In the mid-1970s, the Vietnam War had ended (as predicted, “we” lost, by the way), and the cultural vision was denied its primary momentum. The laid-back sharing of the marijuana ethic was elbowed out by the selfish greed of cocaine. Dedicated hippies and leftist radicals retreated to the fringes ( e.g. , Cambridge). The goddamn Me Generation was invented by mass marketers and too many people believed it. For the terminally self-centered, New Age spiritual pabulum or cultish scams like EST filled the void left by the departed anti-war orthodoxy.
But good things happened as well. The alt press, freed from the doctrinaire imperatives of Vietnam, took a deep breath and “professionalized.” We started paying better attention to the niceties of grammar and punctuation; we adopted the purest elements from standard reporting practice; we perfected our trademark headline puns, got narrative reporting under verbose control, and started to have fun.
And some of us got jobs with grown-up papers — a thin edge of a wedge that has since narrowed the difference between alt-press coverage and daily coverage. Of course, as the Cold Warriors faded away and the boomers inherited their tattered institutions, society’s goals and values changed as well. Conservative backlash and Christian-fundamentalist bullshit aside, the ’60s’ causes — civil rights, feminism, gay liberation, peace, political reform, ecology, public profanity — have all, to some extent, survived and blossomed.
The daily newspapers’ old-school taboos are now common topics of conversation. If you’re old enough, try to imagine the late-’50s press outing pedophile priests or airing Bush-Cheney conspiracy theories. Just remember, you read it all first in the alternatives, which, I note with no little modesty, have been America’s most reliable political, social, and cultural vanguards for almost half a century. That the alt press has prospered and attracts new readers even as print circulation declines nationwide attests to a continued need for social re-invention.
A few years ago, I realized that, aside from occasional forays into mainstream print, I’d devoted my “career” to the alternative press. As writer, photographer, and (mostly) editor, I’ve lived an unusual and precious life. The paths (from civil rights, to ban the bomb, to leftist activism, to anti-war crusades) from the radical student press to the alts are well documented, but obscured and neglected by the insidious agenda of much of today’s backsliding mainstream media.
Consolidated and corporate-driven, bolstered by a mediocre conservative government that values passivity over progress in any matter that doesn’t produce quick profits, today’s largest entertainment industries promote inertia at best, craven dependence at worst. Thanks in large part to the influence of the alt press, the mainstream news is, mercifully, a more open forum than existed in Joe McCarthy’s America. But — and to verify this, you have only to survey daily papers and five-o’clock newscasts in markets outside the Northeast’s liberal enclaves — the will and courage to challenge the status quo that prevailed post-Watergate has largely been bartered away to rich puppeteers.
The alternative press — the Phoenix , the Bay Guardian , and the hundred or so alt weeklies toiling in the red states — is anything but obsolete. It’s something to cherish, something proud to be part of. Something invented out of restless outrage to propel the cutting edge of things. It survives in a state of perpetual self-contradiction, a permanent instrument of change — something forever new and necessary. As I tell the youth of today who venture into our offices, we’re the good guys. We never got rich, but we are going to heaven.
Clif Garboden is senior managing editor of the Boston Phoenix.