The Sixties Underground Press and the rise of Alternative Media in America

“As that old journalistic hound dog, A. J. Liebling put it, ‘Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.’ Right-o, Amigo. And we owned one.” – Steve Diamond, Liberation News Service

Smoking TypewritersJohn McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters: –The Sixties Underground Press and the rise of Alternative Media in America, chronicles the underground press in the 1960s. McMillian, assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, also provides a look, not always intentionally, at the writers, editors and their papers through the lenses of many organizational communication themes. These include leadership, in-groups and out-groups, self-organization, organizational identification and organizational culture. And somewhere, critical theory is lurking.

“Underground” does not mean illegal, in the sense of, say, samizdat (self-published) papers in the Soviet Union or illegal blogs in (Communist) China today. In the 1960s, underground meant being apart from mainstream American society.

After an introduction, McMillian begins with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), which helped define norms of the New Left in 1962 with the Port Huron Statement, written “largely by Tom Hayden” with others in East Michigan University. The SDS values of “participatory democracy,” with its disdain for hierarchy (disdain for sexism would come years later) informed underground publishers and writers across the nation. McMillian makes sure to distinguish between New Left politicos, who wanted to change society, and hippies, “who self-segregated from society.”

In an era where so many papers around the country came and went with the wind, so to speak, the author profiles some of the more long-lived papers. The Los Angeles Free Press, founded in 1964, covered urban issues. The Paper, 1965, in East Lansing, Michigan, was an alternative to the university paper. And the Rag, 1966, in Austin, Texas, was “established by youths whose tastes, attitudes, and ideas marked them as outsiders in their own community.”

From the free-form sharing of ideas among papers, two news syndicates arose. First was UPS, or Underground Press Syndicate. In 1966, a group of underground papers banded together to freely exchange articles, news stories and reviews. It was, in effect, a peer-to-peer file sharing service that multiplied the papers’ audience.

Second was LNS, or Liberation News Service, founded in late 1967 by Marshall Bloom and Ray Mungo. LNS was a subscription service that sent two packets weekly containing items gathered by LNS staff. LNS made its bones covering the antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon in October 1967, and the April 1968 student strike at Columbia University. Highlighting the cultural divide, Columbia students refused access to “establishment press” reporters but allowed LNS reporters. (For an insider view of the Columbia strike, see James S. Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement.)

Underground papers typically had flat hierarchies with no one seemingly in charge. Editing was taboo, and submitted articles more often than not ran as submitted. Some, such as the Free Press and Berkeley Barb, had a top-down “tribal” model. “However,” McMillian notes, [most] of those involved with the underground press in the late 1960s believed that it was ‘logically absurd for a paper that preached egalitarianism to have a boss.’”

Throughout the U.S., underground papers experienced internal power struggles and ego trips; surveillance, harassment and property destruction by the FBI; and obscenity prosecutions, threats, shootings (of buildings); and loss of ad revenue from uptight locals.

McMillian’s writing style makes a compelling story less so, but the events of the epoch manage to speak for themselves. He spent too much time explaining how the ruse of smoking banana peels helped socialize “youths” into the movement. (I don’t know anyone who took smoking banana peels seriously.) Though his overall approach is quite sympathetic, there are some things McMillian just doesn’t get. I don’t think he ever smoked much dope, and I certainly don’t think he’s had an acid trip. Most annoying, McMillian persists in using the term “youth movement,” and versions of it, to describe the groundswell social change of the era. Those men and women were young adults. “Youth” anything seems too much like church group.

All that aside, Smoking Typewriters provides a valuable picture of an era that still influences us today. It’s no stretch to say that whenever you read the Village Voice (which helped start it all), The Pitch (in Kansas City), Mother Jones magazine or a website like Truthout.org, you’re reading the inheritors of that legacy.

Extra credit
Read archives of Liberation News Service.

Read the Port Huron Statement.