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A Bomb in Every Issue

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Posted on Aug 21, 2009

By Peter Richardson

(Page 3)

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.”

 

book cover

 

A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America

 

By Peter Richardson

 

New Press, 272 pages

 

Buy the book


Hochschild described his time at Ramparts as “zany but exciting.”  In a 1986 memoir about his relationship with his father, he sketched the scene inside the Ramparts office.

Assuming the office phones are tapped, we dash out to make key calls from pay phones.  We junior staffers work in cubicles with partitions that do not come all the way to the ceiling; sometimes I look up from my typewriter and see the hairy underside of a small monkey flying from partition to partition above my head.  It is the office mascot, named Henry Luce.

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: 

I saw my first issue at seventeen and starting reading it in ’68 or ’69.  Each issue went around the dorm in Ann Arbor in 1969.  It was dog-eared by the time I got it.  It really was a radicalizing tool of its own.  It ripped your head off.  It helped us turn my cousin’s fraternity into an SDS chapter.

Shaba Om, who would later stand trial in the New York Panther 21 case, was also radicalized by Ramparts:

I was walking down the streets in midtown Manhattan and saw this magazine called Ramparts, and Black Panthers were on the cover of the magazine.  I’d heard about the Black Panther Party before, so I bought a copy of Ramparts and began reading it—and man these dudes are together and crazy as hell.  The more I learned about the party, the more it excited me.

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: 

Ramparts is slick enough to lure the unwary and bedazzled reader into accepting flimflam as fact.  After boasting that the January issue would “document” that a million Vietnamese children had been killed or wounded in the war, it produced a mere juggling of highly dubious statistics and a collection of very touching pictures, some of which could have been taken in any distressed country.

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: 

When he came to Ramparts magazine, he stopped.  He froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam.  He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military.  Then Martin just pushed the plate of food away from him.  I looked up and said, “Doesn’t it taste any good?,” and he answered, “Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.”

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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By Dree, January 26, 2010 at 10:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gonna read it later.

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By james o. clifford, December 27, 2009 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

An informative read, particularly for those who know little about Ramparts. A better starting point, however, is Warren Hinckle’s “If you have a lemon. make lemonade.” No Hinckle, no Ramparts,at least not the hotfoot kind he produced.
  A couple of people in Peterson’s book saw Hinckle for what he was - a marketing genius. I remember thinking when he broke the MSU story that he realized the important part of news conference was “conference.” Just getting news people in one place was the key. Once they were there they would have to justify being there. And the place was important. The conference was held in New York, not San Francisco where the mag was HQed.
  He was also a pioneer in validation journalism in which you give the reader what they want to hear.
There were a lot of lawyers connected to Ramparts, which I don’t think Peterson realized. The magazine was close to propaganda, where only one side is shown. Could have been the result of Hinckle’s legal and Jesuit training. I am not sure, but I have watched this kind of reporting grow over the last 30 or so years, and it will only become stronger with the Net.
    This trajectory, combined with the virtual death of UPI, which gave AP a monopoly on news distribution, is the real “bomb.”

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By Gera Rosy, August 23, 2009 at 7:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As an undergraduate at Kent State before the massacre, Ramparts Magazine was my guidebook for understanding the chaotic world of the time. It has never been replaced.

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By miller, August 23, 2009 at 6:34 am Link to this comment

Thank you.  I enjoyed the article. I have fond memories
of reading Ramparts.

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By wagonjak, August 22, 2009 at 6:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I did illustrations and production work for Ramparts when it was in SF and
remember meeting Hinkle a couple of times…it was a real voice for lefty politics
when there were very few to none in the country…

I also did illustrations and production work for Sundance Magazine…that one
lasted about 6 issues…I remember Ken Kelly throwing an all-out fit about
something and throwing triangles across the room to make his point. I think he
just passed on recently too. Many memories of that era…

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By P. T., August 22, 2009 at 1:51 pm Link to this comment

Ramparts was good at coming up with covers that would catch people’s attention.  I remember I bought a copy at the college bookstore and took it to the abode of a friend whose brother was home on military leave from his base in Turkey, where he eavesdropped on the Soviet Union.

The cover had the headline “Why Nothing Works:  The U.S. as an Underdeveloped Country” or something close to that.  My friend’s brother saw it and started laughing.

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By wagonjak, August 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I did numerous illustrations and production work for Ramparts and met Hinkle
and others there at the offices in SF…it was always financially troubled, and
seemed to exist for awhile from issue to issue. It was a voice of intelligent leftist
reason during a time when there was very little of that anywhere, and the
blogosphere was way over the horizon…I never knew Scheer, and I wonder if the
tape of this interview is available anywhere…Carl Muecke

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By Paul O'Curry, August 21, 2009 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Back in 71/72 when I arrived in the US from Europe I was a subscriber to Ramparts , MS, and I.F.Stones weekly.  I can still remember many of the articles I read at that time and notice that Mother Jones is trying to bridge the gap.  The battle against neo fasists is more dire than ever!

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By Helen Hickman, August 21, 2009 at 10:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ramparts was an incredible magazine, and it certainly made an impact on my life. 
I was living in a small, isolated community on Vancouver Island and the articles,
especially on Vietnam, had a profound effect on me.  I still have all my copies of
the magazine, and intend to keep them forever.  My grateful thanks to Robert
Scheer and to Truthdig.

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By NYCartist, August 21, 2009 at 8:39 am Link to this comment

I read Ramparts in the mid1960s, at the very least.
In my mid20s, went south for two years of small cog in the wheel civil rights work and began my art career.
Went with mag subs because, as I later wrote in letters to friends back in NYC, “I only knew I was still in the US because the mail trucks said ‘US Mail’ on them.”.  (I’d been to Europe the summer before I went South.)

I’d gone South for, and with, my then-spouse’s new job, organizing in the AntiPoverty Program.  I got a pt time job, “volunteer” with a civil rights law firm after the local police took our photos (for intimidation) exiting an antiwar speech from a visiting professor, in the local Black YMCA, just after we arrived.
Spouse was told by his boss that an agent of the US gov’t (an agency), came to his office, waving a list of our mag zubs and said, “They are communists. Fire him.”.  The boss laughed, told spouse, who told me. (History lesson:I was too young to be a communist. No ideological bent, procivil rights, antiVietnam War, former teacher. How radical was that? Spouse and partner were doing real community organizing work, based on community desires: on police brutality and starting a credit union by mothers on welfare.)
I thought it was funny until I learned of COINTELPRO.
(No, spouse did not get fired. After 2 years, people in the community took over his and co-organizing partner’s jobs, which is what it was sposed to do.)  We went to another city, where I could not get volunteer work with the public defender’s office “Your having worked in a civil rights law office is too controversial for ...(the city).”

  I think Ramparts was on the list, but for sure, The Nation, The Catholic Worker (only 1cent per issue) and IF Stone’s Weekly were on the list.

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