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SAUL LANDAU’S LETTER ON “PACIFICA BASHING”


Edward S. Herman

In

mid-February of this year Saul Landau issued an "Appeal to All

Progressives: Stop the Pacifica Bashing!" And he got some 40 liberals and

leftists to sign on, many associated with The Nation and Institute for Policy

Studies. (For a copy of the letter, a list of signers, and numerous

commentaries, see: http://www.savepacifica.net/strike/landau letters.html). Many

of us on the left who have closely followed or been involved in the Pacifica

struggle were appalled at the letter, and after several exchanges with Landau I

am more convinced than ever that his initiative is not only terribly wrong, it

is also the most divisive and damaging antileft act in many years. Let me

explain why.

Many

of us feel that the turmoil at Pacifica over the past five years is mainly

attributable to a management group that is trying to transform the

network–which owns five stations and provides programs to several dozen

others–from a left bastion with local roots and providing local service into a

mainstream institution that will attract a different and possibly larger

audience and will not be so upsetting to Washington power brokers and funders.

This has elicited a strong resistance from staff, volunteer employees, and local

audiences, and the result has been firings, lockouts, strikes, frequent

censorship, a temporary closure of KPFA, management threats to sell off one or

more stations, and poor morale in the traditional staff that feels under siege.

But the management has succeeded in largely transforming the Houston and

Washington D.C. stations into the desired mold, with more music and less

politics, and substantially less left politics. The Berkeley (KPFA) and New York

(WBAI) stations have put up more resistance, and the task of mainstreaming them

is incomplete, as it is also in Los Angeles (KPFK). The Pacifica management has

moved its offices from Berkeley to Washington D.C., away from a dissident

audience to the home of the dominant power brokers, in what some of us call a

"reverse carpetbagger" operation. For many of us, "Pacifica"

is not that management, the real Pacifica is the 30+ year veteran Larry Bensky,

fired last year by the management, Verna Avery-Brown, the ousted anchor of

Pacifica Network News, Amy Goodman of WBAI and Democracy Now, other staff fired

or under threat, and the large and devoted traditional audiences who have been

willing to go out on the streets by the thousands to protest the new order.

In

Landau’s letter, "Pacifica" means the management, and Pacifica bashing

is attacking that management, whereas for those of us in resistance, the

management is responsible for far more serious crimes than "bashing."

But Landau only calls the management’s crimes "mistakes" and

"lapses in judgment," and while he asks for a halt to

"bashing" he doesn’t demand a legally binding pledge not to carry out

the threat to sell KPFA, nor any other action from the management. Landau has

also never put up a public letter calling for any changes in management

composition, control, or policies. In short, his letter is de facto management

apologetics, which was conveniently put forward just a few days before a board

meeting in Washington. During that meeting board chair Mary Berry several times

quoted from Landau’s letter in support of her position.

I

have repeatedly asked Landau, by what moral authority does the Pacifica board

and officers decide to reorient the network toward the mainstream and carry out

its firings, censorship, and effective abandonment of a sizable left audience?

Isn’t their power deeply undemocratic, with a self-perpetuating body doing its

thing without any accountability to staff or audience? Isn’t this illegitimate

authority? Landau has never replied to these questions, but clearly he and some

of his co-signers are unwilling to challenge this unaccountable authority and

are prepared to accommodate to it in a way that is a bit surprising for liberals

and leftists.

Landau’s

letter speaks of critics of the management that "paint this progressive

network as some sort of runaway, rightwing juggernaut in the grip of a dark

conspiracy." Notice how he makes the "network" identical with its

management. But this reference to the critics’ "dark conspiracy" is

silly. I have told him that we don’t think there is any "conspiracy,"

but rather that there is a policy agenda that we passionately oppose. But he

hangs on to the notion that we believe in a dark conspiracy.

Landau

also keeps saying that Pacifica’s progressiveness is demonstrated by the

continued existence of programs like Democracy Now! And I respond that

counterrevolutions are not completed overnight, especially when there is

resistance, so that progressive programs will only go one at a time. I also tell

him that Amy Goodman has been repeatedly admonished to soften her program and

feels under siege, so that her eventual departure looks probable if the existing

management retains its power. But this doesn’t register with Landau.

The

sad fact is that he really seems to agree with the counterrevolution in process.

In response to my claim that we are fighting to save the only left radio network

in this country as a left institution, he replies that while it is true that a

left- oriented community and local orientation helps a left cause, "small

watt transmitters would be very well suited for local left community

radio." In other words, we should abandon Pacifica and leave the Washington

management to do with it whatever it wants. We should be satisfied with a more

appropriate, even if marginal, vehicle. But why should the board have a right to

abandon the traditional sizable and committed audiences and go their own way? He

simply asserts that he agrees with their policy of allegedly "seeking

larger audiences," at the expense of staff and existing audience

preferences, and the notion that maintaining a seriously left network is itself

an important objective has no weight for him.

Landau

puts an unwarrantedly positive gloss on the objectives of the Pacifica

management, asserting that they want "a larger…but still progressive

audience." How he knows their aims as regards audience politics is

puzzling. He fails to mention that audience size can be increased without

compromising substance. The Pacifica management’s extensive use of commercial

consultants, the cultivation of corporate and Washington power brokers, and the

steady pressure on radicals to tone down their messages or get out, suggests

that they are mainstreaming not primarily to enlarge audiences but rather for

ideological, political, and financial reasons. The modern breed of consultants

to public stations regularly urges depoliticization, getting rid of radicals,

and displacing the public sphere with uncontroversial music as the road to

legitimacy and financial solvency. The Pacifica management is closely following

this familiar course.

Detailed

inquiries have established that a number of the signers of Landau’s letter did

so on the basis of personal relationships and trust, in complete ignorance of

the issues at stake. Nevertheless, that Landau and others on the left have

signed on to this apologetic for the Pacifica management and its slow

strangulation of that network as a left institution has angered many people. It

is a wound to left solidarity that is going to be extremely difficult to heal.

 

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