Alt Pubs Threatened for Criticizing President, Policy

One editor’s advice: “blurb ‘em on the cover”

“Watch your back” is among the milder comments alternative newsweeklies have been getting since September 11th from readers furious that AAN papers have dared to question the war on Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

It is not easy being skeptical in a war-crazy world, as fired columnists from Texas to Oregon can attest. While alternative papers rarely back away from controversy, some of the calls and letters have been unnerving, editors report.

For example, David Rolland, editor of the Ventura County Reporter, says he wrote a column mildly critical of President Bush’s post-attack “good versus evil” rhetoric. After the column ran, a caller warned the reporting staff to “watch your backs” going to and from work.

“Another asked if I was ‘still alive,’ When told I was, he said, ‘he shouldn’t be,’” Rolland says.

Marc Eisen, editor of Isthmus, reports a similar barrage of abuse after he wrote a “cranky civil liberties piece” following the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

“By coincidence I was in Washington on a family vacation before and during the terrorism and was actually chased out of the White House during a tour when the Pentagon was hit,” Eisen says. “I wound up banging out a thousand word column that week on my impressions—my sense that security in Washington was already excessive before the terrorism and that things would likely get worse. … Man, you would not believe the outrage! … I was called ‘a psychopath,’ ‘shitboy,’ a fellow traveler of terrorists, an America hater and‘callous and irresponsible.’ Of course, we blurbed ’em on the cover.”

Ken Edelstein, editor of Creative Loafing (Atlanta), says he got an e-mail suggesting he “move to Cuba” after writing a “Top 10 things you’re not hearing enough about,” such as Osama’s being partly a CIA creation, and that Pakistan has the bomb.

“I finally recognized the name of the e-mailer: He was one of the Sons of Confederate Veterans leaders who tried to prevent Georgia from taking the Confederate battle emblem off its flags,” Edelstein says.

This was fairly mild compared to the reaction Creative Loafing’s Senior Editor John Sugg got to a column that appeared the day of the attacks on reparations for racism and slavery. He got the following message. “Hey, John, I think you’re a big n-gger lover, and I think you’re worse than this bin Laden guy, and I hope there’s a fuckin’ bullet in your head.”

This death threat was turned over to the Atlanta police, and the investigation is ongoing.

Bob Snell, editor of Folio Weekly, says it is important that any such threats be reported to police.

“Granted, they won’t do much with the info initially, but it’s a good idea to establish a record in case something does happen,” Snell says.

“I was involved in a case in which verbal threats led to some vandalism and, ultimately, an arrest,” he says. “The record of earlier complaints helped convince police/prosecutors that the guy was a real threat, and they dealt with him accordingly.”

After the attacks, Sugg wrote a column that offers as a metaphor for America’s relation to the rest of the world an older-model Volvo on the Interstate with a “hulking” flag-waving SUV roaring on its tail.

“ That we see Uncle Sam as a benevolent big daddy to the world, and many of Earth’s citizens see only our foot on their neck has been, from within our safe continental ramparts, merely a perceptional problem,” Sugg writes. “Until Sept. 11.”

Despite the occasional piece of hate mail, Sugg says his correspondence since September 11th is nearly 400 letters, running about 5-to-1 in his favor.

“One very prevalent comment is that people are glad they’re getting some outside-the-mainstream thinking,” Sugg says.

Several editors say advertisers have either cancelled ads or threatened to following columns critical of the president, including Rolland.

“Some advertisers have pulled their ads, including one key real estate advertiser. One caller said it was his “personal vendetta” to call as many advertisers as possible to urge them to stop advertising with us,” he adds.

Rolland worries about.the effect of this “indirect intimidation.”

“All the flag-waving and God Bless America signage everywhere is fine—it’s a legitimate form of expression—but the climate that surrounds it is very intimidating for anyone who would dare to suggest that bombing Kabul and Kandahar may not be the morally correct course of action,” he says.

“And of course the chilling effect on freedom of the press,” he says. “Following the criticism that came our way, there was some second-guessing in our own midst, and some deep thoughts about continuing on the critical route in issues to come. But at the end of the day, we won’t back down from people who would like to stomp on the very freedoms they claim to want to protect.”

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