"Local, local, local," is the mantra
As Um Qasr takes a backseat to SARS, and Kirkuk, Basra and Tikrit sound less like hotbeds of geopolitical consequence than the cast of a Disney musical, alternative weeklies return to their stomping grounds of cops, freaks, whores and the people who love them.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a generation marched in near unison against the Vietnam War and the military industrial complex. A post Sept. 11 nation has yet to achieve similar consensus. Editors spoken to for this story echo a similar ambivalence about how to honor their mandate of local coverage while remaining relevant and insightful on issues typically beyond their ken.
During the short weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the year of debate that preceded it, alternatives covered the conflict with everything from lengthy polemical pieces by journalistic superstars, first-person accounts of protest and arrest to, in some cases, almost nothing at all.
“Our emphasis has always been local. Local, local, local. Not international, not national,” says Westword editrix Patricia Calhoun, who unapologetically described her paper’s war coverage as “almost none.”
“I would guess that half the alternative newspapers had George McGovern’s Nation piece on the cover? Yeah, I think that week we had a stripper — a local stripper! — for a local politics story,” Calhoun says. “We’d rather embed reporters locally and have them get really intimate with the story they’re covering here.”
With the exception of The Stranger and The Village Voice, who each sent one reporter to the region during the period of the war, alternatives didn’t even attempt to cover the war zone itself. New Times sent a reporter for the ’91 Gulf War, but chose not to do so this time around.
“If it had worked fabulously, you’d have seen it again,” says Calhoun.
Creative Loafing Senior Editor John Sugg initially tried to coordinate a story pool among AAN papers, but to no avail.
“The problem was money, isn’t it always?” Sugg writes in an e-mail to AAN News. “Our supreme boss, Ben Eason, promised to support a reporter in Iraq. One or two other publishers would have contributed, but a lot of the big companies (e.g. New Times) wouldn’t listen. Magazines like The Nation, Mother Jones, and online outfits such as Salon.com have done an excellent job adding perspective and pointing to the real stories. But a major problem is that we weren’t there.”
That left the alts with covering local anti- or pro-war protests, local individuals and localizing national stories. However, several editors including Calhoun, Creative Loafing’s Ken Edelstein, and Washington City Paper’s Eric Wemple confess that even making the obligatory anti-war protest pieces interesting was a challenge.
Wemple remarks that dailies like The Washington Post dispatched up to 30 reporters to cover the protests and turned it around “with competence” the next day.
“We’d look foolish trying to compete with that,” says Wemple. “We did follow the protests, but mainly to make sure that if something big happened we were there.”
Chicago Reader’s Editor Alison True echoed that sentiment noting that her paper only covered the protests after 500 demonstrators were arrested under questionable circumstances.
“We generally don’t address national issues except how they play out locally,” True says. “We didn’t have an institutional position on the war; we weren’t for or against it.”
Cincinnati CityBeat Editor and Co-Publisher John Fox describes his paper’s coverage as nearly 100 percent devoted to the local anti-war movement, along with an expanded letters to the editor section to include pro-war voices.
“We’re probably like most alternatives, where the dailies in our city were all gung-ho over the war, and we provided the only real coverage of the protest movement,” Fox says.
“We did a cover story in mid-February summarizing the various groups and people in Cincinnati who were mobilizing against the war, and what we came up with was a story that said that the anti-war movement was surprisingly mainstream. There were a lot of old people, a lot of families, it wasn’t just the usual protesters.”
CityBeat also featured a first-person account of the arrest and detainment of News Editor Gregory Flannery, who was picked up for blocking traffic in an anti-war protest.
“I guess our new angle is that we get our people involved and get them arrested, ” jokes Fox, who was quick to note that Flannery did not get arrested on purpose. “He was just there participating, and being himself — we’ve teased him unmercifully about it.”
Baltimore City Paper’s News Editor Erin Sullivan was able to stay out of the slammer, though she claims her paper managed to “alienate every Quaker and American Friends Service Committee in the city of Baltimore,” with a story on a rift within the activist community.
The use of unilateral American military power to overthrow an inexcusable regime challenged the traditionally liberal alternative press to determine whose voice was in fact the alternative. Few did this with the high-profile fanfare of Seattle’s The Stranger. In the months before the war, the paper ran a series of essays — each responding to the one before it — by the likes of Vanity Fair and ex-Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, syndicated cartoonist and writer Ted Rall, and self-proclaimed Greatest Living American Writer and ex-Chicago Reader staffer Neal Pollack.
“Alt weeklies always jump on dailies and mainstream media for pandering,” says The Stranger’s Editor and syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage. “I think when it comes to the United States, the military, power and the police, a lot of alt weeklies pander to the knee-jerk, kumbaya, lefty block. I think that often times it’s the dissenting voice that needs to be brought to the fore, and in a paper like The Stranger and in a city like Seattle, the dissenting voice was the pro-war voice.”
Creative Loafing’s Edelstein expresses a similar sentiment. “I faced a bit of frustration about the predictability of the alternative press on this issue because everybody seems to agree. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great stories with great information about the Bush administration’s contradictions, but they really only came from one position on the issue, and I think that was a weakness.”
The Boston Phoenix’s Senior Managing Editor Clif Garboden noticed a widespread paucity of war coverage from other alts, which chose not to attempt war coverage of any sort.
“A lot of the papers still had the same arts festival coverage, maybe because they either don’t feel obligated or qualified to cover national and international issues. I don’t really know what that means,” Garboden says. “Part of the tradition and legacy of the alternative press is to give alternative opinion on international news because the daily covers the war, but from their own perspective for its audience. It’s not like there’s any lack of material here. Anyone who reads the (UK) Guardian knows how much isn’t being reported domestically.”
In fact, some of the larger urban weeklies, such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian and The Village Voice, used their Web sites to link to some of that European coverage. Village Voice Senior Editor Laura Conaway noted that her paper has as big a following online as it does in New York City.
“We’re able to use our Web site for any number of quick articles – everything from coverage of protests to short editorials on the latest news. Those worked quite well for us, ” Conaway said.
Some papers used humor to comment on the war they were unable to cover. For example, both Baltimore City Paper and the Chicago Reader ran the satiric Dr. Suessian comic fable “The Great Go-Goop War” by Baltimore-based cartoonist Tom Chalkey. Creative Loafing ran a weapon of the week column that profiled a new military toy.
Willamette Week struck a more serious tone with a series of reviews of books about Saddam Hussein and a weekly feature highlighting war-related lectures, rallies, and readings. Several papers including Washington City Paper, Creative Loafing, and Willamette Week covered local residents who were watching the war coverage on Qatar-based satellite station Al Jazeera.
Others went further afield, into urban myth and legend for war fodder. For example, both Asheville, N.C.’s Mountain Xpress and Spokane, Wash.’s Local Planet Weekly delved into the widespread belief that returned Vietnam veterans were spat upon by anti-war activists. Both papers concluded these anecdotes are based less on fact than folklore.
In general, the alt-weekly industry still has a way to go in credibly localizing a foreign war and providing an alternative voice to the corporate media, Willamette Week’s Mark Zusman says, although he thinks his paper did a better job covering this war than its 1991 prequel.
“The challenge for our papers is what a long bridge we have to build to write with any intelligence about Islamic communities, Iraqi refugees and the like without sounding like really distant observers,” he says.
John Dicker is a staff writer for the Colorado Springs Independent.