CALM, DISPASSIONATE and a little short on vision, David Armstrong's history of the underground press is everything the underground press was not. The underground press -- a phenomenon of the '60s with antecedents in The Village Voice, I. F. Stone's Weekly, The Masses, and William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator -- was brash, naive, anarchistic, exciting and occasionally quite brilliant. But Armstrong is writing not just about the underground press but about "alternative media" -- a counterculture grab-bag which includes both the '60s underground press and the later alternative press, as well as leftist alternatives in film, video and radio.

The watershed years were 1971-72. Before that date, the underground media spoke in bold, youthful voices with intent to shock and outrage; the alternative media that followed were quieter and more responsible, subdued by the realization that revolution, or even significant social change, does not come overnight. Armstrong is quite adept at tracing the way this transition occurred.

As it turns out, government intervention, legal and otherwise, had a lot to do with it. The Central Intelligence Agency kept a clipping file on underground papers. Documents obtained four years ago under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that it also funded the College Press Service, sent an agent under its auspices to interview the Viet Cong in Paris and planted an operative on the staff of Quicksilver Times, a Washington paper that was in the habit of planning anti-war demonstrations.

Other FOI documents, as well as files stolen from the Federal Bureau of Investigation offices in Media, Pennsylvania, exposed the bureau's "Cointelpro" campaign, which included setting up a fictitious underground paper in Denver in order to subscribe to the College Press Service. In San Diego, where the unruly Street Journal was digging into the questionable finances of millionaire businessman and Nixon associate C. Arnholt Smith, the police responded by breaking into its offices and arresting its street vendors. When that proved ineffective, the Secret Army Organization, a right-wing paramilitary group with ties to both the Minutemen and the FBI, staged an apparent assassination attempt against a radical professor and a former staff member. The paper folder later that same year.

Even without government assistance, a number of the early papers managed to self-destruct. There was the Berkeley Tribe, whose short-lived experiment in utopian journalism ended when a knife came out at a Christmas party while everyone was high on LSD; shortly afterwards, half the staff melted into the woods. Their trail had been marked the year before by a faction at Liberation News Service, the UPI of the underground press, which had abandoned New York City for a Massachusetts farm only to find itself too preoccupied with the pressures of survival to have anything to say on the state of the world. As Armstrong points out, the impetus for this sylvan retreat was violence -- violence in the streets, violence on the campuses, violence that seemed a clear indication of what would come if dissent went too far.

The violence at Chicago in 1968, during demonstrations that had cynically been billed by Yippie media personalities as a "Festival of Life" despite mounting indications to the contrary, resulted in a gradual split between the political side of the youth movement and the drugs-and-rock-music side -- between the radicals and the hippies. As they slipped into the isolation pit of terrorism, the radicals lost sight of both their followers and their vision, which hardened and soured in the process. The hippies took note of the situation and either disappeared into the woods (explaining the phenomenal success of the novice farmers' magazine Mother Earth News) or succumbed to the temptations of mainstream, consumerist society (hence Rolling Stone, the Boston Phoenix and host of imitators that sprang up not because someone had a message but because someone perceived a vacuum in the market). Faced with Kent State on the one hand and commercial co-optation on the other, the young people of America made their choice. As Columbia Records proclaimed in its advertising, "The man can't bust our music."

Armstrong's account of how hip phenomena were packaged for mass consumption -- rock music by Rolling Stones, drugs by High Times, feminism by Ms. -- is sternly disappointing in tone. Curiously less so is his discussion of such "Aquarian" enterprises as East-West Journal and New Age magazine, despite the latter's acknowledged fascination with "prosperity consciousness" -- money. Indeed, one of the author's several failings is his use of the term "new age" without apparent embarrassment. Others include impossibly awkward phrasings ("many were the heads whose long hair was let down under the influence of drugs") and a failure even to acknowledge the real heirs of the underground press tradition -- artists and rock fans of the post-Woodstock generation who've lately been busy with magazines like Fetish, Slash, and Wet.

In "The New Muckrakers," his final substantive chapter, Armstrong celebrates the exploits of Mother Jones, the 250,000-circulation, San Francisco-based monthly that has replaced Ramparts as the National Review of the left. The names suggest the difference in tone -- and yet Mother Jones has hardly been timid, having broken major scandals involving the safety of the Dalkon Shield and the Ford Pinto and the corporate practice of dumping unsafe products in developing countries. Armstrong is a bit like Mother Jones himself -- reasoned, earnest, informative and dry.

His account is devoid of passion, and yet it provides a reminder of the importance alternative media had in the larger society. It is interesting to remember, for example, that Seymour Hersh's account of events at My Lai was rejected by both Life and Look before The New York Times picked it up from David Obst's Dispatch News Service. When the duplicitous origins of the Vietnam War were exposed with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the East Village Other observed: "They called us every name in the book -- fools, hippies, trippies, and yippies -- and yet the fact remains we were right."