Woodstock and the New York Times

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On the 40-year anniversary of Woodstock, a new book—Peter Fornatale’s Back to the Garden—has a great description of the horror with which New York Times’ editors regarded the whole affair:

[T]he real fun began on Monday, August 18, when the Times printed an editorial with the headline “Nightmare in the Catskills,” which read in part: “The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea. They ended in a nightmare of mud and stagnation that paralyzed Sullivan County for a whole weekend. What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?”

As Fornatale writes, the festival sparked a mini-culture war between the reporters out at Woodstock and the editors back in Manhattan:

John Morris: “I had the New York Times staff in my office. And the ones who went back to New York and went into Arthur Sulzberger’s office and said, “We quit!” He said, “What are you talking about?” “The editorial in The New York Times today trashing Woodstock, taking it apart, calling it filthy, mud-soaked is so inaccurate and is so different from all the reports that we’ve been sending down, and all the things that we’ve told everybody, that we don’t want to work for the paper anymore.” And he went, “Ooops!” And they changed the editorial the next day. The New York Times doesn’t recant editorials. But they did.”

The new version on August 19 was headlined “Morning After at Bethel” and read in part: “…the rock festival begins to take on the quality of a social phenomenon, comparable to the Tulipmania or the Children’s Crusade. And in spite of the prevalence of drugs—sales were made openly, and “you could get stoned just sitting there breathing,” a student gleefully reported—it was essentially a phenomenon of innocence. … Yet it is hardly credible that they should have turned out in such vast numbers and endured, patiently and in good humor, the discomforts of mud, rain, hunger, and thirst solely to hear bands they could hear on recordings in the comfort of home. They came, it seems, to enjoy their own society, free to exult in a life style that is its own declaration of independence. To such a purpose a little hardship could only be an added attraction.”

Now that’s duality!

Here’s reporter Barnard Law Collier’s take on the dustup: “Every major Times editor up to and including executive editor James Reston insisted that the tenor of the story must be a social catastrophe in the making. It was difficult to persuade them that the relative lack of serious mischief and the fascinating cooperation, caring, and politeness among so many people was the significant point. I had to resort to refusing to write the story unless it reflected to a great extent my on-the-scene conviction that “peace” and “love” was the actual emphasis, not the preconceived opinions of Manhattan-bound editors. After many acrimonious telephone exchanges, the editors agreed to publish the story as I saw it, and although the nuts-and-bolts matters of gridlock and minor lawbreaking were put close to the lead of the stories, the real flavor of the gathering was permitted to get across. After the first day’s Times story appeared on page 1, the event was widely recognized for the amazing and beautiful accident it was.”

 

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