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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Jerry Rubin and the Media

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

They threatened to put LSD into the city's water supply, organize a march of 20,000 naked hippies, levitate the Pentagon, and raid the Chicago office of the National Biscuit Company to provide bread and cookies for the poor. The fact that putting LSD into a resevoir wouldn't work, that 20,000 naked hippies never materialized, that their levitation powers were severely limited, and that there was no Chicago office of the biscuit company mattered little. They were media terrorists, the ultimate put-on artists. They developed the practical joke and the April Fool's prank into powerful political weapons. And now they're dead.

Jerry Rubin died last week. His end came in a final nonconformist act - he was struck by a car while jaywalking. His "partner" Abbie Hoffman commited suicide in 1989.

Together these two were the Marxist-Lennonists of the 1960's - Harpo Marx and John Lennon. Revolutionaries and anti-war activists, they demonstrated an uncanny ability to manipulate the media, to not only make fun of nearly everything and everybody (themselves included), but also to get a wide audience for their antics.

Make no mistake about it - they were offensive. They TRIED to be offensive, not just to get covered by the media, but also to get their point across. They understood what grabs our attention and used a clever sort of outrageousness to get their message out. Tossing dollar bills from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange and laughing as stock brokers suspended all trading to scramble for the money said more about our commercial culture than any speech could.

Rubin made a point by showing up at the House Un-American Activities Committee dressed as Paul Revere, Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, and a Viet Cong (carrying a toy M-16 rifle).

He and the other co-conspirators turned their Chicago 7 trial into theater, a daily drama. They wore judicial robes to court, passed out jelly beans to the spectators, kissed witnesses, and backtalked judge Julius Hoffman. They were cited for contempt of court over 200 times during the trial (later reversed on appeal), but they got our attention.

They were media creatures. Rubin was described as "the P.T. Barnum of the Revolution," and took to mocking even his own celebrity. When people tried to take his picture, he held up a sign that said "Kodak Scenic Site #47." For a few years, Rubin and others consciously alienated the American public in order to provoke crises. They carefully crafted zany media images, but found later in life that it was impossible to escape the media spotlight once you aimed it at yourself.

"To live inside a media image is like a prison," Rubin later complained. "Living for your image means sacrificing your true self." But his image was impossible to escape. He was called a "sell-out" when he started dealing in stocks, running seminars for businessmen, and organizing distributors for a health drink.

"Stereotypes die hard," he wrote in 1972. He was right.

He understood how to manipulate the media, how to become a prankster for the Woodstock generation, how to inflame and incite people with humor and outrage both. He understood so much about the media circus he helped create and expand, except for one thing: that once you take center ring in the circus, it's impossible to get out.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.