Norman Solomon’s Column
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.
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 criticisms.
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.