Off the press!

By CLIF GARBODEN  |  November 15, 2006

When we wrote, we never took shelter behind traditional “objectivity.” We reported what we saw; we wrote what we saw was true. We embraced narrative journalism — specializing in long (and often long-winded) personalized accounts. We wrote about what we participated in and vice versa. Our heavily personalized and opinionated approach wasn’t really anything new. The tradition went back to when English-language journalism began, with the early, and unabashedly partisan, British broadsides. But it violated what, through the 1950s and early ’60s, were considered the pillars of the free press — party-line facts and no interpretation. We saw through those fair-sounding constraints as self-administered shackles through which the established interests were able to protect themselves from scrutiny and effectively manipulated the press.

In those days, in the dailies, inconvenient truths and unpleasant details didn’t have a chance. Neither did black activists, gays, feminists, free thinkers, pacifists, birth-control activists, political dissidents, Beat poets, Socialist Workers’ Party candidates, Lenny Bruce, or rock and roll. Media left a lot of stuff out.

And we were above all else media’s children. Our worldview and belief systems sprang from a lifetime of being bombarded by Howdy Doody, Davy Crockett, Little Richard, Walter Cronkite, live images of Lee Harvey Oswald dying in the Dallas cop-house garage, James Bond, Catcher in the Rye , accounts of the Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney murders, Gunsmoke , and Cold War scare tactics by which ’50s governments controlled their citizens.

As we grew up, we’d bought into it all. What we saw on TV and read in the papers was, we internalized early, the way things were. Then, as we plodded through high school, read Elie Wiesel’s Night , Camus, and e.e. cummings, many of us began to doubt. ( Mad magazine was no small influence here, as well.) The world according to CBS and the local daily ceased to align with what we were discovering about the world we were entering, uncensored, at recklessly high speed.

But at our core, the equation was unbreakable. Media = truth. So when the media we were fed stopped adding up, we re-invented it, using the medium most readily at out disposal — student newspapers. We eschewed the varnished bull that filled the mainstream press and, most of all, the Pollyanna-mouthed PR that deans of students expected us to publish. We cut through the crap. We called bad things evil and evil things worse. We made enemies. We became a threat. That was power, and, man, it felt good.

Were we always right? No, but in retrospect, more often than not. Were we “fair and balanced”? Hardly, but then again, it was obvious that the grown-up media’s take on things was itself corrupted, grossly distorted, and incomplete. Were we “professional”? No, but then, the professionals were all in somebody’s pocket, and somebody had to contradict them.

They pacified; we agitated.

Over the next four years, across America — Boston to Berkeley — campus activists and the student press went nuts. We called for the impeachment of Lyndon Johnson, we railed against the Vietnam War, we championed birth control and abortion, we attacked slumlords for exploiting students and minorities alike, we campaigned for academic freedom, and we covered “The Movement” from the inside. We shilled for peace demonstrations and insulted jocks and frat-heads (and their sisters in snuggle, the sor-heads). We had things to report that people couldn’t read about anywhere else. Things that really happened.

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