Saturday, January 2, 2010

"Ramparts" Needed Watching

I wish I talked to Peter Richardson before he wrote "A Bomb in Every Issue," the latest history of Ramparts, the flashy 1960's San Francisco-based magazine his subtitle claims "changed America." I was on the 50-yard line when Ramparts was born. At its conception would be more accurate. The full subtitle reads: "How the short, unruly life of Ramparts magazine changed America." I think it's more exact to say Ramparts "changed American journalism." I concede my version might not be needed. Adding "journalism" seems synonymous or redundant. So goes American journalism, so goes America.

To truly appreciate Richardson's effort one should first read "If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade: An Essential Memoir of a Lunatic Decade," the memoir of Warren Hinckle, the brains behind Ramparts. No Hinckle, no Ramparts. To know Hinckle is to know Ramparts. I'm in Hinckle's book. Only a page and a half, but it says a great deal about us and the paths we took in life. Pages 6-7 recall our days on "The Crusader," the student newspaper at Riordan High, an all boys Catholic school in San Francisco. Warren was editor and I was sports editor, profiled in the book as a "burly football player" whose view of "our journalistic calling was that it came somewhere after football and girls." Warren's life, in contrast, centered around teletype machines and printing presses.

I was his "traveling companion" on trips to the San Francisco Examiner where Warren would "drool over the teletype machines." Reading those passages now, I find irony in the fact that I was the one who ended up in a career on the other end of those teletype machines.I was as shocked as anyone at Riordan when I, not Hinckle, won the Press and Union League Club scholarship in 1956, the year we graduated and Hinckle was valedictorian. A bigger shock came ten years later at the class reunion when Hinckle tried to address his classmates and was booed - a lot. I shouldn't have been surprised. In its pioneer editions, Ramparts was billed as a Catholic literary magazine. Many thought "anti-Catholic" was more like it. The first chapter of "Lemonade" would be called "Catholic Dirty Tricks." I remember one alum at the 1966 gathering screaming "you don't speak for us" through hands held as a megaphone.

I suppose it's true that you can't go home again, but I did go back to Riordan during the last decade and felt very much at home, even though the student body is no longer dominated by Irish and Italian offspring. The events that drew me were memorials, one for a classmate and the other for a former faculty member, both of whom served in the Marine Corps, the teacher in WWII and Korea and the graduate in Vietnam. I didn't spot Hinckle at either memorial. I would have liked to talk with him. I did talk to many classmates, though, and all seemed glad that we had fine male role models during our teen years.

"We were lucky," one said,"almost all these guys, even some of the religious, served in the military. They really gave us a feeling of individual responsibility and team work." I think that's true. I wasn't a very good student, but I left Riordan with the feeling that what I did with my life had consequences. That's probably why "Philip's Code" puts so much stock in the character of the news reporter.

If I go on in this vein much longer I will start hearing "Rosebud," but I do want to underline that Hinckle had a huge impact on journalism, a legacy we live with to this day. He was a promotional genius, which I witnessed as a reporter at UPI in the 1970s when he gave me an exclusive that received international play.

In 1973 Warren asked me if I wanted to interview prison fugitive Joel Kaplan, who two years earlier had been lifted by helicopter right out of a Mexican prison. Later, Hinckle co-authored a book about the inventive escape called "The Ten Second Jailbreak" which was eventually a movie starring Charles Bronson. In 1973 there was so much interest in Kaplan the rival Associated Press ran a long feature on efforts to find him. Hinckle lined me up with an exclusive interview with Kaplan at a North Beach cafe. Kaplan had been stashed away, supplying information for the book. Turned out the escape was probably legal, although the reasoning behind that was very complicated and needs a book of its own. Keeping Kaplan under wraps helped create interest.

I thought a few times about writing a book similar to Richardson's, but when I mentioned that to friends they felt I was too close to the subject to be objective, which is again ironic considering Ramparts and its offspring killed off even attempts at objectivity. I think my friends were right. It would have started and stopped with Hinckle. They also said I overestimated Ramparts' influence.

"Watergate was far more important," was the way one of them put it. I'm not so sure about that. There might very well have been no Watergate without the trail blazed by Ramparts. Besides, I concluded decades ago that there were two factors far more important than Watergate or Ramparts: the placing of UPI on life support, which gave AP a virtual news monopoly, and downsides of technology, both of which I tried to show in my book.

The news culture spawned by Ramparts urged reporters to "question authority." What happens when the news media becomes the "authority?" Not much if the traditional news outlets can't be held accountable, which was nearly impossible until talk radio gained power. On the last page of his book, Richardson asks Hinckle why Ramparts had been so successful in its early years. "Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty," he replied. I am sure there are a lot of talk radio people who would say the same thing if they were asked what was the key to their popularity

Things aren't much better now. In addition to talk radio, today's version of the underground press of the 1960s includes rantings on the Internet, the home to the "validation journalism" in which people get their news with their favorite slants built in. There is hope. If enough people learned where news comes from, how it is gathered and distributed, they could use all the latest advances in technology to convince the news powers to stop firing people and get back to basics to the point they will regain the public's trust. Getting the news out is not the same as getting the news. That's why my book is dedicated to all journalists who still believe the pen is mightier than the mouse.

1 comment:

Peter Richardson said...

I wish I'd spoken to you, too! Hope to see you at the San Francisco Public Library on Saturday, Jan. 23, 11 a.m. That's the last (?) public event scheduled for the Ramparts book.