Friday, August 1, 2008

Alternative Voices in COINTEL Times

Countless alternative newspapers and magazines emerged from the 1960s anti-war movement. Still others focused on the need for local reform, updating the muckraking style of early 20th-century advocacy journalism. In Vermont, the two trends combined in Vermont Freeman, launched in 1969 and based in rural Starksboro.

The format was a tabloid newspaper published twice monthly, circulation around 4,000, sold for 35 cents, and distributed statewide. Thanks to offset printings — a relatively new technology then — copy could be typed in columns on manual typewriters and pasted on the layout pages. This gave the Freeman a hand-made, sometimes ragged look, but also conveyed a relaxed energy and a self-conscious decision to break traditional newspaper rules that today’s computer-generated publications sometimes echo.

Tom Slayton, a mainstream journalist who later became editor of the state’s house organ Vermont Life, was a Freeman associate editor, along with authors such as Lisa Alther and Marty Jezer, media activist Marvin Fishman, and naturalist Beatrice Trum Hunter. Editor Roger Albright encouraged a wide variety of voices, including Bernie Sanders and myself. Vermont Freeman lasted slightly less than a decade, but along the way served as a valuable outlet for against-the-grain thinking, supporting various movements and questioning authority from the height of the Vietnam War to the fall of Nixon. Other alternative publications weren’t so fortunate.

Before Nixon was forced out of office, his administration initiated an attack on the First Amendment that undermined both press freedom and the continued growth of the new independent press. The foundation had been laid when a proposal to rewrite the U.S. criminal code became the administration's blueprint for crushing dissent and limiting the scope of the Bill of Rights. The addition of four Nixon appointees to the Court served mainly to accelerate the erosion of constitutional guarantees.

The intelligence community also did its part, of course. While the FBI infiltrated and disrupted alternative media, the CIA funded the College Press Service, a Denver-based operation marketed to campus papers, and placed agents on the staffs of underground papers to keep tabs on anti-war activists. Domestic surveillance was a direct violation of the agency’s charter, but the truth didn’t emerge until years later and, as usual, no price was paid.

Many printers and distributers, often under government pressure, refused to accept business from alternative papers. Largely for these reasons, Scanlan’s Monthly, a promising muckraking magazine founded by former New York Times reporter Sidney Zion and former Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle, lasted only a year. When Scanlon’s put together a special issue on “Guerrilla War in the USA,” its regular printer refused to do the job. Fifty other businesses said the same thing. The editors finally found a printer in Canada, but the Canadian Mounted Police seized most of the copies. Another issue featured a satirical memo about a “top-secret” plan to cancel the 1972 elections and drop the Bill of Rights. This so angered Nixon that he ordered an IRS investigation. According to Zion, the magazine folded because unknown forces – he thought they were government agents – convinced national distributors not to carry it.

COINTELPRO – a counterintelligence program initially designed to disrupt and discredit radical movements and their media – supposedly ended in 1971, but both legal intimidation and extra-legal suppression of the alternative press continued. In fact, the memo disbanding the program specifically advised that future “selective individual” efforts would be perfectly acceptable, “with tight procedures to insure absolute secrecy.” In a 1974 speech, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who had just finished exposing the Nixon administration’s Watergate-related crimes, told an audience, “The underground press was largely right about government sabotage, but the country didn’t get upset because it was the left that was being sabotaged. The country got upset when the broad political center, with its established political institutions, came under attack.”

Woodward’s acknowledgement came a bit late. Many papers had already been driven out of business. Intimidation, infiltration, and arrests – even though most of the charges were ultimately dropped – proved a potent combination.

In March 1975, nevertheless, a public planning session was held in Burlington, Vermont at the local youth center on Church Street to launch a new Vermont alternative magazine. “Freedom of Speech,” the publicity flyer’s headline proclaimed. “Out-of-state owned papers account for more than half Vermont’s 120,000 daily readers,” I wrote on behalf of the organizing committee. “The largest daily is owned by the largest chain in America” – we were talking about Gannett, owner of the Burlington Free Press. “New York Times articles, columns and viewpoints saturate the region, supported by Associated Press wire services and the canned copy of a variety of syndicates.”

Beyond those basics, we argued that mass communication in Vermont wasn’t a participatory process. No surprise there. “It is a one-way circuit through which limited, often ephemeral data is provided from centralized sources. Our media promote mystification with the content of public issues as well as the forms of art and literature, alienation from the formation of public policy, and an isolation of citizen from citizen.”

Having defined the problem, we offered the Frayed Page bookstore as a base and asked “the community” to join in the creation of a new “journal for Vermont.” Several dozen people came out for the first meeting. My own, fairly abstract vision was a synthesis of political, social, spiritual, scientific and artistic expression. The folks who showed up had more practical concerns. They wanted a bulletin board of events around the state, in-depth articles on issues and communities, and a publication that would appeal to both the counter-culture and the young working class. A staff member from The North Country Star, the political paper linked to the local organizing coalition PACT, offered that another alternative would provide an outlet for articles that weren’t “appropriate” for The Star or other newspapers.

I was eager to make adjustments, and encouraged by the support. The only thing I hoped to choose was the name – Public Occurrence. Some people found it an odd choice, but I had a reason. On September 25, 1690, Benjamin Harris, an exiled British printer, had published the first colonial newspaper – Publick Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic. There was only one issue before the colonial governor suppressed it. The idea was to revive the name, which symbolized the fragility of free speech, and modernize the mission. The new Public Occurrence – which soon became known as PO – would:

promote diversity in expression and public testimony among the readers and contributors

reduce barriers which cut people off from structures, officials, experts and each other by posing public questions and acting as a vehicle for response

underscore relationships between various events, and

present and discuss literature and visual art

The first issue, which focused on energy and environmental issues, appeared in less than a month. The masthead announced that it had been published by the Dionysian Collective.

Chapter Four of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: Building a Queen City Agenda

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