The Way We Were

Bras cause cancer. Cigarettes don't. Jerry is dead. The Web is alive. Congress is dumb. America is pissed. The militias appeared on Nightline, and the Unabomber got published in the Post, without the benefit of journalism school or even a decent outfit. It was a chaotic year, yet one that still somehow found the time to be the anniversary of everything, including Hiroshima, the U.N., and the Grateful Dead. The mainstream media may have doled it out daily, but the alternative press got the straight dope on the matters that mattered. Here's a look at the stories from the alternative press that caught our eye, tickled our fancy, and got us busy.HOPE, RAGE & MILITIA MADNESS When a bomb went off in Oklahoma City killing hundreds on April 19, 1995, the militias became the alternative press' story of the year. While the mainstream media had summarily ignored this story, the alternative press was way ahead of the curve -- a sentiment not lost on Detroit Metro Times investigative reporter Beth Hawkins, who became the star of the hour. Taking a lead from a story published earlier in the Northern Express, eight months before the explosion, Hawkins profiled the Michigan Militia in her now famous "Patriot Games," a prescient look at the rage that catalyzed the Michigan Militia and liked-minded souls across the land. Hawkins led the Metro Times in compiling a special militia supplement which included "Damage Control" her own follow-up story on the Michigan Militia. She wrote: "The bodies of the victims ...were still twisted in the wreckage when the Michigan Militia started its toughest tactical exercise to date: damage control." The good work by the alternative press was anthologized by the Institute for Alternative Journalism as a book of readings, Militias in America, 1995. Indeed, anger was one constant in the mercurial months of '95. There were the Angry White Males, who found time between blowing things up to repeal affirmative action laws, a scenario Donnell Alexander described in the Sacramento News & Review: "If you're black in 1995, you are most likely on the bad end of a blowout. Media functionaries and power brokers...call this losing battle the shrinking middle class. But to that one-third of the poverty-stricken U.S. black population who still haven't quite gotten over that bad case of slavery (as well as their multitudes of brethren who've only transcended poverty on a technicality), this development reads as incidental genocide." Not to be outdone were certain Angry White Women. Village Voice writer Jennifer Gonnerman revealed the agenda of the media-savvy Independent Women's Forum. "The group's mission," she explained, "is to dismantle many of the programs feminists have long fought for, including affirmative action and a federal response to domestic violence. With a national advisory board that includes economics expert Wendy Lee Gramm and Lynn Cheney, the group's clout is growing fast, especially with Republicans controlling the national agenda." Then there were the million or so "Angry Black Men" who weren't actually marching in anger, but in peace and harmony, looking for community-based solutions as well as a little help from their governmental friends. In These Times' Salim Muwakkil reported on the historic gathering with a personal touch in "One In A Million," offering: "The huge gathering shocked many Americans into recognizing that an enormous racial rift still divides the country....Ultimately, the march contains critical lessons for American progressives. The unity so much in evidence at the event served as a striking counterpoint to the fractious political history of black America." It was the opinion of the Bob Doles and Bill Bennetts of the Beltway that the culture of Hollywood is to blame for many of our nation's troubles; some beg to differ. In "Bullets Over Hollywood," LA Weekly writer Greg Burk asked: "What if movie violence is good for you? Those who want to curb it had better be prepared to ban Shakespeare, Grimm and the Bible first. And after they've done that, they had best stand back, because the symbol will be gone, but the urge will still be there." While the leaders of the Free World extolled the virtues of family values, they looked foolish as the press dug into their own dysfunctional family affairs. In "Bob Packwood and the Culture of Complacency" (found in the Village Voice), Karen Houppert and Jennifer Gonnerman examined one of the most embarrassing scandal of the year with an eye uncommon in the mainstream media. Here, they revealed media that "seemed not to notice the most valuable gift the diaries had to offer -- a sustained peek at the larger context in which Packwood operated. ...The diaries and documents are a rare window on the world of Washington power, the culture of complicity that makes Packwoods possible." The truth hurts, as Ken Silverstein revealed in "The Ten Dimmest Bulbs in Congress," one of the most popular stories of the year. "Identifying the ten most dimwitted members of Congress was a difficult task," wrote Silverstein. "To do so, I canvassed several dozen sources -- liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican -- on Capitol Hill. Seven freshmen and one sophomore won a place on the list. Thanks to the sheer brute stupidity of these newcomers, world-class contenders like New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato and California Representative Bob Dornan didn't even come close to making the final cut." MIXED MEDIA The media landscape got smaller and smaller as consolidation conspired to shrink the scope of voices and choices at an unprecedented pace. In "Merger Mania" Boston Phoenix writer Dan Kennedy explained: "The word of the moment is 'synergy,' and it's bandied about by moguls such as Disney chairman Michael Eisner and Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin to describe how their television shows and movies, networks, TV and radio stations, magazines, and books can be used to increase their powers of promotion exponentially." While the fat cats get fatter, Kennedy stressed the importance of independent voices. One place they are to be found is online, where life continues to get bigger and bigger. What does this new world look like? San Jose Metro writer John Whalen offered an excellent tour of some of the best examples of publishing on the Internet in "Around the Web in 80 Clicks." He wrote: "The World Wide Web promises a revolution in personal publishing and communications as revolutionary as Gutenberg's printing press. Autonomous modes of self-expression -- good, bad, beautiful and ugly -- are pouring onto the Web with amazing speed. At its best, the Web has fostered a slew of bright, independent e-zines which are thriving as online, homemade alternatives to the Time-Warners, Rupert Murdochs, and Disney-Cap Cities/ABCs of the world." But why and how should the wannabe Web-sters take the plunge? In one of the best of many overviews of the medium, Eastsideweek reporter Roger Downey's "Untangle the Web" offered a beginner's guide to hooking up and surfing like a pro. While many got connected, others got disenchanted with all this so-called "progress," citing the pitfalls of technology -- its false sense of democracy, the increasing number of computer-related injuries, and "smut" on the Net. Yes, even the Luddites had their day, as discussed in an East Bay Monthly profile of Silicon Snake Oil author Clifford Stoll, who advises I-way junkies to tune out, log off, and get a life. The Unabomber took a less conventional route to publishing his ponderings on technology and society -- and found that freedom of the press belongs to those who threaten to blow it up. In the aftermath of the publishing of the Unabomber's manifesto, cyberjournalist Brock Meeks examined the government's accidental Unabomber PR machine, writing: "A stunning transformation is taking place. Thanks to FBI Director Louis Freeh and his merry band of trigger happy goons, the Unabomber is making a status leap from Freddie Kruger to folk hero." The biggest technology story was probably the least glamorous. Way back in July, before the dueling lobbies upped the ante with prime-time TV ads which only muddled an already confusing issue, Christine Triano's "Telecommunications Breakdown" advised: "If you use a phone, watch TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the radio, you are going to be affected by a remarkably little-scrutinized piece of legislation now weaving its way through Congress. The problem: the Telecommunications Act of 1995, promoted as replacing regulation with competition, contains buckets of goodies for everyone -- except consumers." At press time, the House and the Senate have reached agreement on a somewhat better version of the bill, which should be inked by the president soon.THE SPIN DOCTORS Whether it was lousy telecom bills or sketchy science, there was more than the usual dose of spin doctoring fed to the public. Commentary on this culture of deceit took many forms. Excerpts from John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton's book detailing the shameful ways of the PR industry, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You." arrived just in time for the cigarette industry's latest salvo (they said they didn't know the stuff's bad for you). ABC apologized; 60 Minutes pulled out; and the tobacco giants' co-optation of the press continued, leaving an already distrusted media looking less like Fourth Estate watchdogs and more like second-rate chickens, as described in a column by media critics Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen. They wrote: "For decades, network TV news shows have been interrupted by commercials. Now, they also get interrupted by apologies. And with each on-air apology -- usually prompted by a corporate takeover -- network news dies another public death." Meanwhile, in "The Designer Cigarette Smokescreen," Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan deconstructed the cigarette company's efforts to "go alternative" with hipster ad campaigns and big company butts masquerading as the product of little guys. The usurpation of "hip" was popular on Madison Avenue as well. Baffler editor Tom Frank, writing in the Chicago Reader, offered his analysis of the "selling" of "hip": "Sometime in the recent past, hip was transmogrified; what used to be a style of resistance has become the official philosophy of corporate America, from the ponytails and pierced noses of the cyber-boardrooms of California to the madcap tie-snipping and convention-squashing of Madison Avenue. You can see its effects every week in the new generation of business magazines like Wired, and in the new generation of goateed, rule-breaking entrepreneurs celebrated by Forbes." Will it be hip to be square again in '96?ON DRUGS Damn those entrepreneurs -- it seems that cheap thrills, and good drugs, are getting more expensive all the time. One of the most popular drugs of '95 was not a drug at all, but "Herbal Ecstacy," the organic high with the funny spelling, easily obtained by anyone with a telephone and a credit card. In another one of the most popular stories of the year, Alma Garcia took one for the team, selflessly road-testing and dissecting Herbal X in Albuquerque's Weekly Alibi. While the writer (who earlier co-penned the infamous "From Weird to Eternity: Three Days in the Life of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson") got high with a little help from her friends, the Boston Phoenix's Al Giordano dug up the straight dope on the legalization of marijuana movement from the likes of Camille Paglia, Tom Robbins, P.J. O'Rourke, Terence McKenna, and Allen Ginsberg.THE ANNIVERSARY OF EVERYTHING The U.N. celebrated its half-century of supposed glory, while the Bosnia war raged on. Somewhere between pomp and circumstance, G. Pascal Zachary pondered the legacy of the bomb in "Hiroshima at 50," a piece which appeared in the Riverfront Times and a dozen other papers. He noted: "Fifty years later, the U.S. remains the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons in war. The question of why is passionately debated today by those who see Hiroshima as a symbol of American morality. But just what kind of symbol isn't always clear." Minneapolis City Pages' Monika Bauerlein tied a number of anniversary themes together as she considered our responsibility to the past, its hold on the present, and the legacy of one's birthplace in "The Things We Carry: Notes on Memory and History." The Grateful Dead's 30th Anniversary was well noted in weeklies in the month preceding Jerry Garcia's death. In a graceful 30th-year tribute to Garcia and Co., Steve Silberman wrote: "The Grateful Dead are on the road again this year, and that ain't news. It's no glitzy, grab-the-bucks, 'hell freezes over' reunion tour, to be enshrined with a battery of MTV and VH-1 appearances, a quick turn on Letterman, and the cover of Interview. It's just 30 cities and 70 shows or so, load in, make the people happy, and load out: business as usual." The one-year mark of the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman approached to find a world mesmerized by bloody gloves and racist cops. But the Sacramento News & Review's "John Doe' used the occasion to pen a personal essay about his own battle with violence in "The O.J. In Me: An Anniversary Of Violence." It was one of many ways in which the alternative press explored domestic violence in the year of O.J. BRAS AND OTHER KILLERS While O.J. was cleared, bras remained on trial. In "Fatal Fashion?," Valley Advocate reporter Mark Anderson examined a study suggesting a link between bra-wearing and breast cancer -- the constriction bras place upon the breast can restrict the normal function of the lymphatic system in and around the breast. Deconstructing the social ramifications of women's underwear for the Twin Cities Reader, Cherie Parker's "The Booby Trap" offered a personal and political stroll in the land of lace and padding. Finally, in the "Shape of Things to Come" In These Times' Katharine Greider found out how on the heels of the success of the Wonderbra, the fashion industry has been revving itself up to redesign the female body from top to bottom. "I have seen the future," she laments, "and friends, it's scary."

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