Z Magazine Book Review of People’s Movements, People’s Press

Z Magazine

Book Review

People’s Movements, People’s Press
The Journalism of Social Justice Movements

By Bob Ostertag
Beacon Press, June 2006

Review by Diane Farsetta

Freedom of the press is reserved for those who own one. So for centuries, social change activists have “become the media,” launching their own publications (and, more recently, radio and television shows) to communicate vital yet marginalized perspectives and inconvenient truths.

Even the process of organizing for social change is a forbidden topic for mainstream media. As Bob Ostertag writes in his new book, People’s Movements, People’s Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements, “Demonstrations or strikes of thousands of people fail to win a mention. When they are visible at all, they are usually as spectacle—violence at a demonstration, arrests at a picket line, the financial problems of an organization, or the flamboyance of celebrity leaders. The substance of the movements’ concerns is nearly always absent.”

Ostertag sets out to do the opposite and overwhelmingly succeeds. People’s Movements, People’s Press is written thoughtfully, from the perspective of someone who has both studied and taken part in progressive activism. The book deals with “accidental journalists”—those without formal training who turn to media in order to further their cause. Publications are considered in the context of the movements that spawned them. This approach, along with numerous excerpts from activist publications, provides a window on the movements covered, as well as insight into the dynamics of social change in general.

As Ostertag explains, movement publications cannot be evaluated with the same criteria applied to mainstream media, namely circulation, ad revenue, and longevity. Activist media often have an impact beyond their immediate audiences and rarely make a profit. In addition, the most effective movement publications are among the shortest lived. For example, radical abolitionist and women’s suffragist journals successfully introduced their arguments into more mainstream media and closed shop with their ultimate goal close at hand. Indeed, Ostertag reserves harsh criticism for publications he feels have sacrificed their original mission, writing that Rolling Stone “explicitly purg[ed] the counterculture of radical politics” and the content of the LGBT magazine the Advocate “traces a trajectory almost the exact inverse to its profitability.”

People’s Movements, People’s Press covers the abolitionist, women’s suffragist, LGBT rights, anti-Vietnam War, and environmental movements. Especially noteworthy publications include the Appeal, an abolitionist tract written in 1829 by a free African American, David Walker. Walker used distribution of the Appeal to link clandestine slave reading groups in the South with Black community groups in the North. This networking, along with Walker’s emphasis on education and his support of slaves’ right to defend themselves, made Walker’s Appeal seem truly dangerous to whites in both the South and North.

Another remarkable publication is the Gazette, launched in the early 1960s by gay activist Frank Kameny. At the time, FBI harassment of LGBT groups was rampant and the journal ONE had recently won a landmark case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that publications could not be banned as “obscene” for merely discussing homosexuality. Kameny sent the Gazette to several highlevel officials, including thenFBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Kameny refused Hoover’s request, delivered by an FBI agent, to remove him from the mailing list. Hoover continued to receive the Gazette until his death in 1972.

But it is the chapter on the underground GI press during the Vietnam War that is the most detailed and compelling. The topic is clearly Ostertag’s favorite. As a teenager, Ostertag closely watched television reports of Vietnam veterans throwing their medals and ribbons at the national Capitol in protest. He later learned that this was just one of many antiwar actions organized via newspapers written by and for dissenting soldiers.

Excerpts from the underground GI press are truly shocking in their deep antimilitary sentiment, their promotion of sabotage, and their gallows humor. One paper, Rage, announced a “Last Man to Die in Vietnam Contest” in 1972. Ostertag writes that the military movement against the Vietnam War was much more radical than its civilian counterpart. It’s also more radical, in thought and deed, than today’s peace activism.

Similar to other movement publications, the underground GI press helped organize its readers, linking them with other antiwar soldiers and, to a lesser extent, with civilian activists. Since many GI papers were secretly published on or near military bases, producing and distributing issues were major organizing feats unto themselves. The veterans behind Vietnam GI went even further, mailing the paper directly to soldiers overseas. This distribution approach required near constant tracking and updating of recipients’ addresses.

Vietnam GI is also notable for the breadth of its coverage. It published many soldiers’ letters, providing a rare open forum for them to share experiences and debate issues. Vietnam GI also ran important critiques of the military system. One issue reprinted an article from a U.S. Army paper, alongside the author’s explanation of how his original draft had been so censored and altered that the final article was blatantly false.

The shortcomings of People’s Movements, People’s Press are few and forgivable. The most glaring is Ostertag’s treatment of the women’s suffragist movement as an almost secondary extension of the abolitionist movement. His overview of environmental movement publications is also uninspiring, with the exception of a brief discussion of regional papers. “Many of these [environmental] journals are boring and overwhelming at once,” Ostertag writes. “While researching this chapter, I was actually put to sleep reading through them.”

This ambivalence shows in his writing, though he does explore why the environmental press differs from other movement publications. Among Ostertag’s conclusions are that environmental publications compete with mainstream coverage of the same issues to an extent that other movement media did or do not, and that the primary goal of many environmental publications (especially the glossy ones) is to raise funds, not to inspire, inform and organize people.

Ostertag’s book is filled with gripping stories and solid analysis. The book is the product of countless hours of research and draws on source material not previously examined, particularly underground GI papers. Any progressive activist will learn from the book, and any media activist will feel proud to be following the lead of the brave and principled “accidental journalists” it chronicles.
Diane Farsetta is an activist and freelance writer.