By Joshua Brustein
August 7, 2009
On Aug. 18, 1969, The New York Times ran an article intended to serve
as a primer on a basic element of Woodstock, the huge rock festival
on a farm in upstate New York that had become impossible to ignore.
It ran under the headline "Bethel Pilgrims Smoke 'Grass' and Some
Take LSD to 'Groove'."
"In the argot of the drug scene and the Woodstock Music and Art
Fair was the focus of that scene in the northeast this weekend
'grass' is marijuana, and getting 'stoned' is getting high on it,"
the story explained. It went on to explain that people at rock
concerts were inspired to take drugs "primarily because they produce
a euphoria and, in the setting of rock music, allow the users to
'groove' on the sounds."
Festivalgoers have been known to say Woodstock changed their lives;
some academics and journalism experts have noted that the way the
media approached popular culture also shifted significantly with the
coverage of the three-day festival.
Barnard Collier, the reporter who wrote that article, described a
tension among his editors first about whether it should even cover
Woodstock, then about what the story was. His original pitch to write
about the festival was rejected. But his brothers, who worked in the
music industry, told him that it was worth attending, so he went
anyway. After the size of the crowds forced highway closings, he
called his editors again, who relented. When he started his
reporting, Mr. Collier quickly realized that it was not only The
Times that had initially ignored the event. He walked into a trailer
that the organizers had set up for the press and found it completely vacant.
He wrote and contributed to several articles over the next few days,
including the one with the explainer on recreational drug use.
"In retrospect it's fascinating," said Mr. Collier in an interview
earlier this week. "Now everyone knows that stuff. Back then nobody
knew," he said. [Mr. Collier's front-page story on Woodstock,
published August 17, 1969 (pdf)]
The confusion over what to make of Woodstock was also evident on the
editorial page. An editorial dated Aug. 18 denounced the event,
saying that "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." The editorial did acknowledge, however, that "the great bulk of
freakish-looking intruders behaved astonishingly well." The next day,
there was another editorial: Woodstock was "essentially, a phenomenon
of innocence," it read, even if "by adult standards, the event was
clearly a disaster, an outrageous upset of all the normal patterns."
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia
University and author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,"
said that the late 1960s marked a difficult transition for the news
media, as it struggled to deal with political and cultural shifts
that were happening faster than it could react. In the years leading
up to Woodstock, he said, the tone of most mainstream journalism
about youth culture tended to take an "aren't the natives quaint,"
tone. By the major upheavals of the late 1960s, he said, that
approach was clearly not working.
"If there are hundreds of thousands of kooks pouring into Woodstock,
it's not sufficient to say they're kooks. That's not very
illuminating," he said. "That kind of shallowness in those years were
The mainstream media's confusion was relished in hipper corners.
Rolling Stone wrote that "A new nation has emerged into the glare
provided by the open-mouthed media."
But Woodstock also served as impetus for change at publications that
had ignored popular culture to that point, said Kenneth A. Paulson,
president of the Newseum and a founding editor of USA Today. A new
exhibit at the museum presents Woodstock as the starting point for
modern music journalism.
"In 1969 The New York Times covered Woodstock as though they were
anthropologists. They had to explain strange words like 'groove,' and
'rapping'," he said. "But you know what? The journalism world got hip
According to Mr. Paulson, publications shifted their coverage of
popular culture almost immediately following Woodstock, hiring young
writers to cover new beats. Mr. Paulson, who was 15 in 1969, got his
first journalism job the following year, covering music for $1 an
inch at a magazine called Environs in suburban Chicago.
The change was rapid, he said.
"The news business went from barely covering rock 'n' roll to an
explosion of coverage in the next year. By the time a review of the
Woodstock movie came around, it was less a movie review than a
statement of human purpose," he said, referring to the documentary
about Woodstock that came out in 1970. "In other words, we kicked
into pretentious gear pretty quickly."