In this era of conglomerate mergers and bottom-line obsessions,
it's easy to believe that the media industry requires yielding to
expediency. Like most people, media employees want job security. Few are
inclined to risk their livelihoods and careers for matters of principle.
For more than two years now, a real-life media drama involving the
noncommercial Pacifica radio network has put a national spotlight on
tensions between divergent options -- taking the path of least resistance
and taking an idealistic stand.
Under escalating pressure in early 1999, news reporters and public
affairs producers at Northern California's 50-year-old KPFA Radio -- the
first listener-supported station in the country -- refused to be censored
or intimidated by firings, threats and armed guards posted in the studios
by Pacifica management.
Pacifica executives figured that if they tightened the screws,
KPFA's staff would opt for personal self-interest rather than solidarity
based on idealism. And in the early summer of 1999 -- minutes after KPFA
aired excerpts from a press conference that indicated Pacifica was
considering sale of the nonprofit station -- management cut off a live news
broadcast, then locked out the staff and volunteers. Longtime KPFA
journalists were arrested in the station's newsroom.
It didn't work. Massive community support for KPFA, with several
weeks of protests including a march of more than 10,000 people past the
station's studios in Berkeley, forced Pacifica to allow the station to
resume its treasured broadcasting role.
Today, out of the five Pacifica-owned stations, KPFA is the only
one where a climate of fear doesn't reign. And not coincidentally, when
this month began, KPFA was the only one of those stations airing "Democracy
Now!" -- the award-winning and pathbreaking daily public-affairs program
that Pacifica stopped broadcasting in mid-August, after many months of
mounting harassment aimed at host Amy Goodman.
As part of the continuing legacy of gutsy actions by KPFA
supporters, the station's listeners were able to hear "Democracy Now!"
coverage from South Africa of the recent World Conference Against Racism.
Those broadcasts were blocked at the other Pacifica stations -- in Los
Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington, D.C. -- where reliance on
threats now flourishes as a standard instrument of management.
Founded as an alternative to mainstream media conformity a
half-century ago, Pacifica has descended into a censorious maelstrom during
the past few years. Ever since late December 2000, New York's WBAI Radio
(where "Democracy Now!" was long based) has been in the hands of an
autocratic regime, fixated on banishing reporters, producers and others
with progressive politics and the gumption to stand up for their beliefs.
After eight months of repressive actions at WBAI, an important
national magazine on the political left, The Nation, published a Sept. 3
editorial that didn't come close to the denunciation of Pacifica management
that would seem to be in line with the magazine's pronouncements on
journalistic integrity elsewhere.
Along the way, in the editorial, The Nation made no mention of the
fact that its weekly national program "RadioNation" is co-produced by
Pacifica's Los Angeles outlet KPFK, where the station's management has been
rigorous about preventing criticism of Pacifica from getting onto its
airwaves. A forthright disclaimer, accompanying the editorial, would have
let readers know that The Nation might have something appreciable to gain
by remaining on the good side of often-retaliatory Pacifica management.
By not acknowledging that reality, the magazine withheld relevant
information in an unsigned editorial -- rendered as the voice of The
Nation. I asked editors about the magazine's working relationship with
Pacifica and why the editorial made no mention of that relationship. The
top editor responded by describing the magazine's ties with Pacifica's KPFK
but offered no explanation about the absence of a disclaimer in the editorial.
For years now, from coast to coast, some of the best journalists
in Pacifica's history have been subjected to a de facto blacklist. Pacifica
management and the administrators now running four of its stations have
been vengeful to an extreme in retaliating against those who voice strong
Ironically, The Nation has published many eloquent pieces over the
years decrying the pernicious blacklisting of the McCarthy Era. The
magazine's current editorial director may be the country's leading
authority on the subject. But The Nation's editorial did not challenge the
ongoing pattern of harassment, intimidation and firings by Pacifica managers.
In a corporate media tradition, while calculating how to deal with
personnel, the executives in charge of media outlets do not consider hunger
for social justice. Hopes and dreams do not show up on a spreadsheet. But
they can have tangible and profound effects on history in the making.
The past few years have seen a growing national movement to "save
Pacifica" (www.savepacifica.net). This movement represents grassroots media
activism -- researching, organizing and agitating to reclaim the largest
progressive radio network in the United States while prying it loose from
the hands of a mostly self-selected corporate-oriented national board.
Meanwhile, for now anyway, KPFA is notable as the only Pacifica
station free of the network's censorship mentality. Why do KPFA's
broadcasters and listeners get to enjoy such freedom every day? They
struggled for it.
And the struggle continues.
Norman Solomon's weekly syndicated column -- archived at
www.fair.org/media-beat/ -- focuses on media and politics. His latest book
is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."