During Vietnam War Era, Warren Hinckle Forced the Mainstream Media to Cover Real Stories

The recently deceased Ramparts editor deserves to be remembered as a legendary journalist of the old school, says Truthdig editor-in-chief Robert Scheer

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real New Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you in Baltimore.

We’re here today to celebrate the life of Warren Hinckle who passed away on August 25th. He was 77. Warren James Hinckle the Second was the gonzo journalist credited with making Ramparts Magazine, a leading voice for the left in the 60’s. Ramparts was well known for its original investigative reporting, cultural criticism, and aggravation of writings by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and then President Eldridge Cleaver.

Here to discuss the significance of Warren Hinckle’s legacy and Ramparts Magazine is Bob Scheer. Robert Scheer is the editor and chief of Truth Dig and a seasoned journalist and author. His latest book is They Know Everything About You: How Data Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy. Between 1964 and 1969 he was the Vietnam correspondent, the editor, and the editor and chief of Ramparts Magazine. Bob thank you so much for joining us today.

ROBERT SCHEER: Good. I’m glad that you’re celebrating Warren Hinckle. He deserves to be a legend. He was product of a working class family in San Francisco when workers could afford to live in San Francisco. He came out of the Catholic Irish community. He went to the Jesuit University. The University of San Francisco. Was the editor of the paper there and he was I think very much–there was a lot in the old bit about being a gonzo journalist that you mentioned and his hard drinking and he was all that. And he had a great sense of life force.

But he also was very much influenced by the good side of the Catholic church and at that moment when Ramparts came into being as a Catholic literally quarterly, you had a terrific Pope like you do today. You have Pope Francis, then you had Pope John. Pope John was the one who brought the church back to the teachings of Jesus, about peace and the significance of the other, and the love of the stranger. And Ramparts was formed by people who were taking their Catholicism seriously, as was Warren. Maybe drinking is even part of being a serious Catholic. I don’t know. But he certainly came out of that and when Pope John had his patch with terrorists and so forth.

One of the first things Ramparts did even before I was involved was get very involved with the Farm Workers’ Union, Cesar Chavez and the attempt to organize farm workers. Mostly migrant, newly arrived Mexican people or people who’ve been there a while but didn’t have papers. And so the [inaud.] Cesar Chavez, and Ramparts were very supportive of that. And your Catholic angle was very important because Chavez was also trying to make Catholicism a reality, what later became to be called pretty widely as liberation theology.

So I think that Ramparts had [inaud.] the first publisher, the people on the original staff, that was what got them going.

I got involved and there was another terrific person, we counted three of us, pretty much directed it and that’s like the art director Dugald Stermer, who really gave the magazine its pose of legitimacy. We used to say we even gave a false ad to Pan-Am in the back of our glossy magazine because we wanted to look like every other magazine on the news stand. We didn’t want to be marginalized as some little lefty publication. We acted as if we were a life magazine or a look magazine, Saturday evening post.

And Pan-Am sued us. They didn’t want to even have a free add in our publication. But the three of us, we bought different sensibility. Dugald Stermer was this clean cut former lifeguard from LA, a [inaud.] graphics guy. I brought a story as part of that what you’ve referred to as new left angle, and Warren brought that great sense of Barnum and Bailey and that we can really reach people. He was a great promoter.

NOOR: Will you talk more about that? Because as a 23-year-old working in independent media, there’s sort of this legendary aura about Ramparts Magazine. So what made Ramparts so special and what specifically did Warren Hinckle do to contribute to this legacy and to its public image and does this sort of important touchstone for the left.

SCHEER: Well I’ll just give you my own example. I was writing a lot about Vietnam. I’d actually gone to Vietnam, and Laos, and Cambodia, and I’d done a report for a very respected institution called a Center for Study of Democratic Institutions: A Friend for the Republic. Robert Hutches. Even Henry Luce, the owner of Time was on the board and other famous people. And they published a pamphlet of mine.

But it was difficult to get attention to what was going on in Vietnam. This was the early 60’s. And to get people to think critically about the US role and it happened quite by coincidence, my wife who’s gone off, she’s no longer my wife, but to be a terrific human rights lawyer Anne Weills who’s working with Warren Hinckle’s wife in a mutual bond place down in the business section of San Francisco. And they were talking about what their husbands do and she said my husband’s taking over this Catholic literary quarterly and turning it monthly. And then my wife Anne said funny coincidence, my husband is exposing the role of the Catholic church in getting us into Vietnam. Because there was a right wing Catholic church, Cardinal Spellman that were very Cold War oriented and they were back in Ngo Dinh Diem the Catholic leader of Vietnam. But the problem with that position is 90% of South Vietnam was Buddhist. And he was quite coercive.

So my wife said to his wife. My husband can’t publish his article because people are afraid to criticize the Catholic church and Denise Hinckle took my articles to her husband and I was hired about 2 days later and became the South East Asian correspondent and then went on to play a larger role. So what Hinckle did was he took my story that people were ignoring and he figured out a way of publicizing it. Of packaging it. Of getting good art with it. Of doing the PR stuff. Of getting mainstream newspapers like the New York Times to write about it. And even when that failed, taking out full page adds.

NOOR: Right, Ramparts started with about 2,500 readers right? Then partially due to Hinckle’s work, it ended up with 250,000 readers just a few years later. So that publicity and the beautiful art that you talk about, sort of how that huge surge came about?

SCHEER: Yea but I wouldn’t stress so much that. Although I think that was important. First of all, Hinckle had a brain and had a journalistic instinct and cared. Okay. He cared for the average person. He came from that background. He was a working class kid and he didn’t like people getting screwed. Our model always was the one I felt all my life. I want to know who’s getting screwed and who’s doing the screwing.

That was the model of our publication and Dugald Stermer, our art director felt the same way. He came from a working class family and we knew that politics could hurt people. We knew war hurt ordinary people. We knew economic policy hurt ordinary people. So we were not just out there. We weren’t a fraternity party or something. We had a sense of social justice and it wasn’t just us. It was people your age who came to work for us. Including Jann Wenner, who was a copy messenger who went on to start Rolling Stone actually in our office. And Adam Hochschild who was a local reporter who went on to do Mother Jones.

So a lot of people, Sy Hersh wrote for us. So there are a lot of people who went on to influence American Journalism and what united us was not PR but the sense that the mass media was failing in its job to cover news. That was the real issue. That the mass media was not open. So we printed Sy Hersh, long before he won a Pulitzer Prize. You know we covered [Mila] and stories like that.

The reason why Martin Luther King came out against the war in Vietnam was that he read an issue of Ramparts which we had a very moving photographic essay and account on the destruction of children in Vietnam by our bombing. And that’s when he very famously said I’ve got to come out against this war and he gave his speech at Riverside Church. A speech condemning the United States as the major purveyor of violence in the world today. Martin Luther King, gave a sermon. Riverside Church New York. The New York Times editorially condemned him for that.

NOOR: And Ramparts also exposed the US’s secret war in Laos as we talked about before. What was it like being at the forefront of the anti-Vietnam movement with Hinckle and what kinds of sort of reactions and pushback did your coverage elicit at that time?

SCHEER: Well first of all, when you say movement, it’s not Bob Scheer and it’s not Warren Hinckle and it’s not Dugald Stermer. The movement gave the air, if you’re a sailor, that allowed us to move okay Stuff was happening just like you’ve had stuff happen in Baltimore. You know stuff is happening now with the black lives movement. It happened with Occupy.

So there was already a steering of a movement in the United States. You know we did have a draft. This was not an academic discussion. You’re going to be [inaud.]. All of us at Ramparts, we burned our draft card on the cover. We were hauled before the US attorney in New York, Morgenthau. They wanted to throw us in the slammer for a long sentence. And we had draft cards. We also had to bend over and have our bodies examined in line at the draft board and everything else.

So it wasn’t an abstract question, this war. But did this war make sense and was it worth losing your life? And it wasn’t going to be a voluntary decision, they were going to draft you. So you had a movement of concern about this. You also had a civil rights movement. Very big civil rights movement developing. When we were putting out Ramparts, some of us would go and picket Woolworth or [Crest key] to support civil rights movements in the south. I went to the south in 1960 before I ever was in Ramparts to witness segregation and to learn about it and write about it and everything.

So you know these were the movement currents. What happened with Ramparts is we were the ones that were not afraid to take that message to the mass audience. As opposed to a lot of small left publications like the nation and others, we said hey, this is stuff that everybody should see. This is stuff that everyone should comprehend. Let’s not be elitist about it and if that means having good art, it means having good color graphics, and it means doing good PR, and it means hustling your stories by having a good lead, and Hinckle was a genius at that, a genius. What’s the lead? How are we going to get the eyeballs? How are we going to market this thing? Yea that’s what took us to a different level. It wouldn’t have worked if the mass media wasn’t doing its job. The main way we stayed in business is we had really important stories that the New York times and CBS were forced to pick up.

NOOR: Speaking of this, sort of another legendary Ramparts story, lots of viewers probably know this one, Ramparts caught wind of the CIA funding the National Students Association and unions like the AFLCIO and other cultural organizations and the CIA found out that Ramparts had this information right? And Warren Hinckle got all these ads showing the information in the Times and the Post. What was he trying to do here? Why was it important that everyone knew the CIA was funding the cultural programs?

SCHEER: Look the great thing about Warren Hinckle and it goes to a weakness of the left and also maybe a weakness of the right that becomes too ideological. Warren Hinckle loved the United States. In all of its complexity, it all of its diversity and all of its zaniness. And he brought that spirit I would say more than anyone into Ramparts.

He was not afraid of all of the readers out there. He thought that if we could get the word to people in language that would move them, that they would understand and we could back up all our stuff and not just be writing for people in the higher levels of the university and not just writing for the convents. But if we could do really good journalism and make it understandable and communicate then people would get it and they would read it. That’s what happened. They started passing copies of Ramparts around at high schools and college dormitories. I tell you to this day, I run into people who tell me oh yea my father used to read you in college. Or if it’s an older guy, I used to read you in my dorm.

The pass around of that, sure we would sell 250,000 but I know we were being passed around in the millions and we had that kind of response. Because we weren’t afraid of the American public. And that’s really been a death trap for people on the left. They think they have to talk to just a small group of the convinced. We didn’t do that and as it turns out one of our most powerful–the CIA thing was very important because we exposed the CIA.

And the sad thing, I have a book out now called They Know Everything About You, that also exposes the national security agency and the CIA and that doesn’t shock people anymore for doing very similar things. The CIA is all over Silicon Valley. They’ve got 27 dummy corporations. They’ve got a company called Palentier that has all of your data that is working for the top intelligence agencies including CIA and you can’t get the major newspapers or television to cover it. We’re all, oh the war on terror. We have to sacrifice every sense of privacy, separation of power, and freedoms.

So we had success with a story that is still very much a current story. But I think in the main–the most important story we had, we had a decorated war hero. Master Sergeant Don Dunkin and he had 4, I don’t forget how many tours, 3 or 4 tours in Vietnam and he came out and said that this war is an atrocity and he condemned it and we put him on the cover of our publication and suddenly a lot of people could see what was not being written about elsewhere.

NOOR: And just as a person, do you have any sort of stories or anecdotes about knowing Warren Hinckle personally. I think that a lot of folks would like to know sort of the man behind the legend or whatever folks say.

SCHEER: He was a good ol’ Irish Catholic boy of the kind I grew up with in the Bronx. They drank too much, they liked–most of the time he wanted to be in some dark bar with a bunch of old geezers and cops and some [seedy] lawyer swapping stories. It wasn’t the high life. It wasn’t life in the fast lane. And yea he drank but he came from a drinking culture. And what he had was frankly not so much any decadence.

What he really had was a zeal for journalism of the old school. He was an ink stain wretch is what we used to call journalist. People got into journalism in the old days not for money. They didn’t even have to go to college. It was something you learned on the streets. It was something you learned covering the police beat. That’s what Warren did.

The first time I ever read a Warren story, I knew about Warren and this is how I met him. But before my wife met his wife, when I found out about Warren, he was working at the San Francisco Chronicle. And they were going to put a freeway right through San Francisco. Warren Hinckle got the idea you’re going to destroy San Francisco if you put a freeway through this city. The way Oakland had a freeway running right down it’s coast and he started a campaign. And he invented rallies.

He said, there’s going to be a rally at Goldman State Park to stop the freeway. Hundreds of thousands expected. Nobody even knew about the damn thing until he got the article in the paper and maybe 10,000, no maybe the first time 1,000 people showed up. Then he got them to promote that and show pictures of it. Then the next thing you knew, you had one of the first great environmental anti-gross campaigns going in San Francisco saying no we don’t want to tear our city up with a freeway. And he stopped it.

If you go in there today, you’ll see where the freeway ended was where Ramparts had its main office on Broadway. We could look at where the freeway stopped we could see from our office windows at the Ramparts building on Samson and Broadway. So Warren loved a story. I think he was fact driven. I think he was logic driven. He cared about good journalism because he knew any other journalism wouldn’t work.

But you know the slogans we had around Ramparts, one was AJ Liebling, you know freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. Well we had one. That was the Great New Yorker Press Clinic. The role of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. You know I don’t know if it comes from Marx or who it comes from but that was one of our slogans. Upton Sinclair, the great muckraker in California was our hero. Sinclair Lewis. Others you know.

Don’t forget in San Francisco when we did Ramparts, we had the strongest progressive labor movement in the country. The longshoreman and warehouses union that Harry Bridges had built as opposed to the east coast longshoreman which was corrupt, they were progressive. They were [inaud.] by McCarthy and everything. So we had that. We had a lot of our elected officials came out of progressive labor movement.

We also were a mixity with very early in the day when being a homosexual was a crime we had a big gay community. We had a big Chinese American community that the city absorbed. So we were multicultural. We were diverse in the Bay area and we had real roots. Ramparts was not some isolated freakish thing. We were supported by people who were in the advertising business. Who were doctors and lawyers. Carlton Goodlett who ran the Major what was then called the Negro Press, now the Black Press, some reporter out in San Francisco, he was one of our early backers. Willie Brown who went on to be one of the top politicians in the state and then the Mayor of San Francisco was one of our friends, our backers. John Burden, another one who became a big congressman, an assemblyman, until recently the head of the state democratic party.

So we were not ducks out of water in the culture of California. Particularly northern California. We fit right in. Had a big movement going. Student movement. Union movement. And we fit right in with all that. We just did journalism and we did it in an exciting accessible way which I assumed is what the Real News Network is attempting to do and every time I look at it seems to me to be succeeding.

NOOR: Well thank you so much for that Bob and thank you so much for joining us today.

SCHEER: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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