“The Eagle has landed!”
-U.S. astronaut Michael Collins (July 20, 1969)
The North Coast Times Eagle presents itself to the people of the North Oregon coast as an instrument through which their separate and collective voices, irrespective of creed, color, political bent, age (literal and figurative) may speak out in determination of their own future. If it is not to be the Times Eagle who shall perform this trust, then surely others will inevitably come forth. If it is to be the Times Eagle, then let the editorial staff of this newspaper take now and here a solemn vow to uphold its flag motto ‘To Serve All People’ and furtherto establish but one single editorial policy, to preserve, proclaim and protect the Truth.
-ROBERT STANLEY NEED
(NCTE, VOL. 1, NO. 1, MAY 13, 1971)
Everybody claims to love the idea of freedom of thought, speech and performance, but most feel uncomfortable with freedoms they do not endorse, generally regarding them as sources of moral, economic or patriotic decline of the nation. A free press is the guiding if not always realized principle of newspapers and broadcast journalism, the so-called media that dominates our lives and culture, and in particular small underfunded and poorly circulated First Amendment publications and limited range listener-sponsored radio stations that continue with substantial anxiety to believe than human beings ought by right of birth be free; and if they are not, at the very least they should be able to think and speak freely without retribution.
Persistent efforts by government and powerful elites to control public dialogue, particularly in matters of political dogma and social behavior, have always been dangerous and usually the guise for arbitrary usurpation of the apparatus of communication. Realization of this led directly to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states clearly and simply that neither government nor anyone else has the right to deny or interfere with freedoms of speech, press or religion, or with public gatherings.
The genesis of every independent newspaper in the USA began on July 4, 1776 when the world’s most famous press release was endorsed by a rebellious crowd that was in revolt against King, Crown & Mother Country. Two days earlier the breakaway republic’s revolutionary Congress had unanimously voted to sever Atlantic America’s thirteen British ruled colonies from its European sovereign, a day James Madison and John Adams claimed would live in the fledgling nation’s heart in perpetuity. Instead, the day the fervent Declaration of Independence was first made public is celebrated as the USA’s birthday.
A cornerstone of the subsequent bloody revolution was that not only would Americans be independent as a newly formed nation but that each person was a citizen of a republic, which reflected a fear of the founders that both aristocracy and the masses provoked separate but equal problems. A free and unconstrained press was recognized as essential and for more than a century American journalism was robust if partisan, until 20th century journalism moved away from political feuding to promoting a corporate/industrial status quo under the rubric of “objectivity”. The press itself became a huge corporate conglomerate of print, radio, television and Internet now called ‘The Media’. The contrariety press was relegated to the fringes and has generally acted as the mouthpiece for radical and esoteric political (and neo-theocratic) causes: it is called the alternative media (lower case).
A few thousand low-profile publications constitute the alternative media in the USA (which includes ‘zines) – as well as public broadcasting media such as Astoria’s KMUN-FM and KBOO in Portland – and they operate on the cutting edge of political, environmental, cultural and ideological controversies providing fresh ideas and insights that mainstream megamedia, initially reluctant to jeopardize its profits by espousing change or radical concepts, later trumpet as their own when some of the ideas catch on. Without an independent press journalism is hardly more than an artfully deceptive method of misleading the public, of providing illusions and deceits to thwart public response to the chicaneries and jingoism of the corporate/capitalist class which regards itself as the country’s rightful aristocracy despite the admonition of history.
The independent media in the USA and all over the world provides an indispensable forum for the exchange, analysis, synthesis and arguments that are the basis of any culture or society. Their objectives are in microcosm the same as are debated everywhere on Earth: to assist in the eradication of sexism, racism, poverty and war, and to document the dooms and glooms, the perversities and horrors (rarely the triumphs) of our busy, ill-tempered species. Occasionally a maverick, limited distribution publication can reach into the heart of the nation. I.F. Stone’s Weekly, for example, profoundly influenced a generation opposed to racism and a vicious, corrupt war, and was the archetype for numerous other journals.
Although it is as difficult to project as well as portray the cumulative history of a nation or a people through a single individual, it might be rational to attempt a history of media through a particular newspaper. In the case of the North Coast Times Eagle, the history it projected was a local and out at the edge projection of journalism that might seem paradoxical if not antithetical to mainstream media, which claims its history the center stage of American journalism.
The North Coast Times Eagle was reborn from a three-year crypt on July 20, 1979, ten years to the day after a human spaceman took a small step from his spacebird and declared the sterile moonscape that surrounded him “a magnificent desolation.” The paper Eagle‘s first front-page bannerline verbatimed a message flashed to the earth from space when the moonlander Eagle struck the lunar surface: “The Eagle Has Landed.” Beneath the banner an American bald eagle glared fiercely out at the world.
The Times Eagle‘s biography was bicameral like the human brain and the modern calendar, divided into the early half-decade era of the ‘Old Bird’ (1971-1976) and the nearly 30-year resurrected ‘Born Again Bird’ (1979-2007).
The reincarnated ‘Born Again Bird’ reemerged in the usual climate of verbal and political civil war between those who would enlarge freedoms of speech, thought and action and those who would restrict them.
The first issue of the original incarnation of the North Coast Times Eagle was published in Wheeler, Oregon on May 13, 1971. The original newspaper was a weekly that lived five years, from 1971 to 1976. It was a good newspaper, irreverent and raffishly honest with the courage of an Androcles among the lions, seldom cowed by power brought against it. Yet it perished wretchedly and in disgrace, terminally in debt and spiritually compromised. Its founder and first publisher, Robert Stanley Need, was a prickly dreamer who erratically battled for political and social justice.
Any attempt to understand the history of the primal Times Eagle must begin with its founder, first publisher and editor, Robert Stanley Need, an orphan of French descent who trekked to the Oregon coast after service in the U.S. Air Force and the Vietnam War. His name was its own metaphor: his consummate need was to impress his own notions of right and wrong on the society that surrounded him. His purpose was to be a roaring mouse challenging the Philistine mainstream press that he considered false and cowardly. He wrote fervidly against lies and deceptions that most people accept or accommodate. For nearly five lean and stormy years he published a feisty, rashly eccentric newspaper patterned in style and design after the independent newspapers of the 19th century. He employed about 200 kindred and generally unpaid spirits who stayed as long as they could endure hunger and his Napoleanic nature. He and another Vietnam veteran started the Times Eagle in the spring of 1971, and almost immediately the newspaper was in hot water. Need began receiving threats to his health and his partner, pleading family considerations, withdrew from the paper.
Need published the Times Eagle until another friend he had asked for help betrayed him and forced him out. During those years he developed one of the best and most reputable newspapers in the country. The Times Eagle never made much money, never enough to pay the staff or rent, and its readership never exceeded 5,000; but they lived all over the world. He took great risks. He was a raw independent who believed passionately in the First Amendment. He was assisted by a revolving staff, mostly young and idealistic, who virtually slaved under his caustic tyranny and left only when their brains burned out or their bodies craved nourishment. More than once he was left alone to get the newspaper off the press and out on the street by himself. Finally he too burned out and a year after he was ruthlessly shoved aside the old Eagle died.
He was an intense, erratic man whose psychological makeup was indistinguishable from his personal identification with the Times Eagle. He was responsible for its best and worst, just as the paper with its continual staff rebellions and walkouts was its own definition of dissent and revolution. His idealistically unhinged form of journalism made the North Coast Times Eagle a mouse whose bite made elephants roar. His editorship, if not covered with glory, was smeared with the blood of enemies and friends: absolutely nothing or anyone interfered with his Gallic obsession to challenge the institutions and individuals that he believed were obstructing or manipulating the will and freedoms of the people. He had guts, a desk pounding outrage against the powerful or wealthy who squeezed the little people. He was an environmentalist who fought against the Oregon coast becoming a Coney Island of tourism. And there were times when Robert Stanley Need and his little Times Eagle acted out the morality drama of Horatius at the bridge or the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a leaky dike.
His own fingers were bruised many times for the stands he took, which were generally unpopular with those who might have provided advertising. His politics were an ambiguous range from benevolent tyranny to sentimental radicalism. His editorials goaded friend and enemy. Sometimes his writing succeeded brilliantly, at others it broke its spine from the weight of his metaphors and misanthropy. Beneath his pomposity and cunning was a primordial basalt of integrity and kindness as genuine as it was absentminded. He had spent a career in the Air Force, but his service in Vietnam affronted his morality to the point of a mental breakdown. The war was incandescent in his spirit. It had almost destroyed his sanity, left him shaken and chaotic, but it made him acuminately sensitive to pain and injustice. He fought long before others realized a struggle was in process and often long after it was over. An angry letter once denounced the NCTE as a local Pravda and its staff as communists. Need responded with an editorial that suggested the Times Eagle staff would most likely be among the first shot if communists or anyone else took control of the country while good citizens such as the letter writer would probably continue to be law abiding denizens under the new regime.
“Neither the Times Eagle nor its writers have any obligation whatsoever to please the state, or for that matter, please all of its readership, all of the time,” Need wrote in an editorial in 1975. “Intelligent readers have found this dramatically true over the past four years and have assisted us in an expansion of influence that has led the Times Eagle to an unassailable position as a widely read forum of public opinion. The freedom to express one’s self, either staff or readership, has developed a favorable recognition of this publication as ‘one of the finest expressions of independence’ within the state of Oregon and even beyond.”
He literally carried the paper for almost five years. The stories of his attempts to keep the Times Eagle alive were legendary to the point of disbelief. He juggled schemes that were as often astonishingly complex as they were preposterous. He was in constant search for Angels, either financial or editorial who could keep the NCTE afloat, and he touted them as virtually superhuman when he found them which caused misunderstanding among other Angels. One wealthy Angel who had agreed to bankroll the newspaper received a heavenly call only hours before he was to sign the check. Other prospective Angels had little money or talent and tarnished quickly. Somehow during even the leanest years the Times Eagle was printed every week, often a bare skeleton and just as often a day or two late.
The Times Eagle finally consumed Need. He ran out of inspirations and Angels. He lost control of the paper to a perfidious usurper and he did not know why he should regain it. Toward the end he was regarded as unstable and with contempt by a new staff of writers who were captivated by what they thought was the charisma of the friend who betrayed him. Robert Stanley Need, flamboyant, richly articulate, socially pretentious and editorially fearless had once been a legendary figure but is now barely remembered on the Oregon coast his newspaper heated white hot for five remarkable years.
I was the next to last editor of the old Times Eagle. My six month tenure, which was about average, began in the summer of 1974. The paper had survived three tumultuous years of heartrending poverty, constant staff insurrections and a number of 11th hour recoveries The phone was disconnected and there were no vehicles to get around for stories or to the printers 100 miles away in Toledo. The staff was unpaid and hungry, and a few days after my arrival deserted enmasse. I spent the summer and fall hitchhiking to events and interviews up and down the coast (meeting in transit many gregarious residents and visitors). I slept on the newsroom floor or on a lumpy musty couch and ate spaghetti and canned chili washed down by cheap red wine. My relations with Need were usually at critical mass. My opinion of him was contradictory, a mosaic of anger, frustration, affection and respect. It was difficult to not be drawn to his blustery and lofty idealism, although it was also wearisome and not always endearing. I began to retaliate by putting the name ‘Robert Stanley Bananas’ on his byline, which he always discovered before the paper went to press. (It was also tradition to conceal a 19th century Punch drawing of a well-dressed rodent among the few advertisements: “No rats in the food ads!” Need would shout after careful scrutiny.)
I last saw him a couple of weeks after he had been deposed. He was leaving Oregon that day and going back home to Norfolk, Virginia. He said his nerves were shot and he looked frazzled and downcast as a chewed chicken wing. A woman I knew gave him a ride to the Washington side of the Columbia River. He gave her a dollar for my back wages, hitchhiked to Seattle and rode a train back east. He apparently made a success of publishing another newspaper. I suspect any success would bear little resemblance to “the distinctive and unique journal of the Oregon coast,” a lofty slogan he emblazoned on the face of every Times Eagle. He died of cancer in 2006.
The paper did not last long after his departure. The usurper publisher picked it clean and abandoned it after ruining its reputation. “At the end, in March 1976, the North Coast Times Eagle was a ghost, hunted by its creditors in the streets of what once were its own cities,” John MacCormack, a former staffer wrote, and questioned “whether a newspaper that maintains an unbridled editorial voice and exploits fully its First Amendment rights to freedom of the press, as the Times Eagle undeniably did, can still survive in modern America without being as large, well ensconced and unassailable as The New York Times.”
When the last issue of the Times Eagle was printed in 1976, its new publisher hiding out in another state with the money he stole that might have given the paper a few more months of life, I felt it had perished like a gifted and precocious child killed too early.
The Times Eagle lay dead for three years and almost all evidence of its former existence was burned, bulldozed, lost, buried in libraries, forgotten in basements or attics, or in the case of its former staff, scattered across the country and around the world. Its death was unmourned by many, particularly those who dealt with it financially. Perhaps also a few public officials and others who were treated critically in its pages were pleased by its demise. But here and there along the coast and tucked into the mountains were pockets of a contrary view, people who missed the paper and wished something like it would start up again.
The ghost of the old Times Eagle caught up with me in mid-Pacific Ocean and snapped me back to the Oregon coast like an overstretched umbilical cord. At the moment I was about to accept a newspaper job on Guam I experienced an epiphany to resurrect the Times Eagle. I had worked on many newspapers and at least one wire service* – the old Times Eagle was the one that captured my heart, brain and fervor.
I printed the first issue of the Born Again Bird on July 20, 1979. I chopped wood, cleaned motel rooms, hauled garbage and borrowed money from skeptical friends to get the first issue out of the crypt and off the press, and I kept it barely afloat the next twenty-seven and a half years on dirty dishwater in local restaurants, as a frycook burning burgers for the masses, pouring beer and wine in shoreside taverns, selling tickets at a museum and a movie theater, swabbing floors and cleaning toilets. A journalist’s life.
The Times Eagle‘s circulation was miniscule and its impact hardly shook the big trees, yet it had a tangible readership and most of its advertisers stayed with it despite small evidence of making a nickel. It displayed or published the works of artists, poets and writers who lived on the coast and inland, and its readers submitted a large portion of its articles. It was a newspaper some people considered necessary, though they did not always regard it with rapture. It was a polemical publication laden with doom and gloom, which prompted one reader to ask if any purpose was served if its readers were in such despair after reading an issue they considered suicide.
I only knew second-hand the effect the Times Eagle had on people who read it. It flowered into a separate life outside my presence or knowledge after it was printed. My role was finished after the press run of each issue except for distributing to small cities, town and villages on the Oregon coast; to bars, cafes and restaurants, markets, motels and bookstores where it was sold over the counter; by UPS to towns up or down the coast or to inland cites; anyone going anywhere who knew a good place to sell it or give it away; and to friends. Once in a while someone told me the newspaper meant something to them or would describe a complex circulation of each issue among family and friends. Teachers said they used the paper in their classes. Its articles were read on radio stations (obviously KMUN) or reprinted in other publications. One issue is iceberged in an underground time capsule for half a century, sent toward the center of earth in 1994 to be unsealed at Clatsop County’s bicentennial in 2044.
The NCTE was a member of the ‘Poverty Press’, one of a few small presses obsessed with a vision unaffected by commerce. It was descended from radical newspapers that blossomed briefly and its lineage threaded back to the prickly press that fostered the First Amendment, which denies government or anyone else the right to interfere with freedom of speech. The independent advocacy press has few pretensions toward objectivity and fewer illusions about its probability. Most small independent journals are chronically understaffed, underfunded and generally misunderstood because they seldom reflect popular opinion. They act, often myopically and insensitively, as consciences and torchbearers, and most are fierce and shrill advocates for large or esoteric causes. They are usually on hard times and fail more often than they are replaced. A common trait among peripheral media is to either revive from a few deaths or succumb forever.
Small impoverished, out-on-the-fringe newspapers like the Times Eagle dwell in local obscurity. They are often in stormy opposition to the bland or autocratic community rule and standards of their circulation areas. The fringe is most normally their habitat; they defy the momentum toward megabig as they incubate ideas or ideologies that captivate or hold them captive. Controversy, flirtation with original ideas or any other form of media experimentation (aside from the purely technical) is anathema to megamedia, which consolidates immense energy and talent to hype the salacious, mendacious and indigestible. Commercial media exists to make money. Micromedia is always looking for a buck so it can publish or (like KMUN and KBOO) broadcast.
Free speech isn’t free – it has an underlying cost: which is that everyone of us must do what we can to keep speech free. Sometimes that costs money – such as maintaining a little David of a newspaper struggling to maintain First Amendment rights among mainstream Goliaths who are generally shameless in their singleminded goal of making money, which includes trampling over free speech and its necessary offsprings of debate and controversy.
Power in the new world capitalist order is blatantly shifting to control and manipulation of the immense flow of information, up until recently a vital resource but now a post-Orwellian system of indoctrination, propaganda and sensationalism.
The mainstream media is no longer a corrective to the corruption and malfeasance of government and its evil axis of wealth and power – it acts instead as plutocracy’s proselytizer, the conduit by which an incorrigibly corrupt government boilerplates its malfeasance to the tremulous public, and despite a few recent qualms of conscience, has generally acted as a cheering squad, or perhaps more accurately, as a militarized propaganda platoon.
The continuity of a culture of so-called radical journalism is essential, which journalism schools seem to be breeding out of recent generations of young journalists in a quest for centrist, or “objective” principles of news and commentary. It is extremely important for widely divergent views of everything to have public conduits – and the very edgy on-the-edge media is just about all that persists against the conformitilization of American media and society.
The paradox, of course, is that fringe media is readily dismissed as not only being outside of mainstream centrist conformity but also that it preaches to the fringe, and the great masses of Americans (of whom less than half generally vote) seldom read, watch or listen to heretic or apostate media – yet the choir must be kept up with trends of music as medical people the light-speed changes in medicine. When what is considered a mainstream source of information becomes increasingly more like Goebbels-speak (Fox TV news for example), the fringe media has to pick up the slack of the quickly disintegrating First Amendment.
Newspapers like the Times Eagle reflect the dismal and the dreadful. Yet through such dark funnels history is grasped. Each era is a funhouse mirror of every other. Merciless greed for wealth and power is humanity’s essential drive, creating the vastly accumulated weight of a perpetual lunge toward catastrophe, which powers an equally intense obsession to record our folly – occasionally as an effort to correct or forestall it.
Independent media such as the Times Eagle (and KMUN) must continue to proliferate despite loss or failure because they are not simply fringe agitprop but are more cogently the recurrent incubation of American journalism – and the more castrated and concentrated the mainstream media becomes (a painful and insipid form of oblivion), the more necessary for unfettered local, self-reliant (noncentralized) media to flower.
It is not only necessary to speak truth to power, but also to egregious consumption and waste, to apathy and avarice. Truth must also speak to conscience, as well as to humanity’s penchant for slaughtering itself and devastating its only home planet.
Robert Stanley Need and I published very different newspapers, although the lineage is recognizable. He might have been upset at my evolution of his creation yet our purpose was the same – to exercise the First Amendment like a muscle, to push at it and goad it, to not allow it to slip into Alzheimer’s through apathy or neglect, and to slap away hands that wish to strangle it. The First Amendment is a journalist’s only god – Amen!
*I was also a USMC reporter/photographer in Vietnam, which critically exposed me to the formula of policy over truth; and I suppose my obsession with fringe publications is an effort to atone for the untruths I helped disseminate regarding the conduct of a very unpopular and unjustified war. If for nothing more, I owe uncompromising search for the truth to the dead who are unable to speak.
This piece was first read on Michael McCusker’s show, A Story Told, on KMUN radio, in 2012.