Muckraking For Democracy

David Barsamian is the director of the award-winning syndicated audio program, Alternative Radio. AR is broadcast on 125 stations in the US and Canada and in more than 100 countries via short-wave. Barsamian travels the globe year-round, covering politics and corporate corruption in a candid and humorous way. His popularity is on the rise as more people tune into his speeches to understand the American political machine and its social impacts on a national and global level.

The Progressive magazine calls Alternative Radio, “The source of constant high-quality radio broadcasting that challenges conventional political wisdom” — while conservative critics post headlines on sites like LeftWatch.com that read: “Alternative Radio Program Hypocritical and Anti-Democratic.”

Elizabeth Cantrell, a contributor to LeftWatch, wrote in 2000 that Alternative Radio is “a perfect example of why the Left has become irrelevant to American politics.”

Cantrell’s statement might be her own wishful thinking. Over the last two years – particularly since Sept. 11 – AR’s audience continues to grow with an overwhelming demand for audio recordings of the program’s featured guests.

Barsamian is no media lapdog. He’s been called a powder-keg of radical politics. The soft-spoken, middle-aged muckraker is a heavyweight champion for democracy and of free speech. Probably best known for his book-length interviews with Noam Chomsky, Barsamian also taps some of the world’s most progressive and critical thinkers — Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy and Barbara Ehrenreich. His new book with Arundhati Roy is expected in the fall of 2003.

On a breezy September afternoon in Santa Fe, I caught up with David Barsamian for a talk about the propaganda campaign for a new war on Iraq, the corporate media’s complicity and what activists are doing to prevent global war.

Despite the looming possibility of war on Iraq, Barsamian says he’s hopeful – people are getting fed up with the “official stories” on the seven o’clock news – they are asking questions and finding alternative sources for answers.

How are progressive media faring in the face of the corporate-media explosion?

There’s an enormous demand for progressive speakers now, more than ever. Alternative Radio is doing better than ever and getting more requests and inquiries. I spoke in Alamosa last night – a small, sleepy, southern Colorado town – in front of 20 people. That’s as interesting to me as speaking before a thousand people and getting a standing ovation. We have this connection, you meet people, you touch them – they see your face and connect it with the voice they’ve heard or a book they may have read. That kind of outreach is very important in a time of war and crisis when people feel alone and isolated.

Are you seeing larger audiences now and what does that tell you about the social/political climate right now?

I’m seeing larger audiences everywhere. There’s the official story about 9/11: “They the evildoers hate us.” Why? Because, as Bush said yesterday, “We are the greatest nation on the face of the earth.” This is an explanation? That may or may not be true, I leave that to the audience to decide, but there has to be something more of substance that causes people to have hostility and antipathy toward the United States. So people are asking questions — they don’t know necessarily what the answer is — but the official story is just too shallow. They hate us because of our values? Because of who we are? Because: We’re the beacon of democracy — another Bush quote. That’s a propagandistic statement; it is not a term of description. If the United States was the beacon of democracy, it would be fostering democracy in states that are allied to it. But that’s not the case at all. The United States, in the case of Pakistan, supported a military dictatorship and in the case of Uzbekistan, the United States supported a Stalinist hack — Karimov, who has simply pulled down the red flag and put up his own.

So “beacon of democracy” is not a term of description, it’s a term of propaganda, just like, “The axis of evil,” and “United we stand.” Even “The war on terrorism” is another propagandistic term.

Why are the media so gullible? Why are they towing the line for Bush’s campaign for war?

The use of the passive voice in journalism excludes agency and obfuscates responsibility. The headlines: “People in Afghanistan were killed” “Lives were lost” “Children starved” are all passive constructions — there’s no agency. The active voice is absolutely critical in writing journalism. You see mainstream newspapers replete with high, unnamed sources, high government officials – back grounders – that leak information to gullible journalists who in turn feel flattered that, say, the Secretary of State has given him a tip. The tradeoff is that the journalist won’t reveal the source, and this is the whole structure of seduction.

Why is the press so credulous? Why are they so gullible in terms of reproducing the official story? I think that has to go with a system of indoctrination that induces self-censorship. So we don’t have a Nazi ministry of propaganda coming down and blue-lining newspaper copy. They don’t have to do that because the writers know the parameters they can operate within. And if they have a consistent and proven track-record of obedience – not breaking out of those boundaries – their careers are secure. They will go up the chain, win Pulitzer prizes, become White House correspondents or network news anchors. It’s very subtle, I mean, Chomsky writes about manufactured consent.

You also have to ask, what is the political economy of the media today – what is it? Who are the media? Well, they are now subordinate to even larger multinational corporations which are, in most instances, not even news organizations anymore, they’re entertainment organizations like Walt Disney, like AOL. As for news corporations there’s Rupert Murdoch and 20th Century Fox. The line between journalism and info-tainment has totally blurred. Classically, the role of journalism was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But today we have a situation that almost turns that on its head. It’s one of the reasons I’m calling on all journalism schools to name themselves as schools of stenography so that students would have a better understanding of what they were getting into: they’re becoming trained stenographers that go to government-orchestrated events, photo Ops, and take notes and replicate press hand outs from government ministries.

What can be done to change the face of media today?

I’ve been re-reading 1984 and it’s very instructive right now. In his appendix, George Orwell lays out the principles of newspeak. Newspeak is the official language of the Party — invented by the Party for the people of Oceania. Newspeak is designed to diminish the range of thought; to prevent the possibility of expression. So instead of expanding the horizon of democracy we find it’s shrinking, instead of a range of opinion from A to Z, it’s more like from A to B and from GE to GM, it’s extremely narrow. If you monitor TV talk shows, and I hate to call them talk shows, they’re really shout shows, but if you monitor them, you’ll find the same golden Rolodex of pundits are recycled on all of these programs. In response to that, young people, in particular, are taking up the call and they are becoming the media. They are taking up the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra’s call: Stop whining, stop complaining – become the media. You see, if you’re constantly gloom and doom and things are bad, comrade — it’s the worst thing to do. It’s not exactly an invitation of any age group to become active; you’re actually dis-empowering people. But by becoming the media, by creating genuine alternatives, it’s a very positive, therapeutic and psychological step forward. It’s a very salutary activity to produce alternatives rather than just whine and moan about it — that gets old.

Are you seeing younger people getting involved then, and becoming the media?

I’m seeing younger audiences tuning into alternative news. Definitely. People are turned off to the Petroleum Broadcasting Service – PBS. The station has lost 15 percent of its audience in the last year and it’s no wonder, look at the programming: The McLaughlin Group, Wall Street Week in Review, Washington Week in Review, The Nightly Business Report — BOR-ing. There’s nothing there for young people. There’s an occasional front-line documentary that’s good, but in total, the programming is very predictable and people are looking for diversity.

When did Alternative Radio begin? Why has it been successful?

It began when I moved to Boulder in 1978. I became a volunteer at KGNU, a community radio station, and I started a program called Ganges to the Nile — a world-music program. I had studied the sitar in India and I knew something about Indian music. My background is from the Middle East. But the show quickly morphed into a political program. More and more people were asking for cassettes of the program and I was giving them away for free. It occurred to me that as this demand increased locally, why don’t I think globally and act nationally — I wasn’t ready to go global, yet — and do a national program? So that’s what I did in the mid-1980s. Alternative Radio is a weekly one-hour, offered free of charge to all — public and community radio stations — and it’s broadcast all over Canada from Halifax to Victoria, and it’s also on short-wave on Radio for Peace International. It’s now an international show, but my base is the United States and particularly in the western states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, and California.

Why do you think Alternative Radio has been popular in the West?

It’s kind of counterintuitive, you think East — liberal, New York, Boston, Philadelphia — but it’s not the case at all. There’s an iron corridor that exists all along the east coast from Boston to Miami, an iron corridor that locks out progressive media. In the West, there’s more openness — people are willing to take risks. So Alternative Radio is not on in what is considered the most liberal city in the country, Boston, but is on the state network in Montana. It’s on the state network in Oregon, and KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ve been giving more talks all over and I was honored with a peace award by the New Mexico Peace Action and New Mexico director, Peggy Prince. It’s truly amazing.

Do you feel that there is a greater need for alternative news or Alternative Radio, at this time in particular, and why?

Yes. There are resources out there that can be tapped into. I’m not saying I’m the Fountain of truth. Alternative media exists. What Alternative Radio provides is independent, non-corporate information, non-state generated and filtered-through-corporate-media information, that’s what I present. It’s unalloyed, unambiguous information that’s presented in an hour-format, which has basically disappeared from all media. Where can you hear someone talking about an issue for an hour? The hour is there and you can sample it. Take what you want. Alternative Radio doesn’t tell you, “Think like this.” It’s information, context and background that you can’t usually find elsewhere. It’s not presenting itself as dogma. You do what you choose.

Who are your mentors?

I have so many mentors from growing up as the son of survivors of the first genocide of the 20th Century. I had a lot of mentors and I understood at a fairly young age, the importance of information and understanding history. Why do I say that? My parents, who were hit by this cyclone that erupted and threw them out of Armenia – their traditional homeland – into the United States, they didn’t have a clue as to what happened to them. They were country-bumpkins. They were peasants, living in the rural areas. All of a sudden they found themselves living in a tenement in New York. So to me that experience was very instructive in terms of the centrality of information, how knowledge is an instrument of power.

How are the media and democracy related?

Thomas Jefferson said “Information is the currency of democracy.” What happens if that currency is old, controlled, minted and distributed by a handful of corporations? Is that good for democracy? I think Conservatives need to pay attention to this kind of monopoly control — this is not a Left or liberal issue, this is an issue about the well-being of a democracy. Does it flourish when there are many voices? What does it say around the eagle on the one-dollar bill? : e pluribus unum, out of many – one.

Does democracy flourish when there are only a few voices — essentially repeating the same story over and over again — like the golden Rolodex of experts and pundits that have completely taken over opinion in the United States? Their op-EDS appear in the Wall Street Journal and then they are interviewed on Face the Nation and Meet the Press; they’re on All Things Considered and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and then interviewed by Charlie Rose. It’s not good, and it’s not healthy for the communication needs of a democratic society. Now I would not want everyone listening to Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, that’s not what I argue. There needs to be more colors in the rainbow, more tiles in the mosaic, than the same design over and over again. That’s what I encourage. We don’t need drive-by journalism in this country, which has the same nutritional value as drive-by food — there’s no fiber, there’s no context. It’s full of hot air.

How have corporate-media allowed Iraq to essentially become center-stage?

The Administration sets the agenda. Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11. The US has bent over backwards, desperately trying to show some connection between the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and the terrorists of 9/11, but 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. There were no Iraqis among them, and there were no Afghans among them either. The other thing the US tried to pin on Iraq was the anthrax scare. That was page-one news, week after week. Then it was discovered that the anthrax was created in a US government lab and the story went to page 101. It wasn’t the so-called “right information” so it disappears.

What kinds of people call into your show and make inquiries, or ask for copies of the broadcast?

Most people are sampling the show, but I have calls coming in where people say, “This is the wildest thing I ever heard, I never heard anything like this before.” And a really common one: “I had to pull to the side of the road because I was driving out of the signal area and I wanted to make sure that I could hear everything.”

But the most common response, which I find very heartening is, “I thought I was the only one out here thinking these thoughts, but when I heard them articulated on your program I felt I wasn’t alone. I felt affirmed. I’m not crazy. I’m not nutty to think that there’s something wrong with the official story on the war on terrorism and that people just hate us for the sake of hating.”

That, to me, is a very important example of solidarity and what Alternative Radio can provide — not just information, but the kind of solace that you get and comfort from knowing there are people out there thinking the way you do.

Christina Boyle is an independent journalist in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the managing editor for New Mexico’s progressive news source, the Eldorado Sun magazine. Visit us at www.eldoradosun.com


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