‘America’s Last Newspaper’
by Will Parrish, January 25, 2012
I decided to enroll in the journalism program at my alma mater, the University of California Santa Cruz, during the run-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, circa late 2002 and early 2003. UCSC was home to a trenchant anti-war movement, far more than in most of the country. For example, a 2,000-person demonstration against the impending US invasion of Afghanistan took place there on October 11, 2001. It was the first event I covered as a student journalist.
The experience of these actions — which reached their pinnacle on February 15, 2003, when more than 15 million people protested throughout the world — gave me my first sense of belonging to a force capable of transforming history. We jumped on the earth, as Abbie Hoffman once put it, and the earth jumped back. With each demonstration, the repressive and heavily militaristic post-9/11 political climate thawed a bit more. Several US-allied countries responded by backing out of the invasion. Though the movement tragically failed to stop the war, many thousands of people — me included — were compelled to continue on with political resistance of various kinds.
Most journalism programs at US universities are feedlots of mediocrity. Their underlying purpose in most cases is to prepare the students for careers propagandizing on behalf of corporate and state power. By contrast, the lure of UCSC's journalism program was that it encouraged advocacy journalism and dissident thinking. The course instructors were accomplished investigative reporters, authors, and academically-inclined people from various backgrounds. Yet, their lessons and assignments tended to be based on an unapologetic left-wing slant on news reporting and the functions of mass media.
The program's main architect was a member of the San Francisco Bay Area's most fascinating Irish political family, Conn Hallinan. His grandfather, Patrick, was a member of the revolutionary Irish National Invincibles who fled to the US to avoid persecution, then became a leading San Francisco labor agitator. His father, Vincent, was a famous Communist attorney best remembered for successfully defending union leader Harry Bridges against perjury charges brought by the federal government, during the dawn of the so-called “McCarthy Era.” His mother, Vivian, was a lifelong peace activist who spent her twilight years, for example, getting tear-gassed in Chile while protesting Augusto Pinochet's US-installed military dictatorship. She was 77 at the time.
Conn had been a political organizer from an early age. During his freshman year at UC Berkeley, for example, he helped lead the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65. His lectures were often parables on how journalists can move mountains on behalf of social justice through their reporting.
The student upheavals of the '60s and '70s had fostered space for new kinds of pedagogy to emerge at campuses throughout the country, everything from ethnic studies departments to student-run courses at elite universities. UCSC's journalism department, founded in 1980, grew out of this period. The myth of the muckraking press' role in upholding democratic principles during the Watergate scandal may have contributed in those days to the UCSC administration's willingness to sanction an unconventional journalism.
I recall the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq as being a nerve-wracking period. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people's lives hung in the balance. The corporate capitalist system seemed to be rushing toward the abyss. I was more closely attuned to the lurid details of global affairs than ever before or since, often reading four to five newspapers everyday and scouring online sources of alternative news, while also writing for the student newspaper and attending regular journalism. Conn would devote the first 15-20 minutes of most of his classes dissecting the corporate news coverage, making rich observations about the strengths of a given story, and more often about information that the stories failed to include. Many of the stories he analyzed had to do with the Iraq War.
Naturally, the big media outlets were spewing out disinformation daily. The Fox News-types had devoted themselves wholesale to whipping the right-wing into a militaristic frenzy. The New York Times and their ilk were working on overdrive to deliver liberal support for the vicious bloodletting slated to unfold in the country's name. Granted, it's often not difficult to convince Americans to go along with a war, particularly a one-sided one like Iraq promised to be. This is a country that has conducted dozens of military conquests and interventions since World War II, hundreds throughout its history.
With respect to the Iraq War, the media's propaganda offensive helped drive US public opinion off the global charts. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, a majority of people in the US supported it, according to polls. Most of those polled saw Iraq's haphazard military as a threat to their security. By comparison, opinion polls in Kuwait revealed that only five percent of their population supported the invasion — Kuwait, mind you, being the country that Iraq actually invaded in 1990. Kuwaitis, being altogether less misinformed than their American counterparts, saw Saddam Hussein as posing no threat. The country with the most powerful military in the history of the planet, on the other hand, did. It was a remarkable achievement by the American propaganda system, with the major daily newspapers at the center of it.
By no mere coincidence, the State of California's now-annual series of epic budget shortfalls kicked off at virtually the same time as the invasion and occupation of Iraq began, its total cost having been over $800 billion as of this writing. In 2003, the State Legislature enacted savage cuts to the University of California's budget. Student fees thus began their meteoric climb, from roughly $2,500 during my junior year to more than $12,500 in the current academic year.
The UCSC Dean of Humanities used the budget cuts as a pretext to kill the journalism program outright. The UCSC chancellor, a nakedly self-interested careerist named MRC Greenwood, sanctioned this purging. She was promoted to second-in-command of the UC system the following year, directly under UC President Robert Dynes, who spent part of his career as a nuclear weapons physicist. Greenwood used her position hired her romantic partner to a $190,000 job that required no discernible work, and for which there was no detectable need. The San Francisco Chronicle later revealed that UC administrators received more than $800 million in unnecessary bonuses and perks during that same year, 2005.
By comparison, it would have cost $90,000 a year to keep the UCSC journalism program running bare bones. The idea that UCSC lacked funds to continue the program was a politically-motivated lie. In truth, many campus administrators saw the department as dangerous and subversive. Some of them personally detested Conn Hallinan. Others may have seen it as a relic from the previous era when UCSC was known as one of California's leading liberal arts universities. That was before the onset of neo-liberalism transmuted it into what current chancellor George Blumenthal calls “the UC for Silicon Valley,” a feeding ground for high-tech firms in sectors like biotech and nanotech. Most departments that run counter to the status quo have been cut.
Of course, those who argue that professional journalism — and, by extension, college journalism departments — are becoming obsolete are backed by the sorry state of the news reporting industry. In the last couple of years, an average of about a thousand newspaper jobs have been shed across the US every month. According to media scholar Robert McChesney, 140 long-established newspapers across the US ceased publication in 2010. Meanwhile, the public relations industry is on the ascendant. In 1980, the ratio of American public relations professionals to journalists was 1.2-to-1. Today, that ratio is 4-to-1, according to McChesney.
Then again, those statistics are predicated on the idea of a meaningful firewall between those two professions. Many if not most journalists are glorified public relations shills who spend the bulk of their time rewriting press releases and uncritically parroting the official line. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 86 percent of all news stories printed or aired by Baltimore media in 2008 originated from public relations firms and government/corporate press releases. If you take the AVA out of the equation, I doubt the percentage is much different here in Mendocino County, nor in most of the rest of the country.
Newspapers and other media have always risen and fallen based on bigger patterns in communication across time and space. The glory days of US print journalism spanned the late 19th and early 20th century, when there were a large number of daily newspapers in most sizable markets in the US. Most of these were openly allied to various political movements. The idea of a newspaper that presented itself as “neutral,” or that covered all the news, was pretty well foreign in those days. Not that American journalism every really had a glory day, as any jaunt across the pages of the California newspapers of yore will demonstrate. They were nearly unanimous in favor of genocide against First Nations people in the mid-19th century, the ethnic cleansing of the Chinese in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, etc.
Yet, for a time, there were hundreds of working class newspapers born in antagonism to industrial capitalism in those days. They were all products of specific political struggles at a specific time. The privatization, commercialization, and standardization of the news reporting industry has proceeded relatively steadily since then. In many ways, the Anderson Valley Advertiser is a throwback to that era when the print media were more lively and diverse. In several ways, its claim to being “America's Last Newspaper” is completely justified.
I first got introduced to the AVA by way of a journalism class in 2003. One of the instructors passed around copies of various unconventional left-leaning periodicals, ranging from Mother Jones to the AVA to La Jornada of Mexico. My first impression was formed by the masthead slogans. “Peace to the Cottages, War on the Castles” closely reflected Conn Hallinan's journalistic motif, “Comfort the Afflicted, Afflict the Comfortable.” “Fanning the Flames of Discontent” comes from the title of the songbook put out by the most radical and effective labor union of the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World. It struck me that a community newspaper with these sorts of political allegiances existed, somewhere in a region of northern California with which I wasn't even yet familiar.
The Obama administration's recent announcement of the end of the official end of the Iraq War, coupled with the renewed drumbeat to war in Iran, has given many of us pause to reflect on the current state of American journalism, an array of institutions that have done a great deal to conceal the truth of a great slaughter. When the Lancett Medical Journal surveyed the nightmarish terrain of Iraqi casualties in 2006, they estimated 392,979 to 942,636 “excess Iraqi deaths.” Doubtless, hundreds of thousands more have died in the intervening years. That's not to mention the fate of the US occupying forces themselves, the young men and women who have been killed, wounded, or horribly traumatized.
At the same time, there are those journalists that keep the flickering flame of bold, courageous journalism alive. One graduate of UCSC's journalism program, Martha Mendoza, won a Pulitzer Prize at the Associated Press for uncovering a horrible massacre during the Korean War. Numerous professional journalists are making important contributions to our collective understanding of the greatest issues of the day: war and peace, the merging environmental calamities that are threatening the basis of life on earth, people's struggles for justice throughout the world. It's just that they (we?) have to work at cross-purposes with their professions as a whole to do so.
I will always recall walking up the steps at UCSC's Kresge College to submit my journalism program application packet to the Writing Office clerk. I felt stiff and nauseous. I had just recently participated in a protest at the Chancellor's Office against the “death of journalism.” I was unusually conscious about death, both in an immediate sense and in the abstract. When we die, does the truth inside of us die along with us? It was only a few days after the US' “Shock and Awe” bombardment of Baghdad, which occurred on March 19, 2003. The media predictably reported on it as though it was some sort of advanced fireworks show — a fireworks show in which thousands of people died.
In taking my application packet, the clerk informed me I was the last person ever admitted into UCSC's journalism department.
In truth, though, I never had much interest in being a professional journalist, particularly if that meant being employed at one-zeitgeist-fits-all corporate-controlled outfits that dominate the field. If journalism is to have genuine relevance going forward, it must come as part of a broader renewal of political resistance in this country, which in turn can only emerge from local and regional, immediately accessible organizations. While the Internet has expanded access to information, it can only serve this purpose to a certain extent.
My friend Andy Lichterman, a veteran of protest movements since the '60s and sage observer of the corporate capitalist system, noted the following in an essay he published in 2007, and it reminds me of why I contribute regularly to the AVA — a relatively small community-based newspaper:
“In the United States today, the corrosive effects of global corporate capitalism have destroyed or transformed beyond recognition virtually all the face-to-face institutions that were the inheritance of pre-capitalist life, and have gravely weakened most of the modern 'civil society' institutions, such as labor unions, that provide a modicum of solidarity and political power for ordinary people. The totalitarian states of the 1930’s had to mobilize both mass street terror and the power of the state to destroy or subordinate institutions that incarnated pre-modern ethical traditions (churches, peasant communities, etc.) and the modern institutions that pointed towards some real form of democracy (e.g. some unions and some opposition political parties). Here in the U.S., the political earth already is fairly scorched. Most places in this country, there are few places left to turn in a genuine crisis — for mutual support, for organizational resources to form an initial focus for collective action, even for information one can really trust about what is happening, and what it means. And when there is no place to turn in their communities, people turn on their TV’s, and are subjected to perhaps the most powerful and sophisticated propaganda apparatus the world has ever known.”
Last month, I celebrated my 30th birthday. My first contribution to the AVA was published two years ago, and I've contributed dozens of articles since then. I have no idea how much longer the AVA will continue to exist. Cycles of life and death ultimately characterize tribunes of this people, such as UCSC's former journalism department and this newspaper, if in a different and far less immediate sense than they do war zones like Iraq. I've made a resolution this year to write more than I have since graduating from UC Santa Cruz, including more pieces for the AVA. It's one of the few newspapers in the country that gives someone like me a chance to move mountains (or at least try to).