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The Alternative Press Used to Be Considered Dangerous

By Lew Moores · April 7th, 2004 · Media, Myself & I
It was a rocky road and it lasted just three years -- six if you count the last years, when it was hanging on by its fingernails. They were spied on, intimidated, had secret files opened on them, became the target of a secret government counterintelligence program and their offices were finally torched.

Does it sound like an underground newspaper operating in Afghanistan under the Taliban? Try Cincinnati in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Mike Wood, an editor of the alternative Cincinnati newspaper The Independent Eye in its last years in the early 1970s, has trouble understanding the perceived threat.

"Definitely the Eye was a target," says Wood, who is now 52 years old, married with children. "Anybody who got involved with the Eye was a target. I don't really understand from the government's point of view about why. The Eye was not a catalyst. The people who got involved with it were activists, but the Eye itself was not a catalyst for change. If anything, it just shared information about who was doing what."

If you're a reader these days of CityBeat, XRay Cincinnati magazine, ArtSpike or the various progressive blogs on the Internet, they owe their ancestry to The Independent Eye, a publication that began in February 1968 in Yellow Springs and later moved to Cincinnati. It was the venue for the city's progressive -- more to the point, radical -- community, with its mix of draft resistance to the Vietnam War, stories of labor strikes and unionizing, civil rights work, women's rights and reports from corners of the city that rarely merited attention from the mainstream media.

The legacy of the Eye will be celebrated this month when XRay publishes a retrospective of Eye stories. Steve Novotni, XRay publisher, and Adam Diamond, XRay editor, have pored over more than two years of Eye newspapers and come up with about 20 different features "that we feel represent the paper and demonstrate why it is an important part of Cincinnati's history," Novotni says.

He compares the Eye and publications that followed to the proverbial canaries in coal mines -- they attest to the health of animated free expression, robust dialogue and alternative thinking in a community.

But the Eye didn't publish without troubles.

The U.S. government -- specifically the FBI -- and the Cincinnati Police Department thought the paper a threat. The local office of the FBI, as documented in a 1979 story in The Cincinnati Post, conducted an investigation of the Eye that included:

Doctoring photos to show a radical in a "compromising situation with a well-known officer of the Cincinnati PD Intelligence Unit."

Opening files on people "who have paid for a subscription to the Independent Eye by check." The FBI wanted to know if "these have any informant potential."

Checking bank records for both the Eye and another underground paper, The Queen City Express that identified advertisers and individuals working for the papers. One document said, "As information is gathered, it is believed there will be opportunities to suggest counterintelligence action against individuals and groups who are giving financial support to these publications."

Whether all this had an effect is hard to gauge.

"It was hard to tell," Wood says.

But it was the fire at the Eye offices in September 1970 that took some of the wind out of its sails. The Eye had been publishing photos of plainclothes Cincinnati Police officers, a decidedly provocative act.

"We're told that's what led to the fire," Wood says.

The fire that was ruled an arson, but no one was ever charged.

Take a seat in the Rare Book Department at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County downtown and turn the pages of the bound issues of The Independent Eye. The first four issues, printed in 1968, were really pamphlets, crude but earnest, mimeographed in Yellow Springs. By June 1968, it became a broadsheet. The publication was initially tame, its radicalism benign. It covered the turbulent Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, but also cautioned readers against calling police officers "pigs."

Before long, the paper's politics became more militant, but staffers themselves were not. Their ads were few. Jim Tarbell's Ludlow Garage was one; a Janis Joplin concert ($4.50) at Cincinnati Gardens was another. There were photo essays by Melvin Grier, now a Cincinnati Post photographer and one of the city's premier photojournalists.

When it didn't whine, the writing in the Eye could often be sharp and evocative. From a November 1969 story about Over-the-Rhine: "A pool hall owner sells a bottle of wine to a boy about 10 who wraps it in a newspaper and tucks it under his arm as police pass by. ... Their horizon does not exist beyond the moment."

The Eye did stories on black militants, General Hospital (now University Hospital), the old Workhouse and the growing local anti-war movement. The paper satirized Frank Weikel, popular former item columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer, whose politics were unabashedly right-wing. The Eye referred to Weikel as Freaky Schmekle.

It didn't bother Weikel. He thought their audience small, and insiders at the paper convinced him "nothing dangerous to the community was ever planned," he says in an e-mail from Florida, where he now lives. They were politically driven, he writes, but "this was NOT a violent group."

Novotni says XRay wants to republish some Eye content in order to acknowledge the heritage.

"We, the alt/prog/ethnic/punk/yippie/fringe journalists and storytellers of this community, have been preceded by others who did the very things we're doing now," he says.

The mainstream media today, like then, doesn't serve that community, Novotni says.

"I want to provide the progressive communities with some context for the Cincinnati of today," he says.

Wood believes the Eye's lasting legacy was to alert readers, especially younger ones, that there was a larger community out there.

"In a way, we were sort of a predecessor to what the Internet does," Wood says. "We allowed people from different communities to affiliate in a sort of virtual community."

Today you can find alternative papers online and in news boxes.

"Our side is winning after all these years," Wood says.



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