Can Pacifica Radio Live Up to Its Promise?
In an age when "progressives" seem segmented at times, each faction focusing on specific issue areas; and at a time when the power of media seems central, the promise of the Pacifica network could be of enormous importance.
Pacifica was founded by radical pacifists who refused to fight even in World War II; nor were they content to wash their hands of the situation and be quietly hidden away in camps. Rather they wanted to disseminate their ideas; so after World War II, they established Pacifica radio, in the words of its mission, to "gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between" and to "contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and ... individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors." Hopefully the Pacifica board, which meets this weekend in New York City, will live up to this legacy.
In the late 90s and early in this decade, problems long-festering within Pacifica spilled out and resulted in a series of lockouts, lawsuits and conflicts that gripped the network, which owns five stations. By the time the cataclysmic events of 9-11 happened, the network was in a state of internal war; crucially, its flagship program, "Democracy Now!", was eerily being censored from Pacifica's stations in New York City and Washington, D.C.
This occurred largely because "Democracy Now!", unlike much of the other programming on those stations, sought to report on moves by the Pacifica national board, which seemed intent on mainstreaming the network, and possibly selling off parts of it. There was some indication that these actions could even have been motivated by goals of personal profit for board members (the stations are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars).
Some listeners, board members and programmers struggled to resist these attempts. By 2003, the lawsuits were settled, Pacifica's bylaws were rewritten and new Local Station Boards with more power were elected by listener/members to oversee the stations and in turn elect a national board. This new structure seems to have assured that there will not be a "hijacking" of Pacifica, but it has not shown that it is leading to a vibrant network -- which is what is desperately needed.
While there have been some positive developments since that time, their pace has been rather slow and there have also been some negative changes.
Imagine a Pacifica that has reporters going to the major news conferences: At the White House; at City Hall; at the State Department; at the Pentagon; at the place they call the Department of Justice; at the big think tanks. All asking tough, timely questions.
The WPFW (Pacifica's D.C. station) local board, when I was chairing it five years ago, called for this.
Had Pacifica reporters gotten into the White House regularly, or even the State Department or Pentagon, could they not have increased scrutiny on false claims for the Iraq war before the invasion? Had Pacifica had someone effectively covering Homeland Security issues, could that not have highlighted the vulnerability of the levees in New Orleans before Katrina hit? When progressive forces don't set up the structures necessary to avert disaster, should we really be surprised when it strikes and the flood waters -- and death -- come?
There was one WPFW programmer who was occasionally asking tough questions at the White House briefings, Russell Mokhiber who edits the Corporate Crime Reporter newsletter. But the program he hosted, "Challenging Corporate Power," brought on to WPFW in 2002, was cancelled. WPFW General Manager Ron Pinchback had -- after I voiced concern when the program was regularly preempted in late 2004 -- assured me the program would not be cancelled. In short order, it was.
Imagine a Pacifica that does not merely pretend to be brave, that and that avoids the cheap shots of demonizing Bush supporters as "brownshirts"; instead, actually building a news and information infrastructure that will help change the world for the better -- by providing information that changes hearts and minds.
Imagine a Pacifica with programmers who have the knowledge and wit to regularly bring on officeholders, mainstream pundits and others and expose their fallacies on the air.
Imagine a Pacifica that, rather than bringing on people who agree with each other, or at least pretend to, actually have open discussions. Advocates of different movements, say liberalism and socialism, can and should be in dialogue; should be critically examined, including by each other. The worst elements of all should be exposed; the best aspect of each should proliferate. As it is, too often advocates of each of various "schools" undermine each other behind the scenes. Similarly, too often, cultural and political programming have been pitted against each other when they should be complementary.
Imagine a Pacifica and WPFW that helps organize people around Washington, D.C. so that the collective conscience of the people around the nation's capital is felt on a daily basis by federal government officeholders. Imagine WPFW being used to announce timely protests at crucial events and places in DC. Imagine a Pacifica that has training programs to bring in new talent. The DC Radio Coop, just such an initiative, has been purged from WPFW by the management of the station.
Imagine a Pacifica that organizes "town hall" meetings between the people of various cities in the U.S. and the people of cities around the world where our government is exerting its violence and threats of violence. Imagine a Pacifica that builds on this and uses the power of the Internet effectively, that builds local and global connections.
What needs to be scrutinized is the collusion of incumbent programmers, many of whom were put in place by the previous utterly corrupt management, with the current management that seems resistant to change -- and stays in place largely because of support from incumbent programmers. Some local board members seem to be joining such cliques; others seem reluctant to assert their power to reform the network.
People need to demand excellence from their independent media; not simply to repeat platitudes, but to provide a serious news, information and cultural infrastructure that exposes the mainstream media as the dinosaurs they are.