Published on Friday, November 14, 2008 by CommonDreams.org
What Indy Media Heroes Can Teach Us
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?
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
** In 1868, soon after Garrison’s paper ceased, feminists
** 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
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
** 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
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
** 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs