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Judging the Alternative Press

A celebrated journalist sums up the nation’s newsweeklies and finds them lacking.

by Dennis Freeland

Christopher Hitchenshristopher Hitchens, contributing editor of Vanity Fair and regular columnist for The Nation, spoke to the Association of Alternative Newsweek­lies (AAN) convention last week in Washington, D.C. Hitchens, who has taken on such modern icons as Princess Dianna and, in his 1995 book The Missionary Position, Mother Teresa, was asked to address the question “Are Alternative Newspapers Doing Their Jobs?” The speech, delivered in front of a standing-room-only audience at the Capitol Hill Hilton and carried live on C-SPAN, served as more of a general condemnation of the mass media in 1998 than a specific critique of the alternatives.

“To be alternative, you have to avoid a debased, deadening style,” Hitchens said. “Clichés are lurking inside the keyboard.”

Such as? “Disturbing rumors,” “questions remain,” “friends say,” “critics charge,” “role model,” “emerging consensus,” and “fragile peace.”

Hitchens was born in England in 1949. After graduating from college he came to the United States, where he first saw the country on a Greyhound bus tour during the ’60s. It was a time when alternative newspapers, then known as “underground” papers, were ubiquitous. They had great names like Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird and Chicago Rising Up in Anger.

“It was a time when the word ‘alternative’ had meaning and was worn as an honorable badge,” Hitchens said.

The 21st annual AAN convention was a far cry from the days of underground newspapers Hitchens remembers from the ’60s. Since 1992, yearly ad revenues for the nation’s alternative newsweeklies have almost doubled, to $345 million. Today’s AAN conventions are more like a swap-and-shop as the suddenly prosperous alternative papers are bought and sold like so many commodities.

In an age when the media, like everything else, are becoming more and more homogenous, Hitchens offers a definition of the term alternative. “Alternative means either telling people what they don’t want to hear or what they don’t already know.”

He criticized the alternative press for not providing an advance warning on the tactics of Bill Clinton, whom he described as “a cheap, small-town president from some manic-depressive little hamlet.” (Allan Leveritt, publisher of Arkansas Times, the only alternative newspaper in Arkansas, would reply later: “He must not have looked too hard at our archives.”)

Hitchens was particularly critical of Bill Bleakley, the publisher of Oklahoma Gazette in Oklahoma City. Bleakley recently apologized to his readers after the Gazette published a “This Modern World” cartoon which contained nude etchings from an 18th century artwork. The ensuing uproar cost the Gazette several advertisers and distribution points, which prompted the apology.

“I think it’s a disgrace,” Hitchens said of Bleakley’s response. “Don’t become a journalist if your ambition is to be inoffensive, innocuous.”

Hitchens had recently served as a judge in an awards competition sponsored by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He said he was disappointed in the offerings. “They look as if they were written for the metro page of the daily newspapers,” he said, adding that there are just too many awards in the field of journalism, that at some publications winning a prestigious award is akin to being given tenure for life.“They are plugging up the job ranks,” he said.

While most of the gathered publishers and editors were gushing in their praise of Hitchens, who essentially was preaching to the choir, there were several who left disappointed. “I think it was much ado about nothing,” said one editor. “It’s as if he’s the only journalist in the world who has dignity or integrity. He talks as if his way is the only way.”

Hitchens addressed criticism that his writing gives off more heat than light: “Where do they think light comes from?” And he was fully prepared when questioned about Vanity Fair’s decision to publish a Monica Lewinsky photo spread in its latest edition. He said Lewinsky is a legitimate celebrity who has changed the course of the Clinton administration and is definitely newsworthy.

What’s more, the text accompanying the photo spread was written by one Christopher Hitchens, iconoclast.

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