It's time we said it loud and clear: San Diego is the armpit of the world. This town is middle class, stupid, mediocre, and boring. It is plastic, sterile, unhip, and sexually repressed; it is also militaristic; racist, exploitive, and arrogant. In short, it is both a drag of a town and a fascist town. Solid citizens of San Diego, you've had it; the next 200 years are ours.
— San Diego Free Press editorial, January 1, 1969
The '60s radical press and the movement for which it spoke did not, of course, fulfill that bold prediction. San Diego's Free Press (later renamed the Street Journal) was defunct by the end of 1970; the San Diego Door came and went with the Nixon Presidency, 1968 to August 1974.The O.B. Rag fell silent in September 1975, after reporting the pullout of all U.S. forces from Vietnam. But while they lasted, these so-called underground papers made a dent in the city's political ironsides and now preserve a portrait of San Diego at a time when the city was growing through some of its most painful changes in living memory. The underground papers and their ragtag reporters got that story, which involved massive changes in politics, business, and culture between 1968 and 1975. It was a story that the city's mainstream press, for the most part, misled.
One morning in early March of 1970, attorney Ted Burner took a call from an airline reservation clerk at Lindbergh Field. "I think the Street Journal would like to know that C. Arnholt Smith just boarded a plane for Washington. D.C.," whispered the clerk. Bumer immediately called stall' writer Lowell Bergman at the weekly newspaper's office at Fifth and J Street downtown and gave him the plane's flight number and arrival time.
Street Journal staffers weren't surprised. Since the paper's founding, story leads about local poobahs had been coming in via secretaries, lawyers, investigators, and even cops. "In those days in San Diego there was no other news organization for people to call and talk about something that was critical of the establishment," says 47-year-old Bergman, who is now a produce for Mike Wallace on CBS's 60 Minutes.
After receiving the tip, Bergman called the Washington Free Press, that city's underground newspaper, which sent two of its reporters to tail the financier. As Smith's limousine left the airport, the reporters followed in a hippie van until the limo entered the back gate of the White House.
"Smith had gone to see his friend President Nixon to ask him to call the dogs off," Begman explains. And how did Bergman know Smith and Nixon discussed the federal and state investigations that eventually landed Smith in prison? "We had sources in the Justice Department that told us that," he says. The Street Journal eventually used the information gained through that tip in a story on Smith and his business dealings.
For the two years of its existence – November 1968 to August 1970 — the San Diego Street Journal used well-placed source to embarrass and harangue one of the most conservative cities in America. From its earliest biweekly issues when it was called Free Press (it became the weekly Street Journal in November 1969), the paper capitalized on the inability of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune to see into the shadows cast by San Diego's leading lights. "It was a town without a First Amendment," muses Bergman, who was a graduate student in philosophy at UCSD in the summer of 1968 when a group of his confederates first began talking about an underground paper.
The first issue's editorial spoke out about the vacuum created in San Diego by the ultraconservatism of the Copley Press: "The objectivity of the Free Press will be disconcerting and come as a shock to many citizens, since they may have become accustomed to accepting an inverted picture of reality as Truth." The contents of the Free Press will be the antithesis of what the local dailies published, the editorial promised. "It...became clear that much of the fascist climate in the community was attributable to the nature of its mass bridge-building deal and one of its many beneficiaries, M. Larry Lawrence; it revealed Jim Copley's penchant for turning for FBI agents into newspaper executives; it investigated developer Irvin Kahn, who, according to the paper built the Los Penasquitos subdivision with a $6 million loan from the Teamsters Union pension fund, the first in a series of local developments kick-started with Teamster money; and it exposed the tactics of the local undercover police — both SDPD and FBI — who had infiltrated antiwar or organizations and the Black Panthers. According to Diepersloot, "Sometimes the information [tipsters] gave us even exceeded our biggest paranoid fantasies."
One such fantasy was realized near the end of 1969, just after the Street Journal had published a story about C. Arnholt Smith that recirculated damaging material from the Wall Street Journal. According to the December 12, 1969 Street Journal, "An intimate of the Smith household, who feels some sympathy for the Street Journal, was present when Smith saw that issue of the paper." The source said that Smith then called James Copley, owner/publisher of San Diego's two main dailies, and the two men "agreed to crush the Street Journal by whatever means necessary."
Smith, fit at 93 and living in Rancho Santa Fe, says he vaguely remembers "a little throwaway that was raising hell about everybody, but I didn't talk to Jim Copley about it. How the hell could crush a paper! And to what purpose? They'd just start printing elsewhere." Whether anybody ordered a crackdown on the paper may never be known, but it is undeniable that shortly after that Smith's story appeared, the paper's office was burglarized and its typesetting equipment destroyed, a staffer's car was fire bombed , and police surveillance and harassment intensified.