September 10, 2001
Several individuals have attributed to me certain statements on the issue of the situation known as the “Pacifica Crisis.” As I am quite capable of speaking for myself without easy-chair interpretations, I have decided to make this public comment.
More than two years ago, when trouble was first brewing at KPFA, I wrote in The Nation that the entirety of the Pacifica network was at risk. I stated at the time that the crisis had been precipitated by Pacifica management’s clumsy and unexplained dismissal of KPFA’s manager, Nicole Sawaya. I also called for the resignation of the Executive Director and the reinstatement of Sawaya and accused the National Board and then Chairwoman Mary Francis Berry of gross negligence.
But I also strongly criticized the KPFA staff for abusing their on-air privileges. I wrote that it was a mistake to take to the air to agitate and air internal grievances. One hundred days later, I was proven correct when the station descended into chaos.
Just as in 1999, I firmly believe today that both sides in this conflict bear heavy responsibilities for the dire mess in which Pacifica now finds itself. For taking this position, I have been called just about every vile name invented in English and probably one or two other languages as well. But my assertion stands. Today, we see that the zealots and bumblers at the Pacifica National Board, the Pacifica National Staff, the WBAI management, as well as the “dissident” Pacifica Campaign and many of their political allies, including key staff of Democracy Now!, have now recklessly escalated this situation. As a result, it is only a matter of days or weeks, at the most, before the network finally and conclusively implodes. When the smoke clears and the perpetrators can view the wreckage their handiwork has wrought in the glare of daylight, perhaps then they’ll realize with a guilty gulp that no one came out the winner.
The unfolding of Pacifica’s cheap trash radio drama is as predictable as Jerry Springer, albeit less entertaining. Just when the scarce remaining observers are convinced that Pacifica could not possibility stage yet another vulgar display of self-abuse, a new outrage erupts from one side or the other.
The latest chapter is the dispute over National Program Manager Steve Yasko. For those who idle away their lives wondering about these matters: Yes, on August 31 I wrote Steve Yasko a private e-mail demanding that he resign. This was not a new position. I told him the same thing shortly after he was hired one year ago. I also repeated my long-standing position that his boss, Bessie Wash, has no business running a radio network. I told Yasko that he should quit because he was an inept manager and that the current administration was driving the network into the ground.
Now, I learn that Yasko has indeed tendered his resignation effective September 15. Unfortunately, he is resigning for all the wrong reasons. Much to my horror, shared mercifully by some other decent human beings, Yasko was driven out by a smear campaign mounted by Juan Gonzalez, his Pacifica Campaign and Amy Goodman, constructed on the flimsy basis of links Yasko had maintained on his gay-oriented website. Like a claque of Church Ladies, Gonzalez, Goodman and friends have publicly turned Yasko into a tawdry porno king–or was it misogynist? Or was it a dangerous sexual fantasizer? Or maybe it was just a plain old pervert. That’s the nature of innuendo and smear–it’s everything and nothing all at once.
Bad enough that this information–the bulk of it wildly incorrect–was trawled and slathered across the Internet. Worse yet, Amy Goodman shed all semblance of decency and went on to Dennis Bernstein’s KPFA show for another leisurely paw through the methane. This is a new low in Pacifica’s already shocking history. This from a woman who is engaged in a gender harassment suit against the same individual.
If Goodman were really concerned about Yasko’s activities, she has a wide-open door available to her in the form of a union grievance. But she preferred a public trash job through the unilateral airing of her private opinions, without the bother of any inconvenient rebuttal, all of which constitutes a screeching conflict of interest.
The smear against Yasko has stunned some of Pacifica Campaign’s allies. But even this is disingenuous. The “dissidents” have liberally applied the personal smear tactic from the very onset of this fight. Anyone who dared to refuse to toe their line was branded as a “corporatist,” a “hijacker,” a scab–or in some cases a fascist. Or in my case, a Pinochetista. I have on file more than seventy-five e-mails from activists in the Bay Area alleging that when I served as Salvador Allende’s translator, I was in fact a CIA agent. Some added that I had had a hand in Allende’s death. This sort of scabrous libel merits no reply, only a weary shake of the head.
Likewise, when Saul Landau–an intellectual with forty years of unbelmished credentials–offered a “truce” in the Pacifica wars last year, he was publicly pilloried and slandered by the same people now in the forefront of the Pacifica Campaign. There was no debate, no engagement, only howling denunciations and wild accusations, too often from spoiled youngsters who know nothing of their own history and ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Furthermore, when the Taliban cadre from the Pacifica Campaign targeted the Pacifica National Board, it employed a strategy lifted directly from Operation Rescue. The employers of the unpaid Board members were hounded relentlessly, forcing them to either step down from Pacifica or risk their outside jobs. But the most loathsome tactic, the same one employed by the thug supporters of Megan’s Law, was to leaflet the neighbors of these same board members to alert them that a “criminal” was living next door.
The left, for the most part, remained silent as these personal destruction tactics were played out. Regrettably, even my own publication, The Nation, couldn’t find its public voice on this issue and buckled to the moral blackmail exerted by these Gambino-like tactics employed by Pacifica dissidents.
The sacrifice of Steve Yasko has, at least, broken that silence. It was about time. Those who feel disgust at the way he was driven out with tactics ripped from Ken Starr’s handbook should start to voice that sentiment. But they should also take a moment to reflect on the previous “victories” scored by the Pacifica Campaign and ask themselves if those were not, in retrospect consistent with the latest repugnant developments.
For the record, I would like to restate my opposition to the boycott of Pacifica. I find it absurd that in the age of Bush and conglomerate corporate media, these individuals can find no more formidable enemy and can dedicate their nervous energies to choking the Pacifica Network, whatever its real or imagined sins.
I also find it rather disingenuous that this campaign is led by Juan González, a man who has no conflicts about accepting a huge salary as columnist from the corporation of the right-wing Daily News while warring against hapless Pacifica. That contradiction truly tests the imagination.
Nevertheless, I am peppered almost daily with impertinent e-mails demanding that I state if I am now or have ever been a supporter of the Pacifica National Board. The question is too absurd to merit a reply. But those who believe that this collection of lost souls are either corporatists or pawns of the Democratic Party give them too much credit. For the twenty-five years that I have been aware of its consistently sad record, Pacifica’s board has been dominated for the most part not by evil conspiracy, corporate greed or bad faith but by simple mediocrity. Those responsible for Pacifica have amply demonstrated their inability to build a mature, stable and progressive network. The current majority emit some strong aromas of arrogance and silliness. But mostly of rank ineptitude, as did most of their predecessors going back into the late 1970s.
As to the “dissident minority,” the vaguely more political elements among their bureaucratic colleagues in the majority, they distinguish themselves as ideological zealots lacking a clue about management or quality programming. Neither camp is representative of anyone in particular, having never been elected but rather appointed to their posts by the same majority they now decry as “criminal.”
Neither side has a shred of political credibility. The majority is incapable of articulating any vision–let alone a Democratic Party or corporate model, whatever that means. The supposedly big, bad steamrolling, centralizing National Pacifica juggernaut is, in fact, a bottomless black hole. Pacifica’s malady stems not from roughshod management, but from no management at all.
The dissidents, meanwhile, can’t get their story straight. Read through their blizzard of websites over the last two years, and the “issue” keeps moving around: First it was Pacifica’s firing of KPFA Manager Sawaya; then it was “governance” and the local boards–no, the national board–then it was the Democrats taking over, or was it the corporatists and the commercializers; then, briefly, it was the FBI; soon after, Pacifica’s supposed plan to move out of California; promptly, it morphed into a “strike,” against PNN; and then recently the dastardly “Christmas Coup,” which lasted only until the issue shifted to the National Association of Homebuilders. As I write, the new flavor of the week is Democracy Now!
The latest crisis, indeed, flows directly from the chaotic bowels of WBAI. And again, both sides bear the onus. Last Christmas Valerie Van Isler and Bernard White were removed from station management. Though Van Isler was universally repudiated by the staff and White was an affable but grossly ineffective program director, some sectors of the staff opportunistically rebelled against their removal and began portraying them as martyrs.
Since early January Amy Goodman has signed off her Democracy Now! show with a torch song about broadcasting from “the studios of the fired and the banned.” While Goodman has the right to her opinion, she has no place using the public airwaves to broadcast her personal grievances day after day. Such antics would be unthinkable in any serious journalistic organization.
At the same time, the new management at WBAI has revealed itself to be as morally bankrupt as its predecessors. The manager has let loose a bevy of on-air bullies and helped forever tarnish what scrap of credibility the station retained. Shame on Utrice Leid and Clayton Reilly.
But shame on Amy Goodman and her Democracy Now! staff as well. They have consistently made themselves “the issue.” And that is not what good radio is about. Good radio is focused on the listener, not the programmer. Wearing masks to work, claiming grand political conspiracies, distorting and twisting even ordinary and sometimes necessary criticism directed at them, the Democracy Now! staff has only poured gasoline onto the fire, taking obvious delight in doing so like frenetic vandals. Goodman’s on-air sexual smear of Yasko last week is entirely consistent and merely the most egregious of these displays.
Since mid-August when Goodman unilaterally decided to no longer report to her workplace to do her show, she has held the future of the network hostage. That was wrong. Initially, an agreement was reached between her union (of which I am also a member) and Pacifica for her to return to work. But, rather predictably, WBAI’s management allowed its werewolves to go on the air and trash Goodman. The deal was sunk. And now both sides, again, seem intent on pushing the whole mess over the cliff. This could occur as early as next week when the Pacifica National Board attempts to meet by phone.
Twenty years ago there was talk about using our five stations and new satellite technology to forge a strong, national, progressive voice. In 1981 Pacifica’s first national show, the Pacifica National News, went on the air. Twenty years later, Pacifica has exactly one additional hour of daily national programming to show for its efforts, a frankly pathetic achievement, reflecting the consistent caving to individual station, or more exactly individual programmer, interests. And that show, Democracy Now!, currently consists of on-air flames, thanks to the infantile self-indulgence of its bosses and staff.
I have not made a final decision, but I may soon decide to put an end to the enormous financial sacrifice, which I estimate at approximately $35,000 per year in refused writing assignments, that I incur by continuing to be employed by KPFK in Los Angeles. I have stayed with the daily program because it resonates with a large audience and because I enjoy the interaction with my guests and listeners. I am proud of my work and stand by it 100 percent, including the interviews with Pat Buchanan and Robert McNamara that got so many pairs of knickers in knots. I owe my audience the Greater Los Angeles Press Club’s Radio Journalist of the Year award which I won last year. I have it on the wall.
Over the last three years I have raised some $1 million for KPFK and Pacifica. Ironically, a chunk of that funding helped finance the broadcast of programs like Democracy Now! Perhaps I should feel guilty.
This war was really touched off five or six years ago when a moderately enlightened and short-lived Pacifica executive director sounded the alarm. She was concerned that the network had ossified and grown insular and was not effectively responding to the challenge of a right-wing dominated media that had grown beyond anyone’s imagination. But no sooner had she rung the bell, than a backlash by entrenched long-time local programmers was unleashed who believed they had some entitlement to the air.
It is no accident, that KPFA, the Pacifica station that the so-called dissidents so celebrate as the only “liberated” station, is in fact the most ossified. Is it not strange that at a station which pays endless lip service to “community” involvement, many of its key, paid staff are people who have clung to those jobs literally for decades. Take a look at the heart of the KPFA News and Public Affairs Departments: Aileen Alfandary, Mark Mericle, Wendell Harper, Phillip Maldari, Kris Welch all have held their positions for twenty or even twenty-five years. If that isn’t entrenched stagnation, what is?
The crisis of Pacifica has little or nothing to do with either the National Board, or the Local Boards, or the By-Laws, or the CPB, or the Democratic Party or Marc Cooper or Amy Goodman, for that matter. As John Dinges insightfully pointed out in the pages of The Nation, the crisis of Pacifica has been brewing and maturing for more than twenty years. Over those two decades, Pacifica’s growth has been stunted. Its national audience is an anemic 3/4 million. It has failed to produce compelling programming at either the national or local level. At a moment in history in which telecommunications has an explosive role in the lives of Americans, Pacifica Radio emits only a death rattle.
The current fight is between two entrenched bureaucracies–one at the national level, and a collection of similar entities at the local level. There’s plenty of hot air being blasted around about democracy, community, representation, etc. But no one is talking about how to produce thoughtful, responsive, agile, intelligent radio and how to bring Pacifica’s mission to a wider audience. I am now convinced that this necessary and primary discussion has been forever lost in a bloody, pointless fight, a classic scramble for deck chairs on a rusted out and severely listing Titanic. Or in Pacifica’s case, more like a Tugboat Annie.
For my part, I now have absolutely no interest in the actual denouement of this tiresome remake of yet another Friday the 13th. I don’t think it matters very much to journalism, the so-called left or what’s left of Pacifica’s listenership. The historic project of Pacifica Radio as it was conceived and nurtured over several decades is now dead. Bessie Wash, Amy Goodman, Utrice Leid, Juan Gonzalez, Dennis Bernstein, FAIR, John Murdoch and Leslie Cagan alike will serve as pallbearers.