By FRANZ HATTAM
The battle for free speech and critical journalism at Pacific Radio reached a fever pitch on Aug.14 when the national news show, “Democracy Now! “(DN), hosted by Amy Goodman, was nixed by Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash. Wash ordered that Pacifica’s New York affiliate, WBAI, replace Goodman’s daily live broadcasts with reruns.
Goodman and her staff, who are nationally acclaimed for courageous, anti-establishment reporting on issues that are largely banned in the mainstream media, were suspended without pay a week later. The DN team didn’t learn about their suspension until it was reported in New York City’s local press.
According to eyewitnesses, on Aug. 14 Goodman came upon two WBAI staffers searching through the personal possessions of fired WBAI Program Director Bernard White. Despite Goodman’s objections to this invasion of privacy, the search continued. Goodman’s effort to photograph the incident resulted in a physical and verbal attack by WBAI’s interim station manager, Utrice Leid, and other Leid supporters.
Fearing for their physical safety and having been a week earlier ousted from WBAI’s master control room and relegated to a small inadequate facility, Goodman sought redress from Pacifica’s senior management. When their repeated written requests to WBAI management to remedy the “atmosphere of threats and intimidation” as well as management’s physical attacks were ignored, Goodman and her staff moved DN production to an alternate studio in downtown Manhattan.
While Pacifica has maintained that Goodman “failed to report to work,” her live broadcasts of “Democracy Now!” are aired regularly by unintimidated Pacifica affiliates across the country, including Berkeley’s KPFA, which was forcibly closed down by management-hired armed guards two years ago.
It took a community-organized and labor-backed mass protest of 15,000 people in July 1999 to force Pacifica to reopen KPFA with no reprisals and without management interference. The action appeared, at least for the moment, to block secret Pacifica plans to sell off KPFA to private interests.
In Washington, Houston, and Los Angeles, more compliant Pacifica managers have declined to carry “Democracy Now!”
Initial efforts to resolve Amy Goodman’s just grievances were undertaken via negotiations between Pacifica attorneys and Goodman’s union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).
But AFTRA, according to former DN co-host Juan Gonzalez, appeared to be more interested in a management-backed effort to decertify a more militant Pacifica union, the United Electrical Workers, than in securing an agreement wherein Pacifica would guarantee the physical safety of Goodman and DN’s staff.
Pacifica escalated the dispute when Wash-supporter Clayton Riley took to the airwaves to make clear management’s intentions to remove Goodman and all others who fight to maintain Pacifica’s 50-year tradition as an independent, progressive, and listener-supported station.
“When you talk about the enemy,” said Riley, “you find the enemy, you isolate the enemy, and you destroy the enemy. These people have put themselves in the position of being the enemies. This conflict is not going to end, in my judgment, and let me be clear about that, until the dissidents, until the so-called exile community, is destroyed. Unequivocally.”
Some 21 Pacifica News Service journalists have been on strike against Pacifica for months now. Goodman has valiantly resisted management pressure to scab on this strike.
Management’s destruction process begun in earnest over two years ago with the exclusion of Local Advisory Board members from Pacifica’s national board meetings. This action is the subject of a court challenge. The firing of popular KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya and 30-year KPFA veteran and award-winning broadcaster Larry Bensky, as well as Dan Coughlin and Verna Avery Brown, further indicated that free speech and hard-hitting journalism were not welcome.
The anti-democratic hand of the U.S. government has not been absent from the struggle. Past Pacifica Board Chair Mary Francis Berry, who orchestrated the effort to close down KPFA, was President Clinton’s civil rights director.
Berry, now resigned from her post, led the initial effort to reorganize the national board and eliminate critical views from the air. The process has been slow, steady and deliberate, as newly-appointed station managers press to compel broadcasters to moderate their radical programs.
In the name of “diversity,” Berry, an African American, went after KPFA with the thinly veiled race-baiting charge that it was not interested in multi-culturalism.
On Aug. 28, free speech supporters organized the first national day of protest as picket lines appeared at stations across the country.
The Pacifica Campaign and the efforts of a wide range of support groups have received broad support from hundreds of prominent individuals, ranging from Noam Chomsky and Danny Glover to Pam Africa and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Goodman has long championed Jamal’s fight for freedom, and “Democracy Now!” has served as a major source of information on his campaign.
The network of Pacifica stations is perhaps the last remaining vehicle where views critical of the government can be aired. With few exceptions the national radio airwaves, supposedly free to all, are owned and controlled by corporate America. Profits and the propagation of capitalist politics are today the iron rule in broadcast journalism.
Major inroads have already been made in what has obviously been a government and corporate-backed campaign to eliminate dissent from a network whose stations reach a significant portion of the United States.
The stakes at Pacifica are high. A broad united movement to build mass protests, calling on the thousands of listeners who have long supported free speech radio, will ensure that the battle to reclaim Pacifica succeeds.
Contact www.savepacifica.org to get involved.