Wanted: A Vital Left Press

There may not have been all that much new about the New Journalism during its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fiction writers had been borrowing journalistic immediacy ever since the time of Dickens and Zola. But it was a wonderful period in American magazine and newspaper writing. Journalists such as Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Dan Wakefield, Tom Wolfe and Terry Southern knew how to free reporting from the confines of dull gray columns and inform it with fictional techniques; they threw out the traditional journalistic prohibition against personal involvement with the story. They went where their instincts told them to go. As Tom Wolfe wrote in his 1973 paean to the genre, The New Journalism, they "had the whole crazed obscene uproarious Mammon-faced drug-soaked mau-mau lust-oozing Sixties in America all to themselves." Another outbreak of exciting journalism is badly needed to chronicle our own turbulent times. Most of the energy these days appears to be on the right. Where is the American writer on the left with what passes for wit when it's penned by P.J. O'Rourke? (The Nation's Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens warm their pens in hell like Mark Twain, but they are, respectively, Irish and English.) Name a stylist with the observational powers -- and commitment to reporting -- of a Tom Wolfe. Or how about someone on the left with the populist instincts of a, dare I say it, Rush Limbaugh? This outburst was inspired by the May/June issue of Mother Jones magazine. While MJ is a attempt to package progressive politics in a graphically appealing mainstream package (another is the Utne Reader), the cover story "Bustin' Rush" didn't land a blow. "Molly Ivins takes on the big bully," touted the cover copy, in an attempt to sell one of the left's few media stars. Instead of delivering the goods, Ivins dished up some armchair insults. "Bubba listens to Limbaugh because Limbaugh gives him someone to blame for the fact that Bubba is getting screwed," she wrote. In a companion piece, writer Stephen Talbot, after calling Ivins a "national treasure," has to admit that all Limbaugh's listeners can't all be dismissed as "Bubbas." Ivins is without a doubt sharp, funny, principled. But her work often lacks the reporter's art. All too often, she appears to be simply putting an amusing spin -- and a progressive lean -- on stories first reported in the dailies. Even Ivins' reporting on the Texas legislature often has a second-day feel to it. (And while we may get a charge when she writes that Governor Bush's "resemblance to Howdy Doody is sometimes quite pronounced," is that going to get George Jr. out of office?) Ivins, and another genuinely funny Texan, Jim Hightower, know how to reach people where they live, but they're too busy churning out columns and radio shows to really report from the trenches. Like Ivins, Katha Pollit, who writes in The Nation, may also deserve "national treasure" status, but she can be merely glib, as in a June 19 "awards" column roasting the usual suspects, from Camille Paglia to The New Republic. And tongue-in-cheek "Alonzo Awards," targeting the national media, also dumbed-down the April 17-30 issue of In These Times, a Chicago-based bi-weekly political magazine. The left wastes far too much time in ineffectual sniping at the Neanderthals of the right from the safety of their own editorial offices. Instead of saying what their press does wrong (a specialty of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, whose radio show, "Counterspin," can be irredeemably smug). The alternative press -- including this newspaper -- could provide a perfect forum for the kind of serious reporting and investigative that is needed. Usually young and energetic staffs know their communities, know where the power lies, where the screws need to be applied. Alternative weeklies are bigger and better than ever -- more color, more professionalism, sharper criticism. But, too often, they churn out the kind of fun-read feature reporting that goes down easy with a breakfast bagel, but does nothing to challenge the status quo. While alternative weeklies grew out of the flagrantly anti-authoritarian underground press, many of the papers that belong to the 104-strong Association of Alternative Newsweeklies are well-established. Some are more committed than others to strong journalism. One publisher, Ron Williams, who founded the Detroit Metro Times and owns papers in Columbus, Ohio and Orlando, Fla., has in place or is planning two-person investigative teams (responsible for eight to 10 stories a year) at his papers. One of his coups was a comprehensive 16-page pullout section on the Michigan Militia -- on the street less than a week after the bombing. The paper was able to respond so quickly because it had already produced a report on the weekend warriors, in October 1994. "In some cases [alternative papers haven't made a strong commitment to investigative reporting] because of a lack of capital," says Williams. "In others, it's a lack of will. AAN publishers and editors run the spectrum. Many aspire to do better investigative work; others never will. There are competing visions and journalistic ideals in the association, as there should be." He adds that "investigative work is the most time-consuming, therefore expensive, reporting that you can do." Williams says that the Detroit Metro Times planned to do investigative reporting long before it could actually pay for it. "We had always articulated a desire to do plain old muckraking crusades," he says. "It was only after we became financially able that we have been able to fulfill that promise to our readers."It is telling that The New Yorker under Tina Brown is proving itself far more enterprising than just about any publication on the left you could name. When it comes to skewering the rich and powerful, Spy still does it better than anyone else. Increasingly these days, I'm finding the most fascinating stories in offbeat, out-of-the-mainstream journals. It was in World Watch, the publication of the Washington-based World Watch Institute, that I heard about China's emerging food supply problems. Southern Exposure, published quarterly in North Carolina, answers the question, "Whatever happened to Southern Democrats? (They turned Republican.)" Capital Eye newsletter, out of Washington, D.C., is full of sordid facts about the role of money in politics. Some of the most interesting publications I've come across recently are mimeo-grade 'zines uncovered through source material like Factsheet5, a magazine based in San Francisco. The progressive press needs to become more than just the sneering, disloyal opposition. It needs to start setting the agenda again, and shooting out sparks to afflict the bastions of wealth and privilege.

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