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Netizens of the World, Unite

In the '60s, he was a voice for change with the seminal Los Angeles Free Press. Now, Art Kunkin's new cry for activism can be heard online.

March 14, 1996|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Art Kunkin knows a revolution when he sees one. And the sixtysomething activist and editor--"chronologically," he says with a chuckle, "I'm pushing seventy; spiritually, I always say I'm 136"--sees one on the World Wide Web. "This," he announces, sitting in the living room of his Pacific Palisades home, "is where the political future of this country is going to be formed." It's a future Kunkin hopes will be influenced by the World Wide Free Press, the self-proclaimed "alternative electronic newspaper on the Internet" that he launched in November.

Before you write Kunkin off as an electronic Don Quixote, remember that he's been accused of tilting at windmills before. In 1964, the former machinist and New York native founded the Los Angeles Free Press as an eight-page newspaper for the KPFK radio-sponsored Renaissance Pleasure Faire, slipping stories about an obscenity bust of Kenneth Anger's film "Scorpio Rising" and Joan Baez's tax resistance into a tongue-in-cheek souvenir publication.

Soft-spoken and oddly cherubic, with a boyish corona of brown curls and pale blue eyes, Kunkin edited and published the Free Press for nine years, until a series of debts, staff defections and clashes with the authorities forced him out in 1973. (The paper survived, primarily as a distributor of sex ads, until March 1978, when the family of then-publisher Larry Flynt discontinued it after Flynt was shot.)

The Free Press was a seminal publication, one of the first alternative weeklies in the United States. Inspired by the Village Voice and KPFK, where Kunkin once had a show debating leftist politics, the "Freep," as it became known, helped set the tone for the social upheavals of the 1960s, combining cultural and political commentary to portray a society in the midst of radical change. Within 15 months of the paper's debut, the free speech movement exploded on the Berkeley campus, and the Watts riots brought the message of unrest and dissatisfaction home.

"What made the difference between the alternative press in the 1960s and the mass media," Kunkin says, "was that the mass media [looked] on all events as isolated . . . errors that the system [could] correct. The sense of the 1960s alternative press was that these issues were all connected, that they indicated a certain sickness of the society. And this sickness has not decreased."

If, as Kunkin suggests, the role of an alternative newspaper is to develop a sense of connections, there may be no more appropriate place to produce one than the World Wide Web. The entire Internet, after all, is about making such connections, about finding links between individual sites that take you in directions you never knew you wanted to go. Still, can the values of the '60s translate to a medium where people are essentially disconnected, where so many Web pages seek to explore individual obsessions?

Kunkin believes so. "My intention," he says, "is to have people help me in surfing the Web and getting material. Ultimately, I'd like to have the Free Press function as a kind of hub for other similarly named sites."

In an editorial, Kunkin also makes a pitch for the public to contribute to this "reader-written publication," much as they did in the early days of the Los Angeles Free Press. "The fact that you can connect up with everybody in a matter of minutes is going to compress the time it takes to do things. What's in my mind is that the Republican Party was really established in 1854, and within six years, they had taken over the presidency using the limited communications of the times."

The new Free Press operates less as a newspaper than a clearinghouse, a resource for information Kunkin believes is overlooked by the mainstream press. As Web sites go, it's strikingly low-tech, with no graphics other than a workmanlike logo on the home page. Much of the material is reprinted from elsewhere and consists of long pieces, including a three-part "Primer on Revolution" by Michael Ventura and the complete text of the Unabomber's manifesto. Also available is a humorous lament for the old CIA written by Robert Scheer for the Los Angeles Times and an essay by Bernard Sanders, "the only independent socialist in the U.S. Congress." One of the few original contributions comes in a package of material describing the seizure of a Greenpeace ship protesting French nuclear tests; one of the crew members was Kunkin's daughter, April Fountain, and she delivers an eyewitness account.

Without the bells and whistles that mark so many other Web sites, the World Wide Free Press seems somewhat monochromatic and even a little quaint. "The stories are pretty traditional," says Abe Peck, who teaches at Northwestern and is the author of "Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press" (Pantheon Books, 1985). "The thing about the Internet is that the crusade is different, in the sense that a lot of people are jazzed not only at the content, but at the form."

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