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A Bomb in Every Issue
Posted on Aug 21, 2009
Before joining Ramparts, Hochschild worked the police beat in San Francisco. There he heard older reporters recount stories that they couldn’t get into the paper: for example, a sweetheart deal for a public construction job, racist comments by a mayoral candidate that the paper was backing, and other tales of corruption and malfeasance. “If you wanted to be a journalist but cared about social issues,” Hochschild recalled, “the alternatives looked bleak.” The two main options were writing for low-circulation radical journals or for daily newspapers, where social concerns had to be smuggled into stories.
For Hochschild and others, Ramparts was the solution to that problem. In addition to doing real investigative work, the magazine had a knack for making larger outlets respond to its stories. The formula was simple, Hochschild noted later: “Find an exposé that major newspapers are afraid to touch, publish it with a big enough splash so they can’t afford to ignore it … and then publicize it in a way that plays the press off against each other.” Certainly investors appreciated the magazine’s ability to break stories that the New York Times and other mainstream publications would play for a week or more. Hochschild also admired the literary flair Ramparts brought to its major stories, which were “written with the liveliness of detective novels.”
A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America
By Peter Richardson
New Press, 272 pages
Hochschild’s wide-ranging contributions to Ramparts included a profile of Clark Kerr after his dismissal from the University of California, but many of his pieces focused on black communities, both in South Africa, where he had written for an anti-government newspaper one summer, and in the American south, where he worked as a civil rights worker in the summer of 1964. Hochschild downplayed his family background, but it popped up awkwardly from time to time. While he was writing a story about a complicated oil-lease scandal in Colorado, a source informed him that AMAX executives “had half the legislature in their pockets.” A fellow Ramparts staffer researching American corporations in Africa came across Hochschild’s father’s name and asked, “Hey, Adam, are you related to this guy?” After a slew of CIA front operations were exposed in the wake of one Ramparts story, one such organization turned out to be the African-American Institute, where his father had been board chairman for a decade.
Hochschild’s tenure at Ramparts coincided with a string of exceptionally strong issues. In September 1967, for example, he wrote a piece about Regis Debray, the 26-year-old French intellectual whose contact with Che Guevara had landed him in a Bolivian prison. The other articles in that issue included Sol Stern on the Panthers and other black radicals; a William Turner piece on New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison; Noam Chomsky on Vietnam and Howard Zinn’s “logic of withdrawal”; Judy Stone on B. Traven, the mysterious author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Paul Goodman on the Diggers, the Haight-Ashbury anarchist troupe; Studs Terkel on Paul Goodman and American morality; and an article on Guatemalan guerrillas by Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist who would later gain fame as the author of The Open Veins of Latin America, Memory of Fire, and Soccer in Sun and Shadow. That sort of line-up was an extraordinary departure from mainstream American journalism, and in March 1967, Ramparts received the George Polk Memorial Award. Ironically, it shared the award with Time, its sharpest and most persistent critic.
Ramparts wasn’t only a critical success. Its circulation was the envy of many more established magazines, and its impact was dramatic, especially among the nation’s swelling ranks of college students. Jeff Cohen, who would later co-found Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), recalled the magazine’s reception at the University of Michigan:
Shaba Om, who would later stand trial in the New York Panther 21 case, was also radicalized by Ramparts:
For the first time, a radical slick was reaching a broad audience—and blowing its mind.
Ramparts was also influencing national leaders, most notably Martin Luther King. In January 1967, many were urging Dr. King to come out against the Vietnam War. Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, invited him to a forum the following month in Los Angeles, but many of King’s advisors warned against commenting on foreign policy, and King was reluctant to shift his focus from civil rights.
That same January, Ramparts ran a photo-essay by human rights activist and political scientist William Pepper called “The Children of Vietnam.” It showed in hideous detail the effects of U.S. bombing and protracted warfare on that country’s children. The preface by pediatrician and bestselling author Dr. Benjamin Spock claimed that one million children “had been killed or wounded or burned in the war America is carrying on in Vietnam.”
Predictably, Time magazine denigrated Ramparts for its journalistic and moral shortcomings. In its January 6 issue, Time maintained that the first CIA story “had already been published in book form elsewhere” and noted that Ramparts had moved its office to “one of those topless streets in San Francisco’s New Left bohemia.” The final paragraph spelled out the moral for readers who might otherwise have missed it:
No story here, apparently, and no need for Americans to worry about the effects of bombing Vietnam’s civilian population.
That month, Dr. King left for Jamaica for four weeks of solitude and writing. At the airport, he bought several magazines and met his friend, Bernard Lee, for lunch. Lee later recalled that King reacted strongly to the Vietnam story:
King wasn’t the only one moved by that piece; many staff members were in tears while working on the spread, and it gave art director Dugald Stermer nightmares. He later said it was “just about the nastiest job I’ve ever had.”
When he returned from Jamaica, King spoke against the war in Los Angeles, but he saved his strongest comments for a speech at the Riverside Church on April 4, exactly one year before his assassination. King listed seven reasons for stopping the war and urged the U.S. government, which he called “the major purveyor of violence in the world,” to end the bombing and set a date for troop withdrawal. “We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors,” he concluded. “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
After the speech, King was buoyant. Although he was criticized in the mainstream media, he was satisfied with his position. In his study of King during this time, David Garrow noted that he “finally made the moral declaration he had felt obligated to deliver ever since that January day when he saw the photos in Ramparts.” King offered Ramparts exclusive publication rights for the speech, which ran the following month with the title “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam.” At a Southern Leadership Christian Conference meeting that year, he told his colleagues, “I picked up an article entitled ‘The Children of Vietnam,’ and I read it, and after reading that article I said to myself, ‘Never again will I be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation and destroying thousands and thousands of little children in Vietnam.’ ”
As Ramparts’ national influence grew, its hometown was experiencing a historical transformation. In the spring and summer of 1967, roughly 75,000 young people flocked to San Francisco to create or sample the novel scene that was emerging there. Black musicians called the earliest arrivals “hipsters,” but San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen changed that to “hippies.” After Ramparts picked up the term, the name stuck.
The scene’s epicenter was Haight-Ashbury, originally an affluent neighborhood of ornate Victorian homes that had survived the 1906 earthquake. After World War II, many were divided into flats in response to an acute housing shortage, and their owners began moving out to newer suburbs. By the 1960s, the Haight had become a plentiful source of low-rent housing. It also offered easy access to Golden Gate Park’s 1,000 acres of woodlands, meadows, lakes, gardens, and recreation areas.
The Haight was to the hippies what North Beach was to the Beats, but its animating spirit differed from its precursor’s. In their landmark work on the social history of LSD, Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain summarized that difference:
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