Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist. This is the seventh installment. All of the essays in the series can be found here.
Hundreds of alternative and progressive newspapers and magazines emerged from the 1960s anti-war movement. Still others focused on the need for local reform, updating the muckraking style of early 20th-century advocacy journalism. In Vermont, the two trends combined in Vermont Freeman, launched in 1969 and based in rural Starksboro.
The format was a tabloid newspaper published twice monthly, circulation around 4,000, sold for 35 cents, and distributed statewide. Thanks to offset printings — still a relatively new technology then — copy could be produced in columns on any typewriter and then pasted on the layout pages. This gave the Freeman a handmade, sometimes ragged look, but also conveyed a relaxed energy and a self-conscious decision to break traditional newspaper rules that today’s computer-generated publications sometimes echo.
Tom Slayton, a journalist who later became editor of the state’s house organ Vermont Life, was a Freeman associate editor, working with authors such as Lisa Alther and Marty Jezer, media activist Marvin Fishman, and naturalist Beatrice Trum Hunter. Editor Roger Albright encouraged a variety of voices, including Bernie Sanders and myself. Vermont Freeman lasted slightly less than a decade, but along the way served as a valuable outlet for against-the-grain thinking, supporting various movements and questioning authority from the height of the Vietnam War to the fall of Nixon.
Other alternative publications were not so fortunate. Before Nixon was forced out of office, his administration initiated an attack on the First Amendment that undermined both press freedom and the continued growth of the new independent media. The foundation had been laid when a proposal to rewrite the U.S. criminal code became the administration’s blueprint for crushing dissent and limiting the scope of the Bill of Rights. The addition of four Nixon appointees to the Supreme Court served mainly to accelerate the erosion of constitutional guarantees.
The intelligence community also did its part. While the FBI infiltrated and disrupted alternative media, the CIA funded the College Press Service, a Denver-based operation marketed to campus papers, and placed agents on the staffs of underground papers to keep tabs on anti-war activists. Domestic surveillance was a direct violation of the agency’s charter but the truth didn’t emerge until years later and, as usual, no price was paid.
COINTEL, the counterintelligence program designed to disrupt and discredit radical movements and their media, supposedly ended in 1971, but both legal intimidation and extra-legal suppression of the alternative press continued. In fact, the memo disbanding the program specifically advised that future “selective individual” efforts would be perfectly acceptable, “with tight procedures to insure absolute secrecy.”
Public Occurrence: Envisioning an alternative
In a 1974 speech, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who had just exposed the Nixon administration’s Watergate-related crimes, told an audience, “The underground press was largely right about government sabotage, but the country didn’t get upset because it was the left that was being sabotaged. The country got upset when the broad political center, with its established political institutions, came under attack.”
Woodward’s acknowledgement came a bit late. Many papers had already been driven out of business. Intimidation, infiltration and arrests – even though most of the charges were ultimately dropped – proved a potent combination.
Bucking the trend, in March 1975 a public planning session was held in Burlington at the local youth center on Church Street to launch a new alternative magazine. “Freedom of Speech” the publicity flier’s headline proclaimed. “Out-of-state owned papers account for more than half Vermont’s 120,000 daily readers,” I wrote on behalf of the organizing committee.
“The largest daily is owned by the largest chain in America” – we were talking about Gannett, owner of the Burlington Free Press. “New York Times articles, columns and viewpoints saturate the region, supported by Associated Press wire services and the canned copy of a variety of syndicates.”
Beyond those basics, we argued that mass communication in Vermont was not a participatory process. No surprise there, two decades before the Internet. “It is a one-way circuit through which limited, often ephemeral data is provided from centralized sources. Our media promote mystification with the content of public issues as well as the forms of art and literature, alienation from the formation of public policy, and an isolation of citizen from citizen.”
Having defined the problem we offered the Frayed Page as a base and asked “the community” to join in the creation of a new “journal for Vermont.” My personal vision was a synthesis of political, social, spiritual, scientific and artistic expression. The folks who showed up had more practical concerns. They wanted a bulletin board of events around the state, in-depth articles on issues and communities, and a publication that would appeal to both the counter-culture and the young working class.
A staff member from The North Country Star, a political paper linked to the local organizing coalition PACT, offered that another alternative would provide an outlet for articles that weren’t “appropriate” for The Star or other papers. What he meant was that some topics or opinions that deserved publication might not fall within The Star’s political focus.
I was happy to make adjustments, and encouraged by the support. But I did want to choose the name – Public Occurrence. Some people found it an odd pick, but there was a reason rooted deep in media history.
On Sept. 25, 1690, Benjamin Harris, an exiled British printer, published the first colonial newspaper – Publick Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic. There was only one issue before the colonial governor suppressed it. The idea was to revive the name, symbolizing the fragility of free speech, and modernize the mission.
The first issue, focusing on energy and the environment, appeared in less than a month. The masthead announced that it was published by the Dionysian Collective.
Refining the mission
Despite the opening created by the Watergate scandal, not to mention the desperate desire of political leaders to prove that the “system” still worked, the general atmosphere was not encouraging in the mid-1970s. Reporters in four states were jailed during 1975 for refusing to reveal their sources. Fifty others were subpoenaed, while frame-ups and false arrests continued. President Gerald Ford, appointed vice president by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew “resigned” — someone with the audacity to subsequently pardon the disgraced president – proposed a law that would jail reporters who revealed public government papers that had not been “officially” approved for release.
Small alternative papers like Burlington’s North Country Star nevertheless talked openly about imperialism, sexism, and capitalist impacts, stirring the pot about welfare cutbacks, skyrocketing medical and housing costs, and local business schemes. At the start, Public Occurrence had a “softer” focus – ecology, diversity, progressive viewpoints, poetry and “new age” features. In response to community input, upcoming events and underreported stories were added.
Community connections developed through the publication and The Frayed Page gradually shaped Public Occurrence’s editorial agenda. The August 1975 edition looked at worker cooperatives, wages for housework, skewed income distribution, and Vermont’s recent economic downturn. A majority of new jobs were in the “trades and services” sector, mostly low-wage, non-union and tourist-related, we explained in one feature. The state’s per capita income was dropping, and the overall trend was bidding down wages in other areas.
The same issue also included an illustrated center spread on America’s astrological chart and the first installment of an historical series on spirit phenomena at a Vermont farmhouse, a story that became a passion project for me in later years. The overall objective was to appeal to both political and cultural progressives, to combine conscience with consciousness.
We also kept our eyes open for ways to show how the mainstream media skewed discussion of vital public issues. The perfect chance to make that point was provided in October 1976 by Vermont’s leading television station.
Run by the Martin family for decades, WCAX had decided not to air a breakthrough documentary on the environmental links to cancer, replacing it with a rerun of “The Mod Squad.” Station owner Red Martin had shared a preview with some influential friends at the hospital. The doctors conveniently echoed his feeling that the show painted a biased portrait.
Obtaining a copy of the program, “The American Way of Cancer,” from the producers at CBS we set up screenings downtown and on the university campus. Concern was growing about the links between cancer and agents like food additives, drugs, pollution and industrial materials, and hundreds of people attended. After each screening, medical researchers and representatives of the ACLU, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and American Friends Service Committee put the issue in perspective. A mailing list was developed, additional showings were planned, and several groups formed to follow up.
Important connections were made and two vital issues – cancer and censorship – had been linked. The emerging campaign also tied in with a VPIRG effort to pass legislation banning the sale of aerosol spray cans.
Developing a new narrative
As Public Occurrence entered a second year, its political focus sharpened. At a follow-up community meeting, the publication’s goals were revised to include development of a communication network for social change groups, support for resistance movements, and “access to news and ideas that are ignored and distorted by large media systems.” Advertising began to cover the production costs, and 3,000 copies were being distributed statewide.
By 1976, my plate was full: Teaching at Burlington College – still called VICI then –while coordinating the school’s internship program. I was also part of the five-person collective at the Frayed Page, participating as much as possible in its expanding activities. Beyond that, I was completing a contract with the city for the Youth Needs study and editing Public Occurrence – although we developed a production model that let guest editors handle most of the content for various topics while keeping the basic design, advertising and distribution under the collective’s control.
Life was about to get even busier. The Frayed Page had become a local organizing nexus. Steve Cram and Wendy Curran, key members of the collective, worked closely with the Clamshell Alliance, mobilizing Vermonters to protest at Vermont Yankee and the Seabrook nuclear plant construction site. My partner Jo was making inroads with the women’s community and worked with me on the regional development campaign.
“Women Loving Women,” the Spring 1976 issue of Public Occurrence featuring Jo’s artful cover drawing of an embrace,was our most controversial to date. The Catholic Tribune dropped our typesetting deal due to the theme and some erotic poetry. Still, the dispute did attract Associated Press coverage.
Another typesetter took us on in time for the most ambitious issue yet, a special bicentennial edition called “Vermont’s Untold History.” Bob Mueller, then a radical scholar and later a successful labor lawyer on the West Coast, came up with the idea. As the opening line of this “people’s history” explained, “Bicentennial history, like most of our schoolbook accounts of America, tells the story of a privileged few. It ignores our story.”
With Mueller’s analysis of early Vermont history as the foundation, I researched and finished the core narrative and asked others to contribute sections on labor and women’s history. Roby Colodny, a talented young oral historian, produced an eloquently documented essay, “Labor in Barre: 1900-1941.” Funding from the Haymarket People’s Fund made two editions possible, first as an issue of Public Occurrence and then, with an index and new cover, a stand-alone version for sale. Thousands of copies were distributed during the bicentennial year.
Our “alternative” view of Vermont’s past was admittedly a bit rhetorical, and more influenced by dogma than I personally preferred. But it was not intended to be an objective history lesson. It was an attempt to develop a new narrative – a populist perspective and a radical economic analysis. Vermont was not a colony in the same sense as Puerto Rico, we argued, but it was part of an international capitalist system. A strategy for change needed to acknowledge and stress that point rather than “retreating into a petty localism.”
Things were moving fast. In two years I had moved from a career in government bureaucracy and the “soft money” chase to joining an opposition movement, perhaps with the potential to throw a monkey wrench into over-the-top commercial plans percolating just beneath Burlington’s surface.
Many other people were just as engaged. My own focus was to reach beyond the inner city base, “connecting dots” between bread and butter problems like welfare and housing and the broader impacts of top-down, corporate-friendly redevelopment projects.
Next: In a time of democratic distemper