Posts Tagged ‘bomb in every issue’

How Ramparts Changed the Way We Write about Politics

September 12, 2009


This month New Press released A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.


richardson The author, Peter Richardson, teaches California culture at San Francisco State University and is chair of the California Studies Association. I have worked with Peter in his capacity as editorial director at PoliPointPress in Marin. They are a superb publisher of books on politics and current affairs.  While New York publishers seem to be going down the primrose path of celebrity publishing, PoliPoint is doing some pretty good books of substance. (Some of them are mine, thank you very much.)

 Peter will be making numerous appearances in the Bay Area in September, including a Berkeley Arts and Letters event  on September 24 with Robert Sheer. Look at Peter’s blog for a complete list of appearances.

 A Bomb in Every Issue (great title) is a history of the flamboyant, dramatic, brilliant, and short life of Ramparts magazine. It was perhaps the most successful attempt to bring New Left ideas to the general population.

 I’d like to ask Peter some questions about why Ramparts was important then and how it has had a lasting impact on political writing.

 Peter, for all those young whippersnappers reading this blog who don’t remember the joys of living in a free love commune and reading Ramparts in the sixties, can you tell us just a little bit about the magazine and why it was so colorful but also so important?

 Ramparts was launched as a Catholic literary quarterly in 1962 but very quickly morphed into a “radical slick,” really the first of its kind.  The magazine moved from Menlo Park to San Francisco, where its office was perched between bohemian North Beach and the media and advertising district down the hill.  That location was fitting, I suppose, because Ramparts straddled both worlds. 

 When the magazine first got liftoff, Warren Hinckle was the editor, and he supplied the showmanship.  Art director Dugald Stermer added the visual fireworks, and Robert Scheer made waves with big whistleblower stories, including one about  CIA activity in Vietnam.  Later, founding publisher Edward Keating recruited Eldridge Cleaver—even arranging for his release from San Quentin—and Ramparts helped make the Black Panthers internationally recognized icons.

 Ramparts was important primarily because it proved that mainstream media techniques—including lively writing, sophisticated design, and more than a dash of sensationalism—could be used to advance progressive politics.  The magazine’s production values distinguished it from its stodgier East Coast counterparts and its grittier underground ones.  So in a very direct way, Ramparts opened the door to magazines like Mother Jones and Rolling Stone, both of which were founded by Ramparts alumni. 

 How did they differ from the other left-wing periodicals of the time? Life I.F. Stone’s Weekly, or even the political articles in the New York Review of Books?

 Stone was a hero to the much younger staffers at Ramparts.  In fact, they ran his work frequently and employed three of his relatives.  But mostly Stone stayed in DC and debunked official nonsense.  Ramparts became a magnet for whistleblowers of all stripes, and the youth of its staffers and their Bay Area location gave them the inside track on the counterculture.  The New York Review of Books was more intellectual, less sensational, and not so focused on blockbuster stories. 

 I can’t imagine, for example, Hunter Thompson partying with Izzy Stone or the editors of TNYRB.  Who knows, maybe that happened.  But Thompson enjoyed cavorting with Hinckle and called Ramparts the crossroads of his world in San Francisco. Later, Hinckle matched Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman and helped create Gonzo journalism.  Jann Wenner, who worked on the Ramparts spinoff newspaper, eventually recruited Thompson and published his most notable work in Rolling Stone.

 But what really distinguished Ramparts from other publications was its ability to compel bigger news organizations, especially the New York Times, to pick up its stories. All told, the Times covered about a half dozen Ramparts stories on its front page: for example, when Ramparts revealed that the CIA was secretly funding the National Student Association. And during the late sixties and early seventies, Time magazine ran about ten stories about Ramparts, mostly to disparage it.  But all those stories did was raise Ramparts’ profile.  

 Ramparts had some pretty good investigative journalism, not just the garden-variety radical ranting, isn’t that right? Some of it had profound historical importance. Can you tell us a little about that?

Right, they didn’t fall back on opinion pieces and leftist formulations—Marxese, as editor David Horowitz called it later.  Instead, they broke big stories that read like detective fiction. 

 The first big investigative story was an April 1966 piece about CIA activity in Vietnam.  Strangely, Robert Scheer came upon the key documents not in Vietnam, but in Berkeley’s Doe Library.  It turns out the CIA was secretly training police, writing a new constitution, and torturing Vietnamese, all under the auspices of a Michigan State University program.  Eventually, that story—and the CIA’s subsequent decision to illegally investigate Ramparts and its personnel—led to the first congressional investigations and oversight of the CIA and FBI.  The Senate committee was led by Frank Church, one of Keating’s undergraduate friends at Stanford. 

 Another good example of that historical importance you mention is the way a Ramparts story affected Martin Luther King.  While eating lunch in an airport, Dr. King came upon a photo-essay called “The Children of Vietnam,” which documented the effects of U.S. bombing on Vietnamese children.  King’s advisors had been telling him to stay out of foreign policy, but he decided on the spot to come out against the war.  He was criticized in the mainstream press, but he knew he had to do it, and he later said the Ramparts piece was the key to that decision.

 Another Ramparts story shows how the magazine went beyond the conventions of traditional journalism.  When Eldridge Cleaver became a contributing editor, he accompanied the Black Panthers to Sacramento, where they walked onto the floor of the state assembly, armed to the teeth, to protest a new gun control law. Cleaver was arrested along with the Panthers, but he was released because he wasn’t armed and because he was covering the event for Ramparts.  The media frenzy that followed turned the Panthers into celebrities, and Cleaver became the party’s minister of information. 

 So yes, Ramparts was far from typical.  Toward the end of its life, it did fewer big stories, but it was still more interesting than most political coverage now—which is largely a matter of journalists relaying what their official sources said, or pundits bullshitting about what they read in the paper that morning.         

 What was really new about Ramparts journalism? At PoliPoint, you publish mostly progressive political books. Can you tell us how all of these books have been impacted by what Ramparts did?

 The main innovation was Ramparts’ ability to reach broad audiences by imitating Time magazine’s methods.  That drove Time crazy.  And Ramparts took full advantage of the mainstream media’s inadequacies.  When I asked Warren Hinckle why Ramparts was so successful, he said, “Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty.”

 The link to PoliPointPress, I guess, is that we’re always looking for important stories that bigger publishers, for whatever reason, won’t touch.  One of our biggest books, Phil Longman’s Best Care Anywhere, points out that VA hospitals are beating the pants off of for-profit healthcare providers.  That’s very counterintuitive, and instructive for our current healthcare debate.  I wouldn’t call them whistleblower stories, but two of our books are first-person accounts of working in comically dysfunctional institutions: cable news television (Jeff Cohen’s Cable News Confidential) and educational testing (Todd Farley’s Making the Grades).

 Our other books take on big issues, too.  Dean Baker (Plunder and Blunder) goes after Wall Street and the federal policymakers who were supposed to regulate it.  Sarah Posner’s book, God’s Profits, looks at the links between mega-church preachers and Republican efforts to mobilize their flocks.  Looking ahead, we just signed a book on medical marijuana.  It won’t be a drug policy or law enforcement story; it will be a business and political story, with special emphasis on the way “cannabusiness” is making money and buying political support, just as Indian casinos did not too long ago. Maybe if Ramparts were still around, it would be telling these stories.  

 And still, Ramparts sort of imploded after only a few years. Was it just a matter of the left-wing infantile disorders of the time? Were they a victim of the same forces that brought down the New Left?

 Yep, those problems were part of it.  Ramparts editor Peter Collier, who ran the magazine with David Horowitz after they ousted Scheer, described that period as one of “elemental cell division” on the left. 

 But there were at least two other problems, too.  Ramparts always relied on rich funders, first the Keatings and then Fred Mitchell, a Berkeley grad student who inherited a good deal of money.  Many people don’t realize that political magazines, left and right, almost always lose money.  As Adam Hochshild told me, advertisers want to sell skis and cars and jewelry, not outrage or ideas.  Ramparts declared bankruptcy for the first time in 1969, when circulation was at its peak.  It reorganized and continued on a smaller scale until 1975, when it folded for good. 

 The second problem was Ramparts’ shrinking niche in the media ecology.  Once Ramparts showed that muckraking could work, bigger outlets got involved.  60 Minutes launched in 1968, for example, the year after Ramparts won the Polk Award.  And many new magazines sprang up, like Rolling Stone and New Times, some of which were created at least partly in Ramparts’ image.  That made it tougher to survive.  

 OK, Peter, you’re an editor who’s always looking for important political books. Can you give all those aspiring political writers out there some advice about writing? What should they learn from the story of Ramparts?

 It’s not really related to Ramparts, but most projects I see don’t articulate their unique contributions to the discussions they want to join.  That’s the first question: What are you saying that hasn’t been said before?  That means knowing what the other books say, and that means homework.

 Turning to Ramparts, I think its story has at least three lessons for political writers today.  First, be prepared to make your own party.  In 1962, the Bay Area didn’t have an important national media presence.  If young Bay Area writers wanted opportunities to practice big-time journalism, they had to create a vehicle for that.  In the book, I compare that development to a more recent one, when Daily Kos rose to national prominence a few years ago by challenging the Iraq War and the political and media establishment that supported it.  With the advent of the Internet, there are many more opportunities to write, even if that means starting your own blog and trying to make something happen.  Acquiring editors want to see not only that you have something to say, but also that you can locate and connect with your audiences. 

 Second, I once heard Joe Conason, another PoliPointPress author, tell a younger writer, “You have to pick a fight.”  Ramparts picked a fight, and so did Daily Kos.  (Happily, the fight Daily Kos picked with PoliPointPress is behind us, and we’re working with them on a big project right now.)  Conflict is an important part of any story, fiction or nonfiction, so picking a suitable adversary and clarifying the stakes of that conflict is very important.  A good example is Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater

 Finally, Ramparts took on big issues, but during its heyday it was deeply irreverent and funny.  Bestselling books on politics often have large doses of humor.  Think Al Franken, or the late Molly Ivins, or Michael Moore.  They’ve moved a lot of books because it’s not just information, which is cheap now.  You don’t have to be a comedian, but if readers think they’ll get a little amusement along with the information, that helps a lot.  I may not be riveted by details of the educational testing business, but Todd Farley’s personal stories about that racket give me a lot of information in a very entertaining way.  That made a big difference to me when I was evaluating that manuscript. 

 Thanks, Andy, for the chance to talk about Ramparts and the book.  By the way, I have a great idea for my next book.  All I need now is an agent.  Hmm….