February 3, 2012

A Nation of (Silent?) Sheep?

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 1:41 pm

Cops follow protesters last week in Oakland
This is how a news photographer accessorizes
Is this sign posted in every Press Club in the USA?

“A Nation of Sheep,” written by William J. Lederer has been on our literary radar screen for many years just because of the catchy title. When we were presented with the chance to buy a used copy in BU (Brilliant Uncirculated) condition recently, at a bargain price, we snapped it up quickly. Among the usual suspects list of places in Berkeley CA where a thrifty fellow can buy desirable additions for one’s personal library at prices that won’t destroy a tight budget, the number of available books that criticize American Journalism seems astoundingly high, until a proper assessment of the phenomenon is made. The University located in Berkeley has a School of Journalism, so there is going to be a goodly number of teachers and students reading up on that subject. There is also a number of folks who work in and around the San Francisco Bay area Journalism community who live in Berkeley. There are also a few people still living in Berkeley who can tell stories about the golden age of underground newspapers because they worked for the Berkeley Barb and the Berkeley Tribe.

That, in turn, reminded us of the fact that the World’s Laziest Journalist has intended for some time to write a column about the fact that Berkeley has no Press Club. If some enterprising coffee shop owner (apparently the Berkeley Barb was started by a coffee shop owner who wanted a small “poopsheet” to hand out to his regular customers) wanted to fill his place on an “off” evening, he could set aside one night a week to make a special effort to attract “newsies” and start a de facto Press Club, where a herd of the boys could gather around and talk shop.

[We can use the sexist word “boys” because we heard a recent report about a new book on KCBS that reports that there is a paucity of women in the clique of reporters covering this year’s Presidential Campaign.]

Recently Police officials have been making decisions based on the fact that they don’t consider some reporters for Internets based publications to be eligible for Press Pass status at news events. That could be a lively topic for discussion at the aforementioned hypothetical gathering just mentioned.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the big topic among journalists for the past week, was not the Romney victory in the Florida primary, but the detention of reporters in Oakland. Some of the detained journalists had valid Press Passes issued by the San Francisco Police Department. Maybe, if well informed voters are a legitimate goal, it is time to include web-journalists on the list of those eligible to apply for Police issued Press Passes?

Citizens and media owners seem eerily silent about this latest trend in journalism; could it be that they don’t care about the health and welfare of America’s free press?

It would be a bit easier to write a weekend-update column, if a fellow could compare notes at an impromptu Press Club. Macy’s may not tell Gimbel’s what’s going to go on sale next week, but journalist do talk to each other on an “this is off the record” basis and swap some information which can help determine the newsworthyness of some topics.

For instance, what if an online columnist noted that during the past week there had been some headlines online that indicated that a nuclear facility in Illinois had a bit of trouble with their hardware, the San Onofre nuclear plant in Southern California had a radioactive leak, and a big shot in Washington had announced that the next terrorist attack on the USA might come in the form of a hack attack.

Wasn’t there a story recently alleging that somebody had used computers to sabotage and slow down Iran’s program to develop nuclear weapons?

If there was an informal Press Club in Berkeley, a columnist could do a bit of a mini-opinion poll about the feasibility of seeing a connecting thread for those bits of information? Could the nuclear malfunctions be an example of “paybacks are hell”?

If other journalists thought that all these separate bits of information could be lumped together legitimately, then OK, but if they said it didn’t pass the smell test, then it might be prudent to pass on the idea.

On line, anything that isn’t stamped USDA approved mainstream media style patriotic information will be branded as sounding suspiciously like something being prepared for test marketing by the Amalgamated Conspiracy Theory Factory boys (rumored to be headquartered in an abandoned railroad car manufacturing facility in Emeryville CA?) and not worthy of a mention. The catch phrase for the teen years (of this century) might be: “You’re on your own, pal.” [Bust the unions and stress rugged individualism.]

Didn’t a legendary pioneer blogger, whose handle was Plato, once predict that eventually journalism would become a game played by guys sitting in their man cave looking at a computer screen thinking they were grasping reality and making cogent remarks in a process known as “live blogging”? Don’t they deserve to get a night out to break the shackles of solipsism?

Sure, it is wonderfully invigorating to see younger journalists tilting at windmills, but don’t they need to hear a crusty old reporter reminding them: “Ya can’t fight City Hall, kid!”? A Berkeley Press Club would help keep such idealistic young j-students grounded in reality. The flip side of the coin would be that the students could help the old war horse scribblers fathom the mysteries of the laptop.

There is one other stealth advantage to having a local Press Club where journalists can talk shop. If a writer tells his colleagues about a story he is writing and if something happens to him while he is digging for that story, then the others will be able to continue the (hypothetical alert!) the crusade that cost a life.

Wasn’t columnist Dorothy Kilgallen working on an angle to the Kennedy assassination when she died suddenly?

Has IBM abandoned their use of plaques that displayed the word “THINK”?

On page 31 of the Crest Book 1962 paperback edition of “A Nation of Sheep,” William J. Lederer quotes a Prince/editor from Thailand as saying: “You Americans are the easiest country in the world to propagandize. You believe anything. I could give a lecture here in Honolulu and say that the king’s mother had two heads – and that is why she isn’t seen in public. Most of the audience would believe it and the papers would probably print it as a factual story – without even checking to see if His Majesty’s mother is still alive.”

Now the disk jockey will play the Defiant Ones’ 1961 recording of “Defiant Drums,” Elvis’ “Rock-A-Hula Baby” and Johnny Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way.” We have to go read Edward Jay Epstein’s 1973 book “News from Nowhere.” Have a “Cross my heart and hope to die” type week.

February 3, 2011

Rememboring the Berkeley Barb (and other underground newspapers)

Filed under: Guest Comment — Tags: , , — Bob Patterson @ 1:33 pm

Seeing a copy of Smoking Typewriters (by John McMillan Oxford University Press Copyright 2011) for sale over the weekend, inspired us to see if the Berkeley Public Library had that book available in its new releases section because we were curious about how far one would have to delve into it before encountering any reference to the Berkeley Barb. When we learned that the Library would be glad to take a suggestion that they acquire that particular work, we sped back to Moe’s Book Store on Telegraph Ave. and overcame the cheapskate aspect of our personality and bought a copy of the new book with the subtitle: “The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America.”

The Introduction compared and contrasted the coverage of the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont which had appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley Barb. The Barb was mentioned in the first sentence.

Since the Chronicle was the flagship of William R. Hearst’s newspaper empire and the Barb was one of the first “underground” newspapers, the corporate viewpoint was very different from the work in the publication driven by the drive towards profits than was the reportage found in the alternative news source.

The basic business philosophy of those two publications was as different as that of Fox News and this website. It’s as if it is just a matter of history to see that the official government endorsed view of reality is engineered to perpetually spawn a market for media which was designed to subvert the distortion of reality by the unscrupulous businessmen hoping to curry favor from the politicians.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and their Port Huron Statement is credited with being the source of inspiration for the underground press movement. The Village Voice and Paul Krasner’s magazine, The Realist are acknowledged to be the prototypes from the Fifties for the underground newspaper movement of the Sixties. Passing mention is made of the role underground newspapers played during the German occupation of Paris (France, not Texas).

McMillan takes a close look at the stories about the start of the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Paper in the East Lancing Michigan area near Michigan State University (MSU), and the Rag in Austin Texas. The author itemizes numerous parallels and ties between the Paper and events in Berkeley CA.

In chapter three, McMillan looks at Berkeley’s association with a widespread belief in the late Sixties that smoking dried banana skins was just as important to enthusiasts of psychedelic experimentation as was the dreaded marijuana plant that spawned a nation wide panic over the concern that the youth of America were risking falling into the life of a drug fiend just for a few momentary feelings of elation called “highs” or “kicks.”

McMillan, in a book that is heavily annotated with scholarly references to provide a lifetime of work for at-home fact checkers, cavalierly quotes numerous efforts by the underground press to substantiate and validate the urban legend that the peels of the tropical fruit could, if dried and smokes like tobacco, produce a transitory feeling of bliss known as “Mellow Yellow.” In every case, the road test was declared to substantiate the claim, but then McMillan notes that the FDA declared the belief to be a “hoax.” He undercuts the work of the government agency by injecting an unverifiable line from a contemporary stage play that asks: “Now do you think a responsible government agency would mislead the American public?” McMillan doesn’t include the words “nudge nudge wink wink,” but he ignores the strong possibility that he may be responsible for possibly causing a number of young and gullible readers to jump to the conclusion that the “hoax” explanation was itself the real hoax and thus subsequently lures them into a “don’t try this at home” bit of fact checking.

Chapter four, which details the rise of the Liberation News Service (LNS) indirectly focus on Berkeley because the organization, which came to sudden prominence in the journalism industry because of its coverage of both the “Battle of the Pentagon,” which started on October 21, 1967 and the week long student strike at Columbia which erupted spontaneously on April 23, 1968, had one of its first three teletype machines in Berkeley, when the organization started using them in February of 1968 (page 103).

Since the students didn’t permit reporters from Establishment media into the building, journalism student Steve Diamond was one of the LNS personnel who acted as a human news wire network between the various occupied buildings and got a unique perspective on the evolving events. Diamond is quoted (page 114) as saying in September of 1968: “We’ve educated a generation that no longer buys or needs daily newspapers.” Isn’t that sentiment being echoed these days on the Internets?

The lively and entertaining events that occurred when the staff of the Berkeley Barb revolted and formed the nucleus of a rival publication that came to be called The Berkeley Tribe were glossed over quickly on page 122 and again in Chapter 6’s footnote no. 84 on page 239.

[Personal note: This reviewer, while covering a 2010 story, in Berkeley CA, of the cripple peoples’ rights protest known as “Arnieville,” heard a recounting of that bit of underground newspaper history and is of the opinion that that facet of the topic at least deserved a longer and more conspicuous place in the book’s main body of text. We learned later in the book that the squabbling at a fictional underground newspaper, the Back Bay Mainline, was the basis for the 1977 film Between the Lines, which was set in the Boston area.]

McMillan quotes Bob Woodward’s 1974 assessment of the situation: “The underground press was largely right about government sabotage but the country didn’t get upset because it was the left that was sabotaged.”

The chapter about the power struggles in the editorial offices across the USA ends with the transcription of Thomas Forcade’s statement presented to a Congressional hearing on May 13, 1970. The words would be a hilarious blast from the past if the subtle implications of the move to impose “net neutrality” were only a figment of the imaginations of the conspiracy theory lunatics.

For the underground press, the question of “who decides” was a matter of basic philosophy. Their debate established once and for all that no topic was off limits in a free press. Internet sites would later make the one essential exception for conspiracy theories, but essentially continued the “no holds barred” philosophy established in the Sixties.

The Liberation News Service, as the summer of 1968 drew to a close, split into two rival factions. One wanted to move the headquarters to a farm in Vermont and the other thought that staying in the country’s media hub in New York City made sense. The events that followed sound like the scenario for a Three Stooges episode. The press was hijacked and a late night confrontation at the farm had ominous potential endings.

It was the high water mark for the underground press phase of American Journalism. The Seventies saw the emergence of the “alt” era of the newspaper business.

In the book’s Afterword, McMillan points out the similarities and parallels between the Sixties underground newspaper fad and the new trend of writers expressing themselves via blogging, which raises the question: Will future media scholars write books about the early days of the Internets? McMillan’s book will leave hippies asking this question: “Other than new labels and slogans for old issues, does anything really change from one generation to the next?”

For someone who can remember getting details of the shooting of James Rector from copies of the Berkeley Barb that were “hot off the press,” and who remembers the opportunity for catching a free Stones concert at Altamont as being an invitation to participate in a traffic jam of historic proportions, reading McMillan’s book was an enjoyable preliminary means for gathering material for a new column, but as to the readability appeal of this book for someone who hadn’t yet been born when Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey for the right to a free squat in the White House, we’ll let you know if a friend in Concordia thinks about it if they send us a review after we send them our personal copy of this new book from Oxford University Press.

It is apparent that the lessons learned in America during the Sixties about gaining control of unruly mobs are well known in Cairo today.

(We are relatively certain that any Berkeley citizen who still has copies of the Berkeley Barb among the material in their personal archives will like this book.)

On page 76 McMillan quotes the editor of the Barb, Max Sherr, as saying: “We’d plant small articles in the paper saying ‘There’s a rumor that something is going to happen on Telegraph Avenue Friday at two o’clock.’ So people would show up on Friday to see what would happen, someone would say, ‘Hey, let’s close off the street,’ and something would happen.”

Now the disk jockey will play Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” Harry Belefonte’s “Banana boat” song, and Country Joe McDonald’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag.” We have to go over to San Francisco to check out an event that is being called a Neal Cassidy birthday party. Have a “groovy” week.

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