Hot on the press 

McMillian digs deep into alt media history

Some people remember exactly what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed, or their precise whereabouts when JFK was shot. I remember my first alternative newspaper.

It was 1985 and it was called Public News—a gritty little shoestring tabloid, now defunct, that helped anchor and define the pre-gentrified Montrose neighborhood, in Houston, Tex., as a quasi-bohemian lodestar for those of us stuck in the suburbs. A high school friend brought it back from a record-buying expedition. Inside its ink-smeared pages we gained our first gleanings of concepts like intentional community, participatory democracy, and an aesthetic avant-garde.

Just kidding. We learned there was a band called the Butthole Surfers, and that a porny art flick was screening that weekend at the University of Houston's Clear Lake campus, an easy bike ride from our homes. We tried to sneak in without IDs, but it didn't work. At least we knew what we were missing.

The point being that the alternative press—the very idea of an alternative press—was, if not earth-shattering, then definitively mind-opening for a suburban American kid even long after the Eisen-hower-era stultification that eventually spawned it. Mind opening and thus important.

That proposition hasn't always been an easy sell—to advertisers, subscribers, college journalism departments, or the parents of alternative journalists—so John McMillian's scholarly attention is gratifying. McMillian is an assistant professor of history and too-young-to-have-been-there '60s specialist at Georgia State. His is a necessary (if perhaps not definitive) addition to a very short shelf of books on American alternative media, and a valuable corrective to the notion that the monopoly dailies are the only press that matters.

McMillian really does position underground newspapers at the nexus of intentional community and participatory democracy, tracking his subject's roots back to that wellspring of all things '60s: Students for a Democratic Society. SDS cultivated an organizational style heavy on committee-written correspondence—an expression, McMillian writes, of the group's "egalitarian social theories." House organs SDS Bulletin and, later, New Left Notes tried to put on paper the essence of an SDS meeting: "warm, honest, probing discussions that helped to build a store of trust and a sense of community."

click to enlarge Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America - John McMillian - hardcover, Oxford University Press - $27.95, 304 pages
  • Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in AmericaJohn McMillianhardcover, Oxford University Press$27.95, 304 pages

Distribute attitude widely, add cheap offset printing technology, and an underground press is born. McMillian sketches quick portraits of seminal underground papers in Los Angeles (the Free Press), East Lansing, Mich. (The Paper), and Austin (Rag). He notes the boy's-club nature of the nascent underground empire. He entertainingly sources the great banana-smoking hoax of 1967 to the proto-viral spread of subversive information via an increasingly dense national network of underground papers. The FBI's inept but effective harassment of radical undergrounders is deftly recounted.

McMillian's narrative centerpiece is the rise and fall of Liberation News Service, a sort of would-be alternative Associated Press co-founded by charismatic eccentric Marshall Bloom. LNS initially embraced a no-editing policy characteristic of many early underground papers, whose amateur staffers often distrusted the red pen as counter-revolutionary, and Bloom's LNS, in an almost slapstick turn, was eventually overrun by Marxists who wanted to edit and chafed under Bloom's top-down style. Bloom, in response, liberated the printing press and moved it to a Massachusetts farm. For a while, two LNS factions distributed material for the burgeoning underground press. Bloom committed suicide in 1969, and the increasingly professional New York LNS office carried the torch until 1981.

All such ideological intrigue was long gone by the time I discovered Public News. And by the time I actually went to work for alt-weeklies—the Houston Press and later the Missoula Independent (both founded in 1989), the notion of "alternative" as a meaningful category was quickly succumbing to the death throes of a dominant cultural mainstream to be alternative to. Alt-weeklies had become professional, with ad staffs and journalism awards and everything. They're still there, in most major cities and many minor ones. Many produce very respectable—if rarely mind-opening—journalism, but few still consider themselves catalysts for community in the SDS sense. Which community? Now we're all awash in the samestream, trolling for market niche, drowning in blogs, swamped by Facebook. You can find the dirty movie on your phone. You can watch the dirty movie on your phone.

McMillian spends just a brief, oddly elegiac chapter on the increasingly commercial post-'60s alt-weeklies before pirouetting to crown the underground papers that preceded them as precursors to the contemporary Netroots nexus of community and lefty politics. Well... Chronology isn't causality, and aside from the general observation that SDS and MoveOn.org both employed contemporary technology to communicate and organize, that link feels thin.

Or maybe I'm just chafing at the implication that I missed the real '60s action, the genuine underground article, relegated by birth date to the lesser iterations of a diluted revolution. But it's probably just as well. In the world of alternative journalism, a little respectability—not to mention a little respect—can be a dangerous thing.

A version of this review first appeared in the March 30 edition of Austin's Texas Observer.

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