50 years of alternative journalism: Some random notes

Sam Smith, January 2, 2015 –  Having just completed fifty years of alternative journalism, I’m left with a few notes I’d like to clear off my desk:

The biggest improvements over the past half century have been in health, machinery and technology. Good as this is, I still find myself imagining a world in which a 130 year old Dick Cheney drives a hovercraft at 130 mph to his favorite torture chamber while emitting hateful messages that are automatically transferred from his brain to the world via Google glasses.

 Now a few other things that have changed since I started out:
Back then, most politicians got where they were in part by giving people a hand. Now they do it by just selling them a brand. Television was the main change that  turned politics from being based in community, service and reputation into a virtual fantasy with ever lessening connection to reality.

When I started, over half the reporters in the country had only a high school education. As journalists moved up the social ladder so did their interests and loyalties.

Good writing was something you learned from  teachers and writers. Today, writing standards have been outsourced to business schools and public relations firms. Who needs E.B. White or H.L. Mencken when, at the end of the day, you can envision a robust entrepreneurial comprehensive strategic approach to whatever the hell you’re talking about?

Politics was full of conflict, debate and confrontation. Now we have “dialogues” and “conversations” no matter how violent the context.

Most successful business people didn’t have a MBA, yet the economy was improving rapidly. Now we’re producing over 20 times as many MBAs annually and the economy remains a mess.

Climate change happened four predictable times a year and it was largely thanks to nature rather than huge corporations and their subservient politicians.

Washington politicians often had high social intelligence while being weak in formal degrees. This has been reversed, vastly increasing the length and complexity of legislation and our inability to comprehend what it is really about.

Baseball was the national sport, as well as a metaphor for democracy. Each player had their own turf but couldn’t succeed without helping the others, Now football – a metaphor for brutal power and cultural concussions – has risen to the top.

Many of the weakest in our society couldn’t attend, apply or sit. Now some of them can’t even breathe.

Our society was a flawed democracy that we were trying to fix. Now it’s a rampant oligarchy that doesn’t give a damn what we think.

Liberals were deeply concerned with the fate of the least fortunate in our society. As the economic and social status of liberals improved their interest in the least fortunate faded. Which is how some children of liberal Democrats became members of the Tea Party.

Activism was easier – in part because there was a strong counterculture that provided support, friendship and aid to all who were trying to make things better. Today activism is far more atomized, institutionalized and lacking in the common songs and symbols that help bring everyone together.

Being hip wasn’t about fashion or where you lived, Like Miles Davis, the hip played with their backs to the audience and avoided things that corporations and mass media liked. Today, hip is too often just another corporate commodity.


When the Review started (then called The Idler) there were only a handful of alternative news publications in the country – like the Texas Observer, the Village Voice and the Carolina Israelite. In a few years there would be over 400 underground newspapers. In time, these were replaced by “alternative weeklies” that too often fostered a culture in which hipness was defined by one’s purchases; dissent was limited to critiques of style, activism was limited to the gym, and politics was considered the last refuge of the hopelessly dull.

When  this journal started, your editor was respectable enough to be offered a job by the Washington Post and James Reston of the NY Times. By the 1990s, his exposes of the Clintons and his role in helping to start the Green Party helped make the Review unacceptable to even liberal media. Its editor was banned by CSPAN and the DC public radio station.   

Now  many reporters aren’t reporters anymore; they’re just semiotic sharecroppers on some corporate plantation. The number of corporations dominating mass media in the 1980s was 50. Today it is six. And many national reporters, as Gene McCarthy well put it, are like blackbirds on a power line. One flies off and they all fly off.

Despite it all, however, your editor will continue to bring you news while there is still time to do something about it, even if he falls into that category the FBI had for Americans opposed to Spain’s Franco, namely “premature anti-fascists.” Remember that while we may not control history, we can always control our reaction to it.

2 thoughts on “50 years of alternative journalism: Some random notes

  1. A literate bit of work, in the old sense. I think you must be miscounting to claim 50 years. You must have started very young.
    I suggest that today’s politicians get their position by taking money from those whose interests they advance. With that money they use the television to influence the voter and disinform him.
    Your image of Dick Cheney is bleak. I hope that he will live out his final years that Obamacare provides him by rotting in a jail cell.
    I remember well the alternative newspapers. I believe they were driven from the field by governing forces, who did not want the truth to be told. This destruction was instrumental in bringing about politics as we see them today, with ever more guns trained on the people.

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