Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. He graduated from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in English literature and language.
After two years as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, he worked at the New Left Review and The New Statesman, and co-edited two Penguin volumes, on trade unions and on the student movement.
A permanent resident of the United States since 1973, Cockburn wrote for many years for The Village Voice about the press and politics. Since then he has contributed to many publications including The New York Review of Books, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly and the Wall Street Journal (where he had a regular column from 1980 to 1990), as well as alternative publications such as In These Times and the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.
After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.
By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.
The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.
Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.
Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
"What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.
"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."
Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.
Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.
Where's the fashionable rendezvous for the World Secret Government? In the good old days when the Illuminati had a firm grip on things, it was wherever the Bilderbergers decided to pitch their tents. Then Nelson and David Rockefeller horned their way in, and the spotlight moved to the Trilateral Commission. Was there one Secret Government or two? Some said all the big decisions were taken in England, at Ditchley, not so far from the Appeasers' former haunts at Cliveden and only an hour by Learjet from Davos, which is where jumped-up finance ministers and arriviste tycoons merely pretend they rule the world.
Secret World Rulers spend a good deal of time in the air, whisking from Davos to APEC meetings somewhere in Asia, to Ditchley, to Sun Valley, Idaho, though mercifully no longer to the Clinton-favored Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina. But comes next July 14 and every self-respecting member of the Secret World Government will be in a gloomy grove of redwoods in northern California, preparing to Banish Care for the hundred and twenty-second time, prelude to three weeks hashing out the future of the world.
If the avenging posses mustered by the Bohemian Grove Action Network manage this year to burst through the security gates at the Bohemian Grove, they will (to extrapolate from numerous eyewitness accounts of past sessions) find proofs most convincing to them that here indeed is the ruling crowd in executive session: hundreds of near-dead white men sitting by a lake listening to Henry Kissinger, plus many other near-dead white men in adjacent landscape in a state of intoxication so advanced that many of them have fallen insensible among the ferns, gin fizz glasses gripped firmly till the last.
These same gaping posses would find evidence of bizarre rites, though not perhaps the Satanic sacrifice of children, as proposed in one new documentary. Why so many games of dominoes? Why the evidence that a significant portion of the Secret Government appeared to be involved in some theatrical production involving the use of women's clothes and lavish application of makeup?
Many an empire has, of course, been run by drunken men wearing makeup. But a look at the Bohemian Club, its members and appurtenances, suggests that behind the pretense of Secret Government lies the reality of a summer camp for a bunch of San Francisco businessmen, real estate plungers and lawyers who long ago had the cunning to recruit some outside megawattage--Herbert Hoover, a Rockefeller, Richard Nixon--to turn their mundane frolics into the simulacrum of Secret Government and make the yokels gape.
The Bohemian Club began as a San Francisco institution in 1872, founded by journalists and kindred lowly scriveners as an excuse for late-night boozing. The hacks soon concluded that Bohemianism, in the sense of real poverty, was oppressive. So they pulled in a few wealthy men of commerce to pay for the champagne, and the rot set in. Within a very few years the lowly scriveners were on their way out--except for a few of the more presentable among them to lend a pretense of Boho-dom--and Mammon had seized power.
Near the end of the last century the cult of the redwood grove as Nature's cathedral was in full swing, and the Boho-businessmen yearned to give their outings a tincture of spiritual uplift. The long-range planning committee of the club decided to buy a grove some sixty miles north of the city near the town of Monte Rio. Soon the ancient redwoods rang to the laughter of the disporting men of commerce.
The Bohemian Club is set up along frat house lines. Instead of Deltas and Pi Etas there are camps, some 120 in all, stretching along River Road and Morse Stephens canyon. Their names follow the imaginative arc of American industrialists and financiers over the past hundred years, from Hillbillies (George Bush Sr., Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley) to Ye Merrie Yowls.
The waiting lists for membership are so long it takes years for the novitiate to be admitted. A friend of mine, big in Reagan's time, has been on the doorstep for fifteen years. He says he likes it that way. He's spared the sign-up fee of around $10,000 and annual membership dues and has to pony up only when he's invited, which is every two years. Particularly in the more sumptuous camps it takes plenty of money too, sharing bills for retinues of uniformed servants, vintage cellars, master chefs and kindred accoutrements of spiritual refreshment.
There are lakeside talks and increasingly popular science chats at the Grove's museum. There's skeet-shooting on the private range. There's endless dominoes--the Grove's boardgame par excellence. There's Not Being at Home With the Wife. But best of all, there are the talent revue and the play. Visit some corporate suite in San Francisco in June or early July, and if you see the CEO brooding thoughtfully before his plate-glass window overlooking the Bay Bridge, the chances are he is not thinking about some impending takeover or merciless downsizing. He is probably worrying about the cut of his tutu for the drag act for which he has been rehearsing keenly for many months.
In the nineties the Grove's reputation as the site of Secret Government was in eclipse. The young Christian zealots of the Newt revolution were scarcely Boho material, and Newt himself--he did give a lakeside talk one year--was a little too tacky in style for the gin fizz set. But here we are in the Bush II era, and the Bush Clan is echt Secret Government, all the way from the old Rockefeller connection to Skull and Bones and the Knights of Malta. Dick Cheney's a Grover.
So spare yourself the expense of traveling from Quebec to the next session of the WTO. Voyage to Sonoma County and muster against the Secret World Government. For details of the rally, call the Bohemian Grove Action Network, whose Mary Moore has been chivying the Grovers for twenty years, at (707) 874-2248 or check out www.sonomacountyfreepress.org.
...AND APPLE PIE
Katha Pollitt's heart-wrenching "Happy Mother's Day" was, of course, a treat ["Subject to Debate," May 28]. But the crystalline masses of her prose were sometimes flawed by odd cracks. She rightly mentions how the bogus drug wars waste federal money, not to mention the ever-more-frenzied war on terrorism, which spent, by her calculation, $50 million "executing Timothy McVeigh...not counting plane tix for celebrity death witness Gore Vidal." For the record, my "tix" are paid for by Vanity Fair, which in 1998 printed a piece by me on the shredding of the Bill of Rights, causing McVeigh to begin a three-year correspondence with me. We were due to meet recently; then the Attorney General decided that he was to be sequestered during the weird endgame now begun. McVeigh, who has a sense of humor, proposed I witness his departure instead. Since I am an opponent of the death penalty, I said yes. Read all about it, Nation readers, in Vanity Fair this fall. Meanwhile, you have your mom--Katha.
THAT JERUSALEM PRIZE
New York City
Alexander Cockburn's first preposterous diatribe against my accepting the Jerusalem Prize was so full of fabrications that I hardly know where to begin. Now he wants to take credit for inspiring the attack on current Israeli government policies and military conduct I made in the speech I gave at the prize ceremony ["Beat the Devil," April 23, June 4]. Just three corrections: 1. It is a literary prize given not by the Israeli government but by the Jerusalem International Book Fair (among past winners: Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, Zbigniew Herbert, Milan Kundera, V.S. Naipaul, Octavio Paz, Don DeLillo, J.M. Coetzee). 2. According to the longtime director of the fair, my friend Nadine Gordimer has never won the prize, so could not have been in a position to decline it; according to him, she has never been a candidate. 3. I did not say, could never have said and obviously do not think that Mayor Olmert is "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person."
C'mon, Alex, you can fabricate a more plausible quote than that.
Alexander Cockburn was not the only one to pressure Susan Sontag. The Boston-based Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine sent a very strong letter to Sontag, following the letter publicized by the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. Two other prominent Israeli intellectuals, Professor Alice Shalvi and the poet Ada Aharoni, added their voices.
Coalition of Women for a Just Peace
To address Sontag's three points: Nowhere did I write that the Jerusalem Prize was awarded by the Israeli government, though I correctly identified the judges who honored Sontag, among them Shimon Peres, Israel's current Foreign Minister. I also mentioned that the person handing her the prize was Ehud Olmert, Mayor of Jerusalem and a leading ethnic cleanser.
Sontag may in retrospect find it incredible that she could have spoken with such warmth about Mayor Olmert, but on May 15 the Jerusalem Post reported her thus. On receipt of Sontag's letter, my colleague Jonathan Shainin contacted the Post's reporter, Greer Fay Cashman, and she responded thus: "Yes, she did say it. It was a spontaneous response to complimentary remarks Olmert made about her at the Jerusalem International Conference Center." As befits an employee of this extremist publication, Cashman added a note of praise for Sontag as being "sufficiently open-minded to be able to publicly say what she said about Olmert."
So far as Nadine Gordimer is concerned, Sontag knows perfectly well that a number of years ago Gordimer was approached by the Jerusalem Prize committee and asked whether she would accept the award if offered. Precisely in the manner I described in my first column she said she would not, and so the offer was never formally made. It is scarcely surprising that Sontag's director friend should have difficulty in recalling this episode.
Hal Espen, Outside's editor, makes two errors ["Letters," May 21]. He insists that during an interview with Jay Heinrichs, Ralph Nader said that, if forced to choose, he would vote for Bush. Espen then says the Nader campaign did not contact Outside to complain that the quotation was false. In fact, campaign staff did call Outside several times to object and spoke directly with Heinrichs. I was with Nader for roughly 200 days last year. During that time the which-would-you-choose-if-forced question was asked at least 100 times by ordinary folk and some of the nation's best political reporters. None received the "Bush" answer. Given that he got Nader's other remarks correct, Heinrichs either misunderstood Nader during their phone interview or simply manufactured the "Bush" answer.
STILL A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND
New York City
Ken Silverstein's April 23 "Diamonds of Death" is grossly misleading and contains several errors. The World Diamond Council, the Jewelers of America and others in the industry vigorously support effective, enforceable legislation to stop the traffic in conflict diamonds. Silverstein ignored statements by industry leaders making that point and ignored an obvious fact: All legitimate segments of the industry have every incentive--in both moral and business terms--to eliminate conflict diamonds.
It's true there's been disagreement on a handful of provisions in legislation that all concerned want Congress to approve. But industry representatives still search for common ground, even with some who publicly criticize us. Here are some examples of Silverstein's errors.
§ He says that on December 8, I announced that the World Diamond Council was "withdrawing support" from Congressman Tony Hall's bill, thereby killing a measure poised for passage in the final days of the session. Untrue. The WDC worked with Hall's office but did not agree to certain critical aspects of his draft. Further, it was a drastically different rider, originating in the Senate, that had been appended to the appropriations bill cited in the article.
§ Silverstein implies that the WDC then decided to draft its own legislation. Actually, that decision was made, and announced, much earlier. By December 8, drafting was well under way.
§ In an attempt to demonstrate a "hiring spree" of consultants allegedly assigned to oppose proper legislation, Silverstein mentions a "Shandwick Associates" and describes it as specializing in corporate grassroots campaigns. No such firm is associated with us, and no such campaign is being conducted.
§ Silverstein insinuates that the WDC retained the law firm Akin, Gump because its principals include "notable door openers." We went to this firm solely because Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, which they put to good use in drafting model legislation.
World Diamond Council
Ken Silverstein did prodigious research on lobbying by the diamond industry. But he erred when he wrote that "groups such as Global Witness, World Vision, Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International threatened to launch a consumer boycott until the industry changed its buying practices so as to insure that conflict diamonds are eliminated from international markets." None of the groups named nor any of the members of the 100-member Campaign to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds has ever advocated a boycott of diamonds. The CECD is the legitimate diamond industry's best friend. We are pushing for tough import controls that will eventually allow jewelers to promise their customers that the diamonds in their stores are clean. They certainly can't say that now.
Physicians for Human Rights
NATHANIEL A. RAYMOND
Physicians for Human Rights
Matthew Runci suggests that his industry is strongly supportive of efforts to eliminate conflict diamonds and that I overlooked the "rather obvious fact" that it has "every incentive" to do so. Runci overlooks one rather obvious incentive for companies to deal in conflict diamonds, namely profit. That's why De Beers until a few years ago was buying up almost the entire supply of conflict diamonds from UNITA, the Angolan guerrilla group. Runci's suggestion that the industry has always been deeply troubled about conflict diamonds is equally misleading. Diamond firms began responding to the problem only after NGOs put the issue on the public's radar screen and horrific images of victims of Africa's diamond wars began appearing in the media. The problem became too embarrassing to ignore, and the industry began emitting anguished wails about how something really must be done.
Runci denies withdrawing support for Hall's measure on December 8, but multiple participants at the meeting that day assert that he did just that, to the outrage of NGO representatives on hand. The rider attached to the appropriations bill did originate in the Senate, but there was a clear understanding among the various parties that Hall's measure would be substituted for it.
I don't doubt that Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, but everyone in Washington--except Runci, apparently--knows that Akin, Gump is one of the best-connected firms in town.
The diamond industry did engage in a "hiring spree," as I documented, though I did err in stating that Shandwick Associates is part of the industry's campaign. The confusion arose because Powell Tate, one of the firms working for the industry, bought a PR company called Shandwick International in late 1999 and for a time used the Shandwick name. A Powell Tate staffer named Larry Barrett--who as a younger and more hopeful man wrote for The Nation--gave his business card to various members of the NGO coalition during this period, and several told me that Barrett worked for "Shandwick." The only firm with that name that I came across in a lobbyist database was Shandwick Associates, hence, the mistake. (Powell Tate, by the way, is a specialist in grassroots campaigns. One of its greatest accomplishments, achieved on behalf of the drug industry, was defeating a Clinton Administration initiative to control the costs of childhood vaccines.)
Runci, like many diamond industry officials or lobbyists I spoke with, says that his side is seeking common ground with its critics. Perhaps that's true, but spending huge amounts of money to draft a competing bill and push it through Congress doesn't seem like the best way of demonstrating good faith.
The leftists organizing in Vermont since the 1970s prepared the ground for James Jeffords's jump, and he never would have done it without them. In the 1970s and 1980s Democrats howled with fury when Vermont's Progressive Party said that no matter what the short-term consequences, the important political task was to build a radical, third-force movement in the state.
In 1988 this progressive coalition backed Bernard Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, in a run for Vermont's single Congressional seat. Democratic liberals raised the "wrecker" charge, saying the Sanders intervention would cost the Democrats votes and put in a Republican. It did. Then, two years later, Sanders ran again against the incumbent Republican and won. Creative destruction worked.
Without decades of work by radicals, nourishing the propriety of independent politics in Vermont, would Jeffords ever have jumped the Republican ship and handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats? I don't think so.
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me an article by Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz, published in an obscure journal called Dissent. Since Gitlin's prime political function for years has been to fortify respectable opinion about the impropriety of independent thinking, I knew what to expect, particularly since he was in harness with Wilentz, a truly hysterical proprietarian.
Sure enough, it was an attack on those who voted for Ralph Nader, tumid with a full-inventory parade of every cliché from the past forty years about the folly of radical hopes. Want a taste?
Numbers aside, there is a deeper force at work, behind the delusion that the masses hanker for radical change that Gore would not give them--a purist approach to politics. This all-or-nothing approach, allergic to democratic contest and compromise, is rooted equally in American self-righteousness and traditional left-wing utopianism. It is as if by venting one's anger, one were free to remake the world by willing it so...
Yup, this pompous cant translates into the single, finger-wagging admonition, "You should have voted for Al Gore," the latest variant on Gitlin's one-note career sermon about voting for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. (What is it about these Humphrey lovers? Vermonter Marty Jezer, another sermonizer about main-chance political propriety, recently lashed out at CBS in his column in the Brattleboro Reformer for what he denounced as excessively hostile and prejudicial interviewing of baby-killer Bob Kerrey! The lust to be respectably "fair," whether to HHH or Kerrey, leads to some astonishingly ridiculous postures.)
In Vermont the Republican Party is pretty much dead. Jeffords should sign up right now as a member of the Progressive Party, with whose political positions he has some things in common. Of course Jeffords, at least in his latest incarnation, is truly an independent, whereas Sanders is effectively a Democrat.
Now let's see how much fortitude the Democrats on the Hill have in contesting Bush and Cheney. They no longer have the alibi of the Republicans' controlling the White House and both chambers. Footnote: The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as "obscure." I suggest a poll of the American people.
More on the Gandoo Man
In a recent column I described how the Chicago police have declined the request of a gay Pakistani poet to hit his supposed assailant, Salman Aftab, with a hate-crimes charge. Ifti Nasim claims Aftab called him a faggot bottom and lunged at him with a knife. For some of Chicago's gays it's become a very big issue. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network prompted the ACLU's Pamela Sumner to write a three-page letter to State's Attorney Dick Devine detailing why she felt he should pursue hate-crimes charges in Nasim's case. Devine has refused to do so.
The cops and Devine are quite right. It turns out that the initial quarrel between Nasim and Aftab wasn't about the former's sexual orientation but about an article he'd written. Aftab never attacked Nasim with a knife (though Nasim insists he'd gone to the kitchen to get one). And Nasim put up Aftab's bail money, though he still wants him hit with a hate-crimes charge for calling him an insulting sexual term. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network supports this position, which only goes to show how dementedly wrongheaded progressives are on the hate-crimes issue.
The Bush Menu
Poor Jenna Bush's travails with the absurd liquor laws of Texas take me back to my gilded youth at Oxford, when even the appearance of sobriety, at least at Keble, was an object of scandal and reproof from the better element. As it admits elsewhere in this issue, The Nation was a tad unfair relaying the claim that the Bush White House has ordered its chef to prepare genetically modified foods on some state occasions. The source of this claim was a piece by Jennifer Berkshire posted on Alternet. The Nation earnestly commented that "the demonstration smells like a paid political announcement for the agribusiness lobby."
I remember reading Berkshire's Alternet piece as an excellent little satire, and Jennifer confirms that this was indeed the case. Satire is always an uncertain weapon. My father once wrote an update of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this time about inoculating people with the same sort of lethal strain that wiped out rabbits with myxomatosis. When it appeared in Punch furious letters poured in, denouncing him as an advocate of mass murder. Back in my days at the Village Voice I wrote a parody of conspiracy mongering and awoke to hear it being read out as serious news on WBAI by the late Samori Marksman. Since then I've stayed with the unvarnished truth, which is usually far more incredible than anything a satirist could dream up. For evidence see Marty Jezer's onslaught on CBS, noted above.
Cape May Courthouse, N.J.
Alexander Cockburn should show respect for, and knowledge of, the facts. In his May 7 "Beat the Devil" column, "Justice Scotched in Lockerbie Trial," he shows neither.
He starts by praising a report critical of the trial presented to a conference of the Arab League by Hans Koechler, whom he describes as "a distinguished Austrian philosopher." Distinguished for what? Certainly not for his knowledge of Scottish law. Koechler's report is bizarre. He doesn't even seem to know that in a Scottish court the judges do not introduce evidence. Koechler proposes that there was a conspiracy to convict Libyans, which included the United States, Britain, the Scottish court and even the Libyans' defense lawyers. Koechler has wandered out onto the grassy knoll, and Cockburn is trotting right along behind him.
Koechler was "one of five international observers at the trial" appointed by Kofi Annan. He was a representative of something called the International Progress Organization. A second observer appointed from the same organization was Robert Thabit. Koechler acknowledges that he worked with Thabit. Shortly before his appointment as trial observer Thabit had been a lawyer for Libya's UN mission. Cockburn was either unaware of this or just forgot to mention it.
Cockburn characterizes the testimony of Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci--who was supposed to identify one of the accused Libyans as the man who bought clothes found in the bomb bag in his shop--as so confused he could barely recognize the accused when he was pointed out in court. We would bet a considerable sum that Cockburn didn't see the Gauci testimony. We did. He was an excellent witness, clearly a man trying his best to accurately describe an event that had taken place over a decade earlier. Not only did he point out the accused Libyan in court, he picked him out of a lineup ("parade," the Scots call it) shortly before the trial opened. In 1991 Gauci picked out a photo of the accused as the man resembling the purchaser of the clothes from twelve photos shown him. Earlier, in 1989, Gauci assisted a police artist in preparing a sketch and in compiling an image of the purchaser. Both images looked strikingly like the accused Libyan looked at the time. This also seems to have escaped Cockburn's notice.
Cockburn says that prosecutors produced "a document" indicating that a bag from Air Malta was loaded onto Pan Am 103 at Frankfurt. Actually, there were two documents: They were the baggage-loading records from Frankfurt. Cockburn counters that there was "firm evidence from the defense" that all bags from the Air Malta flight had been accounted for. The defense presented no evidence at all on that point. It just said that all the bags had been accounted for, and even Cockburn must be aware that evidence is not what comes out of a lawyer's mouth.
That's an impressive number of errors for a short column. The Lockerbie trial was long and complicated, and there was a ton of evidence. Cockburn may know this, but he doesn't care. He appears to believe that if there is evil in the world, the United States is behind it. He can truly paraphrase "the terrible Lord Braxfield": "Let them bring me Americans, and I'll fiddle the facts."
Parents of Theodora Cohen, murdered in the terrorist bombing of Pam Am 103
I don't expect to agree with every Nation article, but I do expect meticulously accurate facts. I can address only some of Alexander Cockburn's most flagrant falsifications here. He thinks "the prosecution's case absolutely depended on proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Megrahi was the man who bought the clothes" used in the lethal suitcase from a Maltese shop owner. He also claims that "in nineteen separate statements to police prior to the trial the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, had failed to make a positive identification of Megrahi" and that "Gauci was asked five times if he recognized anyone in the courtroom. No answer. Finally, the exasperated prosecutor pointed [out the accused].... 'the best that Gauci could do was to mumble that 'he resembled him.'"
Gauci did not mumble when he identified Megrahi--the first time he was asked to do so in court. The only number five that can reliably be associated with Megrahi is the number 5 he wore in the police lineup in April 1999 when Gauci pointed him out as the man who came into his shop in December 1988. The number nineteen is the number of photographs Gauci was initially asked to look at on September 14, 1999, in police headquarters in Floriana, Malta. As for the correct number of times Gauci actually met with police and looked at photographs, according to the Opinion of the Court, it seems to be six.
What is Cockburn's source? My sources for the facts are: the transcript of the testimony Gauci gave on July 11, 2000; the Opinion of the Court delivered by Lord Sutherland on January 31, 2001; my transcribed remarks of a speech Alistair Campbell, QC, gave when he spoke to the US families in Baltimore on March 5, 2001, during the posttrial briefings of the crown team; and the recollections of other family members who heard that testimony.
Cockburn seems unaware that the prosecution's case against Megrahi was also based on the coded passport issued to him by the Libyan Security Service, the ESO, for which Megrahi worked; the tickets for every flight he took; the records of every hotel he stayed at in Malta in December 1988. Nor does he seem aware that the prosecution team was able to use Megrahi's own words against him by playing the film interview he gave to Pierre Salinger in 1991, in which he lied about his ESO membership and denied staying in the Holiday Inn, Malta, December 20, 1988. Megrahi used his false passport five times in 1987. The next time he used it was December 20-21, 1988, to travel to and from Malta and Tripoli. He never used it again.
I have a passionate need to see justice done in the murder of my husband, Tony Hawkins, and 269 other souls. The evidence as revealed in the Lockerbie trial has convinced me that: 1. The debris trail from Lockerbie leads to Libya; 2. These two men are guilty of assembling the bomb and starting it on its journey; 3. They were not mere soldiers taking the rap for the higher-ups; 4. That of the two, Megrahi was clearly in charge of this operation, Fhimah providing the necessary assistance and access to Air Malta; 5. They clearly did not act on their own without the complete assistance and approval of the Libyan government, i.e., Qaddafi.
What was incomprehensible was not the guilty verdict but the not guilty verdict. It should have been not proven. The case against Fhimah was not as strong as that against Megrahi. I don't know who Cockburn believes to be responsible for this act of terrorism, but he shouldn't use his column to create confusion about this case or to increase the suffering of the families who are still fighting for justice for the people they love.
Editor, Truth Quest (newsletter published by The Victims of Pan Am Flight 103)
For years the Cohens described the Scottish media in extremely unflattering terms, sending multiple faxes to editors if they even suspected a publication was going to challenge "the official version." Thus, in July 1991, they protested the possible inclusion of the Syrian flag among those of other Gulf War coalition members at a Washington victory parade, on the grounds that the Syrian government had murdered their daughter (the favored line of official US leakers at that time). When Washington decided to shift the blame to Libya they became no less clamant in their denunciations of Qaddafi and indeed of anyone, like distinguished Scottish law professor Robert Black, who attempted to negotiate an agreement under which the two Libyans could stand trial in a neutral country. Certainly, the group of US relatives suing Libya for some $4 billion as responsible for the bombing has every reason to dislike any questioning of the verdict.
Hans Koechler is indeed a distinguished Austrian philosopher who by now probably knows a lot more about Scottish law than the Cohens. Those sitting through the entire trial in Zeist, Holland (which the Cohens, contrary to their misleading insinuation, attended a relatively sparse number of times), recall that Koechler was present for almost the entire proceedings. Thus Koechler may know, as the Cohens do not, that while Scottish judges cannot introduce evidence, they can rule on what evidence is or is not admitted.
Less prejudiced critics might pause to reflect that, since they had brought the indictments, there obviously was a conspiracy by the US and British governments to convict the Libyans. Collusion in such an agreement by the judges and the defense, William Taylor QC (counsel for Megrahi), can only be inferred, but it is not absurd for Koechler to make that inference. The judges found Megrahi guilty solely on the basis of some very shaky circumstantial evidence, and the normally tigerish Taylor, in the opinion of many legal observers, put up an astonishingly feeble performance in his crucial cross-examination of Tony Gauci, the only witness who could link Megrahi to the suitcase bomb. Nevertheless, Gauci was hardly "an excellent witness." Engelhardt has no basis in claiming only six meetings between police and Gauci, who was interviewed by innumerable Scottish, US and Maltese law enforcement groups, as well as prosecution and defense lawyers. On a reasonable count, the number of such interviews goes well into the double digits. The judges themselves admitted in their verdict, "On the matter of identification of the first accused, there are undoubtedly problems," and "We accept of course that he never made what could be described as an absolutely positive identification."
In fact, when Gauci gave evidence on July 11 last year, he was asked several times by the crown counsel if he could identify anyone in the court as the man who had bought the clothes from his shop that were later found in the suitcase containing the bomb. He failed to do so, and only when asked if the person sitting next to the policeman in the dock was the man in question did he grudgingly reply: "He resembles him a lot." On an earlier occasion, when shown a photograph of Mohammed Abu Talb, a Palestinian terrorist whom the defense contended was the real bomber, Gauci used almost the same words, declaring, according to his brother, that Talb "resembles" the clothes buyer "a lot." Gauci's identification of Megrahi at the identity parade just before the opening of the trial was with the words "not exactly the man I saw in the shop. Ten years ago I saw him, but the man who look [sic] a little bit like is the number 5" (Megrahi).
It is highly likely that the evidence of identification of Megrahi, its unsatisfactory nature and the comments by the trial judges will bulk large in the appeal this coming fall. However Gauci's testimony may have later appeared in a transcript or on a video recording, two relatives who were physically present at the courtroom testimony have confided that they found Gauci far from confident in his identification.
Whether Megrahi had a false passport, or stayed in Maltese hotels, or was there on December 20-21, 1988, is irrelevant--grassy knoll territory, if you will. Is there evidence that links him to the bomb? That's the sole pertinent issue. That's why Gauci's testimony is crucial. As I noted above, even the judges admitted that identification was squishy. As for Fhimah, the judges would doubtless have preferred to opt for a "not proven" verdict, but there was no evidence of any sort against him, apart from testimony of the prosecution's supergrass Giaka, who was on the CIA's payroll before, during and after the bombing, but who failed to mention the alleged role of Megrahi and Fhimah in the bombing to his paymasters until 1991. Even the judges called him a liar. The prosecution described Fhimah in indictments and thereafter, up until almost the end of the trial, as a Libyan intelligence agent, then dropped the accusation.
As far as the baggage is concerned, the prosecution's sole achievement was to demonstrate that it was theoretically possible for a bag from the Air Malta flight to have found its way onto the Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to London that connected to Flight 103. The fact remains that there is no conclusive evidence that this transfer occurred. When Granada TV broadcast a documentary asserting such a transfer as a fact, Air Malta sued and extracted damages.
Susan Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Haaretz the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians."
In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements, and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall.
Sontag told the Jerusalem Post that there'd been a lot of pressure on her not to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and accept the prize. Publicly--at least in this country--I think my columns (e.g., here on April 23) constituted the only such pressure. Maybe they helped firm up Sontag to make the remarks noted above. Anyway, I'm glad she did. Out of interest, I asked my colleague Jonathan Shainin to check the record to see if she'd said anything critical about Israeli government policies in the past. He didn't find much, but one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert.
Back on February 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center. It began as follows:
"We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem, for what the Israeli Government first called 'subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence.'"
The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him. "We are concerned that the Israeli Government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war."
This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag's public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Haaretz ran a commentary titled, "What Freedom, What Society?":
Yesterday evening Jerusalem's Mayor conferred the "Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society" to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to "shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh" was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.
In a different world, Sari Nusseibeh would be a leading candidate for such a prize, rather than the Jewish-American writer who was involved naively in a celebration of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. A Palestinian prince and cordial, dignified philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh has built a splendid academic research framework. Not the type to surrender to threats, or to physical blows or the temptations of power, he had created bridges of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and furnishes original ideas and plans to resolve the dispute. This is the man depicted by Israel's establishment as "a security threat," rather than a culture hero.... In a different world, people of culture and supporters of freedom would have suspended such an awards celebration, waiting for circumstances to arise under which universal meaning to the concept "freedom and society" might crystallize.... One should marvel at the prize givers' ability to compartmentalize and the ability to reconcile the contradiction between "freedom of man and society," and a "plan" designed not only to ruin human freedom, but also a society located just a few hundred meters from where the prizes were conferred.... One of the last, still operating, joint Al-Quds University-Hebrew University projects is a botanical catalogue, an attempt to identify and describe the flora of the shared homeland. When will these botanists be recognized as the ones whose works should be lauded, rather than those of righteous hypocrites?
So Sontag accepts a prize from a group that's trying to boot Nusseibeh out of East Jerusalem--the very same man whose detention she petitioned to end ten years ago, during the first intifada! She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further. For example, she praised the man giving her the prize, Mayor Olmert, as "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person." This is like describing Radovan Karadzic as a moderate in search of multiconfessional tolerance. Olmert is a fanatical ethnic cleanser, one of the roughest of the Likud ultras. During his period in office, he has consistently pushed for the expropriation of Arab property and the revocation of Arab residence permits. Olmert was a principal advocate of the disastrous 1996 tunnel excavation underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. During the ensuing demonstrations, Israeli security forces shot dead about fifty Palestinian civilians. The mayor was also instrumental in the seizure of Palestinian land at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, another link in the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem. This too led to prolonged rioting.
Such people have no right to award a prize on "freedom."
Charging people with a "hate crime" when their crime is essentially some type of assault is a troubling trend.
There's a famous passage in Lord Cockburn's Memorials of His Time where the great Scotch judge and leading Whig stigmatizes some of his Tory predecessors on the bench, including the terrible Lord Braxfield, who presided over what Cockburn called "the indelible iniquity" of the sedition trials of 1793 and 1794. "Let them bring me prisoners, and I'll find them law," Cockburn quotes Braxfield as saying privately, also whispering from the bench to a juror he knew, "Come awa, Maister Horner, come awa, and help us to hang ane o' thae daamned scoondrels."
Braxfield most certainly has his political disciples on the Scottish bench today, in the persons of the three judges who traveled to the Netherlands to preside over the recent trial of the two Libyans charged with planting the device that prompted the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. In the first criticism of the verdict, Hans Koechler, a distinguished Austrian philosopher appointed as one of five international observers at the trial in Zeist, Holland, by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has issued a well-merited denunciation of the judges' bizarre conclusion. "In my opinion," Koechler said, "there seemed to be considerable political influence on the judges and the verdict."
Koechler's recently released analysis of the proceedings, in which the judges found one of the two accused Libyans, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, guilty while exonerating his alleged co-conspirator, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, is by no means an exercise in legal esoterica. Basically, he points out that the judges found Megrahi guilty even though they themselves admitted that his identification by a Maltese shop owner (summoned by the prosecution to testify that Megrahi bought clothes later deemed to have been packed in the lethal suitcase bomb) was "not absolute" and that there was a "mass of conflicting evidence."
Furthermore, Koechler queries the active involvement of senior US Justice Department officials as part of the Scotch prosecution team "in a supervisory role."
Assuming a requisite degree of judicial impartiality, the prosecution's case absolutely depended on proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Megrahi was the man who bought the clothes, traced by police to a Maltese clothes shop. In nineteen separate statements to police prior to the trial the shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, had failed to make a positive identification of Megrahi. In the witness box Gauci was asked five times if he recognized anyone in the courtroom. No answer. Finally, the exasperated prosecutor pointed to the dock and asked if the man sitting on the left was the customer in question. Even so, the best that Gauci could do was to mumble that "he resembled him."
Gauci had also told the police that the man who bought the clothes was 6 feet tall and over 50 years of age. Megrahi is 5 feet 8 inches tall, and in late 1988 he was 36. The clothes were bought either on November 23 or December 7, 1988. Megrahi was in Malta on December 7 but not on the November date. The shopkeeper recalled that the man who bought the clothes also bought an umbrella because it was raining heavily outside. Maltese meteorological records introduced by the defense showed clearly that while it did rain all day on November 23, there was almost certainly no rain on December 7. If it did rain on that date, the shower would have been barely enough to wet the pavement. Nevertheless, the judges held it proven that Megrahi had bought the clothes on December 7.
No less vital to the prosecution's case was its contention that the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 had been loaded as unaccompanied baggage onto an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, flown on to London, and thence onto the ill-fated flight to New York. In support of this, prosecutors produced a document from Frankfurt airport indicating that a bag had gone from the baggage-handling station at which the Air Malta bags (along with those from other flights) had been unloaded and had been been sent to the handling station for the relevant flight to London. But there was firm evidencefrom the defense that all the bags on the Air Malta flight were accompanied and were collected at the other end. Nevertheless, the judges held it proven that the lethal suitcase had indeed come from Malta.
The most likely explanation of the judges' decision to convict Megrahi despite the evidence, or lack of it, must be that either (a) they panicked at the thought of the uproar that would ensue on the US end if they let both the Libyans off, or (b) they were simply given their marching orders by high authority in London. English judges are used to doing their duty in this manner--see, for example, the results of various "impartial" judicial inquiries into British atrocities in Northern Ireland over the years.
In closing arguments, the prosecution stressed the point that Megrahi could not have planted the bomb without the assistance of Fhimah--that both defendants were equally guilty, and should stand or fall together. Nevertheless, the judges elected to find one of the two conspirators guilty and the other one innocent, a split verdict that Koechler finds "incomprehensible." It is however entirely comprehensible if we accept that the judges knew there was no evidence to convict either man but that it was politically imperative for them to send one of them down for twenty years and thereby pass the buck to the appeals court. Given the legally threadbare nature of the judges' eighty-two-page "opinion" justifying their actions, many observers are assuming that the five-man panel of judges who will eventually hear Megrahi's appeal will have to do the right thing. But that is what many of us said about the original trial.
* * *
Sorry, Wrong Number. Filing from a Days Inn in Gallup, New Mexico, a month ago, I described my travels along I-40 in a "530" Ford one-ton. I mistyped 350. If I'd said I was in a 470 Volvo the letters would probably have poured in from Nation readers, but the only bleat I heard was from a fellow in prison saying that a mistake of this magnitude made him doubt every word I write. This seems the only prudent course.
To put it all in a nutshell, come
the month of May Edward Said won't be traveling to Vienna; Susan
Sontag will be traveling to Jerusalem.
It's a backhanded
tribute to his effectiveness as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause
that the attacks on the Palestinian Said have, across the past couple
of years, reached new levels of envenomed absurdity.
latest uproar over Said concerns a trip to Lebanon he made last
summer, in the course of which he and his family took the opportunity
to travel to the recently evacuated "security zone" formerly occupied
by Israeli forces. First they visited the terrible Khiam prison and
torture center, then a deserted border post, abandoned by Israeli
troops and now crowded with festive Lebanese exuberantly throwing
stones at the heavily fortified border.
emulation of his son, Said pitched a stone and was photographed in
the act. You can scarcely blame the man for being stunned at the
consequences. Throw a rock at a border fence, and if you are a
Palestinian called Edward Said you'll be the object of sharply
hostile articles about the infamous stone toss in the New York
Times, face a campaign to be fired from your tenured job at
Columbia University and--this is the latest at time of writing--be
disinvited by the Freud Society and Museum in Vienna from a
longstanding engagement to deliver the annual Freud lecture there in
May. (To its credit, Columbia stands by him and says the calls for
his removal are preposterous and offensive.)
from being an articulate Palestinian, is Said's crime? As he himself
has written, while "I have always advocated resistance to Zionist
occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence
between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel's military repression
and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped." Perhaps that's the
problem. Said makes a reasoned and persuasive case for justice for
Palestinians. He doesn't say that the Jews should be driven into the
sea. These, not the fanatics, are the dangerous folks.
us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag, another public
intellectual of large reputation. You can pretty much gauge a
writer's political sedateness and respectability in America by the
kind of awards they reap, and it is not unfair to say that the
literary and indeed grant-distributing establishment deems Sontag
safe. Aside from the 2000 National Book Award for her latest novel,
In America, she received in 1990 the liberal imprimatur of a
five-year (and richly endowed) "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur
Foundation, which once contemplated giving just such a fellowship to
Said but retreated after furious protests from one influential Jewish
board member, Saul Bellow.
Now Sontag has been named the
Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth recipient of the
biennial award since its inauguration in 1963. The award, worth
$5,000, along with a scroll issued by the mayor of Jerusalem, is
proclaimedly given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the
individual in society.
Sontag was selected by a
three-member panel of judges, comprising the Labor Party's Shimon
Peres (now Ariel Sharon's foreign minister) and two Hebrew University
professors, Lena Shiloni and Shimon Sandbank. Peres approvingly cited
Sontag's description of herself: "First she's Jewish, then she's a
writer, then she's American. She lives Israel with emotion and the
world with obligation." When notified of her latest accolade,
Sontag's response was, "I trust you have some idea of how honored and
moved, deeply moved, I am to have been awarded this year's Jerusalem
Prize." Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9
Why dwell on the mostly tarnished currency
of international literary backslapping? I do so to make a couple of
points concerning double standards. American intellectuals can be
nobly strident in protesting the travails of East Timorese, Rwandans,
Central American peasants, Chechens and other beleaguered groups. But
for almost all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have
always been invisible.
It can scarcely be said that Sontag
is a notably political writer. But there was an issue of the 1990s on
which she did raise her voice. Along with her son, David Rieff,
Sontag became a passionate advocate of NATO intervention against
Yugoslavia, or, if you prefer, Serbia. On May 2, 1999, Sontag wrote
an essay in the New York Times Magazine, "Why Are We in
Kosovo?" urgently justifying NATO's intervention. "What if the French
Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving
the rest out of Corsica...or the Italian Government began emptying
out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million
Sontag cannot be entirely unaware of a
country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean from which at least
750,000 residents have been expelled. She has always been
appreciative of irony. Does she see no irony in the fact that she,
assiduous critic of Slobodan Milosevic, is now planning to travel to
get a prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose
credentials as a war criminal are robust? Does Sontag see no irony in
getting a prize premised on the recipient's sensitivity to issues of
human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is
unrelentingly suppressed? Imagine what bitter words she would have
been ready to hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of
Sarajevo to receive money and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic
or Milosevic, praising her commitment to freedom of the
Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to
a city over which Sharon declares Israel's absolute and eternal
control--in violation of international law--and whose latest turmoils
he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection
of a thousand soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy
When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was
offered the Jerusalem Prize a number of years ago, she declined,
saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid society to
another. But to take that kind of position in the United States would
be a risky course for a prudent intellectual. Said knows he lives in
a glass house, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his
Drive across the United
States, mostly on Interstate 40, and you have plenty of time to
listen to the radio. Even more time than usual if, to take my own
situation, you're in a 1976 Ford 530 one-ton, plowing along at 50
mph. By day I listen to FM.
Bunked down at night, there's
some choice on the motels' cable systems, all the way from C-SPAN to
pay-as-you-snooze filth, though there's much less of that than there
used to be. Or maybe you have to go to a Marriott or kindred high-end
place to get it. By contrast, the choice on daytime radio, FM or AM,
is indeed a vast wasteland, far more bleak than the high plains of
Texas and New Mexico I've been looking at for the past couple of
days. It's awful. Even the religious stuff has gone to the dogs. I
remember twenty years ago making the same drive through the Bible
Belt and you'd hear crazed preachers raving in tongues. These days
hell has gone to love. Christian radio is so warm and fuzzy you'd
think you were listening to Terry Gross.
By any measure,
and you don't need to drive along I-40 to find this out, radio in
this country is in ghastly shape. Since the 1996 Telecommunications
"Reform" Act, conceived in darkness and signed in stealth, the
situation has got even worse. Twenty, thirty years ago broadcasters
could own only a dozen stations nationwide and no more than two in
any single market. Clear Channel Communications alone owns and
operates almost 1,200 stations pumping out identical muck in all
states. Since 1996 there's been a colossal shakeout. Small
broadcasters can no longer hack it. Two or three companies, with
eight stations each, can control a market. Bob McChesney cites an
industry publication as saying that the amount of advertising is up
to eighteen minutes an hour, with the commercials separated by the
same endless golden oldies. On I-40 in Tennessee alone I listened to
"Help!" at least sixteen times.
The new chairman of the
FCC, Colin Powell's son Michael, has just made life even easier for
Clear Channel and the other big groups. On March 12 he OK'd
thirty-two mergers and kindred transactions in twenty-six markets.
Three days later, at the instigation of the FCC, cops burst into
Radio Free Cascadia in Eugene, Oregon, seized broadcasting equipment
and shut RFC down.
Michael Powell--actually installed on
the FCC by Clinton in 1997, no doubt eager to stroke Powell Senior at
the time--is clearly aiming for higher things than the FCC, and he's
certainly increased his own family's resources. His OK of the
AOL-Time Warner merger stands to net his father, a man freighted with
AOL stock options derived from his recent service on that company's
board, many millions of dollars. Michael insists there was a Chinese
wall across the family dining table and that he and Dad never chatted
about AOL. Why would they need to? If there's a hippo on the hearth
rug, you don't need to put a sign on it.
Is there any chink
of light amid the darkness of Radioland? Yes, there is. Several, in
fact. For one thing, the tide may be turning in the Pacifica fight.
In the recent meeting in Houston the national Pacifica board took a
beating in its effort to fix the bylaws so as to make it easier to
continue its mission of destruction. And recent court decisions in
California have favored courtroom challenges to the national board's
onslaughts on local control of stations such as KPFA.
all, the Pacifica Board is now reaping the consequences of its
forcible late-night seizure of WBAI offices last December and the
barely credible arrogance and stupidity of WBAI interim station
manager Utrice Leid, who on March 5 pulled the plug on Representative
Major Owens in the midst of a live broadcast because he dared discuss
A furious Owens has now raised a stink
on the floor of the House about Pacifica's highhanded conduct and has
put forward a plan to settle the row. Somewhere down the road we can
maybe see a scenario developing in which the Pacifica National Board
gets pushed toward the exit. Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez, who resigned
from Democracy Now! recently, recommends: Don't finance the
enemy. Put your contributions to Pacifica stations in
And low-power radio? The commercial broadcasters
fought savagely all last year to beat back the FCC's admittedly
flawed plan to license more than 1,000 low-power stations. In the end
the radio lobby attached a rider to an appropriations bill signed by
Clinton late last year, with provisions insuring that low power would
never gain a foothold in cities, also insuring that the pirate
broadcasters of yesteryear, who created the momentum for low power,
could never get licenses. But make no mistake who the real villain
was. Listen to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers Guild in San
Francisco, who has been a leading force in the push for low-power FM.
"From talking to people in DC it is absolutely clear that if NPR had
not vigorously joined the National Association of Broadcasters in its
attempt to kill microradio, the legislation would not have gone
But all would-be low-power broadcasters should
know that right now there's opportunity. The FCC has been accepting
applications for licenses (in some regions the window has already
closed), and mostly it's been conservatives (churches included)
jumping in. In many states you can still make applications to the
FCC. Jump in! Contact the Lawyers Guild's Center on Democratic
Communications at (415) 522-9814 or Aakorn@igc.org, but first take a
look at their website (www.nlgcdc.org).
These fights are
all essentially the same, against the same enemy, whether in the form
of the Pacifica board or the directors of NPR or the NAB or the
government: the fight for democracy in communications. Here Franck
and others are already contemplating a deeper assault on the 1996 act
and the 1934 Communications Act, on constitutional grounds. The
purpose of the First Amendment is democracy. Democracy requires a
broad range of opinion. After sixty-five years of a commercially
based media system we have a narrow range of debate; this abuse of
the airwaves is therefore unconstitutional. That's a big fight, but
here it comes.