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Dissident Press

What Indy Media Heroes Can Teach Us

by JEFF COHEN

Independent media outlets that contributed so mightily to the stunning election result are about to be tested as to their “independence.” With Democrats in control, will these outlets be guided by principle or just partisanship? Will they speak truth to power and expose corruption and injustice over the long haul – no matter who’s in charge?  

U.S. history offers role models. In this era when indy journalists reach mass audiences via blogs, viral video and podcasts, there is much to learn from the originators of dissident journalism. From the start of the Republic, bold entrepreneurs (often sole proprietors like many of today’s bloggers) stood up to censorship, jail and violence to sustain independent outlets that transformed our country.

Our Republic’s founding owes much to revolutionary pamphleteers like Tom Paine, who agitated against the King in Common Sense, a pamphlet that sold 150,000 copies when the colonial population was only 2.5 million people.

Study any cause that has improved our country since and you’ll find stubbornly independent journalists who challenged injustice in the face of ridicule and scorn from the mainstream media of their day. These journalistic heroes are chronicled in Rodger Streitmatter’s inspiring book, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America.

**  Fifty years after the founding of our country, the development of factory production in Northeastern cities spawned the first labor weeklies – such as Philadelphia’s Mechanic’s Free Press and New York’s Working Man’s Advocate – that invoked the egalitarian spirit of 1776 to demand public schools, no child labor, a shorter (10-hour) workday and abolition of prison time as a penalty for debt. Mainstream dailies denounced such reforms as “fanatical” – but years later they became law.

**  In 1831, a printer’s apprentice in Boston named WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON founded The Liberator, an incendiary abolitionist publication that defended slave revolts. “Our fathers spared nothing to free the country from British yoke,” Garrison declared, “and the freedom of the black slaves is as holy a cause as that of the Revolution.” He was jailed, assaulted and nearly lynched. The Georgia legislature offered a bounty to anyone who would kidnap Garrison and haul him to Georgia. The U.S. Postmaster General condoned vigilantes destroying the paper. Garrison reveled in (and reprinted) the denunciations he received from pro-slavery dailies, North and South. But nothing – including poverty – could stop The Liberator for 35 years, until slavery was abolished.

**  In 1868, soon after Garrison’s paper ceased, feminists ELIZABETH CADY STANTON and SUSAN B. ANTHONY founded The Revolution to uphold the truth that “all men and women were created equal.” Not just a suffrage publication (“the ballot is not even half the loaf; it is only a crust, a crumb”), it campaigned against job discrimination, sexual harassment and domestic violence. With research documenting lower pay for female teachers nationwide, The Revolution championed equal pay for equal work, a now-popular concept (even if not fully embraced by Sen. John McCain). Like the ethical choices independents face today that undercut financial health, Stanton refused to run the then-ubiquitous ads for quack health elixirs. After the weekly ceased publishing after 30 months, Stanton commented: “I have the joy of knowing that I showed it to be possible to publish an out and out woman’s paper, and taught other women to enter in and reap where I have sown.”

**  As The Revolution was ending, even more daring publications sprang up in the 1870s, advocating “free love,” sexual freedom and the right to divorce. Foreshadowing alternative papers of the 1960s and ‘70s, VICTORIA WOODHULL, editor of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, described her “free love” philosophy in 1871: “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please. And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.” Not the kind of talk one hears from candidates for president – Woodhull ran in 1872. Her weekly once boasted a circulation of 20,000. Another sexual reform publication, The Word, was launched in 1872 by a rural Massachusetts couple, EZRA AND ANGELA HEYWOOD. It lasted 20 years, likening the husband/wife relationship to master/slave – and advocating for abortion choice and “unconditional repeal of the laws against adultery and fornication.”

These publications prompted a Religious Right backlash in the form of crusader Anthony Comstock and his Society for the Suppression of Vice, leading to federal and state anti-obscenity laws against mailing, distributing or receiving “lewd or lascivious” materials – the Comstock laws. Writers like Woodhull and Ezra Heywood did jail time.

**  One of the real heroes of independent journalism in our country’s history was IDA B. WELLS, pamphleteer and founder of the anti-lynching movement in the 1890s. Born a slave, she edited the Memphis Free Press, distributed in several Southern states. To stop white newsstand proprietors from tricking illiterate blacks who asked for – but did not receive – the Free Press, she cleverly started printing it on pink paper. Wells moved to New York from Memphis after a mob destroyed her newspaper office. As an investigative journalist, she established in case after case the total innocence of victims of lynching – usually accused of rape. She advocated boycotts against racist white businesses (“the white man’s dollar is his god”), black migration from cities and towns where lynching was condoned, and ultimately self-defense against white vigilantes: “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.” Wells was denounced by racist Southern and Northern dailies, including the New York Times, which called her a “slanderous and nasty-minded mulatress.” Her efforts led to state anti-lynching laws; she helped found the NAACP.

**  Perhaps the biggest publication in the history of independent American journalism was the Appeal to Reason, a socialist weekly based in rural Kansas that reached a nationwide paid circulation of 750,000 in 1912 (equivalent to 2.4 million today).  Like computer geeks who came to blogging, J.A. WAYLAND came to publishing as a printer’s apprentice. Like website operators who prefer anonymity, Wayland used an alias so he could cover socialist and labor gatherings without fanfare. Like websites that use “citizen journalists” to extend their reach, the Appeal recruited thousands of volunteer correspondents (to complement its 100-person staff). Editor FRED WARREN also recruited well-known writers like Jack London and Helen Keller. Labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones did investigative reporting on unsafe working conditions, novelist Upton Sinclair wrote the inside reports on Chicago’s meatpacking plants that would soon become a bestselling book, The Jungle, and socialist leader Eugene Debs threatened an insurrection if mine union leaders were convicted in a frame-up in Idaho.

A 1908 bill in Congress that would deny discounted second-class mail privileges to publications deemed “radical” was killed beneath a deluge of protests from Appeal readers in every state. But years of federal and postal harassment, a failed assassination attempt and personal smears in mainstream publications took their toll on Wayland, who ultimately committed suicide in a state of depression. His democratic socialist utopia never materialized; reforms like union rights, labor laws and social security did.

These stories are deftly told in Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution – as are those of other indy media heroes:

**  ROBERT S. ABBOTT built the largest black paper in the country in the early 1900s, the Chicago Defender, to a circulation of 230,000 – much of it circulated hand-to-hand in the Deep South. The Defender’s relentless coverage of violent outrages in the South, coupled with glowing accounts of opportunities for blacks in the North, was a key force in the “Great Migration” of African Americans to Chicago and northern cities. Today, independent media rely on viral Internet; Abbott cultivated thousands of black sleeping-car porters – he advocated for them in print, and they transported his paper by the bundles from Chicago to cities and towns throughout the South. 

**  MARGARET SANGER was a well-off woman whose Woman Rebel magazine (and later Birth Control Review) advocated for working women and their right to choose not to conceive. Her mother had 11 children, plus seven miscarriages. “A woman’s body belongs to herself alone,” wrote Sanger. “It does not belong to the United States of America.” She originated the phrase “birth control.” For advocating it in print, she was jailed and briefly exiled under the Comstock laws. She went on to launch Planned Parenthood.

One journalistic maverick not discussed in Streitmatter’s book is GEORGE SELDES, a longtime mainstream foreign correspondent who launched the first and largest media criticism newsletter in U.S. history, In Fact, in 1940. It reached a circulation of 170,000 by 1947, before federal harassment and anti-Communist hysteria caused its demise in 1950. In Fact exposed the fascist sympathies of U.S. media moguls like William Randolph Hearst; 70 years ago, Seldes exposed the ongoing cover-up of tobacco’s health dangers in media outlets awash in cigarette ads. “The most sacred cow of the press,” said Seldes, “is the press itself.”

* * *

Today’s independent journalists have much to learn from their ancestors – including I.F. Stone’s Weekly and Ramparts magazine (circulation 250,000) that criticized the Vietnam War as Democratic presidents expanded it. And from the underground press of the 1960s – and gay and women’s media that emerged in the 1970s. A few lessons:
Don’t shy away from “lost causes”:  In the face of public rebuke, financial loss and government repression far worse than what’s suffered by indy U.S. journalists today, the founding fathers and mothers of dissident journalism were fearless as they fought for longshot causes. Even when jailed or silenced or driven to despair, these journalistic trailblazers paved the way. “The only fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose,” explained I.F. Stone. “Because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.… Go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

Take advantage of mainstream silence: With their tenacious focus on slavery and lynching, William Lloyd Garrison and Ida B. Wells took aim at moral outrages that most mainstream journalism treated with quietude or platitudes. It’s no accident that a socialist weekly and not the New York Times assigned Upton Sinclair to expose working conditions in meat-packing, leading to The Jungle bestseller. Nor is it an accident today that Jeremy Scahill’s independent reporting on U.S. mercenaries in Iraq became the Blackwater bestseller – while corporate media slept. As Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! urges: “Go to where the silence is and say something.”

Take advantage of crisis: From the labor weeklies of the 1830s to the anti-establishment media of the late 1960s, independent outlets have boomed in eras of social upheaval and system failure of the type we’re experiencing now. Crisis brings audience; larger and emergent communities become reachable. When Team Bush promoted the Iraq invasion through obvious lies and distortions, the corporate media system faced a journalistic crisis . . . and failed – turning large numbers of independent-minded citizens into mainstream media exiles hungering for alternatives. 

Take advantage of new technologies: Independent media have historically blossomed with new technologies and formats. The advent of offset printing and FM radio, for example, were key to 1960s counter-culture media. But nothing compares to today’s communications revolution, with new technologies slashing the costs of production and the Internet transforming media distribution – giving independents and startups a real chance to compete and thrive.

Defend press freedom and media reform: Major steps forward for dissident media have often brought reactions from status quo forces – sometimes violent suppression, sometimes more subtle responses like threats to their mailing rights. Last year, small magazines faced a big postal rate hike, a plan devised by the Time Warner conglomerate. Bonafide bloggers have often been denied press access. To flourish, independent media need enhanced public, community and minority broadcasting; non-profit and public access to cable and satellite TV; and Net Neutrality, preventing Internet providers like Comcast and Time Warner from privileging certain websites while discriminating against others.

Activate your base: Without distribution help from train porters, the Chicago Defender could not have reached its Southern Black Belt readership. Without an army of volunteer correspondents, the Appeal to Reason could not have had its nationwide clout. Today, blogger Josh Marshall relies on the involvement and research of his Talking Points Memo readership in exposing scandals like U.S. Attorneygate that brought down an Attorney General. The video distribution success of Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films/Brave New Foundation relies on partnering with Netroots groups and activists. More than ever in our Internet era, the success of independent media depends on active communities – “the people formerly known as the audience.”

Stay stubbornly independent: This is the ultimate lesson. The waves of social progress that have reformed our country would not have happened had independent journalists gone silent or soft because of an election result or a change of parties in power.

JEFF COHEN is the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.