Peter Richardson: Democracy Dies Without Alternative Media
The story of American journalism cannot be written without highlighting the significance of alternative journals that have filled in the gaps mainstream media has failed to account for. Two such progressive journals are The Nation, which has been published 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, sits 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 “American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams,” a biography about the editor of The Nation from 1955 to 1977.
“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, stories that disrupted the common narrative that many large newspapers 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, one which 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,” Richardson adds, “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.”
In the media player above, 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. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where I hasten to add that the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Peter Richardson. And I have observed his work, he’s a great historian, a specialist on California history. He teaches at the University of San Francisco, where he’s also the coordinator of American studies, there. But I know him because I pop up in one of his books. He’s actually written two very important books about American journalism, about alternative journalism. And the reason I wanted to talk to him today is because fake news, and what is news, and what are we going to do to get news, is very much in the air. And yet Peter has written maybe the two best books on alternative journalism in the good old days. And I’m going to begin with that question. The first involved a profile of Carey McWilliams, who was the editor of The Nation magazine between 1955 and ’70. And I don’t know how old The Nation is now; I think 130 years or something.
Peter Richardson: Mmm, yeah, they turned 100 years in 1965, so we could do the math from there.
RS: Oh, OK, well. And The Nation is the oldest independent political journal of any kind in this country. And then there was an upstart during the sixties that I happened to–well, I was the managing editor, the Vietnam correspondent, and finally the editor in chief–Ramparts magazine. We had a much shorter life. And so in addition to having written a book on what was probably the most important editor of The Nation, Carey McWilliams, who was an important intellectual in his own right, and so forth, you then did the definitive book on Ramparts. And it was particularly pleasing to me because we haven’t always been in favor over at the New York Times, although they put our stories on the front page and so forth.
But your book was favorably reviewed, not once, but twice in the New York Times, in the daily and in Sunday. And yeah, I even got my picture in the paper. So I found it–and obviously, I found it to be a really important insight into a project I had to do with. And so let me begin with that, in this great concern of what’s going to happen, print is in trouble, you know, newspapers are kind of–many of my students at USC haven’t seen one lately, even though they get a lot of news from print sources and so forth. And so why did we need an alternative press in the good old days when we had this wonderful free press that everybody now celebrates? Why did you need The Nation? Why did you need Ramparts?
PR: That’s a great question. I think it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. But if you think about that mid-20th century model scene, 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. But even for the smaller organizations, there’s a very strong temptation to avoid expensive investigative reporting. Usually you get a lot of opinion and analysis because that’s cheap. It’s cheap to do, and it’s also very popular; I mean, look at Fox News today. They very rarely break a big story, but a lot of people tune in to listen to the opinion and analysis.
So the challenge has always been, how do you get everyday, daily reporting that’s capable, and also get these deeper dives that sometimes even the best-funded, largest news organizations tend to miss? I mean even now, don’t forget, just in the last 20 years arguably the best, biggest news organizations that we have in this country missed the two biggest important stories of that period, arguably. One is the collapse of the global economy. Nobody, really, at the big places was reporting on that. And also the invasion of Iraq, you know, which the big organizations almost completely missed. So what I would argue for 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. And that was one of the things, for example, that Ramparts magazine was very good at.
RS: Before we get into that, you know, it’s interesting. Because this whole thing comes down to a quote from A.J. Liebling, the–I hope I’m getting this right. The legendary–I don’t have my fact-checkers with me, which is what you have at a good publication–but as I recall, was the legendary media critic for The New Yorker. A.J. Liebling, who said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” And that ownership becomes a big deal, because big newspapers, big television stations, big media organizations–I mean, MSNBC now is owned by Comcast, right? They were owned by General Electric–General Electric, a major defense contractor. Amazon now, the biggest stockholder in Amazon, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post with pocket change that he had, so he could buy it. So this question of ownership is one thing. And also, the people who own these properties want to have sales of a certain kind, want to have an influence, have a political outlook, and so forth. So in the case of Carey McWilliams–and probably very few people listening to this have ever heard of [him]–which is terrible; we have no sense of history. But there was a lot going on in this country that the mass media didn’t want to cover, that Carey McWilliams and The Nation insisted on covering. Ranging from farmworkers’ treatment to war and peace; you know, farmworkers in California and so forth.
With Ramparts, I think in your book the thing that–you know, sometimes you forget your own publication’s achievements. But in your book, I mean, it brought it back. And we’re actually doing this recording in San Francisco on Broadway–a little bit of history–corner of Sansome and Broadway, at Sports Byline. Terrific operation here, and they let us use the studios. And across the street was the Ramparts office. That’s where Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, was there, and the police closed down half the town. That’s where a lot of the good work was done. But that’s also where, at Ramparts, we published Martin Luther King’s criticism of the Vietnam War. And The New York Times editorially–not only did they not fairly report on what he said, editorially they attacked him for hurting the Civil Rights Movement by connecting it with somehow the peace movement, the anti-war movement. So maybe that would be a good point to begin this discussion, a good example, the Vietnam War. And here was, you know, the papers in this country and the big television, until very late in the day, basically were justifying what is now everybody sees, most people see as an absurd exercise in power.
And The New York Times, you know, which advertised itself as the source of truth–now in some kind of desperation–nonetheless, they denounced Martin Luther King. Why don’t we just begin with that story? Because it’s a very good case story. And then for people who don’t know, Martin Luther King–even though he’s got big statues and streets named after him–he’s also somebody that the U.S. government tried to drive to suicide through the FBI and everything else. So yesterday’s villain in the eyes of the establishment is now safely today’s hero, Martin Luther King.
PR: Sure. Well, I mean, there’s a bunch of questions bound up in there, but that is a good, that story is a good way to get at a lot of different things that were happening then and are still happening today. I mean, it has to do with ownership, it has to do with business models for political journalism, it has to do with the national security state–not just the Vietnam War, but also the FBI and the CIA. And maybe we can start to get at some of those things just through this one anecdote that I discovered while researching the history of Ramparts magazine. At the time, Dr. King was working very hard on the Civil Rights Movement, and he needed a vacation. So he booked a trip to Jamaica, I believe, went to the airport, picked up a few magazines and was flipping through a stack of them. And he came across an issue of Ramparts magazine, which ran a photo essay called “The Children of Vietnam.” And it showed the ravages of the bombing campaign against Vietnam, and especially against its children and the child population there. And the pictures were quite gruesome. I know that the Ramparts editors and art director were really struggling with whether or not to run these pictures. They certainly had never appeared before in any kind of mainstream publication.
RS: Well, just to be precise, because it’s just come back to me, because it was across the street–and I’m not saying I was for running them or not running them. It was an important topic. Susie Griffin, who was working there, the great writer, has pointed out it was–they were shocking, and you didn’t want to be sensationalist. On the other hand, we were using napalm, which was designed to adhere to skin and burn people, mostly vulnerable, children, people stuck in villages. And we did carpet bombing, we did–you know, just leveled everything to the ground. And this was like the drone attacks now, the sort of lifeless things–oh, it’s a video game, who knows, you know? William Pepper, Bill Pepper was the one who collected this and did the terrific journalism.
You know, hey–that’s what we’re doing. We are tearing the skin of 4-year-olds. We are killing, you know, farmers in their field and so forth. And yes, you’re right, it was an issue of taste, or so forth. But on the other hand, isn’t the really bad display of taste that you’re burning children, rather than taking pictures of the burnt children?
PR: Yes. And that was–I mean, even so it was a tough decision, right? And people were doing this work in tears. I know Dugald Stermer told me that. He was the creative director, art director for the magazine. It was not an easy story to put, even to put together. So–and run in the magazine. So there was a lot of, a lot of angst about that. But what was important about it, maybe, was its reception. So it’s not very often that you get a story where a magazine’s decision to run a story actually affects world historical figures and changes their minds on the spot. That’s exactly what happened with Dr. King. He was eating lunch in the airport with a friend, and he was flipping through Ramparts, and suddenly he pushed his plate away. And his friend said, what’s the matter, doesn’t the food taste any good? And he said, I don’t think anything’s going to taste very good until we stop this war.
He had been flipping through the “Children of Vietnam” photo essay. Now, of course, a lot of people said, you know, we’re starting to make progress on civil rights; the last thing we should do is get involved with an anti-war movement during this time. It’s going to dilute the power of the Civil Rights Movement and your message. But Dr. King never had any misgivings about it. He decided immediately that he needed to go out publicly and oppose the war, which he did. And he did get criticized for it, you know. He was told, as you very well know, to stay in his lane: Don’t protest the war. It’s OK, it’s reasonable or tolerable for you to fight for civil rights, but you’re crossing the line if you come out against the war. That’s the reception that his speech got. It’s a thrilling speech. I mean, it’s a very pointed argument that he makes that America at that time was one of the biggest threats to the world’s safety.
RS: He said at Riverside Church in Manhattan, he said how do I tell young people in the ghetto to abhor violence, and be nonviolent, when my government, the U.S. government, is the major purveyor of violence in the world today. Now, you have to consider that statement when you think about this argument between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the last election. Donald Trump said he’s going to make America great again, meaning it was great in the past but not now. And Hillary Clinton saying it was always great, America was always great–was it great when we were napalming children of Vietnam? Was it great when we had slavery and segregation?
You know, you could go down the list. And the key to greatness is to recognize your fallibility as a human being and as a nation. That’s the key, that’s why we believe in limited government, that’s why we have a Constitution, right? That was the whole assumption, presumably, of this great creation of the Bill of Rights and so forth. And yet these politicians of both parties–and major news organizations–continuously celebrate a mythology about this country; it’s almost like as if it was born perfect. Right? It was born because people said, no–all existing institutions and organizations throughout the world have failed. The Roman Empire failed, the British Empire failed–they failed us. We have to design something fundamentally different. That’s why it was called a revolution.
PR: Yeah. I mean, really, and another way of thinking about it was that we had a chance at that moment to grow up a little bit as a country, and face up to some of the things that we were doing in real time. And I would go further. It wasn’t just that people were criticized for opposing the war. It was also that they were being investigated by the national security apparatus, and not only for opposing the war, but for the hubris of actually investigating the FBI and the CIA.
So this is what I think of–and I think Carey McWilliams is a kind of case in point, as well as the people at Ramparts–is by saying these things, by publishing these things, you become a kind of target. You know, you end up sort of launching a big, fat FBI file for doing that. And you know, so we also have to acknowledge what I call the wages of dissent. That by coming out and saying something like that, Dr. King also becomes the target for political harassment, essentially, which you mentioned at the top of the program. So did the people at Ramparts magazine.
RS: I want to dig in a little bit more deeply into this question of why you need an alternative media. But let’s hold that thought, take a quick break here, and I’ll be right back with Peter Richardson, who has written definitive books, really, on–I would say on two very important examples of independent journalism, which should be considered when we’re considering where is real news and where is fake news. And that was The Nation magazine, the nation’s oldest political journal; and Ramparts, which had a brief but–what did you call it, wild history? I forget the subtitle of your book–unruly history. [omission for station break]
We’re back with Peter Richardson, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, is in charge of the–coordinator of American studies there. And is best known for the two definitive books on alternative media in America. I can say that, having participated in one of those activities, Ramparts magazine, but knowing I’m still a senior editor, I think, at The Nation, full disclosure. [Laughs] And Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher, has been on this program, and she’s fabulous. But your book was about a previous editor, Carey McWilliams, and I want to go back to him. And just talking about the good old days of journalism, 1955 to ‘70.
And we’ve talked a lot about Ramparts; let’s talk about The Nation during that period. We came out of the Great–well now everybody says the Great War, and the good war, was World War II. People forget, in World War II our own forces were segregated. We were fighting for freedom around the world, but we did not let black and white soldiers fight side by side. We also had rounded up a good part of the Japanese [population], and even though we took some Japanese-American–all these people were citizens, Americans and so forth, that we rounded up–we wouldn’t let them fight in Asia, but they could fight in Germany. And so the thing–and the treatment of women was horrendous, and you know, my own late mother-in-law was a Marine, but they called her “broad-ass Marine,” and made fun of them and so forth, and the Women’s Army Corps and so forth. So even though that period–and so here’s Carey McWilliams, now we’re in the post-war euphoria, and we’re in 1955.
And he’s the editor of The Nation, he’s already written a lot–what remained to be exposed and analyzed that was left out of the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Herald-Tribune and so forth? A lot. A lot about–first of all, America was deeply segregated. The Democratic Party, which now presents itself as this wonderfully enlightened institution, was largely directed by Southern racist Dixiecrats, right?
PR: I mean, there are a couple things that happened to McWilliams along the way, that put him in this very unique position. One was that he had been radicalize by the 1930s. He was an attorney; he was a litigator in Los Angeles. And you know, his earlier goal had been to become a kind of modern H.L. Mencken, to be a kind of literary guy and a tastemaker. So he pursued these two tracks; on the one hand, downtown litigator, where he learned a lot about Los Angeles down at the courthouse. And then this other thing where he was writing for literary journals and analyzing poems and novels and stuff like that, interviewing important people like Upton Sinclair, Mary Austin, and others.
So those two threads merged in the 1930s, when he started writing about politics for publications like The Nation and The New Republic, and some more radical ones as well. So his first big bestseller was a history of California farm labor. It came out the same year as The Grapes of Wrath; it was sort of the nonfiction version of The Grapes of Wrath. He made a lot of enemies with that book. The Associated Farmers, which was the California agribusiness kind of political action group, called him agricultural pest No. 1, worse than pear blight or boll weevil. Another enemy was the Los Angeles Times, where he had worked while he was going through college at USC. They didn’t like his position.
RS: I had no idea Carey McWilliams was a Trojan!
PR: Mm-hmm, yes.
RS: Well, that’s a good plug to get in here.
PR: Yes, it is. Oh, and just so we’re not creating any fake news today, I teach at San Francisco State University, not the University of San Francisco, so.
RS: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
PR: Just, I gotta, I gotta represent my Gators on this one.
RS: San Francisco State is part of the great California secular education system, the state college system, right up there–yeah, OK.
PR: Right, right. It’s a great place to teach and work, and that’s where I teach all these courses on California culture. But anyway, returning to McWilliams at the end of the Second World War. So he had written a history of farm labor. He had written a book called Prejudice, which destroyed every argument for the internment, evacuation and internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans. That book was cited four times in a Supreme Court dissenting opinion the year it came out. So this is really consequential writing.
RS: We should point out, by the way, unfortunately, the Supreme Court said it was constitutional to round up these innocent farmers, primarily, and throw them in a concentration camp. That’s part of the great American mythology.
PR: And he had, you know, to be honest, he had sort of gone along with it, because he was serving in state government at the time. But the governor was a democrat, the first democratic governor of the 20th century in California. And the president was a democrat, FDR. So you know, he had to kind of toe the party line. But as soon as he was fired–which he was done immediately after Earl Warren became governor, to please agribusiness–he began this book on the Japanese internment. And so that book came along in 1944. And then at the end of the war, he began–
RS: OK, I just want to stop you there. Because these are really achievements of the independent mind, OK? 1944–it was thought, in the top scientific circles where they were developing the bomb, that it would be many–and the University of California at Berkeley was running the bomb program on the Oppenheimer. They thought it would be perfectly–not all of them; some dissented, General Eisenhower actually even dissented.
But it was thought, OK, we can destroy basically a civilian population of fishermen in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, just to make a point. And we can develop the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. But the idea was that the Japanese were so heinous that it extended down to ordinary Japanese, who certainly didn’t vote for their emperor–no one ever consulted them about whether they should be in war or not. You know, they were cannon fodder. And yet here’s Carey McWilliams writing a book, right? About the rounding up of these people. With no due process. And by the way, my father was from Germany, and Germans weren’t rounded up.
PR: Right. Or Italians.
RS: Yeah. And I was a kid then. I was a kid then, and I knew, many of my relatives had German accents, you know, heavy. And they weren’t–my half-brother, he bombed the–he was trusted to be in an airplane, bombing our hometown in Germany, right? No one questioned his loyalty. Now, they shouldn’t have; he was a, you know, great fellow, and didn’t want to do anything terrible to anybody. He ended up being a pacifist as a result. But the fact of the matter is, if you want to talk about the racism built into the whole fabric of American society, these Japanese were held accountable for the emperor even though many of the people rounded up had been born here. And on the other hand, my half-brother wasn’t rounded up, nor should he have been, but he could be trusted to be in that airplane dropping bombs over his home village.
PR: The Japanese weren’t rounded up in Hawaii, which wasn’t a state yet. And which had been bombed by the Japanese in 1941. So, and it’s not just the Japanese; I mean, McWilliams was also a really staunch advocate for the Latino population in and around Los Angeles, much of that during the war. Again, not a super popular cause at that time. But some of the things he was able to accomplish were regarded as the first political victories of the Latino population in Los Angeles, I mean, in the Anglo era. So–
RS: When was–I mean, this–I stop you because so much of this history, which you have tried to preserve and understand, has largely been lost to us. Now, we did have the production of the Zoot Suit Riots and so forth, but we forget the systematic racism towards brown people in Southern California. You know, where now the balance has shifted. But everybody forgets, they forget that we had the Chinese Exclusion Act, Right? California, right? That you could not get married, you could not–you know, these guys who were building the railroad couldn’t marry a non-Chinese, they couldn’t get citizenship. Right? This was–and it didn’t end until 1943, because China was suddenly our ally–oh, well, this doesn’t look good that Chinese people in California have no rights at all.
PR: The Exclusion Act ended, but interracial marriage didn’t end in California until 1948. In fact, McWilliams was called into executive session of the committee on un-American activities in California, and grilled on that exact point. Because he had written a book called Brothers Under the Skin, which was a history of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. And the person grilling him said, I’m just going to ask you one question. Do you believe in interracial marriage? And McWilliams said, I don’t think there should be a law against it. And they didn’t publish any of that transcript, even though they had published all the other ones, and instead the chairman of the committee said that McWilliams’ position on interracial marriage was identical to that of communist ideology. So that’s what we’re talking about. That was in the forties, yeah. That was when interracial–I mean, interracial marriage is illegal in California until 1948.
RS: That’s a showstopper, OK. Let’s take that sentence, OK? We’re not talking about Alabama, we’re not talking about the time of slavery, we’re not talking about the time of deep segregation. Talking about California, which is celebrated–oh, now it’s deep blue, but you know, basically even when republicans ran it, kind of moderate republicans and so forth. I think our history is more effectively whitewashed and distorted than it would be in a more obvious totalitarian society because people here feel–no! We’ve always been great, we’ve always been free, we’ve always had a free press.
You know–we didn’t always have a free press. The LA Times–you know, come on, I spent 29 years there one way or another, and I love the–the last Chandler, Otis Chandler, I thought was a great guy and everything. But the fact of the matter is, his father and grandfather and everything went along with lies. Fake news. They didn’t talk very much about the Exclusion Act, or–right? And let’s take the one case you have of the farmworkers. The people growing the food to feed this nation were treated as indentured servants.
PR: I would just add two things that McWilliams worked on after the farm labor book came out. One was the Zoot Suit Riots, which you mentioned. I mean, the very fact that we call them the Zoot Suit Riots is interesting. It was really a military riot. Soldiers and sailors, or sailors and marines, in downtown Los Angeles were openly attacking Latino youths with no consequence whatsoever. And that didn’t end until the admiral brought shore leave to a close. And that’s how it ended. McWilliams observed all that, wrote about it, was actively engaged in real time trying to analyze this. And then worked on a commission report that followed it about the causes.
RS: This is not a way of running down the culture. It’s a way of celebrating the people who made the culture better. That’s what the significance of Carey McWilliams is–and of The Nation magazine, for god’s sake. Why did it remain for this lawyer in L.A., and for The Nation magazine later, to tell us that we had farmworkers who had no rights, that were raising your food? Or that we excluded the Chinese, or that we could just kill and beat up Mexican Americans in L.A. with impunity, and so forth? Because a free press is never guaranteed. And the fact is, if you don’t have an alternative press, you don’t have a free press. That’s the real lesson of the two books that you’ve written, and that’s what they’re denying these days. It’s all, oh, we got this oaf–you know, and you can go worse; you can say he’s a neofascist, you can say lots of things about Donald Trump. But Donald Trump did not invent racism in America and exploitation and crudeness and boorishness and everything else. That has been part of our culture.
PR: Yeah, I don’t–it’s nothing new, that’s for sure. I mean, there’s a really nasty streak of white supremacy that goes all the way back to the beginning of our nation’s history.
RS: Which was started with genocide against the Native Americans. If you bring it up, you’re kind of ruining the dinner party, you know? Yet, we’ve had some very good recent books that it was even accepted and reported in the common press that they killed Native American children, threw infants into the fire, even. That’s all been documented in Benjamin Madley’s book–he’s been on the show, for example; he’s head of Native American studies at UCLA. Everything in his book, which is devastating, was found in a newspaper and reported as if, hey, this is OK. It’s OK to throw Native American–I still can’t get over that part of his book–it’s OK. They didn’t use the word “OK,” they just routinely reported that this savagery against the Native Americans was commonplace in the 19th century, the end of the 19th century.
PR: Yeah. Well, there’s a–I mean, we all know there’s a ton of Good Friday in this country. There’s also some Easter Sunday. And I think the kind of work that Carey McWilliams did, that Ramparts did, the fact that my–the junior high school that I went to over in the East Bay is now called the Fred Korematsu school–there’s some awareness that, you know, some of these struggles have been victorious. You know, it’s not all gloom and doom all the time. But I don’t think we get anywhere by whitewashing the history and pretending that it didn’t happen, or that it’s too gloomy to think carefully and thoughtfully about the nation’s real history. I think it puts us in a better position to achieve the goals that we share.
RS: I want to push this a little bit. We have just a tiny little bit more time. Because it really goes to the great secret of American greatness, which comes not from, ever, from the establishment. It never comes from the best and the brightest. Unless they betray their class; unless they betray their teaching. There’s always a rebellion from below, whether it’s Upton Sinclair, you know; whether–any of them. I could go through Tom Paine, who was a disreputable character, right? And he was the preeminent writer of the American revolution. He was a guy they wanted to deport, had come over from England, who is this scurrilous guy, makes corsets and everything? And so when you look at the history of ideas in America, it’s really mostly from the people who challenged the prevailing ideology, which was apologizing for bad stuff, including obviously slavery. We had a lot of really bad stuff–we have really bad stuff now, we blow up people all over the world with impunity.
A lot of people think, oh, this is the worst time because Donald Trump has got children in cages, OK, on the Mexican border. OK, who put those cages there? It was Barack Obama. This is not to excuse Donald Trump, but Barack Obama’s government, good liberal folks that I hang out with, they built those cages, OK. And they also separated families and deported people, trying to get away from poverty and from violence and so forth. So you know, the real–I want to tie this up, but I don’t want to make it too tight a knot and oversimplify. But the fact is, if we don’t learn from history, we don’t learn anything; we don’t understand ourselves. Then the question is, who owns history? Right now, it’s the people chattering away on Fox News, or MSNBC, or billionaires who can buy newspapers. Including–and OK, it’s a good thing that they buy the LA Times or the Washington Post. But the fact of the matter is, they own the narrative. And what you’ve chronicled in your two books is people who challenge the prevailing narrative.
PR: I’d go further. I mean–they did do that. There’s no doubt about it. And they did it very well, I think, both Carey McWilliams at The Nation, and before The Nation, and Ramparts magazine.
RS: Yeah, to be fair to The Nation, before Carey McWilliams and after, it has been an incredibly important publication.
PR: Yeah, it’s a very long run. And it was started by abolitionists; you mentioned slavery, I mean, that magazine was started in the middle of the 19th century by abolitionists. So it comes out of that spirit of challenge to the orthodoxy. And so–and they’ve been able to maintain it ever since, and it’s not easy. And we haven’t talked much about business models and all that stuff. You mentioned Rolling Stone, it’s done a certain amount of work in that direction; Mother Jones is another one. There has to be a kind of culture that supports it at the end of the day. But what I would also mention is that when it comes to that challenge from the alternative media, a very, very important aspect of it is that you can’t just talk to each other.
You have to try to get that message amplified. And one of the things about Ramparts magazine that I really learned was that the key to its success was not just to find these stories, not just to report on these stories, not just to publish these stories, but to force the mainstream media to pick up on those stories. That is so important. And I’m not sure everybody in the alternative media understands the importance of that. And that kind of–a certain amount of it was showmanship. You know, much of it provided by Warren Hinckle. But you cannot just, you cannot hide your candle under a bushel. You have to figure out a way to get other media outlets to pick up your story.
RS: So let me put my little editorial in. Everything you said is true. And it was particularly true through most of the history of media in this country, because you had concentration of capital. That’s something the founders did not anticipate. They thought the press was going to be the penny press, the town crier, some small–anybody could have one. You know, didn’t require great capital accumulation and so forth. And then increasingly, it required more capital. And then you were William Randolph Hearst, and give me the photos, I’ll give you the war. And fake news became built into the very model in the sense of what sells, what’s sensational. When I grew up, my god, the New York Daily News was far more powerful in New York than the New York Times. And they had the pictures, and they had the wild headlines, and if they didn’t do it the Daily Mirror did it, and the Journal-American did it, and so forth.
So I was raised in an environment where, yeah, we had a lot of newspapers, but most people that I knew were reading and looking at these papers that were flaming intolerance, and warlike attitudes, and you know, everything. And demonizing the other, and really a lot of bad, bad stuff. And yes, on the fringe you had The Nation, you had PM, or you had little publications. So we shouldn’t glorify the old days. And the point that you’re making is absolutely essential: If Ramparts–which I did end up editing, full disclosure, at the end–if we couldn’t get into the New York Times or some mainstream, if we didn’t get CBS to pick us up, the message didn’t exist, because we were a small publication.
The positive news–I want to end positive here, and that’s why I’m doing this show. You know, now we can do podcasting, and hopefully we can reach a lot of people. And with Truthdig, where this will appear, along with KCRW and others. You know, you find–Leonard Cohen in his great London concert, the great thinker–I would put Leonard Cohen as a great thinker, great poet–said there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets through. And the crack in the internet is that, yes, there’s a lot of noise, and there’s a lot of fake news, and there’s a lot of garbage, and there’s a lot of exploitation of privacy, and blah blah blah. But as long as we have some variant of net neutrality–I mean a significant variant of it–you can have Truthdig.
And we’re not the only ones. I’m not going to go list all the other publications. But I’ve been editing this publication now for 15 years, and I can tell you in addition to winning a lot of prizes and everything, we’ve been able to break through. We were able to break through the story of Pat Tillman being killed by the American, you know, American forces while he’s in Afghanistan, the great football hero. And it was done by his brother, who was with him there. And you could do it on a small publication, and you could get attention everywhere to that. And it’s one of the stories I’m proudest of. I’m proud that we have Chris Hedges–and this is not a commercial, trust me. But I’m proud.
Chris Hedges was fired by the New York Times, one of their great correspondents, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, who covered war in the Mideast for 20 years, and in Kosovo and everywhere. And yet they fired him–why? Because at a commencement address, he dared to suggest that these wars were not warranted. You know–well, he publishes, every week, every Monday morning I got him up there on Truthdig. So the internet–and that’s why, you know, people can go read your books right now. I don’t like the fact that bookstores have disappeared, or Kindle or anything–but you know, hey, read Peter Richardson. OK? We’ve been talking about Carey McWilliams. Again, this is not a commercial. Do yourself a favor. Just go online right now and order his books. I don’t care where you get ‘em, hopefully you can buy them from some brick and mortar bookstore that’s trying to stay in business, right? Give us the titles, the full titles and the publisher, Peter.
PR: The Ramparts book is called A Bomb in Every Issue, came out in 2009, available in paperback. And the Carey McWilliams book just came out in paperback, it’s called American Prophet.
RS: OK. So the proof is in the pudding. Read those books, and you’ll understand what the pursuit of real news is all about. Or to borrow from Al Gore, it’s inconvenient truths, you know, that bother other people. And the reality is, that’s how we’ve gotten the more honest narrative throughout our history, you know. There’s a line in that. And so sitting around bemoaning fake news is really deceptive. Because it implies that fake news is something new, or that it only happens in the form of a buffoon like Donald Trump. But fake news has been a feature of life in every society. It was true in Athens; it was true in France before, during, and after the revolution; and it’s true in the United States before, during, and after our institutions developed. And so people should be mindful of that. And sometimes you just have to work a bit harder to get at it. And so people listening to this, if you’ve never heard of Carey McWilliams, you should go back and ask some of your mentors, people who influenced you, why you never heard of him.
Because if you had heard about Carey McWilliams, you would have known about the farmworkers who for all of this century, last century, have been feeding you under miserable circumstances. That’s important. Or you could learn about the internment of the Japanese. So my hat’s off to Peter Richardson for writing two of the best books we have on American history. And see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. But I want to thank our producer Joshua Scheer for putting this together. I want to thank the people at KCRW for helping with the production and promoting it. And Darren Peck, just at the last minute, made his studio available to us, and I love the fact that it’s across the street from the old Ramparts headquarters. So you know what? Independent thought, questioning, critical thinking, survives. And after this I’ll go have a drink with Peter across the street and remember the good old Ramparts days. But you know, the good old days were not so good, and there’s a lot of room now to do the kind of work that Peter Richardson has been doing. And read the work of authors like Peter Richardson.
So begin with his own book, check it out, and then write me an angry letter if you think I overinflated it, but I think he’s written two really–among other, many other things he’s written, and he does write for Truthdig also, I should have mentioned that. But these two books are really classics. So let’s end on that note. See you next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”