Muckraking Gadflies Buzz Reality

How does an Eagle Scout and church youth group leader end up hawking underground newspapers with nudes and natural food recipes? In the 1960s, the transition seemed, well, organic. In this article, long-time muckraker Chip Berlet recalls his introduction to the underground press and his resulting journey down the road to ruin as a member of College Press Service, The Denver ClarionFlamingo Park Gazette, and other papers of the day. He concludes by explaining why he is still an optimist. In sidebars, he presents overview histories of a few other, short-lived underground press services and keeps his promise of utter anonymity to his sources so he can share experiences that they would never share openly because they have kids and respectable jobs now.

First Few Pages:

How does an Eagle Scout and church youth group leader end up hawking underground newspapers with nudes and natural food recipes? In the 1960s the transition seemed, well, organic. In the fall of 1967 I was a senior in high school. I still clearly recall the night I decided that the underground press was the most exciting occupation in the world—and for many of us back then it really was. There was an exhilarat­ing sense of immediacy and danger that seems almost naïve today, and hard to comprehend for people who did not share the experience.

In 1967 the debate over political versus cultural coverage was already causing staff splits on U.S. under­ground newspapers, and in Washington, D.C., Ray Mungo and Marshall Bloom were moving down Church Street to set up Liberation News Service (LNS) after being fired from College Press Service for being too radical. I learned about LNS and the mysteri­ous world of the underground press as one of several token youth delegates to the 1967 National Council of Churches (NCC) Conference on Church and Society in riot‑torn Detroit.

A group of seedy‑looking underground writers and activists had stopped at the meeting on their return to San Francisco from the exorcism of the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. They talked about a tumultu­ous meeting where LNS and the Under­ground Press Syndi­cate had vied for the loyalty and support of the assem­bled under­ground newspapers (see “News Delivered by a Uniformed Agent”).

They handed out colorful street sheets with arcane messages such as

“We are trapped in disappear­ance—sighing, screaming with it. Buying and selling pieces of phantom—wor­shipping each other”; and “The government of America will rise and fall in episodes of political strug­gles. And Hollywood whose movies stick in the throat of God will rot on windmills of eternity.” This message was handed out by the Dig­gers, who patiently explained to everyone their anar­chistic ideas about a moneyless society based on love and selflessness, a message not totally alien to the religious set.

The counterculture crowd hung out with the more unusual ministers and nuns at the confer­ence, and had a peculiar habit of passing their cigarettes back and forth during meetings. Everyone thought it was exem­plary how they shared possessions. Reverend Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School produced a lush and powerful multimedia extravaganza docu­menting social problems; Sister Corita built a collage wall of decorated boxes; Margaret Mead strolled purposefully through crowds with her tall walking stick. It was, pardon the expression, a mind‑ex­panding experience.

We joined other youth delegates to stage a “love feast” in a nearby park where we fed the hungry and celebrated life along with some of the Diggers. Margaret Mead sent over a pomegranate, with a note saying that it was the fruit of love, and thus no proper “love feast” could be staged without it. I’ve always wondered who ended up with that collectable note.

The clique that formed around the underground writers included those conference delegates who chal­lenged policies and forced heated debate on issues at every meeting. They were articulate and outrageous at the same time. No topic was too sacred to be profaned. I was fascinated.

One night a huge black man stepped on the elevator as my friends and I headed for bed. He smoked a large gnarled pipe and wore a Cheshire Cat grin. As a fledgling pipe smoker myself, I asked innocently what blend of tobacco he smoked. “It’s a special blend,” he said slowly after inspecting me for several seconds. Then, between puffs, he added, “If you would like to try some, follow me. Some of us are having a little party.” Thus began my descent into demon drugs, sinful sex, raucous rock and roll, cataclysmic communism, and the general subver­sion of authority that was to lead me to the under­ground press.

At the party I got stoned for the first time and was whisked away on a tour of Detroit’s underground newspa­per, the Fifth Estate. We were met at the door to the paper by a gun‑toting editor who suspected another police raid, but instead found several old friends from the San Francisco underground scene accompanied by some very straight‑look­ing and awe‑struck teenagers.

Upon returning to high school, it was clear that we had tasted the forbidden fruit. The countercul­ture was already spreading its poison. The progeny of suburban New Jersey, we betrayed our parents’ dreams and began to drive into Greenwich Village for cool jazz, hot coffee, and blazing radical rhetoric. I became active in the Civil Rights Movement after our church youth group read the essay by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Three of us who had attended the NCC conference even started a church coffeehouse in Paramus, New Jersey—the Purple Kumquat. Curt Koehler was master of ceremonies, Sue Kaiser kept the coffee flowing, and we roped in half a dozen friends to help. We shared entertainers with another local church coffeehouse, the Escarole, up the road in Park Ridge. I went to the Escarole and recited poetry and in return the teenaged sister act of Maggie and Terre Roche visited the Purple Kumquat to sing folk music. They later were joined by their sister Suzzy and became the folk trio the Roches. (So as it turned out, it was not an even trade).

Ink in the Veins

Even though I was clearly on the road to ruin, I somehow rationalized the idea that an underground journalist first needed to get a good college education.

Arriving on campus at the University of Denver in the fall of 1968, I soon gravitated to the school newspaper, The Denver Clarion, where I began by submitting photographs. My first editors, Carol Carpenter and Bill Zalud, coaxed me into writing an article on SDS leafletters who had been attacked by students at a local high school. The newspaper had sent me as a photographer, but they had sent no reporter. Carpenter and Zalud spent long hours patiently (and sometimes exasperatedly) teaching me the craft and ethics of print journalism.

I now repay the favor as a trainer for progressive alternative journalists at the Z Magazine summer Media Institute....

Buy the Book!

Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 1 (Voices from the Underground Series)