The hostility between commercial and alternative attitudes is an ancient and recurring theme in media. But perhaps because A Trumpet to Arms pre-dates the contemporary war on mainstream journalism, in which partisan pugilism too often passes for media criticism, Armstrong is able to revisit the underground press revolution without endlessly bemoaning The New York Times and its exalted ilk. Instead of haranguing, the author acknowledges the inherent codependence of the suit-and-sandal castes:
Within society as a whole, the alternative media are catalytic, introducing new concepts and values which society then accepts (usually with modifications) or rejects. . . . The relationship of alternative media to the dominant society is, of course, two-way. Not only do ideas introduced by alternative media modify society, they are also themselves modified in the course of being absorbed by mainstream culture. In effect, the mass media, through which the public is introduced directly to those ideas, use the alternative media for research and development.More than any other quality, Armstrong grants alternative status based on a publication’s readiness to cover controversial stories with neither apology nor delay, long before the mainstream takes those topics up. Armstrong mentions oft-forgotten Native-American papers that fought racist laws, as well as little-known magazines like CounterSpy, which Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer helped start, whose goal was to impugn surveillance agencies.
There’s also the ecological press movement, which, among other things, A Trumpet to Arms credits with transforming the way Americans eat. Armstrong was spot-on in his assessment of tree-hugger publishers; since germinating in the late-1960s, healthy and holistic ideals have been embraced far beyond the ideological left. Additional space is dedicated to the more than 560 feminist publications that sprouted between 1968 and 1973, and to the role that women had in writing the alternative playbook.
Moving forward, Armstrong dedicates a great deal of space to the range of papers that proliferated to protest American aggression in Southeast Asia: from the Toronto-based Amex-Canada, which catered to draft dodgers in exile, to newsletters that turned up on military bases, like Up Against the Bulkhead and The Last Harass. The stories of these classic alternatives are fascinating: alt icon Ray Mungo stealing printing equipment to start his Liberation News Service in 1967; reporters from Rat, a scrappy SDS spinoff, covering the campus-wide student revolt at Columbia University in 1968.
In his most eloquent entries, Armstrong demeans the cowardice and laziness of mainstream outlets without sounding like a sour counterculture cheerleader. Facts, after all, are facts, and the fact is that it took The New York Times until 1966 to report on the American-led massacre in North Vietnam—nine months after the daring peacenik magazine Ramparts published what Armstrong calls a “comprehensive condemnation of the US Army’s conduct.”
Reading A Trumpet to Arms around the decennial anniversary of the Iraq War, I couldn’t help but think about contemporary mainstream outfits. Despite more than a decade of bloodshed in the Middle East, the 10-year mark of the invasion was hardly acknowledged in any meaningful form, let alone roundly condemned as the costly debacle that it was. In Boston, my local tabloid quoted a soldier on page 1 boasting: “I would absolutely do it again. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The Phoenix would have been the first to call out such hawkish idiocy. Unfortunately, the anniversary came four days after we shut down, as did the plethora of tall tales about American success on that front. In the weeks and months that followed, the Phoenix was also missed as Boston’s five-term mayor, Thomas Menino, announced plans to retire, setting off a 16-way scrap for the ages, and in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, as media from all over the world proved incapable of communicating the region’s proudly provincial quirkiness. Starting moments after the explosions, a number of publications reached out to me for dispatches. But while the BBC, The American Prospect, and a few others took my input seriously, the bigs like CNN and The Huffington Post asked me to chase puff pieces with the robot media that had parachuted in. Editors at those places didn’t seem interested in my knowledge of the city, or the people who live there. They just wanted more of the same Boston Strong hero-worship they had been peddling all week. Needless to say, the ordeal served as a reminder of how special the Phoenix was, and how fortunate I’d been to work there.
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