How many times have you heard someone say, "I am tired of hearing what you are against. Tell me what you are for."
Media critics hear this all the time, since by instinct and disposition, we are expected to be critical, to pick at the flaws, scabs and shortcomings of what passes for news and media programming. If you are too positive, you get criticized for being soft-headed or falling for hype. It maybe the desire to avoid being labeled as mushy or biased that leads far too many of my colleagues to flip too far the other way, into bunkers of arrogance where skepticism and cynicism become the only virtues. The media magazine Brill's Content calls skepticism a virtue in its advertising.
It's the same when it comes to expressing enthusiasm for someone's work. Journalists can be among the bitchiest people on earth, putting each other down with regularity. Some of our best writers are famous for the way they turn their pens into scalpels, lacerating enemies but rarely praising friends. Yet some situations compel discussion. While not everyone who reads this will know the work of the person I'm writing about, the challenges she's facing and the issues she's raised have a much broader resonance in the media world.
So permit me to be an exception and to talk about an exceptional radio journalist who may soon be driven off the air by a "progressive" network and then catapulted into an unwanted media martyrdom. Her name is Amy Goodman, and she hosts a daily "grassroots" radio program called "Democracy Now," (www.democracynow.org) which uniquely covers the world through the eyes of activists and advocates with radical outlooks. If conventional news broadcasting is the thesis, "Democracy Now" is its unconventional antithesis.
Amy is not a close friend. In fact, I have found her a hard person to schmooze with over the years. Humor is not her strong point. She works hard and when she's not working, she works harder. She is earnest to a fault, with little patience for folks who may have a more nuanced stance on certain issues than she does. But she is informed, committed, passionate, thorough and very uncompromising. She has grown enormously on the job and is widely respected by loyal listeners coast to coast. For progressive news and issue junkies, Amy is in a class of her own, even as her show, co-hosted by the always excellent New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, has become the daily on-air classroom on the issues of the day.
Alert: Amy's Days On Air May Be Numbered
Amy works for Pacifica Radio and its New York affiliate WBAI-FM, presenting a daily, hour-long, syndicated, nationally distributed news magazine, the one show to cover international issues with depth and dimension. Her show is the most listened to and best-known on a network that has over the years nurtured some of the best radio journalists in this country. Many alumni have gone on to distinction on National Public Radio (NPR) and TV news, while others, like KPFA's incisive Larry Bensky, have been pushed to the margins as a result of bitter conflict within Pacifica (note: Larry has worked with us here at MediaChannel).
Pacifica was founded after World War II by Lew Hill, a pacifist with a strong commitment to freedom of speech, by which he meant the freedom of on-air program hosts to do their own thing. He created KPFA in Berkeley with a vision of building a listener-sponsored community radio station with a diverse range of voices. His idea soon inspired a five-station network of autonomously run operations in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Berkeley and later Houston, Texas. Many other community stations these days carry Pacifica programming as well. That programming may be uneven, but it is often the most provocative on the dial, especially in periods of crisis and controversy. Sometimes I find it infuriatingly "politically correct" and even strident. When the rest of the media were into "all Monica all the time," Pacifica countered with "all Mumia all the time" (covering the movement to support Mumia Abu Jamal, the Philadelphia journalist on death row). I can't stand the frequent technical gaffes or the sometimes overzealous preaching to the converted. Yet for all its shortcomings, there is nothing else like it. And I say this as a 10-year veteran of radio newscasting on a commercial station. At least the Pacifica stations I am familiar with in New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area stay true to their mission, while NPR keeps on getting blander and the rest of the dial becomes sickeningly over-commercialized and homogenized. That Pacifica would seek to undercut the one national show that is building audience and generating attention showcases some of the crippling contradictions within the network.
Lew Hill's liberal ideas were challenged internally almost as soon as Pacifica went on the air in the late 1940s, by more radical radioheads with pronounced progressive agendas. (Hill committed suicide in 1959). They felt that in a country dominated by media outlets so tilted to the right, progressive perspectives and not just "free speech" deserve an outlet of their own. Over the years, ideological tensions between center and left, liberal and far left, men and women, white radicals and black nationalists, unions and management, have divided a network that was also always scrambling for money to survive. At the same time, it produced programming that built loyal audiences and spurred activist movements. At Pacifica, all too often, righteousness, not ratings, rules.
Pacifica blew earlier chances to compete effectively against the right-wing talk shows that dominate the medium. When Pacifica finally got around to producing a national talk show — ten years after Rush Limbaugh debuted — bickering about air time and a lack of marketing efforts by the poorly administered national office prevented it from reaching a wider audience, although "Living Room" with Larry Bensky quickly became the most popular program on two of the four Pacifica stations that carried it.
Pacifica began to change through a complicated chain of events including management shakeups at the local stations and a nationwide battle between those favoring local control and others pushing for centralized national direction. As the media environment shifted rightwards, progressives and an eclectic mix of personalities tried to cling to their sinecures.
As the political culture mellowed, the core audience aged and the programming often stayed static, with some time slots occasionally unlistenable and even loyal listeners beginning to tune out. Tolerance for dissenting views started to fray. Suffice it to say, there were and are as many internal problems and contradictions as one expects — alas — within underfunded alternative media institutions.
Many who worked at the stations were not paying enough attention to what was happening at the national level. In a move to win more legitimacy and seek new sources of funding at the federal level (and perhaps within the corporate sector), Pacifica, with the backing of many stalwarts, recruited Dr. Mary Francis Berry to run the network. On paper, she had all the credentials an alternative network would want. A prominent, black law professor and chair of the United States Civil Rights Commission, she seemed like the perfect bridge between the political mainstream and the fringier Pacifica radio revolutionaries. Berry seemed ideal to those within Pacifica who judge people on their stated politics and visible ethnicity, rather than investigate the details behind their resumes. In fact, she had left a trail of bitterness and resentment behind her in many stops during her career. After taking over Pacifica, this leadership style reached something of an apotheosis, and morphed into a power-crazy nightmare. She fired popular program directors and redirected resources and decision-making away from the communities to a board and national office under her control.
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It was her top-down approach that provoked a high-profile strike and mass protests at KPFA last year, a situation that continues in the form of lawsuits and bitter acrimony. (For background, see the POV documentary "KPFA: On The Air". For the status of this struggle, visit www.savepacifica.net). The hot rumor was that Berry wanted to sell off some of the Pacifica outlets that occupy valuable broadcast real estate in order to acquire smaller stations in the South that she could remake in her image. Typically, Berry moves like a Washington insider, without much regard for accountability or transparency, acting in back rooms while mostly refusing to be interviewed. She has argued that Pacifica's problem was that it was stuck in the past, but her idea of a more mainstream future was not one that caught fire with core supporters. Rather than embrace her leadership, they challenged it and were responded to literally with force — security guards taking over KPFA station and mass arrests. That confrontation finally resulted in a stalemate that left the deeper issues still to be resolved. Among them are finances. According to Larry Bensky of KPFA in a soon-to-be-published interview: "Any money that gets into their hands now is dangerous, including the 17 percent or more they get from the stations and the $100,000 they're charging KPFA per year for their outrageous attack on the station. They do whatever they damn please with this money .... We need to get full disclosure of the finances. That's why Pacifica has fought so hard to keep any of the current lawsuits against them from proceeding. And, incidentally, we have no idea where they're getting — or taking — the money to oppose our lawsuits."
Berry finally stepped down as board chairman this month, but her appointees continue to run the network. If you are interested in how this debate played out at Pacifica's last board meeting on September 17, you can read the minutes on the Pacifica site or check out a video of board members being served with a lawsuit brought by staffers and listeners.
Amy's Role at Pacifica
As this battle flared, Amy Gooman kept her head down and her focus on anchoring her show, often breaking stories and winning awards while shaking her mike at the news establishment. (Many of those battling Pacifica at KPFA are still bitter that she remained aloof from their struggle). Now the Pacifica brass are taking exception to Amy's upfront, politicized approach and her refusal to get along by going along. So Pacifica is trying to force her out. And, typically, they are doing it in a backhanded manner by imposing new rules and policies that are not applied to anyone else. At an Indy Media Conference in Vermont at which we were both speaking a couple of weeks ago, Amy told me the whole story before it became public. She says she's been "under siege." She was very agitated, feeling isolated and alone. We discussed a meeting she was planning with a new Pacifica official who, she says, is out to get her. I advised her to bring a lawyer and her union rep. She did both, but when she showed up at the scheduled time, Pacifica refused to talk and instead handed her an ultimatum in writing that ordered her to submit the subjects of all stories in advance, stop using volunteer help (at a network built with volunteers!) and clear all outside speaking engagements. So much for democracy at that office.
Here is a brief excerpt from a response Amy sent to the Pacifica Board (leaked by an unknown source and quickly passed around in cyberspace):
"A few days ago, I was given a shocking memo from Pacifica Program Director Stephen Yasko and Pacifica attorney Larry Drapkin. In the 3-page memo, Yasko listed a series of Pacifica policies and work rules that I was ordered to immediately adhere to or face 'disciplinary actions up to and including termination.' Several of the new 'rules' target me with restrictions not applied to other Pacifica employees, and are outright attempts to curtail my constitutional rights of free speech. Some rules go against the very principles of community radio on which Pacifica was founded, while still others will have the effect of hampering 'Democracy Now''s ability to reach the widest possible audience." Click here for the entire letter.
Note: I called Steve Yasko several times to get his side of the story and also e-mailed him, asking for comment. He has not gotten back to me, and I doubt that he will. Pacifica didn't even bother to advise us that they have now issued a statement on the matter denying all of Amy's allegations. Clearly the pressure campaign has forced them on the defensive and to backtrack a bit. The larger problems remain.
The independent media community began mobilizing when this memo was leaked. Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) issued an action alert to mobilize support. "Essentially, these rules make it impossible for Goodman to continue to produce the hard-hitting, breaking news stories 'Democracy Now' is famous for," says FAIR senior analyst Steve Rendall. "It seems clear that Pacifica is trying to force Amy out of her job."
Michael Albert, editor of Z magazine, goes further, arguing: "Over the past few years, Pacifica's authorities have coercively transformed an admittedly under-utilized people's network into a nearly mainstream structure. They have duplicitously argued that they are only trying to increase Pacifica's audience and impact, but even Pacifica's authorities can't expect anyone to believe that attacking 'Democracy Now' is aimed at increasing audience. 'Democracy Now' is the most popular, successful, influential and, bar none, the best program Pacifica has." He calls attention to Edward Herman's 'Pacifica Endgame,' an in-depth analysis of these events and their historical context.
On the face of it, Pacifica's efforts to rein in Amy Goodman are no different than the controls imposed at other networks, where correspondents must report to their superiors and clear outside speaking gigs. But at Pacifica these demands — and the way they've been imposed — seem to signal less an effort to uphold high professional standards and more an attempt to provoke Amy to quit and to change the political character of the program. In this dispute, Amy is asserting a right to free speech that most journalists routinely have to give up when they work for media companies that demand that they fall into line with company guidelines and news policies that restrain them from indulging in free speech — oddly, in the name of a free press. This fight has raised this complex issue anew, as well as the question of whether an opinionated program like "Democracy Now" can survive on the broadcast spectrum (even though it has a wide following).
If you have ever heard it, and want to save it, then it's time to speak out. Write a pre-addressed email to members of the Pacifica National Board (Group One | Group Two). Media-Alliance of San Francisco and FAIR have called for nationwide demonstrations this Wednesday, October 24. If you live in New York you can also attend a briefing and discussion of the situation on Monday, October 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the offices of DC 1707, 75 Varick St., 14th floor.
If you haven't yet heard "Democracy Now," you can listen on the Web. Journalists like Amy Goodman should be rewarded, not rejected. Pacifica, like Melville's Ahab chasing that whale to his own death, is in danger of going down, and it's not a welcome sight at a time when cowardice and conformity dominate the American media. Friends of mine close to the situation are already drafting Pacifica's obit — but as Yogi Berra is forever quoted (never more appropriately amidst the hype of New York's World Series mania) "it ain't over till it's over." But over it may be, suggests an observer: "Pacifica failed (I think it's pretty much over, by the way, absent some unlikely legal miracle) because of an absence of leadership, and the consensus that leadership helps build. Add an overlay of race (in which black opportunism mixed with white guilty liberalism), egotism, and financial magnetism and you've got the story."
Can The Situation Be Saved?
The internal processes at Pacifica that should be strengthening alternative radio seem to be having the opposite effect. It is long past time to bring in some third parties to try to save both Amy and Pacifica before another bitter battle leads to a destructive implosion. As the network identified with democracy, Pacifica should let a bit rub off on its own operations.
Democracy Now. It's a good idea. Why not try it?