All the News that Fits?

Two veteran reporters from the political left no longer fit in Pacifica's new corporate model.

I never expected to be censored and arrested for reporting the truth at a Pacifica station – even if that truth was about Pacifica. I came to Pacifica twenty years ago because of the network’s reputation for having taken on Joe McCarthy, and for having been at the center of the free speech movement; indeed, it was the movement’s voice. KPFA was the first station to broadcast Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary poem, “Howl,” and it was also the first U.S. media to send a reporter to North Vietnam to get the other side. It was a time of astonishing national and personal transformations: when I first heard Pacifica, I was training to be a cop, hoping to join the C.I.A. and turn the clock back on the communists.

Now, to my shock and profound disappointment, Pacifica, guided by extraordinary amounts of ignorance and arrogance, has been transformed from a network created to “speak truth to power” to one apparently committed to using all power necessary to suppress the truth.

On Tuesday, July 13, my bosses at Pacifica set a new standard for censorship at KPFA in Berkeley when they pulled me off the air for playing a fifteen-minute clip of a public press conference called by the media watchdog group, Media Alliance, and two related commentaries. Media Alliance had discussed the crisis at KPFA, and released an e-mail memo from a Pacifica national board member discussing the potential sale of KPFA and New York’s Pacifica station, WBAI (see Freedom’s Just Another Word, TO August 6, 1999).

Because I later reported this highly newsworthy and widely covered press conference, Pacifica’s hit-man from Houston, Garland Ganter (station manager of KPFT) attempted to have me bounced out of the station like a drunk from a bar, calling on Pacifica’s new private security force: literally hired guns from IPSA International. IPSA, as their web site helpfully explains, specializes in “hostile terminations,” corporate downsizing, and the needs of the new corporate executives, which can no longer be met by “traditional law enforcement” – including even military sharpshooters for particularly difficult situations.

Pacifica insists that the new security measures were for our own safety, and in response to a rumored radical takeover of the station. What they really feared is that the staff might continue to do its job of reporting the news. July 12, national board chair Mary Frances Berry arrived in Oakland and held an invitation-only press conference. I and other uninvited journalists found out about it and arrived to ask questions. Pacifica communications director Elan Fabbri, using hotel security, tried to physically restrain certain reporters from entering the room. She attempted to grab a tape recorder out of my hands and blocked a television camera in an attempt to prevent interviews of journalists who had been forbidden entrance. (Afterwards, the cameraman said Fabbri was acting “more like Goebbels” [Hitler’s propaganda chief] than a spokesperson for a community radio network.) To Berry’s credit, she allowed everyone into the press conference, even calling on me for a question.

The next day, in a staff meeting called by Lynn Chadwick, I was told explicitly by Garland Ganter that despite Pacifica’s “non-disclosure” policy (a.k.a. the gag rule), we would be allowed to cover whatever was being widely reported in the mainstream media. Yet a few hours later he arrived personally to evict me from the station, after I had played the clip from the Media Alliance press conference. Ganter pursued me into the newsroom, where he and two of his IPSA thugs tried to grab me, in the process backing me into a broadcasting tape player – inadvertently throwing us live on the air. The whole world heard the rest. I started shouting at them, “I belong here!” and in the best tradition of Gandhi, Martin Luther King – and KPFA founder, Lewis Hill – I sat down.

Management’s censorship and my subsequent arrest by Pacifica violated everything that KPFA free-speech radio stands for. Pacifica management has made a mockery of the First Amendment. They have claimed they want to “enhance diversity” on the network, but the real goal of this hostile takeover crew – led by a white man from Houston, with a top-down planfrom Washington, D.C., under the armed protection of a virtually all-white private police force – has nothing to do with diversity. In fact, enhancing diversity at KPFA was precisely the goal of Nicole Sawaya, our fired station manager, herself a Lebanese-American. Sawaya was the first person to unify the contentious KPFA staff, and she had hired KPFA’s first African-American program director and diversified KPFA’s programming.

In contrast, Pacifica’s new executive director, Lynn Chadwick, has been firing or alienating people (including people of color) into quitting since she arrived. The African-American program director quit to protest the summary firing of Pacifica reporter Larry Bensky after more than thirty years at Pacifica. The African-American morning show host quit, saying Chadwick and the new board had created a “toxic atmosphere.” The ax continues to fall. This community radio station that has championed free speech is being systematically dismantled by powers-that-be in Washington, who pull the plug on any staffer who dares to question their actions on the air. The dozens of producers of color who work at KPFA strongly believe that Pacifica’s justification of its heavy-handed policies is false. African-American producers at KPFA, for example, wrote to Berry, saying they refused to be “complicit in any Pacifica-driven purge of KPFA staffers under the guise of diversity.” Other minority producers have delivered similar messages of solidarity.

My years at free speech radio have been dedicated to bringing people an alternative version of the news. Over the years, I have covered church burnings in the South, the savings and loan scandal, and Jean-Paul Aristide’s return to Haiti. But my ultimate experience in giving voice to the voiceless came with the story of Eleanor Bumpurs, a sixty-six-year-old grandmother killed because she was late paying her rent. In the course of evicting Bumpurs from her Bronx apartment, police fired two shotgun blasts – one to her hand, the second, fatal, in her chest. I was able to bring to the airwaves young people who had heard the gunfire through the ceiling – to let them report the story the way they saw it, and so make a mark in their own history, in all our history. This is why I have stayed with Pacifica, because it has been a place where the words and actions of the disinherited are heard and taken seriously.

I will not be silenced or gagged. This is not, as Pacifica has claimed, simply a labor/management dispute, or a question of hate speech on the air. At stake at KPFA is the future of community radio and the preservation of a sacred Bay Area institution. KPFA has been invented and nourished by this community for fifty years, and it will continue to provide a strong voice for the voiceless, as well as a platform for activists and progressives to speak truth to power – without fear of reprisal. KPFA will not be silenced.

(For current information, consult the rebellion websites at www.savepacifica.net, and www.radio4all.org/freepacifica/index.html. The official Pacifica page is at www.pacifica.org. For news on Houston action, contact Edwin Johnston: [email protected])

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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