MAY/JUN 2001


by Edward Herman

New management at Pacifica radio is attempting to shut down its premier dissenting news program, Democracy Now! But it will not go without a fight.

The daily program, which has been carried on the non-profit Pacifica radio network for the past five years has been a rare and precious feature of an otherwise grim broadcasting scene in the United States. The program departs regularly from the establishment news agenda which dominates not only commercial broadcasting but National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System across most of the country.

Its director, Amy Goodman, regularly uses dissident sources on standard topics like the Kosovo war, the military budget, election funding, the drug war and intervention in Colombia, and she gives access to presidential candidates such as Ralph Nader who are marginalized by the mainstream media and not permitted to debate issues. She works hard to make her program a beacon of questioning, dissident journalism. Goodman and Democracy Now! keep coming back to issues like East Timor, approved ethnic cleansing in Turkey, the West Bank, and Nato-occupied Kosovo, Lori Berenson imprisoned in Peru, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier imprisoned in the United States, corporate abuse of the environment (as in oil exploration in the Niger delta and the Amazon), and capital punishment.

Issues that officials and their mainstream media followers find inconvenient and not newsworthy, but which are vitally important if only because they are never covered elsewhere by the rest of the "free" media. All this is now at risk from a management takeover, political interference and the pressures of the market.

Dissent on the airwaves

Pacifica is a five-station radio network that began operating in Berkeley, California, in 1949. It was specifically designed to be listener-supported, locally-based and locally-oriented, and to provide alternative radio that would challenge the war-based economy and system of governance. It expanded from Berkeley to reach New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Houston. For decades, it has been the only seriously dissident radio network in the United States.

This has made it especially important as public radio and TV in this country have been seriously constrained by political pressure and minimal funding, and commercial broadcasting is commercial broadcasting—entertainment-focused and tending either to avoid politics altogether, or to address it from establishment or right-wing viewpoints. Pacifica, standing alone as a dissident and alternative network, has been the object of steady political attack ever since it was founded. Now those attacks are in danger of destroying it altogether.

Control of Pacifica was seized in the 1990s by a board faction determined to deradicalize the station and pursue their own political agenda. This group has steadily managed to reduce representation from the station and its advisory boards, culminating in bylaw changes in 1999 which made the board itself the exclusive selector of new board members. What this means for Democracy Now! seems increasingly clear: they want rid of it, and its troublesome questions.

Attacking diversity

Amy Goodman soon found out what was going on. In September and October 2000, she was twice brought to Washington DC by the Pacifica management, first for admonishment on the "tone and content" of her programming, and then to be threatened with termination unless she met a series of onerous work conditions applicable to her alone.

This was the culmination of months of increasing harassment and growing hostility by the Pacifica management, and was clearly related to the dissident quality of Democracy Now! Effectively, the control group that for some years had been trying to rid the Pacifica stations of leftists and dissenters and bring the system within the mainstream was ratcheting up its act. Goodman and Democracy Now! presented a serious problem because they are very popular, command a large and devoted audience, and have been important Pacifica fundraisers.

The management, claiming to be pushing Pacifica toward the centre in order to increase audience size, was stymied by a program with a left and anti-establishment bent that was actually drawing larger numbers of listeners than the dumbed-down and less political programs favored by the management. Ironically, in other words, the popularity of dissenting voices was the biggest obstacle to the management¹s aim of removing those voices from the air—in the name of the listeners.

Determined to remake the "old Pacifica", which was based on employees, devoted local audiences, and a progressive and anti-status quo politics, into a "new Pacifica" which would attract money and be politically "relevant," the coup management began to clean house, replacing dissident managers and programrs, and adding to the board businessmen expert in selling properties and dealing with recalcitrant unions.

The management moved the Pacifica offices from Berkeley, California, to Washington DC, the city where many of the management¹s friends and allies are located. The reaction from the employees and audiences, however, was intense and severe. From 1995 to the present, Pacifica has been in turmoil, with unprecedented levels of strikes, firings, massive street protests, station lock-outs with replacement workers, and numerous law suits contesting management rights to transform the stations at their discretion.

Friends in high places

The new Pacifica management has drawn much sustenance from Washington power brokers connected to the Democratic Party and the foreign policy establishment. The chairman of the Pacifica board from 1997 to 2000, Mary Francis Berry, who is still a board consultant, was a Democratic Party-appointed administrator in Washington, and a Party stalwart.

Close allies of the Pacifica management, and regular advisers as well as funders, have been leaders of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and NPR. CPB President and CEO, Robert Coonrod, who has been closely involved with the Pacifica management for some years, spent most of his working life in the US foreign service and with the US propaganda agencies Voice of America and United States Information Agency. NPR is headed by a former Voice of America executive, Kevin Close. CPB Vice President Richard Madden has regularly intervened in Pacifica affairs to criticize its news coverage—most recently, WBAI¹s reporting of The Right to Return Rally held by Palestinians in Washington, DC—and to support and advise the management in its efforts to "NPR-ize" the network.

The Pacifica management and political friends of the management were particularly upset by Amy Goodman¹s friendly interview with Ralph Nader on the floor of the Republican Party convention during last year’s Presidential election campaign. Former Pacifica top manager Pat Scott was urging Goodman to ease up on the Democrats years ago, and in a tough election year there were intensified pressures to get on board and not act as "spoilers" to the chances of a Democrat victory. So political conformity—staying within the mainstream—was, and is, demanded of the underlings. The managers are part of an elite and mainstream culture, far distant from the traditional Pacifica audiences and employees. It has apparently never occurred to this group that audiences might actually be enlarged by more honest, questioning and alternative programs like Democracy Now!

The counter-revolution from above has been distressingly successful so far. The Washington DC, Houston, and Los Angeles stations have been brought into the mainstream, and the two stations still reflecting the "old" Pacifica, WBAI in New York and KPFA in Berkeley, remain under threat. The attack on Amy Goodman, who is stationed at WBAI, marked a further step in the war for political conformity. It has been followed in November and December 2000, by the dismissal and replacement of WBAI’s long-time general manager, the firing of dissident personnel, and a lock-out of others, as the Pacifica management attempts to push yet another station into the mainstream. This has produced a new wave of protests from traditional Pacifica audiences.

The counter-revolution

An important feature of the counter-revolution has been its use of censorship as an instrument for weeding out dissidents as well as pressing for political conformity in news reporting. For years, the management has imposed "gag rules," preventing any discussion of Pacifica-related issues on its news programs. Progressives and just plain believers in free speech, who have stubbornly persisted in violating the rules, have been fired.

This has decimated the stations of dissenters via supposed "personnel" decisions. It seems as though Amy Goodman is being set up for a fall by means of the same process—fixing new and unreasonable work rules, the violation of which will result in termination. The reality seems clear: this is political censorship, barely veiled.

While the employees and traditional audiences of Pacifica have been putting up a strong fight against the counter-revolution, it has been amazing to see how many free speech advocates, liberals, and even leftists have stood by without protest as the last US network bastion of anti-establishment news and opinion has been threatened with extinction. A petition was even circulated last year with signatures from several dozen erstwhile leftists from The Nation magazine and Institute for Policy Studies, protesting at—unbelievably—"management bashing" by defenders of the old Pacifica. This is a form of self destruction, which is helping to sink a media institution that was their ally and would be important for their effectiveness.

One of the great lessons of media history, illustrated in part by the effects of the demise of the social democratic press in Britain in the 1960s, is that without a dissenting media, any alternative politics, and the ability to build and maintain a grassroots political base, is at a grave disadvantage. This is a lesson that the new Pacifica management either have not learned or, simply, do not care about.

But this battle over the soul of dissenting radio in the United States is not yet over. There are at least three court cases in progress contesting the Pacifica management’s right to transform the institution at will; and the old Pacifica supporters are still fighting vigorously, even if they have been abandoned by too many civil libertarians and other potential allies.

Democracy Now!’s political convention coverage during the election campaign last year was telecast via satellite and community television networks by Deep Dish TV in collaboration with Free Speech TV. DeeDee Halleck and Michelle Syverson are working to build on that success with a daily national video feed of the program, with or without Pacifica. This could transform Democracy Now! into the first on-going national progressive daily television news program in the US. One wonders what the Pacifica management would have to say about that. R

Edward Herman is an economist and media analyst. He has a regular column in Z Magazine and is the author of a number of books, including Manufacturing Consent (with Noam Chomsky) and Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo War.



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