Coming of Age?

As Weekly Planet's parent company turns 30, John Sugg wonders if it's still an alternative, political potboiler or a potbellied media pig feeding at the advertising trough.

The old joke about paranoia — that it's insane to believe someone, usually the government, is not out to get you — should be emblazoned on the masthead of every alternative newspaper in America.Weekly Planet's parent, Creative Loafing Inc., is celebrating its 30th birthday this month. And that's a significant milestone if you want to get hide-in-the-closet paranoid.

When Debby Eason founded Atlanta's Creative Loafing in 1972 on a shoestring budget — nah, forget that cliche, a shoestring would have been orgy-caliber luxury for the paper — the pop culture mantra was: Never trust anyone over 30.

There was good reason for that jittery fear of graybeards. Old guys had dumped us butt-crack deep in a pile of shit called the Vietnam War. We suspected and would later find out it was true that the nation had been deceived. The lives of 50,000 servicemen and women (not to mention millions of Vietnamese) had been wasted and our motives for being in Southeast Asia were cynical, corrupt and, in today's wonk parlance, evil.

If that wasn't enough reason for a case of gut-churning paranoia, there was the FBI's COINTELPRO assault on democracy. The agency had sought to crush protest, undermine constitutional rights, and was probably responsible for more than a few deaths of black and antiwar activists.

Meanwhile, the CIA had an illegal program to "penetrate" and discredit the dissident press — 500 or so "underground" papers that were forebears of journals such as the Planet.

Nonetheless, the free press survived, fighting not only the jackbooted spooks but the mainstream media, which, with help from the government, were consolidating and driving hard toward one-voice-per-city monopolies (and, now, one or two hegemonies over all the world's information).

So, the big question facing the thousands of cultured, fun-loving readers who pick up the Planet each week is: Can you trust an alternative newspaper over 30?

Frankly, I don't know. So let's talk about Venezuela.

About two months ago, there was a quick coup and counter-coup in that Latin American country. The St. Petersburg Times did an outstanding job reporting and commenting on the coup — coverage led by the paper's formidable Latin American chief, David Adams.

The Times was an anomaly among U.S. media, however. Typically, the stupefied backwater press was out to lunch.

Among major media players the reaction bordered on the scary. While the Bush administration lauded the military takeover (before it self-destructed in three days), the press followed suit — until foreign reports of Washington's complicity and the moral bankruptcy of cheering the coup could no longer be ignored.

The nadir for the press came from the nation's guidon for newspapers, the New York Times, which vigorously head-bobbed in unison with Bush's minions in praising the overthrow of democracy.

Why do I relate this? So that I don't have to rely solely on the "What did Bush know and when did he know it?" thing to make my point:

However you feel about the alternative papers, you know you can't trust the mainstream press.

The media have been totally corrupted by 9/11 — not that they need much additional decay to make "totally" the correct choice of words. The disclosures about Bush in recent days involve facts readily available months ago. More frightening is what we still don't know and what the press lords aren't likely to tell us for fear of irritating W's junta.

There's some history here. Like with Venezuela and 9/11, the press was feloniously negligent with Vietnam. In 1954 the major U.S. media parroted the line that our puppet, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a true-blue nationalist leader. Two years later, the American papers applauded our scuttling of free elections in Vietnam (let's destroy democracy to save democracy). The press didn't challenge the transparent hoax that "justified" our onslaught, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. And as the war raged in the rice paddies, the big league reporters hung out in Saigon bars, waiting for official government releases proclaiming that victory and peace were nigh.

Even former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the war criminal mastermind behind much of the Vietnam atrocity, in his memoirs gloats over the complacency of the press.

As Nixon's thugs were trying to crush the popular anti-war and civil rights movements, the "underground" cum "alternative" press survived and flourished. Ramparts, a national pub, disclosed how one of LBJ's primo backers, the Brown & Root Inc. construction company, had helped push America into the Asian conflict — and then copped one of the biggest construction contracts in the history of the world, building military bases in Vietnam. (And, yes, Brown & Root now is a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., where Bush's boss, Dick Cheney, served as CEO. Perhaps that will help explain the administration's current bellicosity.)

It was the now-honored but then-non-mainstream reporter, Sy Hersh, who uncovered the My Lai massacre (while Colin Powell was earning his military brass trying to hush the story). Hersh could get the early reports printed only via the fringe media.

If it hadn't been for the aggressive journalism of the Village Voice, Ramparts and the Berkeley Barb, many, many, many sins would have escaped the spotlight.

In truth, the alternative press, much more reminiscent of Tom Paine's pamphleteering than of corporate publishing, stood up against racism, militarism, imperialism and the corporate undermining of American values — while the mainstream press slumbered.

And that brings us to the birth of our group of alternative newspapers.

Debby Eason, a photographer, and her husband, math professor Chick Eason, founded the paper after going to an Atlanta lecture and finding almost no one else in the audience. Atlanta's daily papers "didn't give a damn about promoting culture," Debby Eason told me recently. The Easons started Creative Loafing as a culture guide — not a political potboiler such as the rival Great Speckled Bird, which folded in the mid-'70s. It's noteworthy that Eason says, "We didn't even know we were 'alternative,' and we certainly had no idea of what we'd become." The Easons took their blueprint to other cities — in Tampa, the Planet's original name was Creative Loafing.

What Creative Loafing became, over the decades, is much more of a gutsy newspaper. That's the style of Debby Eason's son, Ben, who now skippers this outfit. Meanwhile, the Age of Aquarius underground journals added Creative Loafing-style cultural and events information to their repertoire. We all ended up meeting somewhere in the middle between muckraking and music menus. Transcending what we publish is how we look at and write about the world — we're irreverent, edgy, in-your-face and, quite often, egregiously immature.

Most of that is good. But there are disturbing ripples in our pond. The nation's 160 or so alternatives all, well ... look alike. We're almost formula publications, with the same features, same layout, same shameful reliance on exploitative sex ads.

We vigorously trash the mainstream media (my favorite pastime), but we seldom look in the mirror.

We now have strategic plans and management consultants. We're no longer the progeny of angry young men and women out to change society — we're cash cows for companies looking for 20 and 30 percent profit margins.

In a word, we're corporate.

Not all of that's bad. Having enough money to pay your bills doesn't mean you have to be crummy.

The question is what comes next. We live in an Orwellian world of eternal war, where our leaders' spin is that we have to eliminate our freedoms to preserve freedom. All the symptoms of true evil in the 1960s have, like Dracula, risen from the tomb. The religious ayatollah and gun nut who is now attorney general, John Ashcroft, gleefully re-opened the feds' closet of police-state horrors last month. Bush is plotting wars even the generals don't want. Our quality of life is going down the tube. The rich are getting real rich and the poor are invisible. And the media have dumbed themselves down to the point of imbecility.

We need an alternative press. As Debby Eason has long forecast, I believe newspapers are history — the age of newsprint will end in the next generation. But the press will continue, undoubtedly in electronic form (unless, of course, Bush's nuke toys go "bang" and we're back to chiseling stories on flat rocks).

Maybe now the alternative press will stand and achieve its true greatness, revealing what the powerful don't want revealed — or, as the saying goes, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Or maybe we become soft and flabby and too worried about getting max dollars out of the prostitution ads in the back of the paper. If that's the case, I hope there's a firebrand in some St. Petersburg or Tampa high school already plotting the next generation of underground journalism.

Former Planet Editor John Sugg is now senior editor of Atlanta's Creative Loafing. Sugg — who says his motto is: Sex ads pay my salary, so what the hell is wrong with them? — can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@ creativeloafing com.

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