People’s Movements, People’s Press

People’s Movements, People’s Press
Long before the internet, activists were getting their message out, even when the mainstream media wouldn’t tell their stories. In their homes, in basements, in small offices, they would publish their own papers. These newspapers and magazines made up the alternative press; it is their history that Bob Ostertag tells is his new book, People’s Movements, People’s Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements.

These papers were written to persuade and promote their causes. There was no pretense at the objectivity by which the mainstream media measures itself. Ostertag tell us that, “‘Objective’ and ‘unbiased’ became media buzzwords only as a direct offshoot of the concentration of media ownership. Prior to the giant media oligopolists, these notions were conspicuously absent from American journalism. Newspapers and magazines were published because the people who created them had a point of view and they wanted to get it across and made no bones about it. The notion that journalist should---or even could—write without a viewpoint or opinion emerged as a necessary ideological underpinning of media oligopoly, the selling point for the idea that media controlled by few is not inherently detrimental to democratic institutions or culture.”

Social movement journalism is not motivated by profit, for them success was measured in their ability to promote their ideas. The start up cost for a movement journal was remarkably low. Most of the people working in social movement journalism, work long hours for little or no pay. This led in the most part for journals not surviving beyond the political context in which they were created. The cost and sacrifices needed a cause to justify themselves. Before the days of the internet, social moment journalism enabled individuals to find each other, to bind together, to fight injustices. They enabled individuals to agitate, educate, mobilize, confront, to form a constituency, and become a social movement.

Ostertag begins his history with the nineteenth century abolitionist and woman suffrage movement. William Lloyd Garrison, alone in his attic began The Liberator. The paper it was printed on was bought on credit, he did not have even one subscriber. But within a year he would count his subscribers in the hundreds; all reading his message of emancipation. Ostertag asks us to step back into the media world of 1831. “Strip away the more than 130 million personal computers Americans buy each year. Unplug the 18.7 million Playstation 2s, the 5.7 million Xboxes, the 4.4 million GameBoys, and the millions of other electronic gaming devices. Turn off the projectors at the 36,652 commercial movie screens. Turn off the 428 million television sets in American homes, not forgetting to look for the 3 or more that we will find in nearly half of American homes. Then turn off the radios that receive broadcasts from the 13,804 broadcast radio stations. Find and destroy all the compact discs, records, cassette tapes, iPods, cameras, PDAs, and other electronic devices. Now remove all the billboards, all the neon signs. Finally, take away most of the books, magazines, and even newspapers…in 1830, the ratio was 1 (newspaper) to 17 (people in America), and there was no other media.” The key element in politics at the time was the traveling lecturers, but they came and went. The tangible artifact the speaker could leave behind was the written word, in the form of a pamphlet or newspaper. In I830, with no other media, these pamphlets were saved and read over and over. They were saved and they were shared; they became the basis of discussion. There had recently been a technological advancement. Prior to 1820, Americans had used the wooden Franklin press and paper made by hand. But in 1820, with the introduction of machine made paper, and the durable iron press with the efficient lever mechanism, the cost of printing dropped dramatically and the penny press papers made newspapers accessible to those who were not wealthy.

It was in the wake of this technological advancement that the abolitionist press was born. Ostertag tells us the story of Benjamin Lundy, who traveled the country, with his “type” in his knapsack. Wherever he found himself, he set up his paper and found a printer to print the edition. He would distribute the paper and organize an antislavery society. Then he would move on. He set up a hundred and thirty anti-slavery societies in all. This was dangerous work for the time. Lundy was not alone. All across the country abolitionist newspapers, and anti-slavery societies, were popping up and they would continue through the end of the Civil War. It was out of the abolitionist movement that the woman’s suffrage movement would be born. It was here that women would take public political roles and became the written voice of many abolitionist papers. After the Civil War, the woman’s suffrage movement would emerge as a force of its own. Like the abolitionist movement, the early woman’s rights movement would find itself shut out of the mainstream press. Its events, if covered at all, were ridiculed and many papers refused to carry paid advertisements concerning their lectures and meetings. Like the abolitionist, the papers of the woman’s movement would multiply and spread as they gained popular support. Ostertag observes that, “Ironically, as the movement towards ratification accelerated, the suffrage press collapsed. Of the fourteen major suffrage papers published after 1900, only two survived past 1917. With woman’s suffrage now a centerpiece of mainstream news, the era of the woman suffrage press had come to a close.”

Following the theme of civil rights, Ostertag takes us to the social movement press of the gay and lesbian community. Ostracized from American society until the second half of twentieth century, these newspapers would be the way they would connect to each other and find community. Because of the Comstock laws passed in 1873, little is known of the pre-World War II gay and lesbian press. The only historical record to survive the repression of the 1940’s and 50’s was Friendship and Freedom, which was distributed in Chicago during 1924 and 1925. Police destroyed all the copies of Friendship and Freedom that they could find, But a photo of the publication appeared in a German gay magazine and the publication was reviewed in 1924 by the French gay magazine L’Amité. This kind of repression continued to influence the gay press. Dale Jennings created ONE in 1952, and Robert T. Mitch created Advocate in 1967, both motivated by being bought up on morals charges. Others would enter the Market after being fired or passed over for jobs because of being gay. Early lesbian publications tended to be more social than political. But both gay and lesbian publications faced FBI investigation and seizure of their publications by postmasters. In January of 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that homosexuality is not obscene. For the first time gays and lesbians could legally identify themselves in print, they could proclaim their identity. This would lead to a boon in gay and lesbian publishing and unlike other social movement journalism, they would succeed in commercializing the industry. By 1994, the gay and lesbian press was taking in 53 million dollars in advertising revenue. This would rise by 16.2% in 1995, 19% in 1996, 36.7% in 1997, 20.2 %t in 1998, 29% in 1999, and 36.3% in 2000. The Fortune 500’s were advertising to the gay community.

Ostertag shares with us a memory from when he was thirteen, watching TV with his parents. On the news were images of soldiers hurling their metals at the politicians who had sent them to war. His parents tried to explain to him how profound this protest was. What Ostertag did not know at the time, was that the underground GI press had organized the protest. The underground GI press was the backbone of the anti-war movement. Ostertag notes that, “By the early 1970’s, GIs opposed the war in proportionally greater numbers than students ever did, and at greater risk to themselves. Although the military brass was acutely aware of the threat this movement posed, it went largely unnoticed by the public.” Again, here technological advance would help the movement. In the early1960’s the introduction of offset printing put newspaper production in the hands of anyone with a few dollars, a pot of glue, and a typewriter. The birth of the underground GI press would begin with a soldier, Andy Stapp. The Army charged Stapp with minor charges after finding anti-war literature in his footlocker. Stapp insisted on a full court martial to publicize his views at the trial. The judge found himself confronted with both soldiers and civilians chanting anti-war slogans in what was probably the first anti-war demonstration to take place on a military base. Stapp announced his intention to unionize GIs in the American Servicemen’s Union. The Army booted him out with dishonorable discharge and Stapp began publishing the first underground GI press newspaper, The Bond. Other GI papers would soon follow; by 1972, the Department of Defense would report that there were 242 different underground GI papers. Fatigue Press was published out of a GI coffeehouse. They would ask soldiers who visited the coffeehouse to write articles. The coffeehouse provided a stable base of operation for the paper despite the constant turnover of staff as soldiers were shipped off to Vietnam or processed out of the service. However, these soldier/journalist were on thin legal ground. The Universal Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), stated that GI’s were free to express their views in print as long as they did it on their own time, with their own money and equipment. But the UCMJ also prohibited insubordination or criticism of either superior officers or the chain of command, including the president, vice president, cabinet, and congress. There was also a federal statute that prohibited “all manner of activities intended to subvert the loyalty, morale, or discipline of the Armed Services.” However according to Ostertag, “As GI resistance skyrocketed, the number of penalties administrated to the culprits declined. By the end of the war, actions that at the outset would have resulted in court-martials went unpunished. This was due in no small part to the publicity the GI press was bringing to the formerly hidden GI resistance.”

Ostertag concludes the book with a look at the environmental movement press. The Sierra Club Bulletin began publication in 1893, detailing the adventures of John Muir. Ostertag observes that, “Muir did not travel to Washington to lobby his concerns. Washington came to him, and in turn he took Washington to the mountains, including President Teddy Roosevelt and California Governor James Pardee, who accompanied Muir to Yosemite in 1903 as part of the Sierra Club’s successful campaign to expand Yosemite National Park to include Yosemite Valley.” The Sierra Club would continue a cozy relationship with Washington until 1951, with the federal proposal to build a dam in Echo Park. Editor David Bowers turned the bulletin into activist tool, with articles and reports, using them to built support for the cause. He succeeded, the dam proposal was defeated and Sierra Club membership soared from 39,000 to 67,000. It would continue growing with a membership of 135,000 by 1967. They would soon be joined by other publications embracing the ‘back to the land’ movement of the seventies. One thing the environmental press had to contend with was competition for readers. The mainstream press was willing to cover environmental issues when they became an issue. The mainstream media picked up their best stories. Also because they were basically a reward for donations to the environmental group sponsoring them. That meant they had to be appealing to donors. Ostertag quotes one editor describing them, “They all have a formula and you need to follow it: a slick look, lots of nice pictures, ‘eco-porn.’ It is easy listening, coffee table stuff.” Despite this, all the environmental papers wielded far more influence than their circulation would imply.

Ostertag notes the importance of social movement journals, stating that, “In this age of mass media saturation and expansion of corporate power both globally and domestically, the fact that this vast world of independent media remains beyond the grasp of corporate control gains a political and cultural significance that is above and beyond the political platforms of the individual publications. The independent media forms a counterculture in the most literal sense: a culture based in community and individual creativity that runs counter to the dominant culture of corporate hegemony and mass consumption. This counterculture will be crucial to whatever the future holds for movements of social justice.” Activist and independent journalist can learn a lot from the history Ostertag tells so compellingly.

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