If news is starting
to sound the same, try an alternative
by Malcolm Gay
it O.K. to criticize the Bush administration yet? If not, someone needs
to tell the country's alternative press. Since September 11, the
sometimes penetrating, sometimes silly, often irreverent, but always
welcome alternative press has produced some of the most piercing analyses
of U.S. policy and the situations in the Near and Middle East.
Scrappy newsweeklies and left-leaning web sites have followed the story
from the beginning, domestically covering civil liberties and First
Amendment issues. Internationally, it has printed dispatches from Israel
and Afghanistan. But these are not the neutral-observer reports of conventional
journalism. The alternative press prides itself on something its staid
cousin, the daily, regards as anathema: point of view.
"We can't and shouldn't try to match the dailies because
we're a weekly," said Donald Forst, executive editor of the
Village Voice. "Where we can get ahead of the dailies is in analysis."
For Forst, this has meant concentrating on constitutional issues. In
the early days of the crisis, "We did stuff everybody did. We did
pieces on the victims, on air quality. But since then we've concentrated
on First Amendment issues and the military tribunals," Forst said.
"It's all spinning off of what Bush and Ashcroft say."
This hasn't always been a popular approach. Like most papers,
the Voice receives its share of irate letters to the editor. Still,
Forst said, "I think we're expressing what the community is
thinking, which isn't necessarily a good thing. It's very
easy to be in lockstep with everyone. We shouldn't be in lockstep,
whether it's going left-right, left-right, or right-left, right-left."
For publications in lockstep going left-left, left-left, (or, for that
matter, right-right, right-right), the low cost and distant reach of
the Internet have been incredible boons. Websites like commondreams.org
and zmag.org carry wire reports and
editorials that are highly critical of the Bush administration. Their
list of contributors contains such luminaries as Robert Fisk and Edward
Said. They also provide a platform for anti-globalization, socialist
and pro-Palestinian groups to publish their news and views. (One site,
indymedia.org, goes so far as
to allow visitors to upload whatever news they deem worthy to the site.)
But these are only some members of the alternative press. Patricia
Calhoun, editor of Denver's Westword, said her publication only
slightly altered its coverage. "We don't do national coverage
or international coverage," said Calhoun. "We've done
some [coverage], but no different than any other national story."
Howard Altman, the editor of Philadelphia's City Paper, said he
completely changed coverage to accommodate September 11. The Paper ran
stories on civil liberties issues and took a critical look at clamp-downs
on protests. Altman says his paper provided Philadelphia a critical
voice on the war on terrorism:
"The voice of 'what are we doing? Why are we doing this?
What are we going to accomplish?' We certainly weren't the
most popular guys in town."
With a president whose approval rating hovers somewhere in the mid-'80s,
these editors expect a certain amount public backlash. "That's
normal," said the Voice's Forst. "That's their right,
and it's our right to disagree with them."
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