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Susan Douglas, And The Nation, On Pacifica


The Nation magazine has had a serious conflict of interest in reporting on the Pacifica struggle. During the reign of the old Pacifica management, the magazine had its own program on Pacifica’s Los Angeles station KPFK, with the program run by Contributing Editor Marc Cooper, a close ally of station manager Mark Schubb and a defender of the now ousted regime. This conflict of interest resulted in a series of Nation articles on the Pacifica struggle that was badly compromised, and although there were exceptions (several items by Alexander Cockburn, and an article by Robert McChesney), the magazine was not supportive of the campaign that has now successfully displaced the old order.

Given that Cooper and Schubb were casualties of the management turnover, it is not surprising that The Nation would review this successful resistance campaign in a negative light, and Susan Douglas has done that for the magazine ("Is There A Future For Pacifica?," April 15). This can be read from the title, which implies doubts about Pacifica’s future, but even more dramatically in the article’s framing of the recent developments. In a positive framing of the struggle, the success of the "save Pacifica" campaign, and the replacement of the prior management with people clearly dedicated to a more democratic organization and progressive values, would have been the main focus and would be seen as a highly desirable outcome.

No such frame appears in Douglas’s article. She portrays the struggle as an unjustifed clash between two sides that had similar politics, refused to bend, and carried out a policy of destruction rather than let the opposition control: "Better to destroy it than to let those who are too pragmatic or, on the other hand, too purist, control it." In the middle, not surprisingly, are the good guys, Marc Cooper, Saul Landau, and Mark Schubb, "who hated the board…but disagreed with the dissidents over tactics and over programming policy." So the firing of these three stalwarts rates high in Douglas’s critique of the new board and its early performance. They are the heroes and tragic victims in the Douglas framing of the story.

This perspective involves serious misrepresentations. The idea that the policy of struggle against the management was unreasonable because the policy differences were small is false; the implication that the resistance did not strive for a long time and through many routes to induce the old guard management to compromise is also wrong; and the attempt to make Cooper, Landau and Schubb "haters" of the old management and middle-of-the-road victims is laughable.

Her treatment of Cooper, Schubb and Landau in the middle, as men who allegedly "hated the board," involves a serious rewriting of history. In the wake of the ouster of the former management, Landau has called that management "hapless and witless" and says that it "reeked of incompetence at best." But back in February 2000 Landau circulated a letter calling on dissidents to "stop bashing the management," at which time he didn’t find it "hapless and witless" or "incompetent," only suffering "lapses in judgment" and making "mistakes." Most important, while calling on the dissidents to lay off, Landau suggested nothing that the management had to do of a constructive nature, and from that time on, throughout the life of the old management, he was entirely silent on management deficiencies or needed managerial changes. Cooper and Schubb were open defenders of the status quo, harsh critics of the dissidents, and enforcers of the gag-rule system. In effect, they were all part of the management team.

On policy differences, it is interesting that Douglas never discusses the composition of the old regime’s board, its gradual stuffing of the board with corporate representatives, including one who specialized in the sale of media properties, another with a specialty in union-busting; nor does she discuss the close relations of the old management to the top officials of NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or former chair Mary Berry’s close relations with the Democratic Party. Douglas also fails to mention the fact that the sale of the recalcitrant stations to commercial interests was a subject for discussion among the old board members.

But, according to Douglas, "these people [on both sides of the struggle]–at least as I understand it–are united in their opposition to the Bush administration’s war on terrorism and on civil liberties, share a powerful critique of U.S. imperialism, are avowed antiracists, deplore the right’s attacks on feminism and women’s reproductive rights, and are bound together by deep concerns over the threat to democracy and public discourse posed by media conglomerates." That Douglas knows John Murdock’s, Bertram Lee’s, Ken Ford’s, and the rest of the old board’s views on these subjects I find doubtful, and their willingness to consider selling off the dissident stations to commercial interests suggests a limited concern over the menace of media conglomerates.

Notice also the hedged character of Douglas’s list–how about an agreement on Bill Clinton’s support of "our kind of guy" Suharto; his "sanctions of mass destruction" against Iraq; and his consistent support of Israel’s encroachments and repression in the occupied territories? Mark Schubb was present at a meeting in Washington, D.C., called to straighten out Amy Goodman, at which, among other matters, her excessive preoccupation with what "our kind of guy" was doing in East Timor was mentioned as one of her deficiencies. There is no report that Schubb objected to this criticism. Schubb also complained about Amy Goodman’s focus on harsh news like police brutality, which Schubb thought didn’t go well with a comfortable eating of breakfast. This was consistent with the "easy listening" approach adopted by Pacifica under the tutelage of mainstream media consultants, seeking the NPRization of the network.

Marc Cooper strenously criticizes Pinochet, but he supported both the Kosovo war and the attack on Afghanistan. Cooper was angry with William Blum for citing the "totally unverified and unscientific" body count by Mark Herold of over 3,500 Afghan civilian casualties of U.S. bombing raids. It is doubtful that Cooper made a serious study of Herold’s methodology, and he expresses no anger whatsoever that once again the Pentagon has made no count of its own and in fact actively prevented verification on the scene. Cooper cites a figure of 500 for civilian casualties in Serbia, which is traceable to Kenneth Roth and Human Rights Watch; a figure at the low end of such estimates and made by a body increasingly funded by NATO governments and George Soros and with multiple U.S. official board affiliations (Roth’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Indict Saddam" [March 22, 2002] is an obvious and cynical bid for a closer alliance with the Bush human rights administration.)

Amy Goodman opposed the Kosovo war, opposed the unilateral assault on Afghanistan, and took Herold’s findings very seriously. She does not rely on Kenneth Roth and HRW, or the Pentagon, for verification. She is not "united" with Marc Cooper in opposition to Bush’s war on terrorism, nor does she share with him "a powerful critique of U.S. imperialism"–she believes imperialism was operative in the U.S. Balkans wars and in the attack on Afghanistan, not just in the U.S. support of Pinochet.

These major differences, and the leaning of the management toward softer news and less hostility to Clinton, suggest that the struggle was over substantive issues of news, not, in the Cooper- friendly version that Douglas propounds, an issue of "whether the stations should be platforms, primarily, for progressive journalism, or…for progressive activism." News about police brutality at breakfast, and giving close attention to Mark Herold’s data on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, is not "activism," it is a different slant on what kind of news should be carried on a supposedly progressive network.

Douglas’s view that all factions were strongly favorable to civil liberties runs into the problem that the old guard, and Cooper’s close ally Mark Schubb, engaged in a multi-year system of gagging and censorship of dissent, with hundreds of regular employees and volunteers fired in the process. It was a useful mechanism for getting rid of many good people who objected strongly to both censorship and the course being pursued by the old guard management. It is a bit surprising that Douglas never discusses this long-standing censorship system, which not only flies in the face of values she and The Nation prize, but which was also one of the real bones of contention in the struggle–a repressive system that ended with the changeover in management.

Susan Douglas also ignores the fact, disclosed in a recent Pacifica board report, that "the former administration apparently committed hundreds of thousands of listener dollars on an undercover intelligence operation targeting Pacifica staffers and listeners. Secret dossiers were apparently created on programmers, like Amy Goodman, on board members like Leslie Cagan, and on listener activists. Undercover agents were reportedly dispatched to spy on Local Advisory Board meetings and on community events. Internet news groups and web sites were closely monitored and liaisons were established with local police forces." Some commitment to civil liberties!

Douglas also slides over other serious issues. Early in her piece she says that "If you, poor writer, suggested that those in Pacifica who were pushing for programming that would attract a wider audience might have a point, you were a crypto-fascist tool of corporate capitalism…" This of course leaves uncriticized the management claim that that was all they were trying to do, and it smears those who have another view as mere name-callers. The other view might be: yes, let’s try to attract a wider audience, but without sacrificing our commitment to giving a strong voice to dissidents who, by definition, will constrain market reach. Amy Goodman’s program attracted a wide audience without compromising substance, but the old management was not happy with Amy–a suggestive point that Douglas never addresses. Goodman was admonished by the old management for being too hard on Clinton, and as noted her preoccupation with East Timor was also objectionable.

Really progressive news can sell, but you have to want it in the first place; and the audiences apparently do want it, as fund- raising since the management turnover has been very successful– record-breaking at Pacifica’s Los Angeles, Houston, and Berkeley stations.

Douglas chides the critics of the old management who claimed that they "were ‘hijackers’ determined to steer Pacifica away from its true mission." But she never seriously discusses that "mission," or whether the former management was steering it away (or was merely trying to "attract a wider audience"), or the issue of "hijacking"–that is who controls the system, how, and with what justification. The mission was to allow local participation, diversity, and space for dissent. A market share orientation would threaten this, and could also be used as a cover for a hidden political agenda. Douglas fails to discuss this seriously, as a theoretical conflict, and as one being realized by virtue of the linkages and actions of the old management, as the participants in the "save Pacifica" campaign believed. She ignores the recent history of the Pacifica stations in Washington and Houston, which were fully reoriented by the old management. Besides engaging in numerous acts of gagging and censorship, in both there was a major purge of leftists and a depoliticization of station programming– the Houston station notorious for having become a country music station.

Douglas also fails to discuss the issue of legitimate control. The board majority completely insulated itself from any local representation by a 1999 change in by-laws that eliminated representation of local advisory boards–it became entirely self- perpetuating, moved its offices from the Bay Area to Washington D.C., and further stacked its membership with businessmen. It cultivated links to NPR and the CPB, and arguably had "hijacked" control to push its own agenda, irrespective of "mission" or the desires of employees or traditional audiences. This effort met with a concerted response and long and expensive fight. Susan Douglas doesn’t mention that the takeover of KPFA in 1999 brought 10,000 people into the streets in Berkeley, and the strength of the resistance, now successful, rested on the fact that many thousands were willing to spend a great deal of effort and money to "save" their stations from a clear mainstreaming design.

This was a democratic struggle, carried out by a very large number of people against unfavorable odds. The dissidents tried over quite a few years to get the old management to democratize by agreement, and only carried out a series of legal actions, and a boycott campaign, after continuous frustration in efforts at a negotiated settlement. Susan Douglas ignores these failed efforts to settle peaceably, but she also suggests that this was an unworthy fight because the issues were not serious–"better to destroy it than to let those who are too pragmatic…control it." But the issues WERE serious, and it wasn’t "pragmatism" that was at issue–it was media democracy versus mainstreaming and destroying a Pacifica with a local and dissident mission that was at stake. It is sad that Susan Douglas and The Nation have not been able to grasp this fact.

Douglas notes that Pacifica has a multi-million dollar debt, but she fails to allocate the responsibility for this to the extravagance and unwarranted control preservation efforts of the old management (indirectly helped along, regrettably, by Cooper, Landau, and The Nation). She fails to point out that in the wake of the change in adminstration, network-wide financial controls and reporting are being put in place, financial control is being returned to the local stations, and there is every indication that the network is experiencing more competent as well as more open management everywhere. She points out that the new Pacifica management will have problems in maintaining audience and carrying out its own mission without regular and solid news programming and self-discipline and intelligence in programming and personnel policies. This is true, but she fails to note that the self- organized Free Speech News Radio News, made up of a number of stringers who left PNN in objection to Pacifica’s news censorship, now run on a number of Pacifica stations and is far superior in original reportage, particularly on international affairs, to the now defunct but very expensive PNN.

Democracy has its costs and problems, but we need to welcome its return to Pacifica and pitch in and do our best to make it work well. We need it desperately to provide an alternative voice that will contest the offerings of the mainstream media.

 

 

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