As mass media continues to consolidate, and fewer companies control more venues, peripheral voices have been pushed farther out of public reach and relegated to incestuously amplified comment sewers in obscure orbits of the Internet. In that dystopian context, A Trumpet to Arms is infinitely more important now than it was in 1981. As it reads, the book can help one navigate the labyrinth of modern media. Pick any paragraph, substitute the word “blog” for “printing press,” and Armstrong’s research is as good as updated.
The déja vu is hard to ignore. As Armstrong notes, during his own heyday at the Barb, “The flirtation between rock and revolution was a quarrelsome one, ending when rock stars jilted their would-be radical allies.” Such has been my own experience, as hip-hop artists who helped radicalize me—Common, Mos Def, Ice Cube—have traded in their underground appeal for sitcom roles and corporate sponsorships. As for avant-garde business prototypes, Armstrong explains that the alternatives have been crowd-funding since William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist siren The Liberator, was beaten by a pro-slavery mob and dragged across the cobblestones of old Boston.
Armstrong takes into account the internal conflicts over sex, drugs, and power that crippled some alternative ventures, as well as the constant threat of co-option posed by a mainstream that was becoming decreasingly distinguishable from its subterranean doppelganger. In a few captious passages, Armstrong points to the apparent hypocrisy of some alternative media. He reports, for example, that a 1980 conference for the National Association of Newsweeklies featured a cocktail hour atop Bank of America’s corporate headquarters. The author hits such critical notes loudest in a chapter titled “Ten Great Places to Find Croissants After Midnight,” in which he scrutinizes “urban weeklies of the seventies” for soothing, rather than challenging readers, and for subsequently neutralizing “large segments of America’s most activist generation.”
I’ve felt the same way about my own publication. But even after the Phoenix transitioned to a glossy magazine format six months before it died, focusing more on lifestyle frills than I may have liked, I knew the drill. Restaurant reviews attract more eyeballs and advertisers than do investigative features. They always have, and probably always will. Technically speaking, before absorbing the more literary Cambridge Phoenix and, later on, the rival Real Paper, Mindich launched his empire with Boston After Dark, which was primarily a source of music listings and reviews.
As Armstrong reports, neither the Phoenix nor its alt-weekly contemporaries were designed to be overtly radical or styled solely to provide entertainment news. Instead, they were adaptive vehicles—adored for their “use of the personal voice in writing; their willingness to do in-depth, magazine-style features about issues generally skimmed by daily newspapers”—that reacted to whatever readers needed at a given moment. Sometimes, that was advice on which new bands to worship; other times, it was a unifying drum to follow into protest. Though I never scored a single cover story in the sleek new Phoenix, editors still gave me ample inches to publish investigative pieces, wage class warfare, and, in one instance, report from the Democratic National Convention on acid.
Considering my own experience, it’s natural that I found A Trumpet to Arms to be at its most dramatic when it flashes back to the cultural mayhem of the ’60s, from Black Panther papers having their distribution lines cut by government saboteurs to the arrest and even murder of key alternative players. Armstrong brightly illustrates the summer of 1968, when underground sheets like the Seed helped lure thousands of young people to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As the history books now show—thanks to detailed documentation by alternative outlets—chaos ensued for that entire week, on a scale that would only erupt sporadically across America for years to follow. That was true until 2011, when Occupy Wall Street protesters, along with their own media networks, surfaced from coast to coast in the tradition of the many aforementioned crusaders, and like those before them, were indiscriminately beaten and imprisoned.
Along with hundreds of other maverick reporters who filled voids left by the mainstream’s generally shallow coverage of Occupy, I followed the encampment era up close and all across the country. In my travels, I bonded with other sympathetic journalists. Some gave me a couch to crash on; others shared sources, photographs, and inside information. Even then, I was aware of a connection to the fringe media of protests past—especially after reporting on last year’s demonstrations outside of the NATO summit in Chicago. At a rally in Grant Park, I asked one officer about the chipped and battered old batons that a few of his colleagues were wielding. Avoiding eye contact, the cop whispered without moving his lips, “That’s his daddy’s from ‘68.”