Uncovering The Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press by Abe Peck

by Randy Shaw on August 26, 2004

Uncovering the Sixties is the definitive account of that era’s underground (now “alternative”) press. Abe Peck wrote, edited and sold papers for the underground Chicago Seed from 1967-71 and brings an insiders perspective to assessing how and why the underground media rose and fell during these years. Peck also provides a perceptive analysis of the 1968 Convention Protests, sectarianism on the left, and the life and death of the 1960’s movements. This book is a precious resource that even helps us understand -by analogy-how on-line publications can build their audiences and foster progressive change.

As someone who has read far too many books about the social movements of the 1960’s, I began Abe Peck’s book with some trepidation. But it came so highly recommended by both journalists and activists that I gave it a chance—and was richly rewarded.

Peck’s book begins by tracing the origins of the underground press from the emergence of the Los Angeles Free Press in 1965 through the hundreds if not thousands of publications that followed. The underground press developed at a time in America when the dominant corporate culture was still resisting-rather than co-opting-alternative/youth/progressive culture.

In practical terms, this meant that people wanting to learn the truth about the Vietnam War had to pick up the Free Press, or the Seed, or San Francisco’s Oracle rather than rely on Time Magazine. Participants in the movements of the New Left needed a media who spoke to their concerns, and since no existing media was interested in doing so, they created their own “underground” media.

With alternative perspectives unavailable in the mainstream media, the underground press had an astonishing array of talent. Julius Lester, Robin Morgan, Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe, and progressive public relations mogul David Fenton are but a few of the many talented writers that made the low-budget press so readable and informative.

Writers for the underground press consciously saw themselves as voices for a movement. The notion that journalists should be outside of politics so to retain “objectivity” was seen as leading to the mainstream media’s refusal to tell the truth about Vietnam, police brutality, civil rights, and virtually every aspect of the New Left and youth culture.

As movements grew along with the mainstream media’s disconnection from an entire generation, the underground media reached great influence. But the press became a victim of its own success.

As Americans turned against the Vietnam War and the abuses of the Nixon Administration, the mainstream media began covering the issues previously only read in the underground press. Seymour Hersh’s expose of the My Lai massacre ran in mainstream papers across the nation, and as Peck puts it, stole the protest paper’s thunder. This was followed in 1971 by the publication of Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers in the very establishment New York Times. Ellsberg had considered giving the papers to the LA Free Press, but felt the Times “would make a greater impression.”

By the time Watergate in 1972 put the Washington Post in the investigative journalism business, the underground press had clearly lost its exclusive control over articles critical of the Establishment.

In addition to their editorial product being co-opted by mainstream media, record and beer companies shifted their youth-targeted advertisements from the radical underground press to Rolling Stone. This led the press to rely more on porno ads, which, while seemingly acceptable for today’s Bay Guardian, brought down the wrath of the emerging underground feminist writers.

The underground press also faced the reality that the voice of a movement requires there be a movement. Mass dissent was declining by 1971, but many writers for the underground papers—like the Weather Underground-still saw Revolution around the corner.

Peck describes how writers came to see themselves as a Leninist vanguard party that saw itself not simply as the voice of a movement, but as the movement. Ideological “lines” were created that writers crossed at their peril.

In practical terms, this meant that a reporter investigating an alleged incident of police brutality against the Black Panthers had better write a story blaming the “pigs” regardless of what the facts showed. Responsible writers left the underground press rather than participate in perpetuating such falsehoods.

Peck published this book in 1985, and it was reissued in 1991. Despite being pre-Internet, the lessons he demonstrates about
the underground press echo the increasing role of blogs and on-line publications to get the truth out that the mainstream media distorts or ignores. Whether increased media consolidation will prevent or increase the chances for co-optation of alternative on-line views remains unclear.

This wonderful and unique resource is out of print. But it can be obtained through on-line book stores and possibly at your local used book store. Peck went on to become a journalism professor at Northwestern, and can hopefully figure out a way to get Uncovering the Sixties updated and reissued soon.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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