IN THE NEWS

Loading...

Friday, March 27, 2015

9/11 Theories and Pacifica's Fear Factor

From Planet Pacifica

My interview for Pacifica Executive Director was supposed to take place in late September, 2005, but Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced the Board to reschedule for the end of October. In the meantime, it was business as usual -- writing and editing for Vermont Guardian, a weekly newspaper I had launched with a partner and investors a year and a half earlier.
    
The most significant feature I wrote while waiting turned out to be “Mission Improbable,” a report on the controversial theories of David Ray Griffin, a theologian who had examined the available evidence about the 9/11 attacks and published two books on the subject. For several years, the public had been urged to ignore “outrageous conspiracies theories” about the horrific events that set in motion the so-called war on terror. But as Griffin argued in lectures, the official explanation also required the acceptance of a theory, one involving a massive intelligence failure, 19 Muslim hijackers under the sway of Osama bin Laden, and the inability of the world's most advanced Air Force to intercept four commercial airplanes.
    
The official story didn’t seem to convincingly explain the events; in fact, certain claims might even defy the laws of physics. Yet mainstream media outlets – and even some Pacifica journalists – consistently declined to examine the technical and exhaustively documented case Griffin had developed.
    
My October 2005 report, which later resulted in the imaginative charge that Pacifica had hired a “non-credible fringiepurveyor of “preposterous conspiracy theories,” discussed Griffin’s admittedly radical conclusions: controlled demolition of the World Trade Center towers, something other than a passenger plane crashing into the Pentagon, and the shooting down of Flight 93. I also included some suggestions about who might have known and made it possible.
    
”Both the Bush administration and Larry Silverstein, who owned Building 7 and had leased the WTC earlier in 2001, clearly benefited,” I argued. “How? Silverstein collected $7 billion in insurance on property that was losing money and faced major problems caused by asbestos, while the administration needed ‘an archetypal event’ in order to implement the plans to invade Afghanistan and Iraq that several key administration figures had been developing for more than a decade.”
    
US officials may not have played a role, I acknowledged. Perhaps they only covered up embarrassing facts to spin the story and exploit the tragedy. But there was another possibility – that some members of the intelligence community knew something in advance, but didn't prevent the attacks and persuaded the administration to help with a cover-up. An even more disquieting alternative was that someone in the executive branch actually did know in advance, or even provided a push.
    
Disturbing? Obviously. Preposterous? Maybe, maybe not. It certainly wouldn't be the first time elements within the government or business orchestrated a pretext for aggression, and lied afterward, to achieve a long-term aim. After all, we now know that events were manipulated to justify the Spanish-American War, the U.S. entry into World War II, the expansion of the Vietnam War, and the current Iraq war. Scholars have even challenged official accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    
How could such a conspiracy be kept secret? I asked Griffin. "We don't know the secrets they have kept," he replied. "The Manhattan Project [to create the atomic bomb] was kept secret for a long time, as well as a war in Indonesia during the 1950s. Things are compartmentalized, with information available on a need-to-know basis. Most people are afraid for their jobs," he continued, adding that "if they talk and disobey, they can be imprisoned and worse." Plus, when people do speak out the press frequently ignores or attempts to discredit them.
    
Griffin’s analysis raised troubling questions, I concluded, but “not much can be said with complete certainty, except that without 9/11, George Bush would not have been able to declare himself a ‘war president’ and there would have been no convincing reason to expand the federal government's power through legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act.” Given the administration's discredited claims about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's connection to the attacks and weapons of mass destruction, “it didn’t stretch credulity to conclude that the public hasn’t yet heard the whole story.”
    
This in turn led me to consider anxiety, more specifically the tendency of opportunists and demagogues to have people worry about the wrong things. I’d just reviewed False Alarm: The truth about the epidemic of fear, in which New York internist Marc Siegel explained that the basic problem lies in the amygdala — the Brain’s central station for processing emotions. Once it detects a threatening situation, it pours out stress hormones. If the stress persists too long, it can malfunction, overwhelm the hippocampus (center of the "thinking" brain), and be difficult to turn off. In the end, this "fear biology" can wear us down rather than protect us, inducing paralysis and even making us susceptible to diseases that we might otherwise resist. Linking the reaction to the current "war on terror," Siegel charged the government and media with encouraging people to be unreasonably afraid.
    
Here’s a tip: One of the best ways to overcome fear is to “re-educate” yourself, putting risks in a more realistic perspective; in short, to focus less on the unlikely, stop exaggerating potential impacts and purge the "high-pressure misinformation that is being shot into our brains." Humor also helps. But the first step is to realize when you’ve been conned and learn how to realistically assess the risks.
    
In any case, as I flew west I wondered whether Pacifica’s metaphoric amygdala might be misfiring due to long-term stress. Based on what I’d read and heard, it looked plausible. At the very least some Pacificans weren’t dealing with their fears very rationally. My preliminary conclusion was that the organization could use less drama, some fresh perspectives, and a lighter touch.

(Originally posted on March 27, 2008) 
Next: Applying for the Dream Job from Hell

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Future of Community Radio

Will audiences keep tuning in to radio if the information and music they want can be more easily accessed by other means? Can FM compete with the quality and reliability of new portable devices? And will listeners continue to pay attention to long fund drive pitches? These are some of the difficult questions public and community radio must answer in the near future.
      At the moment websites and blogs are undermining newspapers, DVRs and TiVo are allowing viewers to skip commercials and time-shift the viewing of their preferred shows, and iPods are revolutionizing the way we access and consume music. The good news is that there are traits and features specific to radio that can help. But broadcasters need to open themselves to the inevitable convergence with new media and the Internet.
      So, how can community radio prepare for the future? Three ways: embrace convergence, focus on unique and thematic content, and use radio’s traditional strengths while combining them with the power of new technologies. This can lead to a new form of radio that doesn’t abandon the airwaves, but also brings quality programming that can’t be found elsewhere to new audiences and emerging media platforms.
     What are radio’s strengths, especially those can be leveraged and integrated with some of the new opportunities?
     IMMEDIACY: Radio’s edge is the ability to be truly "live." Instant real-time broadcasting can take place from nearly any place or location to chronicle live local – and national – events. There is considerable untapped potential here. Think street reporting, reality radio. Hearing a live voice is a totally different experience than any other. It can be powerful, touching and engaging. Being able to listen to something that is happening this very moment in another place is inherently fascinating. Returning to its roots, radio needs to leverage the huge potential of live coverage.
     EMOTIONAL POWER: Radio is about both informing and relating to people. When you do both, people change. As the great and underappreciated broadcaster Larry Josephson said, the power of radio is simple: it's personal. Radio needs to bring back the emotional power of direct, spontaneous reporting and talk delivered by strong, credible personalities. Without that, it will be difficult to compete with new portable devices. Like popular online media platforms, the successful community radio stations of the future will be characterized by a strong, unique style. Podcasting is already affecting radio, putting the heart back into it, focusing on unique content and a compelling source. Heart, passion, and a personal connection: These can’t be over-estimated.
     IDENTITY: Podcasting also draws attention to the value of niche entertainment and thematic content. Specific kinds of news, commentary or music become more important than generalized radio content that must appeal to as large an audience as possible. "New radio" needs to have a clear focus, theme and identity. This means applying some lessons from blogs and focused independent news sites to news, public affairs and music programming. Grassroots broadcast-plus-online radio stations can be debut vehicles for new music, news and reporting talent. Being a talent clearinghouse can be a very powerful theme in itself. Scouting, identifying and cultivating new talent is what some of the best bloggers and talent scouts do. Radio can do it too, especially as platforms multiply.
     THE LOCAL CONNECTION: Radio is ideal for maintaining a sense of community. This is especially true in times of emergency, or when a local event – a rally, accident, or tragedy – bursts upon the scene. People already realize that their needs and interests aren’t being well served by distant corporate entities with no real community connection or concern for local needs. A strong focus on "local" news, music, events, people and issues – especially coupled with "global" access – provides a winning combination. More people distrust “the media” in general these days, but they still have some confidence in their local outlets. Proximity can breed respect, something to be considered in the response to media consolidation.
     ADAPTABILITY: The distinction been producers and consumers is breaking down. In the future, radio will be more about the user participating in the show, potentially becoming a co-producer, host or DJ. In some cases listeners will become stars, contributors and creators of content. Technological developments make it possible for them to create shows, compilations, live entertainment, and become street reporters, reaching where few press reporters choose to go. Providing tools and programming space for them to develop, edit and compile their programming is a winning strategy that reflects the revolution taking place in other media. At an affordable cost, radio has the ability to adapt, providing tools, facilities and access to content that allows more people to research, edit and compile unique documentaries, investigative reports, artistic montages and focus-specific anthologies.
     As the current media revolution continues, radio stations can also become search engines for the specific content and music on which they focus. Some stations will build their programming by drawing thematic content from a wide variety of external sources and contributors. Stations will also become multi-media providers, offering video as well as audio – from a camera in the booth to exclusive coverage of actualities and special events. We’ll increasingly see webcasts and webisodes. Recording and archiving, something Pacifica Radio has done better than other radio operations, will also be increasingly important. Promoting ongoing access to shows, interviews or news items is inevitable.
     The change underway in mass media points to two common traits: convergence and participation. In the future, effective stations will be multi-channel and multi-format. Multi-format means gearing and adapting segments and shows for various audiences, something that doesn’t have to entail major costs. Multi-channel means making the content accessible via various platforms and applications to a multitude of media devices. Radio will also be more participatory, with listeners becoming active contributors.
     In terms of journalism, it’s not about Old vs. New Media, but fair and accurate reporting versus trivialized news and public relations spin. In any case, it’s better to think in terms of AND rather than OR; in other words, “mainstream” and “new media” journalists learning from one another. If more skills are shared and the best of both “new” and “old” are combined, today’s “citizen journalists” are more likely to become tomorrow’s responsible reporters and programmers – valuable messengers who deliver information and ideas that people can use, content that educates rather than distorts public discussion.
     So, will it be chaos or conversion? As Old Media risk becoming an archaic refuge for the elderly  New Media are entering their carefree adolescence. Online platforms may eventually be viewed as public utilities, and possibly even subject to regulation to protect the public's remaining privacy rights. For now, however, the outcome of this period of transformation remains an open question.
 
Originally posted on March 25, 2008. Last of four parts. Material in this "State of the Media" series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT-FM strategic planning retreat in Houston. Previous parts include A Crisis of FactWill Newspapers Survive? and Radio's Delicate Condition.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Radio’s Delicate Condition

For at least two generations, public radio has helped people to learn about each other and their problems, and share a common cultural experience. But digital media challenge that relationship. The blogosphere has doubled every six months in recent years, and it’s a multilingual, multicultural environment. Social networks have also exploded. By 2006, traffic on MySpace had already outstripped traffic to traditional news platforms such as the New York Times and CNN.
     The question is whether broadcasting operations can catch up. To survive and remain relevant, they must adapt.
     Technology slowly seems to be turning traditional broadcasting into a dinosaur. And it’s not just radio. In 2008 NBC formally declared itself an “Internet company,” and the end of analog TV broadcasting came in February 2009, another step in the most sweeping overhaul of TV viewing since its inception. After Mega-media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace in 2005, there were rumblings that he might dump his satellite assets in favor of wireless digital TV. At the same time, the audience and credibility of public broadcasting has been undermined. Most bloggers and iPod users don’t watch much TV, read newspapers, or wait for their favorite radio program.   
     The music industry has made a painful transformation, the movie business has resisted, and cable television has developed niche marketed, sometimes high-quality programming. But to a large extent, network TV hasn't figured out what to do. Viewers are leaving -- or "aging out," but the reaction of the networks has largely been to reduce not only the cost but also the quality of programs through reality-TV and tabloid formulas. Those are just ways of denying the inevitable.
     In commercial radio, the reaction has been mainly to rely on two models – talk and formulaic music. But this is just competing for a limited audience with undifferentiated products. Even though the broadcast spectrum is a scarce resource, those with licenses are in many cases writing their own death warrants by using it inefficiently. 
     Public radio’s problems are compounded by the fact that the Bush administration tried to rip the guts out of it. Before the election of a Democratic president, George W. Bush's 2009 budget proposed cutting the allocation to public broadcasting by half over two years. Had it been approved, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would have lost $420 million of the $820 million in federal funds it was set to receive.
     Beyond that, NPR and its local stations – much like Pacifica Radio – have continued to fight over money and control. But the real problem is that more and more listeners prefer "on-demand" content. They want programs that are more meaningful to them, and they want to listen at their convenience. So far most of community and public radio, with its current distribution model, hasn't responding fast or seriously enough.
     Talented people are doing the best they can, but it’s not just a management issue. The problem is systemic. Podcasting is to public radio what apps like Garage Band and Pro Tools have been to the music industry. Large recording outfits have closed because musicians can produce appealing new music in small project studios -- or even in their apartments. The traditional music industry has been forced to embrace new forms of production and distribution. The same is true for public radio.
     Traditional radio broadcasters need to acknowledge that the era of being a music jukebox is coming to an end. New media technologies like file sharing, online music clearinghouses, portable players, and smart phones provide much more flexibility for the user. Remaining a “jukebox" – even with a lovable, knowledgeable host – is a losing battle. Kids born today aren’t likely to listen to radio over accessing a playlist, a personalized streaming radio station via the Internet, or whatever comes next.
     Some stations are attempting to become facilitators of open public media spaces. For instance, Minnesota Public Radio turned its listeners into sources and generators of news stories with what they called Public Insight Journalism. StoryCorps began generating grassroots oral histories. These are promising ideas, but radio has to go farther. It needs to become a leader in training, participation, and developing new platforms, apps and formats.
 
Originally posted on March 24, 2008. Third of four parts. Material in this series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT strategic planning retreat.
 
Next: The Future of Radio

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Will Newspapers Survive?

Until the 1920s newspapers were the only mass circulation news and information media. But that changed with radio and accelerated with television. The US population has grown by almost 100 million since the 1960s, but since 1990, when newspaper circulation peaked at 62 million, readership has been declining.
     Individual owners and powerful families -- who at least balanced profits with the ego satisfaction involved in putting out what they considered a quality product – have given way to shareholder-owned national chains that demand twice the profits of other industries. Meanwhile, readers and advertisers are turning to the Internet. If current trends persist, within another decade, half of a newspaper’s income and most of its readers will come from the Internet.
     Newsroom staffs have been slashed, unions have been forced to accept cuts, and coverage has been dumbed down. More than 44,000 news industry employees, at least 34,000 of them newspaper journalists, have lost their jobs since 2001. The result is that major stories go untold, and many communities are being ignored. As Ed Herman has put it, the civic connection that should be nurtured by the print press is being frayed: “Newspapers were once thought to bring communities together. That’s not the case anymore.”
     Some journalists have already migrated to the blogosphere. But once in cyberspace they tend to become commentators, while most of the solid information people do get continues to come from the remaining newsroom reporters. Slate, Salon and the Huffington Post offer far more commentary than news. Talk is cheap, reporting isn’t.
     There are some positive trends. Readership of print weeklies continues to grow, using a part “controlled,” part free circulation model that gives most readers free access and advertisers a guaranteed minimum reach. Free community newspapers also have some momentum. But mid-sized metropolitan dailies are very much at risk.
     One strategy with some promise is to combine a return to civic journalism with the local brand idea by creating comprehensive, interactive websites. One version is the “hub” model, a newspaper – but it could be a radio station -- that pulls together community-based websites with stories, photos, blogs, events, and so on, including material posted by local residents. The idea is to revive community connections and re-invigorate local journalism. It remains to be seen whether there will be sufficient commitment and follow through.
     The Internet is simultaneously challenging the survival of newspapers and being touted as a possible savior. Internet revenue from newspaper websites is increasing up to 30 percent a year and publishers are eager to boost web traffic. The irony is that in their eagerness to ramp up web operations, they are simultaneously slashing newsroom staffs and running reporters ragged. At many dailies, reporters have to produce frequent online updates, post blog items, and conduct video interviews. Some big dailies seem to have a plan and enough money to implement it. But most are just cutting and pasting.
     The top 30 newspaper websites get a combined total of about 100 million monthly visits. It sounds like a lot. But according to Neilson Net Ratings, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo get over 100 million each.
     European publishers have been investing more aggressively in redesign of their papers, along with new distribution systems. In Scandinavia, for example, where Internet use is high and public broadcasting is strong, newspapers are in dramatically better condition than here. One difference is that they don’t hesitate to take a strong front-page stand on issues like genetic modification of food and global warming. This is known as the “campaigning newspaper.” When the position is openly stated and supported by solid reporting, it doesn’t lead to charges of unreasonable bias or a loss of credibility. In Britain, The Independent has participated in numerous campaigns, even promoting rallies and protest marches. In general European papers are more engaged and adventurous. But European citizens also take the role of newspapers in building a democratic society more seriously.
    The Bottom line is that newspapers may survive the current challenge, but they will probably become mostly digital.
 
Originally posted on March 22, 2008. Second of four parts. Material in this series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT strategic planning retreat.

Next: Radio’s Delicate Condition

Saturday, March 21, 2015

State of the News Media

Part One: A Crisis of Fact

The technology of journalism has advanced more in the last decade than in the 100 years before. Yet more and more, print and electronic media fill airtime and space with “advertorials” and questionable “news” -- some of it fake -- produced by public relations firms and even governments. The race for higher circulation and audience shares has placed a premium on titillation and superficiality, producing to an ill-informed electorate. Journalistic professionalism and credibility are in free fall, and truth has been seriously devalued.
      Compounding the problem, corporate ownership and bottom line thinking appear to mean that fewer responsible and trained journalists will be available in the future, especially to cover developments in foreign countries. US television networks employ at least a third fewer correspondents than they did 20 years ago. Radio newsroom staffs shrank by 44 percent between 1994 and 2001. Foreign coverage by broadcast and cable networks has shrunk at least 70 percent since the 1980s. Sad to say, but professionalism in reporting may be going the way of shortwave radios, fax machines, and the single-lens reflex camera.
     The uncomfortable truth is that the First Amendment doesn't guarantee that democracy will be fair, that people will be well or truthfully informed, or that the press will be competent.
     Society is experiencing what has been called a crisis of fact, leaving people with little to trust or believe. As a result, more and more they consume only information that reinforces their opinions. And, according to Alexander Cockburn, journalists aren’t helping. The first law of the profession today, he says, is “to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
     We live in an age defined by fraud and scandal – questionable elections, corrupt religious leaders, fabricated accounting that devastates the savings of thousands, doped-up athletes, and plagiarized and phony news. Even scholars have been caught plagiarizing parts of their books. It’s become so common that there is a new peer-reviewed academic journal: Plagiary: Cross Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. One the fastest growing educational Web businesses investigates whether student terms papers have been plagiarized. So far, investigators have found that at least 30 percent of the papers submitted for verification have been plagiarized, at least in part.
Publications frequently use something they call “photo illustration” – basically the fabrication of images using digital tools. It may sound harmless, but given the power of images it has the potential of warping public perception in the service of biased or inaccurate stories.
     Local TV, the primary source of news about civic life for most people, covers less and less political news. A survey of the 2006 election season by the University of Wisconsin concluded that “local television news viewers got considerably more information about campaigns from paid political advertisements than from actual news coverage.”
     Given all this, how do the young get their news in the Internet age? The truth is the many don’t bother. But most younger people who want to know what’s happening don’t turn to print newspapers, or even radio and TV. They scan online versions of papers, check the sites of research organizations, and surf political blogs – many of them operated by academics and think tanks that have figured out how to appeal to a popular audience by mixing commentary with breaking news, analysis, and research.
     According to the blog search engine Technorati, 120,000 web logs are created each day, and the total number is close to 100 million. Most of these blogs are primarily devoted to diary accounts, opinions, theories, and so one. But a new type of website has also emerged – the Carefully-Researched Weblog, or CROG. These include, for example, the site on Middle East affairs maintained by Juan Cole and a health policy Crog on the Daily Kos written by someone calling himself Dr. Steve B. Many people also use Google’s popular “alert” function. If you want to know about a specific topic, Google will send you a daily message with links to the latest information from writers, bloggers, and sites. Still, the best information on the Internet continues to come from Websites run by print organizations.
     However, the emergence of “citizen journalism” and the “new media” have led to the notion that professional journalists are no longer as necessary. Everyone can be a journalist, we hear, and this will promote a conversation among equals. The idea is that citizen journalists can assemble, edit, even create of their own news; that the more options we have -- and the less control traditional media has over what is relevant -- they better offer we will be.
     But this presumes that professionalism doesn’t matter, and that standards aren’t that important in providing information. At this point, unfortunately, the “new media” acknowledge few rules. And to be frank, professional journalism isn’t so simple. For example, knowing the difference between news, opinion and commentary is a serious challenge. Journalists work hard to develop skills like how to conduct fair and constructive interviews, how to find relevant and complete – not merely convenient – information, how to see various sides of an issue, and how to convey what they find out clearly and accurately. Without such skills, the public is vulnerable to distortions, biased reports, and blatant falsehoods.
     According to a 2006 State of the News Media report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, only five percent of blog postings included “what would be considered journalistic reporting.” And the origins of the vast majority of blog stories can be traced back to newspapers. Who will do the reporting if they fade away?
     For all its benefits, the “blogosphere” is also accelerating social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists and ideologues on both the “left” and “right.” It’s not so different from the partisanship that characterized the press in the early 19th Century. Truth and facts are becoming debatable notions. This makes it far more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for demagogues to ignore reality for the sake of pushing initiatives based on convenience or ideology.
     In The Elements of Journalism, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal write, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.” Thus far, the blogosphere is weak on checking what it presents as fact.

Originally posted on March 21, 2008. Material in this four-part series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT strategic planning retreat.

Next: Will Newspapers Survive?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Managing Pacifica: How It Began

(Originally posted on March 20, 2008)

Shortly after I landed a post-college media job – reporter for a daily newspaper in southern Vermont – an angry reader complained about my bias in a letter to the editor. “I strongly doubt that he could cover the proceedings of a dog show without incorporating a message,” the critic charged. Clearly, I wasn’t amusing this member of my audience.

But by then I didn’t care. In fact, the attack was encouraging. I wasn’t going for laughs or trying to satisfy expectations. Between age six and twenty-two my goals had shifted – from pleasing people to challenging their assumptions, and from merely entertaining to also informing.

Reporting should convey more than just facts, I thought. Current events ought to add up to something, and journalists are kidding themselves if they believe that they can divorce their personal viewpoints and conclusions from what appears on the page or goes out over the airwaves. As I told the headhunters who thought I might have the right stuff to handle Pacifica Radio, what I'd tried to do over the years was “mass market some radical ideas” and provide a counter-narrative to the diet of misleading infotainment people were being force fed every day. They thought it might be a good fit.

The chance to work at Pacifica came my way by accident. More than a decade earlier I’d met an activist librarian on a plane by striking up a conversation about Z, a left-wing magazine she was reading. Even before 9/11, you rarely saw people on airplanes engrossed in “alternative” publications. At the time I was editing Toward Freedom, a smaller but respected magazine that had covered international affairs from a “progressive perspective” since the early 1950s. We hit it off, and she provided an invaluable stream of news, ideas and leads for articles over the next decade. But she was also a loyal yet disgruntled listener to a Pacifica station, and when the top job became available, she let me know.

At first it didn’t feel right. The ideal candidate for Executive Director, said the job announcement, should have at least 10 years of relevant job experience, including non-profit management, and preferably two years as General Manager of a noncommercial broadcasting station. I’d run non-profits and had experience editing and publishing newspapers and magazines. In the late 1970s I’d been a stringer for Pacifica and Vermont Public Radio. But my only recent radio work was a two-year stint co-hosting a university radio morning show – before being cancelled and banned from the premises. As it turned out, being banned was a plus.

Dan Coughlin, the previous Executive Director, had resigned months earlier after three years on the job. After growing up in England, he had covered crime for Interpress Service in New York before moving over to Pacifica in 1996 by way of Democracy Now!, an election series that became a network hit and made Amy Goodman a household name in progressive circles. After producing DN! for two years, he took over Pacifica Network News – just in time to become embroiled in a fight for the organization’s future.

Even before Pacifica evolved into a national network with five owned stations and dozens of affiliates, there were internal battles. But until the 1990s the fact that each station handled its own programming kept most of the fighting local. At that point, rumors began to circulate that “central” management and the national board wanted to seize control of content to increase listenership and shift the funding model from reliance on listener donations toward foundations.

In 1999, when the board amended the bylaws to make itself self-appointing, ostensibly to comply with a CPB requirement, Pacifica’s community-based culture began to actively resist what was soon labeled an attempt to “hijack” and “mainstream” the organization. For Coughlin, the question became: Should PNN, a daily newscast aired on more than 60 stations, cover the deepening crisis?

Early that year, after KPFA Station Manager Nicole Sawaya and popular correspondent Larry Bensky were abruptly fired, staff began to defy a long-standing policy of not airing internal grievances. Going on the air, some charged that Pacifica was a top-heavy bureaucracy hungry for mainstream legitimacy, preoccupied with ratings, and unaccountable to the community. There was even evidence that the board might consider selling stations. Listeners could read about major developments -- arrests inside KPFA, a staff lockout, street protests -- in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other corporate outlets. But Pacifica’s news operations were under orders to keep the struggle off the air. For a while Coughlin went along.

In late October, however, when 16 affiliate stations declared “A Day without Pacifica” and boycotted its programs, he decided to break PNN’s silence, airing a report on the protest and what was called, in a monument of understatement, a labor-management dispute. “This summer, more than 100 persons were arrested, and thousands took to the streets at the oldest listener-sponsored station in the country to protest Pacifica staffing decisions,” the item announced. “The 16 Pacifica stations from 11 states called for the network to adopt new open, accountable governance and to continue to support community-based journalism, which they said had made Pacifica great.”

The report lasted only 37 seconds. Yet, when Coughlin returned to work after a long weekend, a terse e-mail from ED Lynne Chadwick was waiting. “You’re no longer news director,” she announced. A day later, he was reassigned without notice to a murky “Task Force on Programming and Governance.” Although he remained on staff for another year, his removal from PNN confirmed the suspicions of dissidents that censorship had replaced free speech and editorial independence at Pacifica.

Two years later, in 2002, after a titanic struggle and multiple lawsuits produced a new board and a decidedly decentralist structure, he returned – this time as Pacifica’s first “post-revolution” chief executive.

Unfortunately, he inherited a mess – millions in debt, missing records, an aging audience, and a legacy of distrust. Yet he somehow managed, with the help of loyal listeners and a strong financial team, to bring the organization back to relative stability. What remained unclear was why and how, despite a major save, he had gone from Golden Boy in 2002 to object of scorn three years later. The accusations included shady payouts, lax oversight, and “contempt” for the new bylaws and democratic structure. A protest was staged outside the main office in Berkeley during his last day on the job. Just how did all that happen?

The deeper I looked the more convoluted and intractable the problems appeared: Charges and counter-charges of secrecy, waste, racism, sexism, harassment and violence, turf battles over local fiefdoms, manipulation, and alleged fraud. It seemed like a fratricidal war with no end in sight. A friend who worked in community radio, hearing that I was up for the top job, mildly defined the main issue as an “actual and perceived lack of transparency.” But he also mentioned poor fundraising and development, ineffective mediation of personnel problems, and legendary racial battles over the control and “color” of programming.

It reminded me of how easily reality can be blurred by misinformation. That July, Jeff Ruch, the director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, had issued a relevant assessment of a much larger and even more dysfunctional organization. "The federal government,” he concluded, “is suffering from a severe disinformation syndrome." Could this be what was afflicting Pacifica? Theories presented as facts, information massaged to promote a specific spin, cherry-picked evidence. Whether intentional or not, Pacifica’s convoluted politics and history seemed to have created, as Bob Woodward put it his book that summer about Watergate secret source Deep Throat, “an entire world of doubt."

Who could unravel this mess, no less get the larger community to look beyond its debilitating bitterness and distrust? Probably not a middle-aged activist editor from one of the smallest, whitest states in the country. But I wasn’t too concerned, since it didn’t look remotely possible that I would get the job. It was flattering to be interviewed, but I essentially saw the invitation to Houston to meet Pacifica's leaders as little more than an opportunity to offer an informed outsider’s assessment.

NEXT: 9/11 Theories and Pacifica’s Fear Factor