I’ve only been contributing to the alternative press for a decade. But in that time, I’ve witnessed modern theaters of every battle in this book: the debate over escort ads; the fight to organize newsrooms; the arrests of journalists. But only now, peering back through the lens of A Trumpet to Arms, do I realize that while a lot of methodology has changed—I have a phone, camera, post office, and encyclopedia in my pants pocket—the purpose of alternative media has not. My peers are simply the latest longshots against Goliath in a predictable and cyclical race to record history as one sees fit.
A Trumpet to Arms is out of print and essentially forgotten these days—it was last published by South End Press in 1999. Nevertheless, the book packs timely, relevant insights about the enduring cycles of alternative media, and it does so with style. Armstrong shows why the alternative press is, was, and will remain a crucial cultural force, and demonstrates that while certain books and publications may cease printing, this journalistic legacy will live on.
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In 1980, right around the time when Armstrong was finishing A Trumpet to Arms, the liberalism that characterized much of the previous two decades was vanishing. A score of formerly aggressive alternative media outlets were shedding their activist leanings in favor of softer news that played friendlier alongside stereo ads. The New Haven Advocate and the Aquarian in New Jersey, notes Armstrong, began covering fashion. The Phoenix went so far as to release a four-color, glossy insert—an ode to urban pampering—called Savor. Against that backdrop, and with the bogeyman Ronald Reagan taking office, the apathetic climate was ideal for a book charting the alt media’s past, present, and potential future.
Seeing hope in the lessons of old struggles, Armstrong describes the adventures behind some the most innovative publications in US history. A Trumpet to Arms spans more than two centuries of underground press movements, all spurred by Americans looking to petition some kind of authority or oppressor. The book opens by saluting the pamphleteer Thomas Paine—by Armstrong’s account, an American alt-media originator—whose 1775 poem “The Liberty Tree” inspired the book’s title. From there, we learn of vast contributions from a kaleidoscopic cast of gays, blacks, laborers, and others who were not just misrepresented in the so-called traditional news media, but were also maligned and degraded by them. Take, for example, The Revolution, a furnace of rousing contrarianism founded by early feminist polemicists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In an issue printed in 1868, Stanton wrote, “We declare war to the death on the idea that woman was made for man… . We proclaim the higher truth that, like man, she was created by God for Individual Moral Responsibility and progress here and forever.” In response, the New York Sunday Times advised Stanton to “attend a little more to her domestic duties and a little less to those of the great public.” Armstrong doesn’t have to ruminate on how he feels about such shameful episodes; his anecdotes tell the story.
Armstrong uses the phrase “alternative media” to describe a wide variety of outlets, from the underground newspapers of the 1960s to well-funded national magazines like Ms. That’s not to say that all alternative outlets were the same. In addition to being a former editor of the Barb and the Syracuse New Times, the author had also written about alt-media for several publications, including CJR. Those years as a researcher and participant had revealed to Armstrong few recurring themes between, say, Paul Krassner’s biting satirical magazine, The Realist, and the holistic new-age journals of the 1970s. At the same time, the author notes that all of these entities shared certain things in common. Unlike daily broadsheets and network newscasts, which pushed status-quo ideals, alt reporters experimented with bizarre and idiosyncratic writing styles, all while covering taboo topics like sexuality, political protest, and full-blown revolution.
In the process, they didn’t just re-invent journalism, they also refashioned its presentation. Using delirious illustrations, ragged right text, abstract collages, and other novel techniques, indie artists changed magazine design in ways that bled into the mainstream as early as the ’60s. Armstrong celebrates these milestones subtly, allowing others to sing the praises. In one case, the author quotes noted alt publisher Richard Neville, who helped usher in the psychedelic sheen of hippie periodicals: “When did you last frame a page of the Times?” he asks an interviewer.
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