Did Coughlin lose his job for breaking the 'dirty laundry rule'?
Staffers protest Pacifica transfer of news chief
Originally published in Current, Nov. 15, 1999
By Steve Behrens
Pacifica Radio's top journalists have urged their Board of Directors to reinstate the chain's national news director, who, they say, was ousted for reporting about a boycott against the organization.
Dan Coughlin, who oversees the daily Pacifica Network News broadcast from Washington, received Nov. 1  an e-mail notice from Berkeley-based Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick that he had been reassigned. Coughlin appealed the transfer to the Pacifica Board, which last week approved further talks with Washington staffers, according to a source close to the board.
Co-workers say Coughlin was punished for putting a 100-word story on the Oct. 27 newscast about "A Day Without Pacifica," a one-day boycott by 16 of the network's 60-some affiliate stations.
The embattled Chadwick said she reassigned Coughlin to a work with a task force on future programming and governance that was created by the Pacifica Board during a meeting Oct. 30-31 in Houston. She denied that she transferred him because of the news item, but said she had talked with him about it. "Dan and I did have a conversation about that story," she told Current, "and I'd better stop that sentence right now."
Pacifica's leading journalists don't believe her. Verna Avery-Brown, anchor of Pacifica Network News, has been away from her microphone for two weeks in an apparent protest.
"What has transpired over the last few days has shaken our confidence in Pacifica to the core," said a letter to the Pacifica Board from Avery-Brown, Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez and producers Maria Carrio and David Love. "The chain of events could come straight out of a George Orwell novel."
If there's a connection between Coughlin's news brief and his removal, it would not be the first time a journalist was fired for talking about Pacifica on the air. Chadwick fired national correspondent Larry Bensky in April for talking about Pacifica for 17 minutes on the air, she said.
Pacifica has had a "dirty laundry rule" for decades, and Chadwick says the board reaffirmed it at its Houston meeting, ending an exemption--a four-month tryout of weekly local programs about Pacifica matters on the network's five owned stations.
"By and large, there has been a consensus not to talk about internal things over the radio," said Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, a history published earlier this year. But when there has been a major crisis in Pacifica, in the mid-1950s and the early 1960s, Lasar said, the rule has been lifted. "At those points ... the radio was opened and people talked." Pacifica should acknowledge that this is one of those times, he said.
Julie Drizin, Coughlin's predecessor as Pacifica's top news exec in D.C., said Pacifica, "as an institution that values free speech above all other values," must be "very careful in how it applies the dirty laundry rule." She contended that it's inappropriate for a broadcaster "to use the airwaves--that they're privileged to have--to discuss their own personal grievances against Pacifica, or to try to rally listener support."
But the rule "cannot be applied to news broadcasts," Drizin said. Pacifica "looks foolish" to avoid covering legitimate news stories about itself. She noted that the network had always criticized NBC for avoiding nuclear issues involving its owner, General Electric.
Avery-Brown, Goodman and colleagues similarly argued that Coughlin was reporting legitimate news about the station one-day boycott of Pacifica. "We agree with Dan's decision to air the story," they wrote to Pacifica Chairman Mary Frances Berry. "If a quarter of CBS affiliates did not run the CBS Evening News, we see that as newsworthy." The Pacifica journalists said Chadwick had told Coughlin that his news item was "bullshit news."
In an echo of these events, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a prominent media watchdog with a left perspective, said Pacifica's Washington station, WPFW-FM, interfered with a report on Coughlin's ouster during FAIR's weekly media review, CounterSpin on Nov. 10, inserting music to cover a brief report. It was the fourth time the show had been edited by a Pacifica station, FAIR said.
FAIR has been increasingly active on Pacifica issues. On Oct. 28, just before the Pacifica Board's meeting in Houston, FAIR had proposed that the board's executive committee step aside and bring in a slate of 11 well-known progressive leaders to give the network "a new beginning." Included were human rights lawyer Michael Ratner, gay leader Urvashi Vaid, black journalist Don Rojas, media historian Robert McChesney and Texas activist Frances "Sissy" Farenthold.
The board did not respond formally to FAIR, says Chadwick. But one of the three new board members elected by the board was Tomas Moran of Palo Alto, Calif., who was also on FAIR's slate. Also elected were Wendell Johns of Washington, D.C., and Karolyn van Putten of Oakland.
In a response to speculation that the chain would sell one of its two most valuable stations, the board adopted a resolution that none of its five stations are for sale, according to Chadwick. Though individual board members have discussed the option, "there never was any energy behind it," she told Current.
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