Current Online

Pacifica doubters find more to fear
in Goodman plea

Goodman and the President butt heads in impromptu interview

Originally published in Current, Nov. 13, 2000

President Clinton got an unexpected Election Day grilling from Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman when he called New York's WBAI to deliver a get-out-the-vote message.

Goodman and WBAI's Gonzalo Aburto interviewed the President for half an hour, asking him about the death penalty, Ralph Nader's candidacy, sanctions against Iraq, Native American activist Leonard Peltier and other topics.

At one point, Clinton's temper rose, and he admonished Goodman, saying, "[E]very question you've asked has been hostile and combative. ... Now, you just listen to me. You ask the questions, and I'm going to answer. You have asked questions in a hostile, combative and even disrespectful tone." However, Clinton did give detailed answers to all of Goodman's questions. (You can hear the interview at www.democracynow. org.) Newsday later reported that the White House's Megan Molony called Goodman to express disappointment over the interview.

"Any good reporter understands that if you violate the ground rules in an interview, that is going to be taken into account the next time you are seeking an interview," White House spokesman Elliot Deringer told Newsday.

Originally published in Current, Oct. 30, 2000
By Mike Janssen

"Resistance Radio," the slogan for Pacifica's flagship news show Democracy Now!, just took on added meaning. Since 1996, the show has specialized in covering incidents of oppression and injustice, from East Timor to the streets of Seattle.

Now, co-host Amy Goodman says she's involved in a similar story, naming Pacifica's management as the oppressors in the dispute.

Goodman, Pacifica's most prominent journalist, hasn't spoken out at full volume during the many months of conflict over the public radio network's future. Her battle cry to save her show adds urgency to the struggle, which already involves at least five lawsuits filed in California [separate story].

In an Oct. 18 [2000] memo, she accused Pacifica executives, including National Program Director Stephen Yasko, of mounting a "poorly disguised attempt at censorship" of her show by asking her to stop using volunteers and to get management's approval for show topics and speaking engagements.

She also filed grievances against Pacifica for harassment and censorship. Her allegations surfaced in a letter to Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash and the network's board of directors that was widely distributed via the Internet. Goodman closed her letter by asking board members to intervene in the matter.

The conflict resembles other public radio flare-ups over management's involvement in controlling news coverage, but it also stands apart. Goodman's venue — Pacifica's most popular national show — is at stake, fanning widespread fears that the network's commitment to feisty, radical programming is in jeopardy.

"It's kind of hard to continue to present dissenting voices in the news when even the dissenting network is crushing dissent," said Juan Gonzales, a New York Daily News columnist who co-hosts the program with Goodman two days a week.

"I'm very concerned about the direction that we're going in," said Pacifica national board member Tomas Moran. "We could end up with a Pacifica that's not really committed to the same mission as it was before."

It's not easy being Green

Goodman said in her memo that pressure on her show intensified this summer, when Pacifica executives withheld Democracy Now!'s press passes to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The move was intended to punish program staff for taking Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader into the Republican National Convention several weeks earlier. In the end, the decision undercut Democracy Now!'s two-hours-a-day coverage of the Democratic meeting by restricting their access to the convention itself.
'It's kind of hard to continue to present dissenting voices in the news when even the dissenting network is crushing dissent,' said Gonzales.

The show gave Nader one of its passes to take him into the convention center, where he walked onto the convention floor and spoke with journalists.

"We didn't do anything that could be considered journalistically unethical," said Jeremy Scahill, a former Democracy Now! producer who left the show recently and now freelances from Belgrade. "We thought that we were following the highest standards of journalism and doing something highly creative."

Garland Ganter, g.m. of Pacifica's KPFT in Houston and acting national program director at the time of the conventions, saw it differently.

"It was a good idea for us to have him on as part of our coverage," Ganter told Current. But he added, "I don't think it was journalistically sound to take him onto the floor of the convention," and called the incident "a stunt beyond the pale."

Other journalists also used credentials to bring commentators into the conventions, but Tina Tate, director of the press gallery that gave passes to broadcast journalists, told Current that Nader, as a presidential candidate, did not merit equal access.

"Not every press credential has to go to someone who makes their entire living as a journalist," she admitted. "But in this case, [Nader] was a candidate for office, which there are not very many of. I would expect any candidate would be an inappropriate person to carry a press credential."

When Ganter picked up Pacifica's passes for the Democratic convention, Tate mentioned the incident. Ganter promised that it would not happen again, and decided to withhold Democracy Now!'s credentials.

The show's staff fumed over the decision. "I made it pretty clear to [Pacifica] that it was some of the most unprofessional activity I'd seen in quite a while in a news organization," Gonzales said. "If they felt that there was something wrong with what was done, they could just as well have given Amy a suspension or some other sort of discipline. They could have done something else without penalizing the staff. They certainly could have waited until after the convention to do it."

To Scahill, the incident highlighted weaknesses in Pacifica's commitment to hard-hitting journalism. "A Pacifica management that was acting in the spirit of [Pacifica founder] Lew Hill, and the Pacifica that has been a voice of honesty and truth for 50 years in this country, would have defended its journalists to the Congressional Press Gallery," Scahill said.

"I am your boss!"

According to Goodman's account, the Nader affair was one of a "series of escalating conflicts" fueling her decision to file formal grievances against Pacifica management. Following a Sept. 14 meeting with g.m.'s from Pacifica stations, she said, "Yasko took me into the hotel lobby and shouted, 'I am your boss! I am your boss!'"

"She was pretty much telling me how to do my job in areas that are not included in her job description," Yasko recalled. "I just reminded her, 'Amy, I'm your boss. This is my job. I'll do it.'"

Goodman accused Yasko of other "wild outbursts of unprofessional yelling and screaming."

Yasko acknowledged that he and Goodman have had passionate exchanges, but said, "I have never harassed her. I have never verbally attacked her. . . . Anyone in public radio who knows me knows that my behavior is always professional."

Goodman considered filing grievances, but officials from her union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), talked her out of it. She later went to a meeting in the union's law offices where she expected to discuss her concerns with Pacifica management. There, she found Yasko and a Pacifica attorney, who presented her with a three-page list of "ground rules" for producing her show.

"Several of the new 'rules' target me with restrictions not applied to other Pacifica employees, and are outright attempts to curtail my constitutional rights of free speech," she wrote in her letter. "Some rules go against the very principles of community radio on which Pacifica was founded, while still others will have the effect of hampering Democracy Now!'s ability to reach the widest possible audience.

"Given their timing and seen in their totality, the ground rules are a transparent attempt to retaliate against me for seeking union representation in a management-labor dispute, a right protected by the National Labor Relations Act."

In his memo, Yasko ordered Goodman to give him three show topics for his approval a week prior to broadcast. Goodman took issue with the order.

"No breaking news show in the world would do that, period," Scahill said. "It would be ridiculous for Democracy Now! to have stories in the can a week ahead of time. That's not the kind of show it is. That's not why people turn it on in the morning."

Pacifica executives laid out their response to Goodman's memo in a letter of their own on their web site. Yasko told Current that the pre-approved topics could be put aside for breaking news, and said the rule was intended to improve the show, not cripple it. He cited general managers' concerns that phone interviews impair the show's technical quality.

"Because she's so short-staffed and because of the way she works, [Goodman] often doesn't pick the topic for the following day until that day's show is done," he said. "That just doesn't give the production staff enough time to book the program and get guests to an ISDN-equipped studio."

Yasko also told Goodman to stop using volunteers in her show's production. In a reply to Goodman's letter, Pacifica management said union regulations barred volunteers from working on national programs. And he told her to clear speaking engagements with management to make sure she manages her time well.

"We don't want any of our employees spreading themselves so thin that it sacrifices the quality of their work," he said.

In sum, Yasko said, none of these rules are unique to Goodman — they apply to all of Pacifica's national programs. And they're intended to improve her show, not weaken it.

Goodman's supporters aren't buying it. "It's clear that there's an attempt by [Pacifica management] to control her," Gonzales said. "Even as the show is increasingly breaking important news, and is clearly the most, I think, respected of Pacifica's productions, the more successful the show becomes, the more difficult things are becoming for her. So obviously something's not right."

"This is really a way of saying, 'We want you to stop doing what you're doing,'" said Scahill, who left Democracy Now! after becoming fed up with dealing with management. Talking by phone from Belgrade, he was clearly outraged over Goodman's memo.

"How dare they punish her now for being a good journalist," he said. "Who do these people think they are?"

Does politics have a place?

Within days, critics of Pacifica's management were up in arms over Goodman's letter, staging protests at each of the network's five stations Oct. 25. They were already on guard. Some have already lost faith in Pacifica Network News, its only other national offering besides Democracy Now!

PNN's critics believe the show has weakened since anchor Verna Avery-Brown left and news director Dan Coughlin was reassigned after airing an item about the network's internal troubles. Some affiliates have dropped the show, or considered following suit. And 42 reporters are refusing to contribute to the show until Pacifica reinstates Coughlin and addresses their concerns about censorship and other aggressive tactics. Some of those reporters now work for Free Speech Radio News, a weekly afternoon newsmag that has replaced PNN on Fridays at some community stations.

Columbia University journalism professor John Dinges, a former NPR news executive who wrote about Pacifica's woes for The Nation, found no evidence of a top-down conspiracy to move PNN's politics to the right. But he does believe that the program vacillates between NPR-style reporting and politicized advocacy. "The conclusion I drew was that there were no people at Pacifica who really know how to exercise leadership to meld the two values," he told Current.

Wash has denied that PNN has crept to the right.

As critics of Pacifica's management mobilize to defend Goodman, they're questioning the network's commitment to spreading progressive ideas via the airwaves. When the Pacifica board met in September, Yasko discussed audience figures and technical gaffes at a programming meeting, but spoke little about ties between politics and programming. Board member Leslie Cagan pushed Yasko and other board members to broach the subject, but came away disappointed.

"I personally felt the conversation was very frustrating," she told Current. "I thought there was a little bit of lip service to it, but not a strong enough commitment. . . . They seem to be interested in expanding audience by watering down the sound, and moving toward a sound that is easier for larger numbers of people to listen to."

That's the greatest fear of Pacifica loyalists, who cling to the network's roots in pro-peace, anti-nuclear activism and its radical legacy. "Pacifica was created to be something different," said David W. Adelson, a plaintiff in a suit to oust Pacifica's board. "The founders repeatedly said, it's not about audience."

Pat Scott, who preceded Lynn Chadwick as executive director, set the course for the present management. She belittled Pacifica's tradition of volunteer-run local programs as "little local radio clubs," and argued that the organization could be far more effective in its political objectives if it reached more people.

Chadwick, the past president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, drew from her experience with CPB-supported NFCB initiatives that built the audiences of little community stations, using techniques proven at mainstream pubradio stations. As Chadwick prepared to leave in February, Pacifica leaders pointed to advice from ratings analyst David Giovannoni, who urged them to build audience and escape "irrelevance."

They were trying to manage Pacifica as a radio station or, in Scott's case, a political institution with a foremost interest in reaching and persuading more people. Scott wanted to forge a "center-left alliance," said Adelson. "She wanted Pacifica to make itself powerful. Personally, I want Pacifica to make its listeners powerful."

Like other Pacifica dissidents, Adelson wants Pacifica to be a venue for "critical thinking and ethical communication," which, without drawing a big audience, may radiate powerful ideas that will catch on, lose their radical stigma and take hold with the public. "I'm talking about an exponential model," he said. "Your impact does not need to be the number of people you reach. Has anybody ever said Harvard is a fabulous university because they have 10,000 students?"

Can Pacifica attract new listeners while pounding the left-wing pulpit? Supporters of its tradition certainly hope so. But whether it's interested in doing so now is another question. Wash told Current she's interested in giving disenfranchised groups access to the media. Yasko said Pacifica's stations have "an amazing opportunity to move the nation's social agenda forward."

Network execs have discussed expanding PNN to an hour, starting a newscast service, and offering more programs, some of which may be spinoffs of programs at Pacifica-owned stations.

For now, the relative lack of competition from other lefty national programmers gives Pacifica time to sort through these issues. But others are eager to crowd into the niche. Free Speech Radio News has slowly picked up more affiliates, and scrappy Independent Media Centers (IMCs) around the world are covering news on progressive causes and protest movements in a variety of media and distributing it via the Internet.

And the National Radio Project, which produces the weekly newsmag Making Contact, plans to launch its own half-hour, weekdaily news show — a prospect that has not escaped the attention of Pacifica's disillusioned critics.


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Goodman built a reputation as an aggressive journalist for Pacifica.
. Outside links: Pacifica Foundation, Save Pacifica, Free Speech Radio News.

Web page posted Nov. 1, 2000
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2000