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What's Going On at Pacifica? | The Nation

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What's Going On at Pacifica?

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The Nation has long regarded Pacifica as a sister institution in what sometimes seems a lonely struggle to keep alive alternative and independent perspectives in the media. With the creation a few years ago of RadioNation, which airs on many Pacifica stations, that relationship became friendlier still. We were, for that reason, distressed at the problems that erupted last year and in whose resolution we may be said to have a stake. As the crisis heated up, we published pieces by Nation contributing editor Marc Cooper, host of RadioNation as well as a news show on Pacifica's Los Angeles station, and media scholar Robert McChesney. Columnist Alexander Cockburn also weighed in, and we published a lengthy readers' exchange on our Letters page. After months had gone by and Pacifica's problems showed no signs of resolution, we decided that a full-blown examination of Pacifica was in order and we turned to John Dinges, former editorial director of National Public Radio, author of books on the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and on the US relationship with Manuel Noriega in Panama, and currently a member of the faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. We anticipate that the issues he discusses in the report that follows will be with us for some time. We invite readers to share their thoughts with us; see also the forum on our website.
      --The Editors

About the Author

John Dinges
John Dinges has been writing for many years on Latin America. His latest book is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and...

Also by the Author

After three foreign correspondents are decertified, is Cuba sending a message to the international press corps?

Two senior citizens of the
cold war are chatting amiably over small cups of thick, sweet Cuban
coffee in a Havana hotel. Bob Reynolds, tall and erect in his
mid-70s, made clandestine trips to Havana for the CIA in the early
years of the Cuban Revolution. And in Miami, as CIA station chief, he
was in charge of recruiting thousands of tough young Castro-haters
and turning them into a fighting force to invade Cuba. Comandante
Ramiro Valdes, shorter, a few years younger than Reynolds, has a gray
goatee reminiscent of Trotsky and an iron handshake. One of the most
feared and respected men in Cuba, he was at Castro's side at all the
major events of the revolution and became chief of state security
after the 1959 victory.

Their encounter, counterspy and
spy, was one of many head-turning vignettes at a historic meeting
here in Havana, March 22-25, in which Americans and Cubans from
all sides reconstructed and relived the April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs
invasion. On the Cuban side for three days of intense discussions
were Fidel Castro and sixty of his top military leaders; the US
delegation included five Cuban veterans of the CIA-trained 2506
Brigade, which carried out the invasion, and White House advisers
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin.

"We talked as
professional to professional," Reynolds said of his first-ever
meeting with Valdes. "I congratulated him on the effectiveness of
their system." Valdes had only a few months to organize islandwide
security before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He rejected the notion that
it was a draconian secret police system that doomed the effort. "I
told [Reynolds] it was the total support of the people for the
revolution," said Valdes.

Valdes disclosed that his
security network quickly rounded up 20,000 suspected dissidents in
the hours after the invasion began, squelching the US expectation
that the invasion would set off mass rebellion and sabotage on the
island. Valdes also revealed that Cuba had no intelligence from
inside the 2506 Brigade itself. The Cubans knew from secondary
sources and partly from US press accounts that an invasion was
imminent but did not know the date or landing site. Security on the
island, however, was so tight that according to Samuel Halpern, the
other CIA official at the meeting, the CIA found it virtually
impossible to plant agents anywhere but in rural areas. Halpern was
the CIA's point man on Operation Mongoose--the Kennedy Administration
special project against Castro that included intelligence collection,
sabotage and assassination missions inside Cuba.

Castro sat
across from Halpern and Reynolds, showing no sign of lingering
hostility to the Americans and Cubans who had plotted his overthrow,
even his death. On the contrary, the atmosphere was jovial,
respectful. Castro--who missed not one minute of the presentations
and himself talked in long half-hour and hour stretches--remarked at
one point that it was more than respectful, it was friendly. At a
final banquet, Castro used the word "family" to describe the
conference participants and the frank, intimate exchanges. Once,
José Ramon Fernandez, the Cuban battlefield general at the Bay
of Pigs, called the anti-Castro troops mercenarios, and Fidel
pointedly corrected him. "They're brigadistas," he
said.

During a break, Castro rushed over for a private
conversation with CIA official Reynolds after an exchange in which
the Cuban side had been adamantly skeptical about Reynolds's denial
that the CIA saboteurs had blown up a ship unloading weapons in
Havana harbor in 1960. He shook hands and put his hands on Reynolds's
shoulders, saying, "I don't want you to think we are trying to settle
old scores."

The five members of the 2506 Brigade
delegation were also frequently engrossed in deep conversation with
Cuban officials, although Castro himself seemed to make a point of
keeping them at arm's length. One brigade member, Roberto Carballo,
who runs a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, has a long record of anti-Castro
activities, including being named in newly declassified US documents
as a suspect in terrorist activities in the 1970s.

The
strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the
US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his
Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of
Kennedy as trapped--inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from
the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA
officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy
consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but
the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would
change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather
than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious
defeat.

There was no disagreement on the US side that the
invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the
United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops
on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran
said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry
they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting
offshore.

CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted
Schlesinger's scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he
insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when
Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. "Get rid of
Castro, the Castro regime," Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, "I said what does
'get rid of' mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, 'Use your imagination.'"
The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different
measures, including assassination, to get rid of the
regime.

The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the
conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea
that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the
invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the
mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a
meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the
event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion
force.

Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade
member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United
States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope
that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro
didn't cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner
and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were
killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after
long negotiations.

For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator's undemocratic
survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the
United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a
standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an
increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the
meeting, Castro and his men couldn't proclaim more clearly their
desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States.
But it won't happen--not as long as the US Presidents who control the
writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own
making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.

Pacifica Radio is in trouble.

If your politics lean toward the left, and you've ever lived in one of the five cities with a Pacifica station, you probably have a favorite Pacifica story, a story about a Pacifica broadcast that made a difference in your life. Mine was driving down a Berkeley street on the day of an antiwar protest in the early seventies, and realizing that I wasn't hearing the station just on my car radio. It was blaring from most of the houses on the block. The sound was all around, and the sound was the Rolling Stones singing, "The time is right for fighting in the street.... The time is right for violent revolution."

Or years later, in Washington, walking around the office at National Public Radio with earphones that felt as though they had been surgically implanted, listening to the gavel to gavel of the Iran/contra hearings. Pacifica was broadcasting them live. NPR wasn't.

We always expected Pacifica to be there, to be on the air talking truth to power when the big issues were at stake. Before NPR, and even after, Pacifica set the benchmark for public radio, for public-service radio. It invented the idea of listeners contributing money to a radio station so the station wouldn't have to sell ads or depend on government subsidies. Pacifica trained a whole generation of radio producers and reporters in the kind of long-form reporting and sound-rich documentary techniques shunned by commercial radio, and its graduates include some of NPR's best-known bylines.

Now, in an era of unprecedented conglomeratization and homogenization of media, independent voices like Pacifica's are needed more than at any time perhaps since the Vietnam War. Its five stations and 800,000 listeners make it still the largest media outlet on the left. Yet events of the past year have cast serious doubt on Pacifica's ability to recapture the role and impact it once had. Radio moments of the present are a far cry from the greatness of the past. They include, at flagship-station KPFA in Berkeley, a dispute in front of a live mike between a manager and an employee he was trying to suspend, a "No Censorship" fundraising drive built around denunciations of Pacifica's national foundation, and programs devoting dozens of minutes daily to rehashing internal disputes. Veteran staff have been fired for criticizing management on the air, there have been sit-ins and arrests, armed guards have been hired (and removed) and KPFA staff have been first locked out, then given virtually unchallenged control of the station. Almost 10,000 people gathered in Berkeley last July for one of the largest political demonstrations in recent years, under banners calling for free speech and local control. Around the same time, Joan Baez appeared at a benefit concert for the dissidents, and well-known figures, including Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, expressed their support.

Sorting out who is right and who is wrong in this story is a near-impossible task given the management blunders and heavy-handedness on the one side, and the insults, harassment and threats on the other side. Both sides could claim the pursuit of high-minded goals: Pacifica management sought to strengthen lines of authority in the name of increased audience and political effectiveness; KPFA and its defenders presented a resounding case that "free-speech radio"--Pacifica's traditional no-holds-barred programming--was threatened by a sanitized, NPR-style takeover by establishment liberals.

But measuring the collateral damage is more clear-cut: At the two largest stations, the internal struggle has stopped dead a process of programming reform intended to increase the network's tiny audience and recapture Pacifica's once-undisputed leadership role in public radio and in progressive politics. Total audience for the Berkeley and New York stations, which have the network's largest staffs and budgets, is flat, continuing a trend of the past four years, and the audience for the Berkeley station is now the second-smallest, after Houston. (The Houston, Los Angeles and Washington stations, the three that embraced the programming reforms and stayed out of the disputes, have seen their combined audiences increase by 52 percent during the same period.) The turmoil has also put in jeopardy a promising expansion of Pacifica's national programs. To be sure, stations are still broadcasting, paychecks are still written and listeners still donate money. But it is increasingly clear that as a national organization, Pacifica is adrift.

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