A censor's work is never done.
For several decades, the Pacifica Foundation — which owns five radio stations and operates a small national network — nurtured precious experiments in the arid terrain of radioland. Pacifica has provided listeners with wide-ranging discussion, progressive analysis and independent news coverage, in acute contrast to America's usual corporate-backed media fare.
But during the last few years, Pacifica's board of directors made itself a self-selecting body with an increasingly mainstream agenda. The more highhanded the new hierarchy became — and the more it deserved strong criticism — the more determined it became to prevent criticism of itself from getting onto Pacifica airwaves.
Defenders of the "gag rule" argued that it's best not to air dirty laundry in public. But when Pacifica's top executives turned into zealous censors, the network began to self-destruct. Distinctive for its vigorous advocacy of freedom and democracy at home and abroad, Pacifica foundered as it brandished the implements of censorship. As Virginia Woolf wrote long ago, "If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people."
In the summer of 1999, the foundation's board of directors made headlines with outrageous actions against KPFA, the trail-blazing Pacifica station that has been on the FM dial in the San Francisco area for half a century. Journalists were arrested in the KPFA studios — even in the station's newsroom — where they had worked for many years. The crux of the matter was that they had refused to lie to listeners with silence. Pacifica management swiftly responded with a lockout.
Massive support for KPFA in Northern California — including a march of 10,000 people past the station's Berkeley headquarters — showed that Pacifica "leaders" had miscalculated. Pacifica backed off, and the station re-opened. But the underlying issues have remained.
Pacifica's current national board — dominated by an array of corporate executives, business professionals, investors and political people aligned with the Clinton administration — is hostile to the strongly progressive content that had been integral to the network's strength. The latest target for Pacifica's ideological housecleaning is award-winning journalist Amy Goodman, host of the finest national daily radio program in the United States, "Democracy Now!"
From prisons, picket lines and forums in America to fast-breaking events in East Timor, Nigeria, Yugoslavia and many other countries, the hour-long syndicated "Democracy Now!" show has informed and challenged listeners across the USA. Despite the program's successes — or perhaps because of them — the Pacifica board majority is now attempting to push Goodman out.
Longtime broadcast journalist Danny Schechter (executive editor of Media Channel, www.mediachannel.org) commented days ago: "That Pacifica would seek to undercut the one national show that is building audience and generating attention showcases some of the crippling contradictions within the network."
A lot of factors are involved in management's dispute with Amy Goodman. But here's the crucial point: Pacifica is moving into a new stage of an ideological purge.
Recognizing that grim fact, hundreds of people have mobilized in recent days to defend "Democracy Now!" as part of ongoing efforts to reverse the ominous trends at the Pacifica network. Demonstrations occurred Wednesday in front of KPFA and the four other Pacifica-owned stations, located in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington, D.C. (Details are available at the www.savepacifica.net website.)
"Despite meeting and exceeding every stated objective for the show — i.e. audience growth, fund raising, new listeners, groundbreaking programming — 'Democracy Now!' is being subjected to a withering assault by Pacifica management," Goodman wrote in an Oct. 18 memo. "The motivation is blatantly political."
Goodman added that her show is "a hard-hitting grassroots program that is not afraid of tackling controversial issues day after day in the Pacifica tradition. We are not only being censored for our critical coverage of the Democrats as well as the Republicans, but for giving voice to a growing grassroots movement that fundamentally challenges the status quo — people fighting sweatshops, police brutality, prison growth and corporate globalization."
A quarter of a century ago, the American historian C. Vann Woodward chaired a committee that issued a major report on free speech. His words now help to illuminate why it is so important to support journalists who face the kind of incessant pressure that Amy Goodman is now withstanding.
"The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable," Woodward wrote. "To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily deprives others of the right to listen to those views."