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From AJR,   November 2001

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Journalism with Passion and Spirit Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America
By Rodger Streitmatter
Columbia University Press
340 pages; $18.50 paperback

Voices of Revolution” is a useful if unrevolutionary history of America’s non-mainstream press—until the last two pages. At that point, the author incites his own little rebellion.

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Voices of Revolution" is a useful if unrevolutionary history of America's non-mainstream press – until the last two pages. At that point, the author incites his own little rebellion.


After chapters on the labor press and the anti-lynching journals, on the anarchist pamphleteers and the free-love champions, Rodger Streitmatter stops and issues a plea.


"The mainstream news media," he declares, "should stop ignoring the dissident press and start emulating it."


Streitmatter, a former reporter who teaches at American University, believes today's beleaguered big media are increasingly losing respect and attention, widely seen as "rude, arrogant, self-righteous, cynical, irresponsible, unpatriotic, and amoral."


This is a harsh but presentable judgment, and it leads Streitmatter to conclude that the media need "to regain a sense of mission." He believes that emulating the dissidents, in at least some ways, might help.


Although the dissident press can be criticized for many shortcomings, he writes, it has "never wavered from being an exemplar of passion, conviction, sacrifice, and commitment to a cause." That energy and fervor, he maintains, could help reinvigorate major media.


Learning from the anti-Vietnam War press, Streitmatter says, today's media should reassert their roles "as watchdogs over – not bedfellows with – the government."


Learning from the counterculture journals of the 1960s, they "should look beyond middle-aged politicians and elected officials...to reflect the realities of contemporary life."


Learning from the civil-rights press, they should avoid "focusing exclusively on the dominant segments of society."


And learning from the gay and lesbian press, they should appreciate "the virtue of supporting causes that are just and right, despite the fact that many Americans do not yet embrace those beliefs."


For whatever reasons, Streitmatter spins out these suggestions in a few paragraphs, then leaves it to readers to contemplate their implications.


Many might agree that a bedrock principle of journalism – impartiality – can make newspeople seem cold and unconcerned. Journalists themselves don't lack passion, but their journalism often does. Is that an inevitable byproduct of the neutrality needed to keep credibility and serve diverse audiences? Or could the news media ramp up their passion levels without forfeiting public trust?


A huge issue left unexplored by Streitmatter is that the dissident media never much cared about overall public trust anyway. By definition, a specialized medium appeals to a limited group and tends to embrace that group's values. Traditional media, by contrast, serve heterogeneous and often contending audiences.


Streitmatter's own definition of a dissident medium is that its "primary purpose must have been, in short, to effect social change" (his italics). These media are agitators by nature. Traditional news media, on the other hand, generally put their information and even entertainment functions ahead of pushing for change.


Still, these points do not negate Streitmatter's basic diagnosis. To the degree that media reflect a just-the-facts detachment, they can seem sterile and uncaring. But sterile and uncaring are hardly qualities associated with the dissident press he portrays.


He begins with the Mechanic's Free Press, a pro-labor paper founded by shoemaker William Heighton in 1828. It celebrated the "blood, bone and sinew" of the working classes and demanded that the "money changers" be driven "from the temple of freedom."


Other dissident journalists shocked society even more. Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, founded in 1870, pushed for free love, sex education, abortion and "Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives!" Streitmatter writes that its publisher, Victoria Woodhull, financed the paper by seducing Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, "a seventy-year-old widower with more money than sense."


Later publications espoused everything from socialism and anarchy to feminism and civil rights. Robert Abbott's Chicago Defender, reaching a circulation of 230,000 in the early 1900s, urged Southern blacks to flee oppression by moving North.


Streitmatter traces several generations of civil rights, women's liberation and counterculture media into the 1960s, where his study ends.


He enumerates important "common threads" among these highly varied outlets. They tend to speak for the oppressed, to act as "proactive agents of change," to operate in dicey ethical territory, to attract unconventional personalities, and to blur the lines between their status as media and as instruments of the movements they chronicle.


They also are magnets for censorship and oppression. Victoria Woodhull was jailed on obscenity charges. Margaret Sanger's columns on birth control were banned by postal authorities. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI used forgery, harassment, infiltration, obscenity laws and other shameful tactics to disrupt and suppress 1960s counterculture media.


Most striking for journalists, perhaps, is how mainstream media typically boil over with contempt for their dissident cousins and their causes. The New York Herald ridiculed anti-slavery editor William Lloyd Garrison for his "bald head, miserable forehead, and comical spectacles." Much of conventional media not only lagged in supporting, but actively resisted, civil rights, feminism and the anti-Vietnam War movement.


Given this history, it may be unlikely that the mainstream press will emulate the dissident press in the narrow sense of issue advocacy. But in a broader sense, Streitmatter is pointing to matters of character and relationships. Dissident media represent a community with passion and spirit. It might well be worthwhile, and possible, for today's media to do more of that.

Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

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