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Exhibits celebrate 50 years of The Fifth Estate

Sep 10, 2015

The Winter 1988-89 issue of The Fifth Estate
Credit reddit user Crispin777 / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

1965 was a big year for many Americans.

We saw a 700% increase in the number of American troops in Vietnam.

The U.S. began bombing North Vietnam with Operation Rolling Thunder.

Former Vice President Richard Nixon rejected any talk of ending the Vietnam War, writing, “There can be no substitute for victory when the objective is the defeat of communist aggression."

Anti-war protests became larger and more frequent, especially on college campuses.

By year’s end, a Quaker protester named Norman Morrison had immolated himself in front of the Pentagon.

And 1965 was the year that a 17-year-old Detroiter named Harvey Ovshinky founded The Fifth Estate. Ovshinky was soon joined by Peter Werbe, and today it’s the nation’s oldest continuously published underground newspaper.

Half a century later, you can still read The Fifth Estate.

The paper’s 50th anniversary is being marked with exhibitions at the Detroit Historical Museum and at MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Ovshinky tells us he didn’t at all expect the paper to stick around as long as it has.

“We didn’t think we were making history, we thought we were making news … and talking about issues and writing about issues that were important to us,” he says. “We were in the moment. We never thought about the future that much. I didn’t, anyway.”

Ovshinky’s first experience with underground press was working with the Los Angeles Free Press, and he tells us the experience was so exciting that he felt compelled to bring what he had learned back home.

The two feel that the ideas and topics they chose to wrote about really set their paper apart at the time.

Werbe tells us that women, young people, and African Americans barely played a role in news media, and in fact were hardly mentioned.

He compares the state of the news at that point to a hand mirror, holding a tailored selection of society’s image up to itself.

They wanted to present society its reflection in a full-length mirror.

Werbe tells us The Fifth Estate immediately broke from the pack by writing about topics like the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and police brutality.

“Unless you read The Fifth Estate you wouldn’t know they were going on. If you read the Free Press and [Detroit] News, none of this happened,” he says.

The two say that at the time they didn’t realize the impact their work would have on media around them, but that effect has been thrown into sharp relief over the years and while they prepared the exhibits for the two museums.

“What Harvey ... and four other people began in different cities, to have the five original underground papers, blossomed up to 500 regularly-appearing newspapers that had a circulation nationally by 1970 of five million,” Werbe tells us. “So I’m sure they had people down in Lafayette where the News and Free Press were taking a look at not only how we looked but also what we were writing about.”

According to Ovshinky, there was at the time an accepted, standardized way that a newspaper was structured, and they did all they could with The Fifth Estate to break the status quo.

“The revolution, as we called it, was in content and also in design. In the old days you had a certain way to lay out newspapers,” Ovshinky says. “We really shook things up in terms of not just what we wrote about, but also what it looked like when we laid it out.”

Werbe adds that their style of reporting further set The Fifth Estate apart.

“We were involved with what we called engaged journalism,” he says. “We would come back from demonstrations still with tear gas on our clothing and sometimes bruises from police truncheons, and write about the demonstrations.”

The Detroit News would say, ‘Anti-war protestors riot,’ and we would write, ‘Police attack peaceful anti-war demonstrators,’” Werbe says.

“And let’s be fair, we were happy with what we wrote, and so were our readers young and old,” Ovshinky says, “but not everyone was so pleased with the content of The Fifth Estate. It was quite revolutionary, especially for young people.”

Ovshinky tells us that the exhibits at the Detroit Historical Museum and MOCAD are an exciting chance to teach people a little bit about the '60s.

“This is an opportunity for people my age and younger … to show and share what they went through and talked about in the '60s. The exciting stuff, the hardcore stuff, the politics, the culture – both these exhibits offer that opportunity to in a sense recreate on a virtual reality basis … a taste of what the '60s were like,” he says.

More information on the exhibits at the Detroit Historical Museum and MOCAD can be found on their respective websites.

Harvey Ovshinky and Peter Werbe tell us more about the history and influence of The Fifth Estate in our conversation above.

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside