These days, it's the media conglomerates who are drunk with power--demanding a larger share of the nation's airwaves and threatening to turn the World Wide Web into an electronic theme park--and
Here we are, twenty years on, and the reports of the Israeli army smashing its way through Palestinian towns remind me of what came out of Lebanon as Sharon and his invading army raced north. Israeli troops beating, looting, destroying; Palestinians huddled in refugee camps, waiting for the killers to come.
But there is a huge difference. Twenty years ago, at least for people living here in the United States, it was harder, though far from impossible, to get firsthand accounts of what was going on. You had to run out to find foreign newspapers, or have them laboriously telexed from London or Paris. Reporting in the mainstream corporate press was horrifyingly tilted, putting the best face on Israeli deeds. Mostly, it still is. But the attempted news blackout by the Sharon government and the Israeli military simply isn't working.
Here's Aviv Lavie, writing in Ha'aretz on April 2:
A journey through the TV and radio channels and the pages of the newspapers exposes a huge and embarrassing gap between what is reported to us and what is seen, heard, and read in the world.... On Arab TV stations (though not only them) one could see Israeli soldiers taking over hospitals, breaking equipment, damaging medicines, and locking doctors away from their patients. Foreign television networks all over the world have shown the images of five Palestinians from the National Security forces, shot in the head from close range.... The entire world has seen wounded people in the streets, heard reports of how the IDF prevents ambulances from reaching the wounded for treatment.
As always, there are the courageous witnesses. These days we have the enormously brave young people in the International Solidarity Movement sending daily communications back to the United States that flash their way round the Internet and even translate into important interviews in the mainstream media.
Meet a few of them. Here's Jordan Flaherty, filing this account on Indymedia:
Last night the Israeli Military tried to kill me. I'm staying in the Al Azzeh refugee camp, in Bethlehem, along with about twenty other international civilians. We're here to act as human shields.... On the hill above the camp is an Israeli military sniper's post. To get where we were staying in the village, most of us had to cross this street. It was a quick, low, dash across the street. As I ran, the sniper fired.... The shots began as I came into view, and stopped shortly after I made it to the other side. They were clearly aimed at me. And, by the sound of them, they were close. All night long, there was the sound of gun shots, as the military shot into our village. We stayed clear of the windows.... The guns and bullets were, no doubt, paid for by my tax dollars. Which is, of course, why we are here.
Or Tzaporah Ryter, filing this on Electronic Intifada:
I am an American student from the University of Minnesota. I currently am in Ramallah. We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers.... On Thursday afternoon, the Israeli army began sealing off each entrance to Ramallah.... Those traveling in began desperately searching for alternative ways and traveling in groups, but the Israelis were firing upon them and everyone was running and screaming.... Israeli jeeps were speeding across the terrain, pulling up from every direction and shooting at the women and children, and also at me...
Or the extremely articulate and self-possessed Adam Shapiro, whose testimony ended up in the New York Daily News and on CNN, where he told Kyra Phillips:
This is not about politics between Jew and Arab, between Muslim and Jew. This is a case of human dignity, human freedom and justice that the Palestinians are struggling for against an occupier, an oppressor. The violence did not start with Yasir Arafat. The violence started with the occupation.... Arafat, after every terrorist incident, every suicide bombing, after every action, has condemned this loss of life, of civilian lives on both sides. The Sharon government, sometimes will apologize after it kills an innocent civilian, but it does not apologize for raping the cities and for going in and carrying out terrorist actions, going house to house tearing holes through the walls, roughing up people, killing people, assassinating people.
Most of the time you open up a newspaper and read a robotic column--as I did the Los Angeles Times's Ronald Brownstein the other day--about Palestinian terrorism and the wretched Arafat's supposed ability to quell the uprising with a few quick words. And then you turn on the NewsHour and there, of all people, is Zbigniew Brzezinski, stating the obvious, on April 1:
The fact of the matter is that three times as many Palestinians have been killed, and a relatively small number of them were really militants. Most were civilians. Some hundreds were children.... in the course of the last year, we have had Palestinian terrorism but we have also had deliberate overreactions by Mr. Sharon designed not to repress terrorism but to destabilize the Palestinian Authority, to uproot the Oslo Agreement, which he has always denounced, in a manner which contributed to the climate, that resulted in the killing of one of the two architects of the Oslo Agreement.
After predictable dissent from Kissinger, Brzezinski went on:
It's absolute hypocrisy to be claiming that Arafat can put a stop to the terrorism.... the fact of the matter is that his ability to control the situation would be greatly increased if there was serious movement towards political process, towards a political settlement and that the United States took the lead.
Between this brisk statement and the eloquent courage of Adam Shapiro and his brave fellow internationalists, the truth is getting out--not fast enough, not loud enough--but better than twenty years ago.
The jury is still out on whether it can restore, let alone enhance, its influence.
Media policy in the digital age.
Getting serious about media reform.
The "Christmas coup" at New York's WBAI-FM radio, in which Pacifica management changed the locks in the middle of the night, just hours before summarily firing three longtime station employees, marks another dismal turn of events in the recent history of America's pre-eminent network of community radio stations. Nation readers no doubt recall the lockout at Pacifica's KPFA-FM in Berkeley in 1999. In that case, virtually the entire KPFA community of listeners and staff organized against the lockout, and Pacifica's national management was forced to relent.
It will be more difficult to do that at WBAI. Pacifica management learned an important lesson from the KPFA debacle, which was not to permit the station staff to be united in its opposition. At WBAI, Pacifica's national management chose a well-known program host, Utrice Leid, to replace the fired station manager. Leid has been a visible figure at WBAI over the years and has the support of some on the staff and in the community. (I have been a guest on her WBAI program and have always had an enjoyable time.) She has stated her opposition to censorship and her support for WBAI's traditional values.
Any notion that this was going to be a calm transition exploded on January 23, when Leid restricted access to a WBAI Local Advisory Board meeting at WBAI's offices in lower Manhattan. The LAB is a Corporation for Public Broadcasting requirement, and it has been holding meetings at the WBAI office for the past twenty-five years. When participants in the prospective meeting protested, the police arrested nine people for trespassing.
On the all-powerful eighteen-member Pacifica National Board, a marginalized minority of six opposes the firings at WBAI. One of the six, Leslie Cagan, says that Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash, who quarterbacked the Christmas coup and installed Leid, refuses even to discuss the matter with her. (I tried unsuccessfully to reach Wash and Leid.) In a strongly worded statement on January 18, the dissidents called for a reinstatement of the three fired employees, a return to traditional labor-review practices, a full national board meeting to consider the crisis at WBAI and an end to the high security "martial law" environment at the station. These are fair demands.
What happens at Pacifica is not a minor issue of concern only to those who work at WBAI and the other Pacifica stations, or who live in one of the five Pacifica cities. We all need a healthy and vibrant Pacifica. It is the most widely consumed progressive medium in the United States; it is the basis for a national community radio network; it has considerable potential for growth. For all the talk about the Internet and the digital revolution, radio is the true people's medium. And in the commercial wasteland that US radio has become under deregulation, the prospects for noncommercial radio look better than they have for a very long time.
Nor are the problems at Pacifica anything new; there is a long history of internal squabbles. My general sense from afar was that both sides had their flaws, while opportunism masked by political posturing abounded. But in the past few years matters have changed. The newly aggressive national management has shown minimal respect for fair play or the values of community broadcast and little interest in preserving Pacifica's distinctive dissident and independent political focus.
The authoritarianism at WBAI is highlighted, as it was at KPFA, by the unwillingness of the Pacifica management to speak fully and honestly about its strategies and plans. To the limited extent that Pacifica has attempted to justify its actions at WBAI and KPFA, it has been on the grounds that these stations need to expand their audiences dramatically. I am quite sympathetic to that position [see McChesney, "From Pacifica to the Atlantic," October 11, 1999], but Pacifica's actions do not lend credence to this claim. The attack on WBAI, as on KPFA, seems more about seizing power, with the concerns of the audience, existing or potential, nowhere to be found.
This, then, points to the core problem: The management structure at Pacifica is inappropriate for this kind of enterprise. The notion of a self-appointed board of directors having all the legal power makes sense for a small nonprofit group where a small number of people do almost all the labor and strongly influence the board. But at Pacifica this model makes no sense. The Pacifica stations were built up by the staff and listeners over the past fifty years, yet they have hardly any legal power. Many of the current board members have scarcely any prior hands-on involvement with Pacifica and seemingly know little about community radio in theory or practice, yet they hold nearly all the legal cards. That is why their numerous opponents have been reduced to demonstrating, filing long-shot lawsuits and hassling board members in hopes they will quit.
The solution is therefore simple: Revise the legal structure of Pacifica so that it better reflects the actual nature of the five stations and how they do operate, and should operate. Give the staff and listeners more formal power. But the solution is also maddeningly complex. There is no simple way to restructure Pacifica to be democratic and effective and to make everyone happy. Some of those currently disgruntled may never get gruntled.
The proposal developed by numerous people, including FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, seems like the most prudent course: a transitional slate of a dozen highly respected progressive figures should be appointed to the existing board (www.fair.org/press-releases/pacifica-proposal.html). (Disclosure: I was recommended to be on this slate in the original proposal; due to increased obligations, I now cannot accept such a post.) This transitional board would then make a formal study of how Pacifica could be restructured to be more democratic, more relevant and more open to audience expansion, while remaining true to its core values.
This proposal has been endorsed by progressives ranging from Jim Hightower, Michael Moore, Martin Espada, Alice Walker and Studs Terkel to nonprofit media consultant Herb Chao Gunther, foundation president Hari Dillon, Barbara Ehrenreich, June Jordan, Tom Morello, Carlos Muñoz Jr., Jill Nelson, Ramona Ripston and Howard Zinn. The dissident members of Pacifica's national board have called for precisely such a long-term and sweeping re-evaluation. As board member Cagan told me, "The lack of democracy within the institution makes it impossible to have any open and honest discussion of the problems facing Pacifica." The plan can be carried out in accordance with Pacifica's current bylaws.
Tragically, as this goes to press, the board majority is moving in the opposite direction. It proposes to revise Pacifica's bylaws so that it will be "very much modeled on a corporate structure, not a nonprofit one," according to Cagan. This would, in effect, destroy Pacifica. The current board members must remember that they do not own Pacifica; it is not their plaything. They should not revise the bylaws and should adopt the Cohen proposal. Their legacy would then be that they were responsible for making Pacifica a strong and viable model for community broadcasting and media for the coming decades.
Pacifica listeners, the most politically pumped-up demographic in Radioland, are taking to the e-mails again. This time they're galvanized by what they see as a move to oust Amy Goodman, for many years co-host and heart and soul of Democracy Now!, a popular news program that showcases the network's avowedly radical take on the world.
The facts are: Goodman was ordered to institute certain changes in the program's operating procedures, to which she objected as unduly burdensome. There were other demands as well relating to more control over her public speaking engagements. If she did not comply, management threatened "disciplinary actions up to and including termination." Goodman struck back by filing a list of grievances through her union, AFTRA, charging various forms of harassment.
Many listeners feel that management's move against Goodman, ostensibly to "professionalize" the operation, is really an attempt to bland down the show. Our main concern is that Democracy Now! be preserved under Goodman and her current co-host, Juan Gonzalez. The program has broadcast a string of scoops and garnered some of radio's highest awards. It features the kind of hard-nosed investigative reporting that only noncommercial radio can do. Its series on the Chevron Oil company's collaboration with the murderous Nigerian dictatorship won a George Polk Award (see Goodman and Scahill, "Drilling and Killing," November 16, 1998, and "Killing for Oil in Nigeria," March 15, 1999). Goodman's reports from East Timor with Allan Nairn resulted in a documentary that collected numerous awards. Democracy Now! has covered a host of other stories that the mainstream media ignored or on-the-other-handed to death. Its reports on the Republican and Democratic conventions focused on the corporate domination of these political trade fairs, still another example of what alternative radio can do that the commercial networks won't.
Even the often admirable National Public Radio has sunk to the practice of corporate underwriting; it recently (and disgracefully) joined the big-bucks broadcast lobby in opposing low-power community radio. Pacifica is one of the few noncommercial radio voices left--"the last bastion of the precept, enshrined in the FCC Act, that the public airways are a public trust," as we said in a previous editorial. Goodman and Democracy Now! belong on Pacifica. Make that with an exclamation point!
Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer; is this the beginning of comic-strip artists being recognized as "real" artists?
AOL's buyout of Time Warner may have been this year's largest new media/old media merger, but in terms of sheer market consolidation, PlanetOut's purchase of Liberation Publications in late March
Media critics are more accustomed to pointing out problems than pointing to victories.