June 3, 2002







If news is starting to sound the same, try an alternative

by Malcolm Gay

Is 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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