of ties with their local community, and many have probably not even attempted it. The experiences of the Washington Free Press, for example, have been very different. The Free Press has never been able to pull together a community, and its staff tended to become ingrown and factionalized. Thus it has functioned primarily to present information ignored by the establishment media, and has not developed a significantly new style of operation. Still, the Rag’s experiences aren’t at all unique. Many other papers echo its story.

But The Rag should be studied for another reason. The paper is no longer (as we write this—conditions could change) at the hub of political activity in Austin. The radical community, as it becomes more politically sophisticated, is moving to other organizing projects, leaving the Rag hanging. The Rag touched many new people; now, attempts are being made to pull these people into the movement. The community is no longer unified; organizing attempts are based on disparate and often conflicting political strategies. The Rag’s role is no longer simple and obvious. At present it is not meeting the needs of local organizers.

The lesson of the Rag’s maladies is instructive: the radical press must evolve with the needs of the movement. And the movement seems to be entering a new stage now. In their attempts to define a revolutionary class, people are ready to venture out of their movement in-groups and to relate with new and strange and “straight” people. The question facing the movement now is not whether to expand its base among the American people, but how to expand that base. The radical press, while it still must serve as an internal communications system for the movement, must also become a base-building tool. This means that papers must become conscious of themselves and their audiences. They must gain a sense of new people who need to be reached, and try to move them somewhere, whether these people are hip kids or white collar workers. What’s in store for the radical press is a lot more self-critical and serious work than its happy hippie days required. (That doesn’t mean that we can’t still be happy; after all, the NLF told us that the guerillas could not have remained in the Vietnamese jungles, keeping up the struggle, if they hadn’t been able to sing and dance.) Other papers, like The Rag, may lose their relevance if they fail to keep up with the new conditions in the movement and in America.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Perhaps the heaviest talk facing movement papers (one which some are beginning to face up to) is the achievement of self-definition. You have to know whom you’re talking to if you are going to make intelligent decisions about what to say and how to say it. Lots of papers give the impression that they’re little more than groovy games for the people who put them out. This attitude won’t cut it when you’re trying to build a revolutionary movement. The work you do must be meaning for yourself and for the people you are trying to reach.

One group of papers which is establishing a direct relationship with its audience—through perhaps not from strategic forethought—is the high school underground. These papers, like the high school movement itself, are relatively new, but reflect the headway the movement has made in America’s secondary knowledge factories. Tom Lindsay, a 16-year-old student at Brandeis High School in New York now working with High School Independent Press Service (HIPS) a high school version of LNS, estimates that there were 500 underground high school papers at the beginning of 1969. Most of these papers aren’t political when they start, he says, but the kids putting them out get radicalized fast in the struggle against the school’s suppression of free speech.

A newspaper, often no more than a messy mimeographed sheet, is usually the first thing that happens when a high school movement begins to take roots. The kids that put it out are usually the school’s hippest. Given the stifling, oppressive atmosphere of the average high school, publishing a counter-institutional paper is a pretty heroic act. Such a paper, born out of frustration and generalized anger at bourgeois America, and especially, at the citadels of indoctrination known as high schools, reflects what almost all of the kids feel on some level. The obvious advantage of a high school paper is that its organizers really know their readers (and they have a captive audience). High school education is compulsory. Your youthful existence is defined by that fucking hell hole, whether you’re a hippy-dippy or a junior jock. Kids putting out a high school paper are in an excellent place to recognize the needs of their readers. And the best papers talk directly to those needs. Even if that means working into the subject of the draft through more immediate issues like repressive dress codes.

The Express-Times seems to be dealing with a defined community (hip, left-leaning youth), one reason we have given it so much attention. Rat is attempting to reach the same group in New York, Black and Mexican-American community papers have been springing up all over the country. And perhaps most astounding of all, there are several GI papers, like the Fatigue Press at Fort Hood, Texas, which are able to speak to the unique but certainly intense problems of soldiers. The Firing Line, a paper for poor whites who migrated from the South to Chicago’s Uptown area, shows the potential for success as well as the dangers inherent in papers speaking to a specialized audience. The Firing Line grew out of the organizing efforts of JOIN, a poor white organizing project started by SDS people. Skeets Millard, a former JOIN organizer now with Chicago Kaleidoscope and Newsreel, told us that, at its peak, the Firing Line reached possibly two-thirds of the Uptown community of 80,000. But its very localized content failed to establish a national collective identify among its readers. When a paper starts talking to a specific community or class, it must avoid a think-no-further-than-your-own-thing attitude. This would also be a problem with high school papers, except that continual graduation of students into college, work, or the dropout scene helps prevent provincialism. Uptown people don’t have the advantage of social mobility.

So, while papers must consciously recognize and expand their audiences, they must also infect them with that sense of national community, of class, of collective struggle that gives the movement the strength of self-preservation and aggressive action. LNS can help give that national perspective. So can the new left, as it moves beyond its middle class/hippie identity. New papers can begin addressing themselves to white collar workers, kids-as-a-class, bit-time professionals, women. They can expose the mechanisms of oppression that keep these groups isolated within their social and economic roles, all the while talking to people on a level meaningful to their own lives.

There are, of course, two functions which movement papers must serve. First, internal education and communication among people already in the movement, and the other, reaching out to new, presently un-hip people who must become part of a revolutionary class. The existing papers serve the internal function to some extent and have been very successful in some places at speaking to non-radical students and drop-outs. The wall poster is perhaps the ultimate in movement internal communication. Radicals made effective use of wall posters in 1968, during the Berkeley street uprisings, the Democratic National Convention demonstrations and the San Francisco State strike. People directly involved in these actions ran off the large poster-like sheets of news and strategic advice whenever something has to be said. The wall poster is a useful and versatile form, published on the spot during a radical activity, not tied to deadlines, which should be used more in the future. And, the weekly Guardian and the monthly Movement are informative and readable papers that speak to a national movement community.

But movement papers have made no real attempts to reach out to the rest of America. Sure, the northern California salesman picks up an occasional Berkeley Barb to find out what the freaks are up to and to be titillated by the want-ads. But there’s nothing in that paper that speaks to him, nothing that shows him how he’s getting fucked over. Not that people should start a “salesman’s underground.” But we could conceive of a paper that would be hip and radical while speaking to working people in a metropolitan area. (Such a paper should most likely be followed up with direct organizing to be effective.)

Papers will continue to spring up spontaneously, coalescing embryonic movement communities. And they should. But the movement is facing history’s most gruesome Goliath: it’ll take more than a slingshot to bring this mother down. We need a mass movement of people, young working people, from steel worker to bio-chemist, with the collective power to fulfill history’s mission. Our press must be used to show those people why America needs another revolution.

First 12 issues of The Rag are available online.