Q&A: Underground press pioneer Paul Krehbiel

Paul Krehbiel is one of the pioneers of Buffalo’s alternative media. As a student at the University at Buffalo in the late 1960s, he helped found New Age, one of the city’s first “underground” newspapers.

The paper was founded at the height of the Vietnam War, a time when Krehbiel and his collaborators at New Age didn’t sign their stories for fear of retaliation. The threats and acts of vandalism against his property occurred anyway.

Krehbiel moved from Buffalo in the late 1970s, working in Denver and then Los Angles, where he continues to live today following a career as a labor activist. He visited Buffalo last week to promote a book he contributed to, Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era: Underground Press Part II.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Krehbiel, now 64, on Oct. 10. A 4 minute, 49 second video clip including interview highlights is posted above. The full 18 minute, 33 second interview is posted deeper in the post.

For more detail, see this story  in The Buffalo News.

The transcript below has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: It’s 1969, you’re 21, you’re going to UB, Vietnam War is happening in a big way. Talk to me a little bit about the scene here in Buffalo in terms of what’s going on at UB, what’s going on in the war, what’s going on in the local press.

Krehbiel: In 1969 the war was raging in Vietnam at that time. The news media – both print and television media – gave broad coverage to the war. I remember seeing nightly pictures of Vietnam, little Vietnamese villages being torched and dead bodies on the ground, and it really brought the war home to the American people, I think. The combination of that and what we were being told by the government didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. We were given a lot of reasons for why we had to be there militarily, and a lot of us at the university started reading and studying and looking into it. We started to come to the conclusion that we weren’t being told the full truth.

 We saw failure on the part of what we call the mainstream press in reporting the truth about Vietnam. And not only that, but other issues.

Heaney: In the local media, the Courier-Express was still here, the Buffalo Evening News back then, local TV stations – obviously an underground press grew out of that environment. What was it about what the mainstream media was doing locally that you guys found lacking?

Krehbiel: What we found was that the mainstream media – and all of them that you named – failed to give us the history of the war, the true history of the war. What were the two sides that were fighting in Vietnam – what were they really fighting for? And why were we really involved?

For example, we were told by our government that we were helping the south Vietnamese people, to protect democracy in South Vietnam. What the media didn’t tell us was that the guy that we were supporting, General Thieu made a comment to British reporters that got reported in the British press but not the U.S. press. He was asked, “Do you have any people you look up to, heroes?” And he said, “Yes, people ask me who my heroes are. I have only one: Adolph Hitler.” This was not reported in the US media. The US government never told us that.

I think it would have been good for the American people to know that that’s where our tax dollars and our young generation was being sent to shed their blood.

Heaney: So alternative media – as you refer to as underground press – talk about the genesis of that.

Krehbiel: Because of what we saw – we saw failure on the part of what we call the mainstream press in reporting the truth about Vietnam. And not only that, but other issues.

A lot of us had worked in some Buffalo area factories, for example. I worked for a company called Standard Mirror in South Buffalo. We made rear-view mirrors for cars and trucks. I remember right before I started, one of the Buffalo papers did an article on the sale of the company to a bigger company in Ohio, and the whole article was about product lines and increased hopes for greater profits and so on. Not a word was said about what were the conditions that the workers were working under and they were terrible. I worked in a department where we were breathing ground up glass for example in the air.

So when it came to Vietnam and these other issues, we made efforts to try and get information to the mainstream press about Vietnam. We had forums at UB. We would invite them. We would send press releases. We would send articles. We would go in person and try to talk to them and they weren’t covering it so we felt that we had to set up our own newspaper to get this information out.

We saw ourselves as underground in the sense that there was retaliation and there was a fear of retaliation.

Heaney: So what were the early publications?

Krehbiel: There was one that I only saw at the tail end. It was probably ’66 or ’67, somewhere in there. It was called Catalyst. But it was pretty small. I think it was done on a mimeograph machine. I don’t think there were a lot of copies put out. Not too many people saw it.

The first real underground press – and this happened all over the country – the estimates are there were probably over 1,000 of them. Every major city had one. There was a tabloid-sized newspaper. The first one in Buffalo started in the summer of 1970. It was called Cold Steel, and I don’t know how many issues it went for – maybe four, five, six, or seven, something like that. I worked on the first two and I was able to write a lot of articles on Vietnam that I thought were important with that fact about General Thieu and Adolph Hitler and other important things.

So that was good, but the combination of people on that paper were such that I felt we needed a new direction. So I met with a group of other young people in Buffalo, many of whom had worked in a lot of the factories here, and we decided we wanted to put out a newspaper directed towards working people, working families, the unions, and kind of the working class as a whole in Buffalo. And that was New Age.

Heaney: You were kind of the paper of the New Left, so to speak.

Krehbiel:  Yeah, we were part of the New Left. Both papers were part of the New Left.

Heaney: You described off camera beforehand – you drew a distinction between the alternative press as we know it today and the underground press as it was back then. What distinguished the underground press of back then with the alternative press today?

Krehbiel: We weren’t underground in the sense of the partisans that were fighting behind Nazi occupied territory in Europe where they would be if they were caught with an underground newspaper. But we saw ourselves as underground in the sense that there was retaliation and there was a fear of retaliation.

Heaney: Retaliation such as?

 Krehbiel: For example, I had the tires slashed on my car more than once. I had a brick thrown through my windshield. I had little notes left on the door of my apartment that showed a rifle cross here with a guillotine in the middle of it and the type on it said, “We’re watching you. Treason will be punished.”

I know friends who had their homes shot into with teargas canisters and bullets. This was from ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71 – that four years was very hot in Buffalo. And of course that was really the peak of the antiwar movement here. We had a big student strike almost the entire spring semester in 1970 at UB.

Heaney: At the same time when you guys were publishing New Age – you folks were all volunteers, correct?

Krehbiel: We were all volunteers.

Heaney: And you were not signing articles because of the fear of retaliation?

Krehbiel: We didn’t sign any of the articles, exactly for that fear, the fear of more retaliation against us either in the form of right-wing vigilante groups that they usually struck at night. We didn’t know who they were really. We had some ideas of who they might be but we didn’t know for sure.

But we also were concerned about losing our jobs. I mean, if we put our names to articles that were against the war in Vietnam or articles that encouraged workers to organize a shop floor action in a steel plant  or an auto factory, that’s something that would have created some animosity towards us by employers.

Heaney: I take it you and your colleagues consider yourselves not just journalists but activists, as well.

Krehbiel: Yeah, exactly. We saw ourselves as putting out a newspaper to inform and educate people; but also we saw it as an organizing tool. If there was a big demonstration against the war that we wanted to help build, we used the newspaper to publicize it. If there was a workers’ strike some place and we wanted to generate support for the strike, we used the newspaper to talk about the strike and urge people to go down to the picket line help the workers out.

Heaney: What sort of impact do you think you had looking back?

Krehbiel: Well it’s hard to measure it, obviously, but in just anecdotal evidence I had, people that I spoke to who got the paper in their shop, and we would hand it out at all the major factories.

Heaney: What was your circulation?

Krehbiel: We put out 10,000 a month. We came out once a month. And the feedback we got from people was that people loved it. I know there was a leaflet that I put out where I worked. I didn’t put it out in my name and I had other people hand it out, but it was the same type of stuff that we wrote in New Age and later we wrote an article about the leaflet in New Age. But the leaflet had to do with – we had contract negotiations coming up in about nine months and it was a way to get people to start thinking about proposals. I started the leaflet with a lot of the bad conditions in the shop and the problems and then a lot of very bold proposals. The workers loved it. They pasted them on their machines. They were putting them on the walls. When supervisors came by, they pulled them over and said, “This is what we want right here.” So it gave people confidence. It gave them courage. It gave them a direction and a focus to fight for a better life.

Heaney: New Age lasted how long?

 Krehbiel: It lasted one year.

Heaney: And it didn’t last longer because…

Krehbiel: It was difficult to do this. This was all done on a volunteer basis and in our free time after work. And you know there were other problems. One: It’s hard, just time-wise, to keep up that pace. And then there were some internal problems in the paper that caused it to stop.

Heaney: In the local alternative media scene, what succeeded New Age?

Krehbiel: I kind of lost track of it a little bit. I was out of Buffalo for a couple years. After that I came back and then left in ’77. So I don’t really know what came after that. I know at some point Artvoice came on the scene, and that’s considered an alternative newspaper.

A lot of the things that I wrote for New Age, I’m writing now for the unions and the mainstream of the labor movement. So it shows that there’s been a change in our society.

Heaney: Draw the distinction for me between the underground press of the ‘60s and ‘70s and what that’s morphed into in the last 30 or 40 years, which is more of an alternative for-profit media. Talk to me a little bit about what those differences are.

Krehbiel: The one that I’m most familiar with here is Artvoice.

Heaney: You live in L.A. You’ve seen a lot of alternative media.

Krehbiel: I don’t know how much of a profit they make, some of these papers. I know they sell advertising. We didn’t sell advertising. We raised money when we handed it out at the shop gate. We asked people for volunteers and we earned enough to pay for the printing and supplies and that happened every issue. Whether the alternative press makes profits or much money today, I don’t know. I think they’re making enough to pay some salaries.

Heaney: From a journalistic perspective, there was much more of a mission back then as opposed to now. Do you think alternative media has reached its full potential or do you think it’s kind of falling short?

 Krehbiel: Actually I think two things about it. One: I think that what we called the underground press in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – it was sharper; it was harder-hitting; it was really activist-oriented; it was kind of confrontational – but in part because it was more polarized then.

Today – I was telling you before the interview – a lot of the things that I wrote for New Age, I’m writing now for the unions and the mainstream of the labor movement. So it shows that there’s been a change in our society so this gets back to your earlier question of what impact do I think we had.

Collectively, I think everybody that was involved in doing this – and there was over 1,000 underground newspapers with three to six million circulation as the estimates – the guess is that we did have an impact and you can see it in the changes that have taken place in not only the trade union movement, but all other areas of society.

So today, even if Artvoice writes something similar to what we wrote back in 1970, it’s more accepted today, what they’re saying. If they’re talking about the environment or they’re talking about giant corporations that are funding political campaigns, we did that, too. Back then it was still under the radar screen. It was swept under the rug or it was, “Oh, that’s something you should not talk about.” Now it’s out there. It’s out there even in the mainstream media today.

Some of the working class and poor sections of the city … are much more run down now than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Heaney: You’ve been back and forth to Buffalo a lot since you left in ’77. In the last five to seven years you’ve come back, what strikes you about Buffalo as a community – physical conditions, the environment, the culture scene – what’s striking? You’re right in L.A. now?

Krehbiel: Yeah.

Heaney: So you’re in a big city and we’re in a shrinking city. What strikes you when you come home now?

Krehbiel: Well, a number of things – some good and some not so good. I see a revitalizing of the downtown area, which is nice – the same thing in Allentown and some other sections of the city. But I also see some of the working class and poor sections of the city that are much more run down now than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Heaney: A little bit more have and have-nots?

Krehbiel: I think so. And I think that’s probably true in a lot of areas around the country.

Heaney: You were involved in, and you continue to be involved, in the labor movement, going all the way back to when the labor movement politically was a lot more conservative than maybe it is today. Can you talk a little bit about how the labor movement has changed during your time?

Krehbiel: When I got involved in it in 1968 at Standard Mirror – and we had a union there; it was the United Glass and Ceramic Workers Union – George Meany was the head of the AFLCIO. He was strongly pro-war. You did not see women or blacks or Latinos or other people of color in positions of leadership in unions almost anywhere at any level. And today that’s changed.

You look at the leadership of the AFL-CIO today or a lot of the national unions or regional and local bodies – they’re much more progressive. They’re much more far-sighted. We may be smaller in number, but I think the quality of the labor movement today is better. It’s on a higher level than it was in 1970.

Heaney: Let’s step back. One more question on the media. Be a media critic for a minute. The media scene is obviously much different than it was back in the day. Among other things you’ve got cable TV; you’ve got the internet; a lot of things have changed. How would you assess the how good of a job the press is doing these days dealing with the critical issues?

Krehbiel: That’s a tough question. I would say in some ways they’re doing better.

Heaney: How so?

 Krehbiel: Let’s take the Iraq war for example. Early on in the Iraq war, there were demonstrations and even in the very earliest of demonstrations people talked about this is really a war for oil. And that would get captured in the media somewhat – not enough.

I still think the media is not covering the full truth, but I think there’s been some improvement. Part of it might be because the general sentiment of the American people now – I think people are much more leery about listening to what government leaders say about going into war without thinking about it a little bit more. And that’s important, and I feel that that’s a contribution that we made in our political movements in the ‘60s and the ‘70s.

Heaney: So the press is a better watchdog than it was 30 or 40 years ago?

 Krehbiel: I think on some issues, but I’m not so sure on everything.

Heaney: Where do you see the press falling short?

 Krehbiel:  While on the Iraq war there was some talk about oil, there was still a lot about, “We’ve got to go in and stop the terrorists” and this sort of thing. Not that I think – to be concerned about the terrorists, yeah we should be concerned about it. But I really think this should have been much more about the real reasons for why we were in Iraq. It was to get oil and there’s a lot of evidence that shows that. And I think some of the new media – a lot of the progressive blogs – they have tons of this information. A little of it has made it into the mainstream media, but not a lot. So I think the report card is mixed.