Democracy Dies Without Alternative Media

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Author, Peter Richardson Photo courtesy of the author

The story of American journalism cannot be written without highlighting the significance of alternative journals that have filled in the gaps that mainstream media failed to account for. Two such progressive journals are The Nation, which has been running since 1965, and Ramparts Magazine, which had a short but significant run from 1962 to 1975. Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, who is a contributing editor to The Nation and was once at the helm of Ramparts, recently sat down to discuss the importance of these publications with Peter Richardson, the author of what Scheer calls “the two best books on alternative journalism in the good old days,”  “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” and, more recently, “American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams,” a biography about the editor of The Nation from 1955 to 1975.

“If you think about that mid-20th century model scene,” Richardson tells the Truthdig Editor in Chief in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” “you had a lot of news organizations, mostly newspapers. More and more television news organizations were coming along and playing an important role. But mostly they were not doing a lot of investigative reporting, or muckraking. And that kind of work was usually done by smaller outlets, like The Nation, and also then Ramparts magazine.”

Some of the muckraking the author mentions includes stories on the Vietnam War and later the Iraq War that disrupted the common narrative that many large newspapers once accepted as fact. One such example is the photojournalistic series Ramparts published during the Vietnam War that revealed the horrors of napalm and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legendary anti-war speech.

“[After Ramparts] published Martin Luther King’s criticism of the Vietnam War,” Scheer recalls, “The New York Times not only did not fairly report on what he said, [the paper] editorially attacked him for hurting the Civil Rights Movement by connecting it with somehow the peace movement, the anti-war movement. [This story is an example of how] yesterday’s villain in the eyes of the establishment [can become] today’s hero.”

The paper of record’s failure to treat the civil rights hero’s piece fairly illustrates why a varied media, that includes alternative journalism that pushes beyond the boundaries large media outlets are subject to, is so important to a healthy democracy.

“What I would argue for,” adds Richardson, “is that you need a kind of media ecology where you have a lot of the big, well-funded news organizations kind of covering off on important stories and making sure there’s some political accountability. But you also need smaller, scrappier players who can break stories that elude the big places, or that the big places ignore for one reason or another. And then the smaller players force the bigger players to pick up those stories that carry them.”

Listen to the full discussion between Richardson and Scheer as they talk about American journalism’s past, present and future at a time in which it is as critical as ever that freedom of the press be preserved.



Joshua Scheer