Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America

  • By John McMillian
  • Oxford University Press
  • 277 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • March 7, 2011

Meet the precursor to the blogosphere.

The roots of the anarchy seen in much of the Internet today lie in the dingy cubbyholes that political and cultural revolutionaries shared, nearly half a century ago, with manual typewriters, clunky mimeograph machines and hand-cranked presses. The resulting pamphlets, flyers, small magazines and newspapers served up spicy stews of rhetoric and “news” coverage, heavily salted with opinion, to cities and campuses across the country. But the choir, though loud, never quite came together.

In those leftish years loosely known as the Sixties, college-age crowds – often privileged and overwhelmingly white – practiced free love, and sometimes violence, amid clouds of funny-smelling smoke. Cultural hippies and political yippies united in opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, denouncing not only the perpetrators but also the poor grunts without college deferments who were forced to do the dirty work. This mutual aversion to the war intensified especially after the government wiped out college draft deferments and instituted a lottery for all young males.

While these groups may have shared the occasional bong, they represented distinct fragments of the ’60s subculture. John McMillian, who has written three books on the radical tradition, believes social historians have tended to see the division mainly as a clash of values and lifestyles between “wild hippies and dour Marxists.” Yet the fragmentation of the era was much greater.

In this new book, McMillian explains that not least among the divisions were those in the underground press. Underground writers pitted themselves against the established news media, offering no pretense of a dividing line between news and editorial voices. What they wanted was to foster a sense of community. What they accomplished was to build a wobbly unity among various factions, including those within their own ranks. By the end of the 1960s, their combined circulation numbered in the millions. But the political wing, the New Left, began to take over, issuing newspapers that were often downright subversive.

About that time, the underground press began to morph into something called the alternative media, and from there moved to ’zines and on to today’s “new media,” according to McMillian. By the time technology was ready for blogs, the alternative media had fertilized the soil from which the blogosphere grew. Except now, the new media can be exploited by almost anyone: from the left, right or center; artistic, literary or pornographic. Or even journalistic.

For a book that began as a scholarly monograph, Smoking Typewriters is well written, although McMillian’s exhaustive research and thorough look at the history of the underground press challenges the lay reader to a bit of a slog. He sets up this heavily detailed but interesting book with a December 1969 event in Altamont, Calif., near San Francisco’s East Bay. Meant to be a “Woodstock West,” it devolved into a violent encounter between “flower children” and the Hell’s Angels that the organizers had hired to provide protection. One result: “Mick Jagger, trying in vain to soothe the crowd: ‘Brothers and sisters, come on now. That means everybody – just cool out.’ ” McMillian includes an obligatory look at the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which he credits less than grass-roots momentum for sparking the counterculture movement.

McMillian identifies the primary internal rift in the underground press itself as a difference between two ways of looking at “participatory democracy,” a concept borrowed from the civil rights movement. Some “editors” wanted total control over content; many writers wanted the newspapers to be receptacles for the blog-like remonstrations of anyone who wanted to remonstrate.

In contrasting the underground and mainstream press, McMillian focuses on another battle, this one for control of the Liberation News Service (LNS), which provided alternative news coverage to dozens of underground newspapers. He cites two incidents to show that, at times, it was coverage by The Washington Post, The New York Times and television that was inadequate and biased.

The LNS was organized in October 1967, in time for its reporters to cover a peaceful antiwar rally at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. It ended at the steps of the Pentagon, as “a phalanx of American soldiers battered hundreds of young demonstrators with billy clubs and rifle butts.” Later, Norman Mailer, in his 1968 Armies of the Night, wrote that the mainstream media “created a forest of inaccuracy which would blind the best efforts of an historian.”

McMillian says no television cameras documented the Pentagon siege and soldier brutality, although “that very week large protests in California and Wisconsin had seen considerable violence.” Network executives said they ruled out coverage because they feared demonstrators would perform for the cameras.

In April 1968, an SDS protest at Columbia “unexpectedly flared into a major rebellion.” The Times gave the conflict a week of front-page coverage, but in one main article police-brutality charges were not mentioned until the 23rd paragraph. The president and publisher of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger, was a Columbia trustee, but he insisted he wasn’t influenced by the newspaper’s anti-demonstrator editorials and that the Times had sought to “provide full, accurate and dispassionate coverage.” The Times had missed a major point, though, according to both the New York Post and the LNS: A violent police assault had played a pivotal role in turning most student opinion against Columbia’s administrators.

McMillian also highlights other fissures that contributed to the gradual demise of the underground’s power and influence, including tensions within the SDS. After a while the whole movement stopped growing, and by the early 1970s most underground papers were dead. One reason was supplied by the staff of Boston’s Old Mole, which published an editorial admitting they felt “pressured to inject the words ‘imperialist’ and ‘capitalism’ ” into every sentence lest they be “accused of insufficient zeal.” Burnout was common.

Filling the vacuum were “alternative” weeklies aimed at a new audience called the “me generation.” During the late 1970s, subsets of that audience began to diversify. By the 1990s, writers of every stripe and quality would take over the blogosphere.

When the alternative weeklies began, most were still leftish and “feisty,” but usually for-profit publications. Many made money, but what the Internet gave, the Internet is taking away. In 2006, the Village Voice Media company (11 papers) merged with the New Times chain (six papers), losing competing weeklies in Los Angeles and Cleveland. CEO Jim Larkin told McMillian that its flagship, New York’s graying Village Voice, had lost $15 million in ad revenue over seven years.

A veteran print and broadcast journalist, Robert M. Knight is the author of Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft (Marion Street Press, 2010). He taught at Northwestern University and Gettysburg College. 

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