Monday, March 31, 2008

Who Really “Broke” Iraq?

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s statement last week about Iraq – "What we didn't know was how truly broken the society was” – is truly remarkable for its attempt to erase history. Still attempting to avoid responsibility, Rice blames the current chaos on “structural problems” of Saddam Hussein's authoritarian regime. However, a look back at what was actually going on before sanctions and war reveals a different picture.

In 2003, just after the Iraq invasion, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a member of the Indian parliament representing the Congress Party, published a UPI column called “The Other Saddam,” assessing the state of the country under Saddam. He had been deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Baghdad, as well as Indian charge d'affaires, in the late 1970s, before the Iran-Iraq War.

Aiyar had no love for Hussein, describing his “expressionless grey-green eyes – straight out of The Day of the Jackal,” and said he ran a brutal dictatorship. However, he also said that Saddam's revolution ended Iraqi backwardness. “Education, including higher and technological education, became the top priority,” he wrote. “More important, centuries of vicious discrimination against girls and women was ended by one stroke of the modernizing dictator's pen.”

Driving past Mustansariya University, “It was miraculous,” he recalled, “to see hundreds of girl-students thronging the campus, none in ‘burkhas’ or ‘chador’ – the head-to-toe black cape that was, and is, essential dress for women in most of the Islamic world – and almost all in skirts and blouses that would grace a Western university.” He went on to describe women in positions on authority, running Iraq’s state-owned cement company, heading up the Industry Department’s legal division, and managing the engineering division of the State Organization for Industrial Housing, “the driving force behind the massive housing program, which turned Baghdad in the first decade of Baath rule from a dirty shantytown into a pulsating modern metropolis that provided a roof over the head of every family in the city.” He also pointed to what he described as an “astonishing revolution” in health care.

“Iraq is home to some of the holiest Muslim shrines, fertile ground for religious fundamentalism,” Aiyar continued. “Saddam would have none of it. Clerics were put firmly in their place – that is, the mosque and the madrasa – and the Iraqi believer liberated from the thralldom of the priesthood. The ethos was completely secular: we interacted every day with Iraqis of numerous religious persuasions in every position of responsibility.”

Certainly, Iraq wasn’t democratic. Far from it. But that was apparently what made it possible for Hussein to ignore vested interests, improve the lives of women, dismantle feudalism, limit the power of religious leaders, and keep a lid on fundamentalism and terrorism. As Aiyar put it, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden had at least one thing in common – they both hated Saddam. He also predicted that both fundamentalism and terrorism would increase once the dictator was gone. Somehow the Bush gang couldn't see that coming.

Asked for her opinion of this article, Nancy Gallagher, a University of California Santa Barbara professor and expert on the history of women in the Middle East, agreed that women made “amazing advances in education and work” during the Saddam era, especially before the Iran-Iraq War. Writing in April 2003, just a month after the Invasion, she noted that “many people already feel that the price of ‘liberation’ has been too high considering the loss of the museums, archives, and libraries all over Iraq. And the Shi'i will certainly demand a role in government, which may reverse the gains women still retain.”

In a recent article distributed by the French news service Agence France Presse, Shameran Marugi, head of the non-governmental organization Iraqi Women's Committee, says that today the lives of women in Iraq are being “threatened on all sides.” The article is poignantly titled, “For Iraq Women: Life Was Better Pre-war.”

Marugi notes that before the 2003 War women could engage in political and economic activities through the Union of Iraqi Women. After the invasion that group was dismantled because it was affiliated with the Baath Party. In the past few years, she said, violence against women has increased significantly. "At home a woman faces violence from her father, husband, brother and even from her son. It has become a kind of a new culture in the society.”

Women are subjected to verbal abuse on the streets if they don’t wear a hijab; in extreme cases, they are abducted by unknown gunmen, who sexually abuse and then kill them. "It has also become normal for women to receive death threats for working for example as a hairdresser or a tailor, for not wearing a hijab or not dressing 'decently'," she told the news agency. "In addition to equal rights we are now demanding the 'right to live'.”

Although no nationwide official figures are available, human rights activists report numerous cases of so-called "honor killings" in the southern city of Basra, in the northern Kurdish area, and in Baghdad. A UN report says that police in Basra registered 44 cases in 2007 where women were killed with multiple gunshot wounds after being accused of committing "honor crimes." In Baghdad, the report says, several women teachers have been shot dead by armed men, some of them in front of their students.

A new report by the US-based Women for Women International says the state of Iraqi women has become a "national crisis" since the March 2003 invasion. "Present day Iraq is plagued by insecurity, a lack of infrastructure and controversial leadership, transforming the situation for women from one of relative autonomy and security before the war into a national crisis," the report charges.

According to the group, 64 percent of the women surveyed complained that violence against them had increased. "When asked why, respondents most commonly said that there is less respect for women's rights than before, that women are thought of as possessions, and that the economy has gotten worse," the report said.

Three quarters of the women interviewed said that girls in their families were forbidden from attending school. Selma Jabu, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's consultant for women's affairs, confirms that, in addition to being sidelined politically, Iraqi women are subjected to abuse and intimidation on the streets and face violent sexual abuse.

Although it is difficult now to find much frank information about life in Iraq prior to the first Gulf War – even on the Internet – if you ferret out hard copies of publications during the 1980s a very different analysis emerges. Writing in Foreign Affairs, for example, Middle East expert Milton Viorst described Iraq in the late 1980s as "debonair" and westernized. In fact, it was one of the most secular societies in the region. The problem, of course, was that Saddam was a popular pan-Arab leader by the end of the 1980s.

As I explained in my book Uneasy Empire: “Based on the theory that domination of the Gulf region by a Hussein-led Iraq could jeopardize access to oil supplies, Colin Powell, then chairing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called on General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in late 1989 to prepare a blueprint for combat. In May 1990, the National Security Council released a white paper that cited Iraq, and Hussein personally, as ‘the optimum contenders to replace the Warsaw Pact,’ using that claim as a justification for increased military spending.”

The rest, as they say, is history. But Condoleeza Rice and the administration she serves are still trying desperately to rewrite or erase it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Applying for the Dream Job from Hell

Shortly after arriving in Houston for my job interview with Pacifica Radio, I ran into Lonnie Hicks and Ambrose Lane, two men at the center of Pacifica Radio’s power structure. Both were spiffily-dressed, Black, and even older than me.

Lonnie Hicks became Chief Financial Officer in 2002, and was both credited with bringing the organization back from the edge of financial oblivion and simultaneously blamed for its current inertia. A world-weary pro who negotiates hard and loves high-tech gadgets, he came across like an MBA Richard Pryor, garrulous without revealing too much, clever and yet cautious, a cynic with a survivor’s innate ability to adapt to prevailing political winds.

Ambrose Lane, a talk show personality in Washington DC since the 1970s, was Pacifica’s national board Chair until assuming Interim ED duties after Dan Coughlin departed. A big man with abundant self-confidence, a bellowing laugh and a blustery style, he had managed other large organizations, published magazines, written books, and, like Lonnie, raised a large family. Some years earlier, while living in Buffalo he was its first African American candidate for mayor.

At dinner I met more Board members and struck up a conversation about issues facing the organization. Before it went far, however, the headhunters found me and explained that, to avoid charges of inappropriate influence, I should henceforth eat in my room and avoid contact with the board outside the interview process. In other words, I would be essentially sequestered.

To prepare, I’d reviewed hundreds of documents, listened to meetings streamed or archived online, sampled programming, and gathered “intelligence” from friends in the media. Though the observations varied, there were common threads: The “war” might be over, but the grudges persisted and the wounds hadn’t healed. Resentment about the role, authority and financial control of the national office also lingered, and prevented Pacifica from functioning effectively as one organization rather than separate, largely autonomous local units. Further complicating matters, political factions were developing, hardening fast and charging each other not only with offenses like racism, hypocrisy, and undermining democratic governance but even with crimes, among them embezzlement, fraud, discrimination, assault, and stealing elections.

The next day about 25 people met around a long, makeshift horseshoe in one of the hotel’s nondescript conference rooms. At the end closest to the door another small table and a single chair completed the square. Relaxed and prepared, I took my seat before the jury.

The movement that recaptured Pacifica from those now known as the “hijackers” – even on the left, history is written by the winners – put in place an elaborate procedure by which, at each of the five stations owned by the foundation, members elect half of their 24 local board members two out of every three years. And that’s just the beginning. After 60 people (12 from each station) are selected through a form of proportion voting, the local boards hold their own “delegate” elections to send four people each to the national board. The whole process – from verification of voter lists to candidate nominations and the campaign season itself – takes nine months, requires election supervisors, costs more than $200,000, and produces a national Board where the youngest member is usually at least 40 years old and most directors are heading toward retirement. It also invariably leads to charges of “fair campaign” violations, vote tampering, and staff hostility to the process.

Over the next hour, various directors fired questions about my management style, relevant experience, knowledge of Pacifica, and ability to handle problems in a contentious political environment. At one point someone asked whether I’d ever been fired. Well, yes, I admitted, and recounted the time I was banned from a weekly newspaper I’d edited for more than four years for recommending that the staff might improve their working conditions by circulating a petition. The story connected, not surprising since much of Pacifica’s recent history revolves around incidents of arbitrary dismissal.

There was also a pointed question about what I might do if dealing with a racially-charged dispute. To answer that, I described a quarrel with a prominent Black organizer that began during an anti-racism training session in the late 90s. During a discussion of the civil rights movement, he blamed the women’s movement, which emerged strongly in the 60s, for stealing issues and momentum from civil rights activism. When I objected, his ire was palpable. The antagonism deepened when we sparred in print about his contention that African-Americans had little stake in the US bombing of Iraq in the 1990s. But we reconciled, I explained, when I visited his office at the local peace center to explore our differences in person. We still didn’t agree about many things when it was over, but he appreciated that I’d asked to meet face-to-face, had listened and yet stood my ground.

Before the questions ended, I offered my take on Pacifica’s post-crisis challenges – to begin “acting like a national network,” set internal bickering aside and retake its place as a leader of progressive media. “It’s called Pacifica for a reason,” I quipped, “but sometimes it seems like the name should be Aggressiva. That has to change.”

Looking around the horseshoe, I could tell the group was divided. Several Board members were smiling, but others looked skeptical. Later that night I began to understand why. One of the two other finalists was Eva Georgia, General Manager of KPFK, and a majority of the board was already convinced she should get the job. After all, she had run a Pacifica station for several years, successfully revamping local programming to appeal to minority communities. Not only that, she was a woman of color who had grown up under apartheid in South Africa and helped build community radio stations there. Plus, she was gay. In other words, a perfect fit – on paper at least -- for a progressive radio network in which race, gender and sexual identity were central to both programming and employment decisions.

The next day, as the headhunters suggested, I stayed in my room listening to the board meeting streamed on the Internet. The business was mostly approving budgets for the new fiscal year. But one board member, Rob Robinson from WPFW in Washington, DC, pressed for adoption of a national programming policy he’d been developing for more than a year. It sounded promising, but no action was taken. The General Managers also delivered their reports, and I had a chance to hear Eva. She sounded dynamic and eager to lead.

After the meeting, everyone except me was invited to attend a reception at the local station. Bored and frustrated, I prowled the lobby for a while and finally called a taxi. Surely there was no harm in socializing, especially since at least one of the other candidates was certain to be there. But before I could slip into the back seat, someone I’d met earlier warned that it would be a mistake. “What’s the big deal?” I asked.

“They might say you were trying to influence the vote.”

“Wait, who’s they? And isn’t Eva there?”

“Yes, she is. But let me explain a few things.” Glancing around nervously to make sure no one was watching, my only private contact in the last 24 hours led me upstairs to the empty fitness center and proceeded to fill in the blanks. Three people had been invited for interviews. But the third candidate, a well-connected Black communications lawyer and former talk show host who had produced for TV and radio, worked for civil rights, served on foundation boards, and even won an Emmy, had come across poorly and been dropped from consideration. It was down to Eva and me – the “old white guy” from Vermont.

“So, that’s it,” I concluded. The reply was a shocker. Eva might be the front-runner, but there were reasons why some people didn’t want her to be the next ED – namely, that they thought she wasn’t always truthful and may have misused funds, said my Deep Throat. Even more startling was the accusation of harassment, the kind of allegation that could ruin a career and injure an organization.

“It’s not over yet. You have some support,” said my source. “The question is whether you really want this job.” Yes, that was precisely the question, and I didn’t have the answer. “Well? If you do, you need to go for it. Otherwise, you’re wasting our time.”

Sleep didn’t come easily that night. What had begun as a chance to present some ideas to a receptive audience had become much more serious. Did I want to lead such a troubled institution? Was I was bold – or deluded – enough to think that I could “rescue” an organization that some people described as unmanageable? And not only that, could I make a difference?

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. No previous occupant of the job for more than a decade had survived beyond a few years, and most were discredited or forced out in considerably less time. One friend claimed it was more difficult than being president. Another called the position “the dream job from hell.” I dismissed such descriptions as amusing exaggerations. But what made it irresistible, despite the warnings, was the fact that I had been preparing for this kind of work for much of my life.

Next: Challenge or Folly?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Progressive Media MIA at Key News Events

People in independent media who complain about lack of coverage for important stories by mainstream media need to look at the mirror, argues Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy in an essay making the rounds. The problem, he says, is a failure to show up and challenge government officials at key news events. The result is that important stories like the recent Winter Soldier hearings, although covered by alternative sources, are ignored by the mainstream press.

For the full story, check out “Blackout of Winter Soldier Hearings Exposes Weakness of Indy Media” at Alternet.

Husseini points out that John Nichols, The Nation's "Washington Correspondent," is based in Wisconsin, while The Progressive hasn’t replaced its DC editor. “Last year Mother Jones magazine proclaimed in an email heralding the re-opening of its Washington office (the office was closed about a decade ago): ‘This Changes Everything’,” he writes. But despite some informative blog postings, he says that it’s not having much impact.

He also criticizes Pacifica Radio, Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News, noting that these progressive radio outlets rarely send reporters to ask tough questions at news conferences on Capitol Hill. This echoes recent comments on a Pacifica listserv. “We are not educating,” writes Kevin White, “we're spoon feeding what they already know and are already comfortable with. And then we label it ‘Radio for Peace’."

Independent media need to do more than preach to the choir, says Husseini. “The most obvious thing to do is set up the structures to question and scrutinize officials,” he concludes. “It will not only lead to a broader dialogue, but will force independent media to get to specifics, to not rely on demonizing Bush and sloganeering. This is the way to get to the truth: challenge, scrutinize, repeat.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pacifica Radio Ponders Spending Cuts

Faced with fundraising shortfalls and less Corporation for Public Broadcasting support, Pacifica Radio is considering “austerity measures” to reduce spending, including the possible cancellation of an in-person Board meeting this summer. During a recent Pacifica National Board (PNB) teleconference, Mike Martin, chair of the Finance Committee, reported that a combination of factors threaten the network’s financial stability.

The Board also heard promising news about programming from the new Executive Director, Nicole Sawaya, who recently held a two-day meeting in Houston with key staff from across the country. Pacifica is gearing up for the 2008 elections, she said, and is looking at how to combine station resources with the new distribution possibilities of digital communication.

But how much money will be available for such initiatives isn’t certain due to the financial crunch. Martin mentioned a $500,000 shortfall at New York station WBAI and the erosion of bank reserves at KPFK, based in Los Angeles, along with declining listener numbers and the cost of litigation. “We’re in crisis” on fundraising, said KPFK Director Margaret Prescod, while Martin, who represents KPFT in Houston, commented that “the house is on fire.” Pacifica, which was founded in 1949 as an educational foundation using radio to promote dialogue and social change, currently takes in about $17 million a year, mainly through contributions from individual listeners.

The Finance Committee has recommended eliminating the Board’s summer meeting, usually held in June, and projects savings of up to $70,000. But reducing the number of meetings may conflict with the bylaws, which calls for quarterly meetings at specific times in a prescribed order in the five areas where Pacifica owns stations. According to general counsel Dan Siegel, if the PNB adopts a motion that cancels the June meeting due to financial crisis, it’s unlikely that a judge will overrule that decision based on a lawsuit. But if sued the Board might have to provide details on the nature of the crisis.

In 2007, when the Board attempted to reduce the number of in-person meetings from four to three, several Local Station Boards (LSBs) rejected the idea and a bylaws amendment died. A study committee has been formed to look into a similar amendment that could win more support.

During a cordial session, the Board also discussed the cost of Pacifica’s governance and elections. Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks reported that last year’s elections for LSB members went $80,000 over budget, which suggests that the total cost approached $300,000. At the same time, however, there has also been discussion of turning the elections over to an outside firm that specializes in proportional voting, a move that could further increase the cost.

“You can’t minimize the cost of governance,” said Sawaya, noting that Pacifica hasn’t projected the long-term impacts, including the cost of staff time and “what happens when elections implode.” The combined, direct cost of the elections and general governance expenses is around $500,000 a year. Pacifica stalwarts often note that “democracy is messy.” In this case, it’s also expensive and potentially damaging to organizational stability.

Siegel questioned the concern about legal expenses, noting that his firm billed only $62,000 last year. But Martin said that the Finance Committee is also looking at the cost of outside counsel and lawsuits pending in Los Angeles and New York, and feels that Pacifica needs a risk management plan to reduce litigation.

To address the financial crunch, the PNB has instructed Pacifica’s five sister stations to develop off air fundraising plans by June. Meanwhile, Hicks says the organization needs short-term contingency plans if the coming months require budget cuts or stations have troubling meeting payroll. He sees hope in the recent success of WPFW, Pacifica’s station in Washington, DC, which staged a 30th anniversary gala that attracted major donors and breathed new life into a capital campaign for a new building.

Sawaya said such events are great for building awareness and cultivating donors, but she isn’t as sure they will always produce significant revenue. Working with staff, she is developing a major donor plan, but notes that this approach will require a “cultural change” in attitudes about raising money.

The Board is also considering whether to move the annual meeting, usually held in September, to August in hopes of saving on lodging, possibly by meeting on a college campus. And it has asked its Technology Committee and Sawaya to look into web-based conferencing. But that too could run afoul of the current bylaws.

WPFW Director Ambrose Lane suggested establishing a line of credit or borrowing money to handle short-term cash flow problems. “We haven’t treated this corporation like a corporation,” he said, pointing to the network’s preference for addressing finances on a local station basis. “We have to think like a corporation, that’s what we are.”

Another WPFW Director, Thomas Ruffin, recommended consolidation of Internet management, purchase of fund drive premiums and bank accounts under national office control to save money. Arguing that “stations have so much autonomy,” he questioned having separate websites and bank accounts for each one.

The next Board meeting is slated for April 11-13 at the Crown Plaza in Downtown Houston, Texas. Before the regular session, the 22 members of the national board will participate in anti-racism training.

The Pacifica National Board’s March 20 teleconference, on which this report is based, can be heard at KPFTX.

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

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ignorance Fuels Influence, Study Says

If you think knowing more than other people is the key to influence, think again. Two University of Southern California researchers say it’s more about controlling the flow of information, withholding some facts deliberately and making sure others don’t become known to anyone.

"It's not necessary to have extra information," says economist Isabelle Brocas, co-author of “Influence Through Ignorance,” published by The RAND Journal of Economics. "You can induce people to do what you want just by stopping the flow of information or continuing it. That's enough," she claims.

According to Science Daily, the study by Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo is the first to thoroughly examine situations where power comes from controlling the flow of public information, as opposed to possessing private information. They note that since pharmaceutical companies like Merck must make all their research findings public, they sometimes simply avoid doing follow-up studies before releasing their drugs. "Optimally, you want to provide enough information so the other party reaches a certain level of confidence, but stop once you reach that level," Brocas explains. "Otherwise, it may be the case that more information causes the confidence level to go down."

Looking at how public officials use ignorance, they point to the search for WMDs. In the run up to war, committee chairs cut off discussion, rejected new evidence, and called votes when sentiment was leaning in one direction. This effectively curtailed how much everyone involved, including the chairperson, knew about the issue.

"Overall, the ability of to control the flow of news and remain publicly ignorant gives the leader some power, which is used to influence the actions of the follower," the researchers wrote. "Our result suggests that the chairperson, the President and media can bias the decision of the committee, electorate and public by strategically restricting the flow of information."

The paper also indicates how public opinion is affected when more sources of information are available to everyone – and aren’t too costly to get. Media diversity and public research funding not only help persuade those controlling the flow to release more information but also reduce the "influence through ignorance" effect.

Next, Brocas and Carrillo plan to study how well people understand the phenomenon. "We're interested in whether people understand their ability to manipulate information,” says Brocus, “and if they do it optimally."

Thanks to Science Daily, ACME and Frank Baker of the Media Literacy Clearinghouse.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Radio: Race for the Last Free Spectrum

In October 2007, thousands of groups and media organizations applied to the Federal Communications Commission for licenses to build new community radio stations. After much anticipation, the FCC had lifted a seven-year freeze on filings for Noncommercial Educational (NCE) radio licenses. Among the applicants, including National Public Radio and numerous religious broadcasters, were more than 350 local community groups across the country.

In hopes of leveling the playing field, several progressive media organizations formed the Radio for People Coalition, coordinating the efforts of Prometheus Radio, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), Public Radio Capitol, Pacifica Radio, Common Frequency, Free Press and the Future of Music Coalition. Working together, they helped more than 200 groups apply in almost every state and US territory.

Since last year, the Commission has processed over 800 applications which were either granted as "singletons" – not mutually-exclusive with other applications, or dismissed because the applicant exceeded a 5 station filing cap. Despite pressure from NPR, Minnesota Public Radio, and religious broadcasters for high limits, the FCC restricted the number of noncommercial FM applications that could be filed by one party.

More than 260 applicants who want licenses in mutually exclusive areas have been asked to tell the FCC by early April whether they anticipate reaching a settlement or “share time” agreement. If they don’t, the Commission's staff will apply a point system to determine which should be preferred and granted. Other mutually exclusive applications will be handled at a later date.

A full-day intensive workshop for those who applied will be held at the upcoming NFCB conference in Atlanta. Among the speakers will be Ursula Reudenberg, Affiliates Coordinator for Pacifica Radio and coordinator of the network’s Radio South Campaign. Working with Atlanta-based Pacifica affiliate WRFG (Radio Free Georgia, 89.3 FM) and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a rural civil rights organization with bases in Atlanta and rural areas, the Radio South initiative resulted in more than 20 completed applications, covering almost every southern state.

The federal government has periodically granted NCE frequencies, located between 88.1 and 91.9 on the FM dial, to nonprofit organizations free of charge. But according to FCC attorney John Crigler, who helped community radio applicants, this is the last of the free spectrum, "and this filing window will have social consequences. It is a last opportunity to have a fight about values and how public spectrum ought to be used," he said.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Iraq War Coverage Skews Perceptions

On the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, media coverage of the occupation continues to decline. According to a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the percentage of news stories devoted to the war has sharply declined since last year, dropping from an average of 15% last July to just 3% in February, 2008. Public interest has also dropped. The Pew Research Center notes that Iraq was the public's most closely followed story in the first half of 2007, but has since become much less dominant. As a result, the war hasn’t been the public's top weekly story since mid-October.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Paul Rieckhoff reports that the drop in coverage is skewing public perceptions of the war. Over 80% of Americans are aware that Oprah Winfrey endorsed Senator Obama, he notes, yet only 28% know how many US troops have died in Iraq. Compounding the problem, CNN, FOX News, ABC News, CBS, or MSNBC offered no coverage of the historic Winter Soldier hearings held in Washington, DC last week.

Filling the vacuum, the Internet has emerged as a major news source on the war. Numerous websites provide raw data, catalogue coalition and civilian casualties, translate local Iraqi newspapers into English, and offer first-hand accounts of life in Baghdad. Melissa Wall of California State University Northridge calls it "a paradigm shift of how information is distributed and has an influence. A small number of people may read a particular blog, but the people who are reading often times are journalists or other opinion makers. Those people have an ability to take that information and redistribute it." Nevertheless, whether the Internet’s increasing influence and other coverage by alternative media can affect overall public perceptions about Iraq remains to be seen.

The conservative Media Research Center argues that TV news coverage of the war over the past five years has had a distinct liberal bias, trumpeting bad news while minimizing good news such as the success of the 2007 troop surge and acts of heroism by U.S. soldiers. Yet, in an excerpt from Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, authors Robert, Sam and Nat Parry show that the war represents not only an enormous human tragedy but also a systemic failure of US political and journalistic institutions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Pacifica: Who’s in Charge?

A long simmering debate over the division of authority between Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director, Chief Financial Officer and the Pacifica National Board is underway in the foundation’s Personnel Committee. At a March 17 meeting, CFO Lonnie Hicks argued that a division of responsibility was established in the organization’s new bylaws and that the CFO shouldn’t report to the ED. Changes in his job description have been proposed by the new Executive Director Nicole Sawaya, including more accountability to the ED and less influence over hiring, handling investments, and spending priorities.

“If the national board is fiduciarilly responsible and the Executive Director is responsible with regard to reporting and accountability back to everybody, not just the national board, they have to be included in the management of these assets,” Sawaya said. “No one operates off on his own.”

Hicks argued that some of the suggested changes could “lead to mischief.” Discussing the qualifications for the job, he added, “You have to be diplomatic at Pacifica, or you’ll be demonized.” The committee is reviewing various descriptions and changes suggested by Sawaya, Hicks, and HR Director Dominga Estrada before bringing recommendations to the full Board.

You can listen to the Personnel Committee’s March 17 meeting at KPFTX.

Sawaya has suggested that the CFO should report to both the Board and ED. “The rationale is to just enhance the notion that we should be working together here. There has to be some accountability to the Executive Director,” she said. “This is a structural issue, not a personality issue. For the long term, what’s the most accountable structure we can build in?” Since she is ultimately accountable, she argued, there should be "some reporting accountability" by the CFO.

“Only the Board can direct assets and move assets around,” Hicks said. However, this conflicts somewhat with my own experience as ED in 2006 and 2007. During that period transfers of funds between investment and operating accounts were handled as an administrative financial matter, and some projects and contracts were approved by the CFO alone.

The underlying issue, according to Committee Chair Jack VanAken of KPFK, is the “CFO-PNB-ED somewhat triangular relationship.” The options outlined by Estrada include a dual reporting structure, having all staff except the CFO -- but including the national finance staff – reporting to the ED, or explicitly splitting the financial and administration departments. The Committee hopes to report back to the National Board at its upcoming Houston meeting.

Commenting on Pacifica’s general structure, Sawaya, who returned to work March 5, promised transparency but warned that “there are way too many demands” from the more than 100 Local Station Board (LSB) members for the national staff to respond to all of them.

Hicks was hired in 2002. His hire letter, signed by former ED Dan Coughlin, said that the CFO worked “under the supervision of” the executive director. However, Hicks and others note that this relationship has changed over the years, and that the bylaws say the CFO is accountable to the Board. Sawaya was hired in late September 2007, but resigned in December and renegotiated the terms of her employment over the next four months.

Radio Town Hall Tackles Media Justice

Several San Francisco East Bay area groups will hold an interactive People’s Voice Town Hall on Friday, March 21 to discuss media “empowerment through creative expression and new technology.” The meeting, to be broadcast live on KPFA-FM in Berkeley from 7-8 pm and 9-10 pm, will address the digital divide, healing as a moral, social, political and economic necessity, and Pacifica Radio’s role as a community sponsored network.

“There is an untapped power that lives within the communities who do not know media institutions such as Pacifica exist,” say the event’s sponsors. “When these voices are reached, heard and reflected back, relevancy becomes the underlying strength to build from.”

Monday, March 17, 2008

Winter Soldier II: Breaking the Silence

Last weekend a new generation of veterans, convened by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) gathered for "Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan," powerful hearings on the current occupations. Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR, called the event a “victory for independent media.” Modeled after the original Winter Soldier hearings about the Vietnam War in 1971, the 2008 hearings revealed the real experiences of U.S. troops. Soldiers spoke of Iraqi families cut down by machine fire at checkpoints, of torture and abuse, and racism and sexism directed at the occupied peoples and US troops.

The hearings opened at the end of a week in which 12 US soldiers died in Iraq, pushing the total to just under 4,000 on the fifth anniversary of the invasion. For the most part, the mainstream media ignored the groundbreaking event. As of March 17, CNN, FOX News, ABC News, CBS, and MSNBC had provided no coverage.

Free Speech TV, the national satellite network, broadcast testimony and interviews with vets and their families, Democracy Now! devoted its Friday show to coverage and analysis, and Pacifica Radio made a live broadcast on KPFA available to stations nationwide. YouTube's "Real News Network has posted excerpts. According to Wired, if videos by soldiers, family members, and the media reach enough people they could reignite the debate over US military conduct.

KPFA launched its Internet-based War Comes Home project late last year to “put a human face” on the Iraq war. In covering the hearings, the plan was to suspend regular KPFA programming March 14-16 to broadcast the historic gathering held near Washington, DC at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland and make a live web-stream available worldwide.

The event also revealed Pacifica's continuing struggle over how to handle special national broadcasts. Decisions on whether and how to air the hearings were handled by individual Pacifica stations. As a result WBAI broadcast the first day but not Saturday and Sunday, while other stations selected parts during the three days. Some local listeners were disappointed. One noted that “we told many people to tune to WBAI to listen to the hearings over the weekend. It was a golden opportunity for WBAI to distinguish itself from the corporate media, which as expected, virtually ignored the IVAW.”

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Life on the Outside + Inside Pacifica


They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason

-- Elvis Costello, Radio Radio

It should have been a dream come true but I just couldn’t stop worrying. Smiling nervously at the crowd, hundreds of radio people gathered at the Portland Hilton for the annual get-together of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, I suppressed my anxiety and began to speak.

“It's good to be with media makers who don't believe that climate change is just a rumor,” I said, “who don't think immigrants coming to the U.S. for a better life should be turned into criminals, and who didn't need over three years to figure out that the administration manipulated public opinion and distorted reality to go to war in the Middle East.”

I meant it. But the idea was to break the ice with a tough audience.

Less than six months earlier, I’d been home in Vermont, co-editing a struggle weekly, writing articles and working with reporters from around the world. If someone had predicted then that I would become the CEO a radio network, I would have laughed.

I’d been doing my thing in the “alternative” media world for more than 30 years. Along with writing and editing, I’d done some scripts for documentaries, organized protests and conferences here and there, coordinated a few social justice groups, and run community bookstores. In other words, I was a communicator and a manager, and sometimes a trouble-maker. Yet none of that prepared me for Pacifica, a multi-million dollar non-commercial network with hundreds of employees – most of them in unions, a thousand volunteers – many demanding to be called “unpaid staff,” a complex democratic governance structure, and a history of rough internal struggles.

I’d been Executive Director for three months, but this was my first public speech to an audience beyond the Pacifica Radio community. “Although I've been a journalist,” I shouted over the luncheon din, “I also have come to believe that words aren’t always enough. That's why I went to the border between Nicaragua and Honduras with other members of Witness for Peace during the Contra war, committed civil disobedience in front of the gates of a GE armaments factory, ran for local office as a progressive insurgent, and, more recently, spoke out publicly against the Iraq war and attacks on fundamental rights.”

I’ll come back to all that later. For the moment, just know that after several months of wrangling Pacifica’s Board of Directors offered me the job -- vacant almost six months -- before the 2005 holidays. I didn’t immediately say yes. Instead, I spend the next ten days anxiously quizzing staff members over the phone and, quite frankly, looking for a good reason to decline. Unable to find one, I accepted on New Year’s Eve.

Three weeks later, I was in Berkeley learning the office ropes, reviewing finances and pending lawsuits, hearing complaints about sexist comments and reports of late night, marijuana-filled shenanigans at KPFA, located next door, and approving some hastily-conceived coverage of the president’s State of the Union address. Four days after that I flew to Washington, DC for my first Board meeting as ED, CEO and President of the foundation. Baptism by fire, anyone?

Now I was in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom, speaking to radio producers, managers, technicians and hosts from across the country, trying to explain who I was, what I believed, and why they should expect anything different than the usual quarrels and disappoints. At first they seemed more enthusiastic about the meal provided by the network than anything I had to say.

“What have I learned along the way?” I asked rhetorically. “That corporate media's handling of the news has become increasingly unreliable over the years. In fact, mainstream journalists find it difficult, if not dangerous, to cover stories that do not fit neatly into what is known as the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, corporations have developed sophisticated strategies to promote the stories they want to see, and prevent others from being aired or published. The result is perception management, a highly effective form of social engineering.”

I’d been writing for years about such manipulation. As The New York Times ultimately confirmed, plants at more than 800 news and public information organizations carried out assignments for the CIA in the 1950s and 60s. The FBI meanwhile used dailies like The San Francisco Chronicle to place unfavorable stories and leak false information. Sometimes journalists were unwittingly exploited, but too often they knew what they were doing: writing dubious stories that made government speculation and falsehoods sound true. When challenged, they vigorously protected their sources.

In the1980s, CIA Director Bill Casey had taken the practice to the next level: a systematic, covert "public diplomacy" apparatus designed to sell a new product – counter-insurgency in Central America. Reinforcing that old chestnut, fear of communism, the Reagan-era campaign linked it to Nicaragua's Sandinistas, Muammar Qaddafi, and other designated enemies. Sometimes this involved "white propaganda" – stories and editorials secretly financed by the government – much like the videos and commentators funded by the George W. Bush administration. But other operations went "black" – that is, they pushed obviously false story lines.

Manipulating public opinion involves much more than simple propaganda these days. Both businesses and governments have developed a toolbox of tactics to promote the stories they want to see and prevent others from being aired or published. In some cases, this involves what has become known as spin, arguments aimed at moving opinion in a specific direction. In other words, perception management is about more than just censoring or pushing an individual story. Rather, it involves the creation of an overall environment that promotes the uncritical acceptance of questionable information and assumptions – and too many people willing to promote them.

For journalists, the pitfalls include institutional constraints, commercial imperatives, close relationships with sources that have hidden agendas, the temptation to focus on easy targets, and a tendency toward self-censorship. There is also a great danger, exacerbated by the Internet, that rumors or speculation will be confused with reality.

Journalists are supposed to be the guardians of democracy and justice, servants of the public trust who question authority on behalf of the rest of us. Unfortunately, journalistic credibility has been serious undermined by pretenders and charlatans, charges of bias, fake news, organizations that accept money for favorable coverage, the circulation of press releases as fact, hosts who confuse public affairs programming with hyping books and other products, and influential reporters who abandon skepticism in favor of misleading government claims.

That’s why alternative sources like Pacifica Radio are important, despite battling factions, difficult personalities and frustrating structures. As I told the audience in Portland that April day, “Small, accessible, and affordable technologies can help people to challenge the knowledge monopoly of elites. And radio is one of the most accessible vehicles for alternative viewpoints. It's intimate, production can be inexpensive, and can reach people through hundreds of outlets around the country and sometimes the world. And at community-run stations there is certainly more diversity and programmatic pluralism than almost anywhere else in media.”

By this time, most of the audience was starting to pay attention. It helped that a conference organizer asked for quiet. “The instant communication offered by radio clearly opens up possibilities for social change,” I explained. “Like Gutenberg's invention of moveable type, modern information technology creates at least the possibility of widespread information literacy. It might even help spur a shift in values from uniformity to diversity, from centralization to local democracy, and from organizational hierarchy to cooperative problem-solving units. But this will depend largely on the growth of a social movement that promotes self-management of information.”

It was a plausible argument. But what they really wanted to hear was my vision for the country’s original listener-sponsored radio network. Actually, I’d been working on this since my first days on the job. In a nutshell, I told them, my agenda was to get more local voices on the air, revitalize the network’s moribund national programming, maximize its human and overstretched technical resources, honor and expand its diversity, and encourage people to work together with more mutual respect. As modest as that might sound, it was all much easier said than done.

“Basically, the idea is to help reaffirm and realize the organization's mission,” I continued, proceeding to read excerpts from the statement developed more than a half century ago by Pacifica founder Lew Hill. They are still noble ideas – to be an outlet for the creative skills and energy of the community, to promote the full distribution of public information, to provide access to and use of sources of news not brought together in the same medium. Along with each phrase, I offered examples of how the ideas could be applied in the early years of a new century.

But there was something even more important to say, something I needed to share and very much hoped was true. “Pacifica has finally emerged from its extended internal crisis,” I proclaimed. “And maybe it is ready to stop making war on itself.” At this point the room exploded with cheers and applause. I had finally hit a bulls-eye, appealing to the hope, shared by almost everyone there that the battles and negativity of the past decade were over.

From that point onward, I believe they heard most of what I said. In particular, my three point agenda --programming, organizing, and peace. “By programming I mean locally-generated, mission-driven national programming,” I said. “By organizing I mean better internal organization to make full use of resources and talent. And by peace I mean a process of reconciliation. It's time to bury the hatchets and move on.” Again there was applause.

Sensing it was time to wind up, I added, “There's more to the mission, of course, and much more to say. But for now, please consider this: The tasks facing independent media in the months and years ahead are crucial. With the Bush administration in free fall and the Right in disarray, it's time to seize the moment. The question is how. My suggestion is that we work together, set aside our minor differences and squabbles – we can get back to them later – and project responsible advocacy, real news and informed opinion. While doing that, however, we should also celebrate our differences rather than allow them to divide us; after all, isn't respect for diversity one of the things that distinguishes us from the forces that have used fear of those who are different to undermine freedom? Our job, as I see it, is to bring a sharp critique and a progressive vision to millions of radio listeners, to wake up the airwaves and shake up the world. It is an opportunity we should not miss, and a responsibility we cannot afford to ignore.”

Looking back, this may have been the high point of my two-year immersion into the often byzantine world of Pacifica Radio. I had managed to articulate an analysis and a vision that resonated with many of its stakeholders. For weeks afterward, staff and Board members and people who worked at affiliate stations, whether they were in the ballroom or read the speech, said they’d been inspired. But a speech, no matter how effective, is hardly enough to change a culture that has taken root over several generations. And even in the midst of the wave of affirmation that followed, I harbored deep doubts about my ability to continue doing the job.

NEXT: Early Radio and the Birth of Pacifica