On The Ramparts
Irreverent rag remains relevant to current issues.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Warren Hinckle, who figures prominently in the new book A Bomb In Every Issue: – How The Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, once took a taxi from San Francisco to Quail Lodge to get to a retreat for the San Francisco Examiner, for whom he was an (occasional) columnist at the time. It was one of the milder provocations in a lifelong series of stunts by the raffish, piratical prankster. (Obligatory disclosure: I worked with Hinckle for a time at the Examiner.) The high point of his career, few would disagree, was the 1962 launch of Ramparts, a San Francisco-based magazine that combined radical political journalism with slickly packaged design.
Ramparts rocked the establishment press, printing exposés of nefarious CIA programs, publishing Che Guevera’s diaries and running a heartbreaking photo essay, “The Children of Vietnam,” that convinced Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come out against the war. “In addition to breaking big stories, Ramparts entertained readers, mirrored the New Left’s fascination with the media, and exemplified new possibilites for American journalism,” writes Peter Richardson, author of A Bomb In Every Issue.
But the wild and crazy crew who put together Ramparts had a more irreverent, West Coast approach than magazines like The Nation and The New Republic.
An issue timed to run with the November 1964 elections pictured a cartoon of Barry Goldwater as a rattlesnake – and got it banned from newsstands. A cover of former Vietnam Green Beret Donald Duncan, in full uniform, ran under the headline “I Quit!” And a May 1970 “Ecology Special” issue featured a shot of a burning bank with the (literally) inflammatory cover line: “The students who burned the Bank of America in Santa Barbara may have done more towards saving the environment than all the teach-ins put together.’
As former staffer Adam Hochschild, who later went on to co-found Mother Jones magazine, told Richardson, Ramparts’ specialty was finding “an exposé that major newspapers are afraid to touch [and] publish it with a big enough splash so they can’t afford to ignore it.”
Ramparts published Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, then hired Cleaver as a staffer. It spawned the careers of veteran leftie scribe Robert Scheer; Jann Wenner, who left to found Rolling Stone after adispute over an unsympathetic cover story on the burgeoning hippie movement; and even of former radical David Horowitz, who took a hard turn to the right after becoming dismayed by Ramparts’ infatuation with the Black Panthers – and the Panthers’ alleged role in the murder of bookkeeper Betty Van Patter.
By then Hinckle was long gone, a victim of his profligate spending habits and unorthodox management style. In his account of those years, “If You’ve Got A Lemon, Make Lemonade,” Hinckle admitted Ramparts’ survival under his editorship “depended on the simple proposition of not paying its printing bills.”
But his editorial demise was also due to his congenital resistance to toeing the party line, even at his own party.
Reporting the truth about the high cost of good intentions is never easy, and won’t win you popularity contests.
Former Los Angeles Times reporter Miriam Pawel, who describes her new book, The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement, in this edition of the Weekly, is willing to take on this kind of journalistic risky business.
By the time Ramparts stopped publishing in 1975, it was a politically correct shadow of its former self. What had catapulted it onto the national media stage was the willingness to print the truth, without fear or favor. When it stopped doing so, it no longer had a reason to exist.
“When I decided to learn more about Ramparts and its history, President George W. Bush’s second term was half over,” Richardson writes. “The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had already claimed thousands of American lives and pulverized Iraqi society… Many mainstream journalists later admitted that they failed to challenge the administration’s claims about Iraq, but most maintained that no one had called it correctly. What they meant, of course, was that nobody in their world got it right. The woods were full of well-informed critics. The wonders of the Internet… provided fresh pastures for these critics and millions of online readers.’’
Whether these “wonders” will provide useful reporting, batty conspiracy theories or a combination of both remains to be seen.
When Peter Richardson finally tracked down Warren Hinckle in the course of his research, the explanation he provided for Ramparts’ success and influence was refreshingly modest: “Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty.” But uncovering a bombshell – or at least a smoking gun – never hurts.