The magazines we get today like Time or Newsweek although have a history they are largely mainstream. They give us the usual lo-down on what is going on in the world but not much more. Peter Richardson sheds some light on how it used be done with his book about Ramparts magazine A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.
Ramparts was founded by Edward M. Keating in 1962 with a focus on catholic matters. I use the phrase “catholic matters” but maybe a description from the book’s introduction might give you a better idea of what Ramparts was about. It described itself as a “forum for the mature American Catholic” focusing on “those positive principles of Hellenic-Christian tradition which have shaped and sustained our civilization for the past two thousand years” It Sounds pretty staunch doesn’t it? But it wasn’t long before the magazine took a sharp turn to the left; it became a radical muckraker that by all accounts turned the art of journalism on its head and gave it a good shake.
I first heard of Ramparts through Scanlan’s magazine and their common denominator Warren Hinckle; and because of my huge interest in Scanlan’s I was delighted to get a peek at A Bomb in Every Issue so soon.
So what about it? Well after reading the book I’ve realized that magazines like Ramparts and Scanlan’s for that matter deserve some consideration for their contribution to a new, no nonsense style of journalism and gutsy political reporting. Publications with guile are thin on the ground these days.
Richardson gives a detailed account of the 13 year life of Ramparts and its most contentious stories. I had heard of Ramparts but never knew much about it’s history, but after reading A Bomb in Every issue I found just how important Ramparts was in the progression of journalism; and reporting issues that some folks would have preferred were buried. For example, it was the first to publish a conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination of JFK. Another point of interest was it’s publication of Che Guevara’s diaries. It also boasted a long list of contributors including Cesar Chavez, Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky and many more.
The Hunter S. Thompson connection with Ramparts and of course Warren Hinckle is as you’d expect an entertaining one, as Richardson told me “The HST material in the book is brief but memorable: a fantastical visit to the Ramparts office, where Hinckle’s pet monkey got into his pills; the Chicago lunacy in 1968; and the Ramparts Wall Posters, an idea HST lifted for his campaign in Colorado.” The HST material in the book is small and not a huge selling point (nor was it intended to be) but it doesn’t need it, there’s plenty of other material to make this book stand on its own.
The bottom line is this. For anyone who’s interested in journalism and it’s transformation over the years; this book is a must read. It shows us the mettlesome attitude Ramparts had in its approach to spreading news, popular or not. As a fan of journalism I hope this book does well and reaches future writers of any ilk. It will bring to the fore a type of journalism that sadly is not as prominent as it should be in this day and age.
MF.. How did the writing of this book come about?
PR..I suppose it started when I was researching my previous book, a biography of Carey McWilliams. Your readers might remember him as the Nation editor who put HST onto the Hell’s Angels story. Some of McWilliams’ younger colleagues at The Nation also wrote for Ramparts. One was Gene Marine, who lives here in Berkeley. I interviewed him for the McWilliams book, and later I heard him give a talk on the history of KPFA, the first listener-supported American radio station. KPFA is also here in Berkeley, and Gene started working there in 1950, the year after it was founded. And while he was talking about his experience there, I realized I was aware of at least two books on the history of KPFA, but I had never come across a book on Ramparts magazine. After Gene’s talk, I surveyed the people in the room to see if they knew of any. They didn’t, so I decided to get to work.
Once I got into it, I discovered that I had a personal stake in the story, even though Ramparts folded for good when I was a teenager. I was born in Berkeley three years before Ramparts was founded, and as I began to consider the magazine’s influence, I realized that we born into the same social world. More important, it helped shape that world. So I started to see my research on the magazine as a kind of reconstruction of that milieu. In that sense, I had a personal interest in the story that was quite direct.
MF.. I have to say I am a big fan of the Ramparts / Scanlan’s style of reporting. From what I can see there is nothing like it around now. Do you think some day that the “muckraking” ilk will catch on and more importantly survive?
PR.. That’s a great question, one that many people here are asking now that U.S. newspapers are in big trouble. There are a few bright spots. One is the kind of reporting that Lowell Bergman and others are doing at Frontline, a PBS documentary series. Lowell was a Ramparts fan and contributor. He also co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting and teaches journalism at Berkeley. He would say, I think, that Ramparts-style reporting can happen, but that it will be more collaborative. Essentially, investigative reporters at places like CIR and Pro Publica will discover stories and then push them out across media platforms: print, radio, television, etc.
Another bright spot, or perhaps a flicker at this point, is the prospect that bloggers will step into the breach. I just returned from Netroots Nation, the annual conference of political bloggers. Esther Kaplan of the Nation Institute ran a session on muckraking–how to obtain court documents, corporate disclosures, tax filings, etc. The room was packed with people eager to learn those skills.
Will those bloggers replace the political reporters at the Washington Post? I’m not sure, but don’t forget, when Ramparts came along, the staff was mostly a bunch of people in their 20s, far from the centers of power, who didn’t have much experience in journalism. But like these bloggers, they were smart and spirited and willing to note that the emperor had no clothes when the corporate media couldn’t quite bring themselves to say that out loud. When I asked Warren Hinckle why Ramparts was so successful, he said, “Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty.” So you never know where that muckraking energy and talent will come from.
MF.. You probably did lots of interesting interviews during your research for this project, who was the most interesting person you interviewed? I’m guessing Hinckle even though it only lasted an hour.
PR.. Yes, my conversation with Warren was fun. A lot of these folks are fascinating and have led extraordinary lives, so it’s hard to pick out one person. But I conclude the book with descriptions of my interviews with David Horowitz, Robert Scheer, and Warren, partly because they were three of the most important figures in the magazine’s history, and partly because those interviews illustrated the stark contrasts in their personal styles. David was serious, punctual, confessional. He frequently checked his BlackBerry for messages from his wife while we chatted over lunch near Malibu. Bob was harder to catch but open-handed, voluble, and generous with his time once I planted myself in his Berkeley living room.
My journalist friends laughed when I told them I couldn’t run down Warren. One friend finally told me that he could have a half dozen bartenders call him when Warren entered their establishments. Then he would call me, and I could rush over there. I finally caught up with Warren at a book show in Los Angeles: or rather, at the convention center bar. Of the three guys, he seemed the least interested in posterity, but he was willing to chat and enjoy an adult beverage or two before we toddled back to the exhibit hall.
By the way, I had similar difficulty lining up an interview with HST while I was working on the McWilliams book. His son Juan finally emailed me some advice, which included hourly calls starting at midnight. But I never did get through.
MF.. The book seems to be pretty well balanced. Is there much that didn’t make it into the book that you’d have liked to have there?
PR.. Yes, I tried to sort through the evidence and offer an evenhanded account of what was a very tumultuous experience. For that, I was praised (privately) by some folks who probably can’t agree on very much at this point. That was gratifying. I didn’t withhold much aside from a few uncorroborated stories. In some cases, I included tall tales but clearly labeled them as such. I did that because in some ways, the legends are “truer than true.” That is, they say something true about the magazine and the people even if the facts are wrong. HST fans will know what I mean, I think, and I wanted to give readers a taste of that.
MF..I’d like to know your opinion on how politics is reported today compared to the Ramparts era. Is the media too soft on the subject?
PR..I think the corporate media is, yes. I’m concerned about the future of journalism but agree with many critics that the mainstream media has brought many of its problems on itself. For example, Big Media missed what are arguably the two biggest stories of the last decade–the deceptively packaged invasion of Iraq and the housing bubble–by a mile. When the mainstream media missed the Vietnam story in the 1960s, Ramparts stepped in and forced them to pick up their game.
What’s needed for vibrant investigative journalism, I think, is a media ecology that includes savvy fringe outfits and larger news organizations that those smaller outlets can play off each other. That’s what Ramparts did with the New York Times, to each organization’s benefit. But the larger outlets don’t have to be newspapers.
MF.. You have got some high praise from Douglas Brinkley amongst others, that must feel good.
PR..Yes, that was a pleasant surprise. I ingested all the HST letters, which Doug edited, so I thought he might be interested in this book. Adam Hochschild and Richard Parker, who co-founded Mother Jones along with Paul Jacobs, also contributed blurbs. Ditto for Lowell Bergman, who rarely blurbs books, I gather. Eve Pell and Todd Gitlin, both of whom wrote for and about Ramparts, also helped out. So I was very lucky in that department.
Adam and Jann Wenner, by the way, were very generous with their time. Both worked at Ramparts, and both founded magazines that extended its work. Jann became aware of HST while he was working at Ramparts, and of course Hinckle first paired HST with Ralph Steadman at Scanlan’s, the magazine he published after he left Ramparts. So I think it’s fair to say that without Ramparts, we might not have gotten Gonzo journalism.
MF.. I’d like you to share some thoughts on Hunter Thompson’s work. Whats your favorite HST book? And some thoughts on Gonzo Journalism if you don’t mind.
PR..I teach Hell’s Angels in my class at San Francisco State University. The students really like it, and it offers a unique take on the theme of that course, which focuses on utopian and dystopian representations of California culture. I got a huge kick out of HST’s edited letters, which I relished as much as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Weirdly, the letters might be my favorite body of HST work, though of course they would be negligible without his other achievements.
It took enormous discipline to restrict my discussions of HST in this book and the previous one on McWilliams. Once you let HST into the story, it’s hard to prevent him from dominating it. Time and again, I found myself scouring his books and letters when I probably should have been reading something else.
I’m also a big fan of the books and films about HST. I guess I would pick out Outlaw Journalist and Gonzo, both the Alex Gibney film and the oral biography by Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour. If there weren’t so many excellent works about HST already out there, I might be tempted to add to that literature. Not that there won’t be more contributions in the future, I’m sure.
Peter’s site is at http://peterrichardson.blogspot.com/ there is a lot of interesting reading there. Also you can buy the book at amazon.com. Many thanks to Peter for taking the time to answer my questions.
–© Martin Flynn hstbooks 2009.