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Uncovering the sixties: the life and times of the underground press.

Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press.

Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press. Abe Peck. Pantheon, $12.95. It would be easy to dismiss the underground press corps of the sixties as a gang of wild-eyed journalistic guerrillas. Their war on "Amerika' left no time for such trivialities as fact-checking. Their weapons were New York Post-sized headlines that screamed "Heil Columbia' and "Pigs Shoot to Kill-- Bystanders Gunned Down.'

But for all their blemishes, papers like The Berkeley Barb and The East Village Other thrived as energetic, irreverent experiments that provided needed insight to millions of readers--and changed American journalism for the better. Their excesses and innovations are apparent in this entertaining new history written by an alumnus of chicago's underground Seed and now a more sedate journalism professor.

The author didn't neglect his research: he pored over microfilms of hundreds of old papers and interviewed almost a hundred writes and editors. But Peck emphasizes that this is history through his eyes. Uncovering the Sixties shifts easily from third-person narrative to personal recollection.

So did sixties underground journalism. At its heart, it was a revolt against the journalistic canon of objectivity, of pretending that your biases have no part in determining what stories you cover, whom you quote, or which facts you emphasize. Demonstrators covered the demonstrations; flower children had the drug beat.

Unmitigated bias can limit your audience, of course. As Peck notes, "Underground papers casually labeled tens of millions of Americans "pigs'.' The undergrounders didn't bother with presenting divergent views, confident that they knew so much about their subject that they didn't need to investigate opposing beliefs. On the other hand, participant journalists were freed to discover their own voices. These voices conveyed passion, something most news stories lacked, even though in the sixties passion was a critical element of "the story.'

Often "straight' reporters took months or years to catch up to the undergrounders' probing of issues behind events. The Kerner Commission attributed the 1967 Newark and Detroit riots to institutionalized white racism and faulted the mass media for failing to report that--even though the underground did. Agent Orange and Operation Phoenix made headlines underground long before becoming "legitimate' stories, causing "concern' among some "authorities.'

Like the Populist party at the turn of the century, many underground papers would die while their innovations would drift into the mainstream. They covered the emerging use of recreational drugs, environmental pollution, rock and roll, radical politics, civil rights, and women's rights when they were considered inconsequential by most dailies. Now some of those subjects are established beats.

A look at any issue of the Utne Reader, the Reader's Digest of the alternative press, testifies to the tremendous health of probing, nonrhetorical successors to The Rat and The Berkeley Barb. In a more accessible and responsible fashion, they maintain the pressure on the mainstream, while keeping a vibrant dissident press alive.
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Author:Bass, Paul
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1985
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