Confessions of a Media Hack
A couple of things occurred recently which deeply shook me. First my friend Art Kunkin called me. Kunkin founded the Los Angeles Free Press, the first of the "underground" newspapers which flourished in the '60s, and was the granddaddy of the alternative press that began in the '70s.He had just gotten back from the Democratic and Republican conventions, and was angry at how they were being covered -- in the alternative and mainstream press. He left a long message on my machine, saying that it was time to get the old underground free press going again.I called him and got his machine, and found myself agreeing with far more passion than usual. Yes, I said, there is a crying need in this country for something . Something has gone very wrong with this country, something that only a truly underground and radical press could help.A few days later the two alternative papers in Los Angeles ran Gary Webb's story from the San Jose Mercury News detailing how it had come to pass that there was a crack house down the street from me. Webb's article was chilling in its implications, for there was in fact a place to point the finger. Our very own federal government. Why do gunshots ring out so regularly in my nice old Los Angeles neighborhood? It turns out it was one of those cold war schemes gone very badly awry.It seems that our federal government's secret police had worked out a deal with the drug smugglers and contras of Nicaragua that allowed the former freedom-loving Somoza goons to flood our inner city with crack cocaine. At first it was done to raise money for arms to overthrow the democratically-elected but socialist government of Nicaragua -- then it continued as just plain greed.The fact that the social fabric of our cities, and especially my city have been rent asunder by this federally-sanctioned drugs for arms and cash scheme had escaped much notice until the Mercury News piece. That piece appeared in such an unlikely place blew my mind, you should excuse the dated slang.I had long ago come to a sad conclusion about my colleagues in the mass media -- that they are a pitiful lot, bought and paid for like so many sacks of corn. I generally assumed that reporters were better in the 60s and 70s than they are now. For a number of years I've been walking around smugly, secure in the knowledge that my generation knew how to do it, and the newer one didn't.After all we were the last of a generation of mainstream reporters who always had almost-finished novels in our bottom drawers, and worked hard to write the truth and get it past our conservative editors. Sometimes we were successful. The new breed of mainstream reporters seem more interested in pleasing their editors, and making "careers" out of newspapering that will eventually get them jobs in television. Some corporate papers have even returned to having strict dress codes, where women are expected to wear power suits and bras and nylons, and men something parallel, with the most nauseating addition of a tie. I've always regarded ties as the ultimate symbol of servitude.Our consciences should be our only real masters. In my generation, we worked hard to tell the owners when to fuck off. Not always successfully, but we tried. In a way, the incredible success of the "underground" papers was a giant way of telling the established owners where to get off -- and get away with it. The "underground" press got its beginning, I think, just because it expressed the notion everyone was feeling about the war, about the society -- that something was terribly wrong. And had been wrong ever since the Kennedy assassination, which occurred on the same day Aldous Huxley died in 1963.Something had gone especially wrong with the press, and hell, not just the press, but the whole country. We all smelled the rot of a corpse. Everyone sensed something was rotten, and it wasn't just in Denmark. It was here in my country today -- in the old U.S. of A.After the Kennedy assassination, people sensed the mainstream press was a one-party press. Maybe always had been. Remember how they used to say Pradva was the one-party press in Russia. Well, Pradva at its worst had nothing on us. Sometimes in my bleakest moments, the daily press seems like they all were created from one gigantic gizmo out of Brave New World, all saying the same thing.Stories have become words, tangled in great semantic stews signifying nothing. When conservatives want to take us back to the Robber Baron days in terms of welfare, education, and the like, it's called Reform.Suddenly the old argument about socialism vs. capitalism has been declared over, and capitalism won. Now when you call someone a democrat, as in someone supposedly in favor of democracy over tyranny, the word democracy is instantly equated with capitalism.Hell, I always thought fascism was nothing but capitalism with the fig leaf of democracy ripped off.So O.K., you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that my left and underground credentials from the '60s are impeccable. I broke into the racket when I was 16, writing pieces for the People's World, a communist newspaper that doesn't exist anymore, but was most famous for introducing Woody Guthrie to the world. I did a stint in the late '60s as a staff writer on the old Los Angeles Free Press, the first of the "underground" newspaper.Kunkin used to sit around with me and some other left bohemian types in a Los Angeles coffeehouse called the Xanadu, where the idea for an alternative to the Los Angeles Times was endlessly discussed. Among those involved in that paper were some Times desk guys who were as frustrated with their paper as everyone else.For a period the Free Press had an incredible influence -- selling over a 100,000 papers a week for 25 cent a shot, when the Times was still a dime. Later, in the Free Press's last days in 1977 when it was owned and ultimately closed down by its owner Larry Flynt when he got shot in the balls for trying to distribute porno in some other Mafioso type's territory, I was a columnist there.The Free Press and the hundreds of underground paper that had been spawned in the days of the Vietnam war came to an end, but they were replaced by alternative papers -- much more consumerist and much less radical, but nonetheless with a residual will to reform the society if not to help bring about the Revolution.I've also worked on mainstream papers as well -- the San Francisco Chronicle, the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, as examples, written a lot for the Los Angeles Times for a number of years, written hundreds of Sunday magazine pieces, as well as five books. I even edited an orthodox Jewish newspaper for a decade.I also put in my time on several rural dailies and weeklies around the state. I used to joke I had been fired from every paper in California. It wasn't actually true, but it had some truth.For years the California Newspaper Association kept my name on a blacklist because I had written for the People's World briefly in my teens.I got an absolutely Ben Hecht way of looking newspapering. For many years I used to drive up and down California's Highway 99 and 101 and pick up the paper in each town I passed through. I myself worked at papers in such places as Turlock, Livermore. Newhall and Pismo Beach. Never got a chance to work in El Centro.When I started in newspapers, they were still produced by men slaving over pots of lead at their linotype machines. Most of these papers were owned by a proprietor, sometimes working with his wife and offspring, or a whole family. But as time went on the family members lost control and they became controlled by corporations.Then I didn't pick up the newspapers in each town anymore, because you couldn't tell the newspapers apart anymore.I guess electronic media is tough for print to compete with, but how can you tell? Not only are the corporate papers all alike, they are all boring, BORING, with the souls of accountants and businessmen, not prophets and real journalists. Even if print is the "cool" medium, and television the "hot" medium, you can't test the validity of the theory unless you put all those car crashes and other mayhem on the tube side by side with something that's really well written.Hey, I'm too tired to get out there and take lumps for the cause anymore. These days I work as an editor at a wire service, and work at making those stories that get put on the wire like the equivalent of McDonalds or General Motors product. I want them all to look the same. I want that no one should get surprises or provoked into thinking about something.So okay, I have grown tired, discouraged and excessively cynical. But if things are as bad as I had supposed them to be in this day and age of corporate media and a younger generation that has no knowledge of history, and has no will for the revolutionary impulse, how did I explain that article in the San Jose Mercury?My weariness may be being replaced with hope. Now if only Kunkin would get back to me and tell me the old Free Press was going to be reborn. I'd like to make one last stab at it.