The fight for independent, non-corporate radio flares up again

Here we go again. Listener democracy at the Pacifica radio network is in deep jeopardy again because the same people who violently shut down WBAI in 2019 and forced an expensive referendum that was soundly defeated in 2020 have forced a second bylaws referendum.

Having lost last year’s referendum by a 2-to-1 margin — losing by lopsided majorities in both staff and listener balloting — that should have been the end of it. Especially as the 2019/2020 escapades cost Pacifica and its five stations hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and other expenses and in lost fundraising.

Instead of accepting that listeners of Pacifica’s five stations were not interested in a corporate-style takeover that would have placed uncontested power in the hands of coupsters, the same people are attempting another takeover. The tactics are different this time and they’ve adopted a new name (“New Day Pacifica”) but make no mistake, the goal is the same. Listeners didn’t fall for it last time and we shouldn’t this time, either.

(Graphic by Seth Tobocman)

We’ll get to some of the details below, but the summation of this latest takeover attempt is this: If the “New Day Pacifica” bylaws referendum were to pass, a small self-selected elite would assume unaccountable power for three years with the ability to control a majority of the National Board. Each of the five station’s local station boards would be stripped of all power, reduced to toothless advisory committees, and diversity would potentially cease to exist on the National Board. The coupsters have advanced no plans for how they will miraculously reverse Pacifica’s difficult financial situation, simply insisting that power be centralized in their hands (while denying that is what they are asking for).

That New Day Pacifica has been less than forthcoming in promoting its referendum doesn’t lead to confidence. Nor does a parallel December 2020 lawsuit attempting to take over Pacifica through the courts — once again diverting listeners’ donations to defending frivolous legal maneuvers — inspire confidence that they have the interests of Pacifica at heart. Put simply, based on the actions of the past two years, there is ample reason to believe the goal is to either take over the Pacifica radio network or destroy it.

Unaccountable boards have led to disastrous results

The past history of self-selecting board members at Pacifica is instructive. Two decades ago, the national board of Pacifica had become unaccountable, with board members with corporate backgrounds selecting like-minded people to fill board seats and trying to rewrite the bylaws to not only sell off one or more Pacifica stations but to be able to personally pocket some of the proceeds. That unaccountable National Board led to crises that culminated in the lockout of KPFA in 1999 and the Christmas Coup at WBAI in 2000, triggering a long struggle that culminated in the current democratic bylaws structure. 

Flash forward to 2019, and a rogue minority faction on the National Board, intent on selling the New York station, WBAI, and use the proceeds to benefit the Western stations in the network, launched a coup. Farcically insisting they were attempting to “save” WBAI, coup mongers, led by since fired Interim Executive Director John Vernile (then on the job for all of two months!) and National Board Secretary Bill Crosier, removed WBAI from the air in the midst of a fund drive. 

The fund drive was stopped, the web site at which listeners could make donations was disabled and all local programming was taken off the air, replaced with canned programming from California with no local content. The team led by Mr. Vernile that descended on WBAI the morning of October 7, 2019, dismantled the equipment, rendering it impossible to broadcast; immediately fired all employees; confiscated the station bank account; took checks left in the office; put padlocks on the doors; and told the station’s landlord she should find a new tenant while cutting off rent payments. The WBAI web site, including all archives of past shows, was wiped clean and replaced with a one-page site with a propaganda message justifying the coup. Not the actions of people with the interests of listeners at heart.

That coup would be reversed a month later, but the other half of the coup attempt, a referendum on bylaws proposed by those behind the WBAI shutdown, remained to be contested. It was defeated by a nearly 2-to-1 margin by both listeners and staff a year ago.

Nonetheless, we have to go through this again, instead of putting energy into tackling Pacifica’s problems. This time the proposed bylaws, while still undemocratic, are written a little more subtly to better disguise the intentions. Once again, those wishing to put an end to listener accountability at Pacifica cite the network’s financial difficulties and point to questionable fundraising premiums. Financial problems do exist and some fundraising programming should be condemned. Those are real issues, although the current National Board has reported progress in stabilizing the finances. New Day Pacifica claims that centralizing power in its leaders will magically solve the network’s problems but have not offered any specifics. Three of the four New Day leaders who would be given the top four positions on the National Board should the bylaws referendum pass are current or former members of the Pacifica National Board and/or local station boards, so it is reasonable to ask why they haven’t already used their superpowers to help solve the network’s problems.

Plan would eliminate local control

One subtle difference with last year’s proposed bylaws is that instead of outright eliminating each of the five Pacifica stations’ local station boards, which currently are democratically elected by members through ranked-choice voting, which ensures that different factions and perspectives are represented, this time the LSBs would be retained, but stripped of all powers. Instead, they would become advisory bodies with no responsibilities. All power would be centralized in a new National Board, which the New Day coupsters have designed to virtually guarantee their dominance.

New Day’s early tactic was to claim that the four leading positions on their proposed board would be elected by a direct vote of listeners. What they conveniently “forgot” to say was that those four positions would be handed to four pre-selected faction leaders for three years before there would be any elections. This would be a profoundly undemocratic board, and not only for the preceding reason. Each station is currently represented by four board members, each of which was elected to their local station board, and seated in such a way that major voting blocs earn at least one seat. Under the New Day proposal, each station would have only one representative, putting an end to diversity. Affiliated stations — those that aren’t part of the network but which carry programs originating on Pacifica stations — would have their representation cut in half to one seat. Paid and unpaid staff would each get one seat — again assuring that there won’t be a diversity of viewpoints. Finally, in an echo of the 1990s self-selecting board, three seats would be appointed by a board majority.

That’s a total of 15 seats. Each of the self-selected people for the four top seats are from the three Western stations, where this coup attempt is originating, and given that the two California stations have by far the biggest staffs, they would likely fill the two staff seats. If pro-New Day people win those seats — or even one of the two — then they would have a board majority before selecting the appointees, and would be able to pack the board with their allies. Thus New Day’s proposed bylaws changes would install the coupsters as an unaccountable management for three years, an amount of time in which the entire character of Pacifica could be altered. The two East Coast stations, WBAI and WPFW in Washington, could be reduced to having only two of 15 seats on the National Board, a drastic change from the current system of equal representation of all five stations.

Once again, it must be asked: What do those behind New Day propose to do with their centralized power? Ann Garrison, writing for Black Agenda Report and CounterPunch, suggests that erasing anti-imperialist voices may be on the agenda. She is far from alone in raising that issue. She writes:

“In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Pacifica was a radical, antiwar, anti-imperialist network, perhaps most admired when WBAI sent the first American reporter to broadcast from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Today, however, much of Pacifica has—like the rest of what now passes for the left—given way to identity politics, Democratic Party politics, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and even national security state narratives. … The network still has an anti-imperialist wing and I’m on it, but the list of Pacifica staff endorsers makes me think that our days will be numbered if the New Day Pacifica bylaws proposal passes. … Many Pacifica programmers wouldn’t sound out of place on NPR, and some have moved on to NPR employment.”

Contrasting those for and against democracy

Among those endorsing a “no” vote on the bylaws referendum are Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Danny Glover, John Samuelsen (International President of the 150,000-member Transportation Workers Union), Medea Benjamin, Cindy Sheehan, Abby Martin, Michael Parenti, Sharonne Salaam and Fernando Velázquez. One of the leading “yes” proponents, backing New Day, is KPFK’s Ian Masters, one of those hosts who would indeed be right at home at NPR; he would actually be one of the relatively more conservative voices on NPR were he a host there. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, declaring Mr. Abu-Jamal guilty despite the massive evidence of innocence and well-documented decades of legal railroading. And that tells us what we need to know about who and what are behind New Day.

That the New Day faction is a minority intent on hijacking the network can be seen in the repeated advisory board votes opposing their referendum. The Pacifica National Board voted 16-4 against it, with one abstention — even a majority of the representatives of the Western stations voted against. The local stations boards of WBAI and WPFW both voted unanimously against it; it is a rare day when the WBAI board, composed of three distinct factions, votes unanimously on anything. KPFK in Los Angeles voted against it, 14-7. KPFT’s vote fell short of the necessary majority and thus failed. Out of six boards, only one, KPFA, voted in favor.

(photo by The City Project)

Alex Steinberg, chair of the National Board (but here stressing he is speaking only in a personal capacity) and a long-time activist, notes that New Day’s leaders have refused to work with others to tackle Pacifica’s problems. He writes:

“What has New Day proposed to solve our problems? Nothing at all really except the vague promise that unknown ‘Professionals’ will be hired to fix everything. This is either a deliberate fantasy or delusional thinking. Will the ‘Professionals’ that New Day wants to hire be people like former iED John Vernile, who was responsible for the illegal shutdown of WBAI? There is no way to know since they are not saying, but one has to be a little suspicious since two of the named officers who will be running things, Aki Tanaka and Jan Goodman, were enthusiastic supporters of Vernile and his illegal shutdown of WBAI. 

If New Day was working in good faith they would have worked with the PNB to come up with a few well crafted amendments that we could all have agreed on. But instead they went behind our backs and in secrecy rewrote the entire bylaws which they are trying to impose on us through a well funded propaganda campaign. That is the height of arrogance and elitism.”

The lawsuit paralleling the bylaws referendum

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that there is an active lawsuit also seeking control of Pacifica, part of a “good cop/bad cop strategy” as Building Bridges host Mimi Rosenberg succinctly puts it. Three KPFA board members — Christina Huggins, Andrea Turner and Donald Goldmacher — along with a former KPFA board member, Craig Alderson, sued Pacifica in Los Angeles Superior Court, demanding all of the network’s assets be placed in the hands of an independent party appointed by the court, a process known as “receivership” in which the court-appointed party can dispose of assets at will. The filing made a series of wild, factually incorrect assertions in an attempt to claim Pacifica is irretrievably riddled with “malfeasance and breach of fiduciary duties by directors.”

The lawyer for these four, Stephen Jaffe, issued a press release repeating the wild accusations contained in the lawsuit and added a few more, including wrongly asserting that Pacifica is “at an immediate risk of loss to foreclosure by one or more creditors,” an allegation incessantly put forth by New Day. A large loan that was to have been due in 2021 was well in the process of a renegotiation postponing payment for 18 months, a fact well known at the time. So what we have here is a naked attempt at a takeover, through different means. The immediate bid for a receivership was swiftly denied by the court but legal proceedings will continue and will cost the network money to defend.

Ms. Rosenberg notes the “contempt for democracy” behind these actions.

“Whether adherents of New Day Pacifica’s principles proceed by ‘hook or crook,’ either to imposing a costly second referendum in less than two years to dismantle Pacifica’s governance structure, or by court action to impose receiver over the network, they are antagonists of inclusive governance, radio by the people and for the people. They reject the principle that elected representatives from the gorgeous mosaic of listeners, who with their sweat and finances, along with the workers, drawn from Pacifica’s 5 stations, and hundreds of affiliates across the country, with their unique cultures should govern the network they created. NDPers reject the idea of inclusive democracy, where the marginalized, disenfranchised, discriminated against and historically locked out of power from the multi-racial working class get to speak for themselves and together formulate the policies and practices that make real radio by the people for the people.”

A lack of transparency also raises questions about New Day. One of the four to be handed a National Board seat without election should the referendum pass recently penned an article promoting New Day, but conveniently “forgot” to mention his self-interest. Later, New Day refused to participate in a WPFW broadcast debating the proposed bylaws, but another one of the four self-selectees called in and spoke in favor without identifying herself; several people listening, however, recognized her voice. (In the spirit of transparency, I have never held any position within Pacifica but I am active with WBAI Fightback and was also active in the fight to undo the 2000 Christmas Coup.) 

“New Day has deep pockets, slick propaganda, and is trying to buy this election on a ‘rule or ruin’ basis,” an analysis of the bylaws referendum published by Pacifica Fightback notes. “Centralization of power will lead to gentrification of the airwaves, marginalizing the voices from communities in struggle that are shaping the future and developing solutions to inequality and injustice! Don’t buy the hype — it’s more democracy, stronger ties to the communities we serve, and developing multi-media and social media platforms that will save Pacifica, not ‘white-knight’ progressive investors or management appropriate to commercial radio or commercially-underwritten ‘public’ radio.”

Listener-members and staff of the five stations can vote from June 7 to July 7. Both listeners and staff must each vote “yes” for New Day’s bylaws to take effect, and the numbers of those voting must reach a quorum. If you are a Pacifica listener or staff member who values community radio, hearing alternative voices and democratic accountability, please vote “no” on the bylaws referendum.

The fight to overturn the latest corporate coup at Pacifica has only begun

Crisis is never far away at the Pacifica radio network, but it is now facing perhaps its worst crisis ever as a new “corporate coup” has, at least for now, shut down WBAI in New York City.

Pacifica listeners and on-air hosts have successfully fought back against prior attacks on the progressive network, most notably reversing the lockout at KPFA in Berkeley in 1999 and the “Christmas Coup” at WBAI in 2000. In those cases two decades ago, the national board of Pacifica had become self-selecting, with board members with corporate backgrounds selecting like-minded people to new board seats and trying to rewrite the bylaws to not only sell off one or more Pacifica stations but be able to personally pocket some of the proceeds. Intense organizing and a boycott of donations eventually not only reversed the coup but begat a new democratic structure of elected local station boards and a national board made up of local-station representatives supplemented by affiliate representatives. (Many stations across the United States carry Pacifica programs to supplement their local programming.)

In that case, many activists believed that starving listener-supported WBAI of funds would reverse the coup. (Full disclosure: I was personally involved in that struggle.) Indeed that proved to be the case. Yes, Pacifica listeners, and exiled staff members and producers won in court, but as that was ultimately a political struggle, it had to be won through the actions of its supporters.

(photo by The City Project)

Unfortunately, the latest coup, which began with a dramatic physical takeover of WBAI facilities on October 7, won’t be so simply solved. This is a fight that WBAI listeners and staff believe can be, and will be, won — and this fight is also a political fight. But in the Christmas Coup two decades ago, the intention was to maintain all five Pacifica stations intact for potential sale. This time, however, the coup mongers are strongly believed to want to destroy WBAI in order to sell its license.

The coup mongers, led by Interim Executive Director John Vernile (on the job for all of two months!) and National Board Secretary Bill Crosier, insist they executed their takeover in an effort to “save” WBAI, citing the New York station’s operating deficit. It is true that WBAI has struggled financially for several years, although Mr. Vernile has drastically overstated the size of the debt. But what really stands out is how the takeover was accomplished.

WBAI was in the midst of a fund drive, but the fund drive was stopped, the web site at which listeners could make donations was disabled and all local programming was taken off the air, replaced with canned programming from California with no local content. The team led by Mr. Vernile that descended on the station the morning of October 7 dismantled the equipment, rendering it impossible to broadcast; immediately fired all employees; ordered them to leave; confiscated the station bank account; took checks left in the office; put padlocks on the doors; and told the station’s landlord she should find a new tenant while cutting off rent payments. The transmitter was switched to broadcast the canned California programming and the WBAI web site, including all archives of past shows, was wiped clean and replaced with a one-page site with a propaganda message justifying the coup.

Do these sound like the acts of someone interested in the well-being of the station?

And if a financial deficit were really the problem, it would seem most counter-intuitive to do everything possible to prevent the station from raising funds and to block its bank account.

No, this was not an act of benevolence.

Scapegoating WBAI for the network’s problems

As with most things Pacifica, this is a complicated story. The entire network, not only WBAI, is struggling financially. A faction centered at Pacifica’s two California stations, KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles, have long advocated the selling of WBAI’s license and to use the proceeds to benefit the remaining stations, particularly their own. Although WBAI has been commercial-free for its 60 years as a listener-supported Pacifica station, its frequency, 99.5, is in the commercial portion of the FM band, and thus worth tens of millions of dollars. This faction has made WBAI into a scapegoat for the financial difficulties of the network as a whole.

That is the context that is behind this latest coup. Of the nine National Board members supporting the coup, three are from KPFA, two from KPFK and three from the Houston station, KPFT. There are 22 members of the National Board, so nine do not constitute a majority. Moreover, 12 board members — an outright majority — oppose the WBAI takeover. Yet nearly two weeks into the coup, nothing has been reversed and the minority, for now, remains in control.

As noted above, this is complicated. An October 21 court date has been scheduled, when the contours of the legal case may begin to take shape. There have already been multiple court appearances, however, and those will be discussed below. Regardless of what happens, or doesn’t happen, on October 21, this standoff between the coup mongers and those opposed will not be resolved for some time, and resolving it will require considerable activist energy on the part of listeners, paid and unpaid staff, and other supporters.

So what is the takeover really about? Although there is a widespread belief that the real intention is to sell off the station’s license, despite the denials of the coup mongers, speculation is all that can be done for now. And perhaps there are other reasons.

“Make no mistake about it — it’s all about content — community voices,” said the lead attorney who has sued on behalf of WBAI, Arthur Schwartz, in an October 9 statement. “Nothing in the Pacific bylaws allows such a takeover by its executive director, who acted without even debate or a vote by Pacifica’s Board of Directors.”

A 40-year veteran of WBAI, Mimi Rosenberg, an activist attorney who has hosted WBAI’s outstanding labor program, Building Bridges, for decades, noted that although the takeover was sudden, the planning was not. “This has been in the works for a long time,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “The intent of the secret raid — or coup — was to wound the station irreparably by wrecking the fund drive, then drive the station to bankruptcy to sell it off so that the other stations in the network could feed off the monies from the sale of WBAI’s license.”

Ms. Rosenberg appears also to be slated by the coup mongers to be a scapegoat. She recently was handed a completely unjustified one-week suspension for allegedly putting WBAI in jeopardy. What was her “transgression”? It was uttering the words “stop Trump” in a promo for her Labor Day special broadcast. Pacifica claimed that uttering those words constituted an impermissible political endorsement that could put WBAI’s tax-exempt status at risk. So with the worst president in anyone’s memory in the White House, someone with the desire (thankfully not the competency) to become a fascist dictator, Pacifica should refrain from serious coverage? What sort of community radio station would WBAI be under such constraints?

Decisions of Pacifica headquarters worsened WBAI finances

Before we get to the legal twists and turns, it is proper to examine the financial situation that is the stated cause of the takeover. It is true that WBAI has experienced financial difficulties for several years and was expected to have a cash deficit for fiscal year 2020. By far the biggest reasons for WBAI’s financial woes are the massive back rent that was owed to the Empire State Building (where the transmitter was formerly located) and to the owners of 120 Wall Street (where its offices and studious used to be located.) That is significant because WBAI management had nothing to do with either contract — the onerous terms of those leases were negotiated and signed by the Pacifica national office around the time of the Christmas Coup.

The rent for the new locations of the transmitter and studios is considerably lower, but the heavy expenses of the previous locations weighed the station down for years and ultimately required the taking of a loan to pay off. WBAI does need to raise more money to keep itself afloat, but would be in much less jeopardy without the Pacifica-imposed expenses. The pro-coup faction on the National Board has taken no note or responsibility for those actions of its predecessors.

According to a document filed with the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, WBAI is projected to have a cash-flow deficit of $394,000 for fiscal year 2020. That is the largest deficit of any of the five Pacifica stations, but is not substantially larger than some others. KPFA is expected to have a cash-flow deficit of $366,000 and KPFK a deficit of $314,000. There is no movement to sell the license of either California station. (It should be noted that not all KPFA directors back the coup, and KPFA listeners staged a demonstration opposing the WBAI shutdown, an act of solidarity cheered by advocates in New York.)

“There are so many mischaracterizations and distortions, both through ignorance and of course from distain and to otherwise misrepresent the essence and structure of how the network/stations work,” Ms. Rosenberg said.

Directly addressing the allegations that WBAI’s finances are “dragging down” the network, WBAI Station Manager Berthold Reimers said:

“The Pacifica National office is largely to blame for deals they made without consulting WBAI as well as for not doing audits which prevented the station from receiving Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funding. … [The debt] was caused by a contract negotiated and signed by the Pacifica national office without consultation with WBAI. The station was put in an untenable position of having to pay $65,000 a month for the transmitter rental space. They also negotiated moving WBAI to 120 Wall Street, where the monthly payment was $45,000 per month.”

Mr. Reimers said that if the nearly $25,000 per month from the CPB that the station lost because the national office didn’t perform necessary audits in time is added to the unnecessarily high rents, WBAI lost close to $300,000 in annual revenue for many years.

Multiple court filings in first two weeks

Following the October 7 shutdown of WBAI, a group of WBAI producers and listeners asked the New York State Supreme Court (despite its name, that is the state’s trial-level court) for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to reverse the takeover pending further legal action. The next morning, a state judge granted the TRO directing the station to be returned to its pre-October 7 state and scheduled a hearing to consider if the injunction should be made permanent.

WBAI advocates argued that the takeover was illegal under Pacifica bylaws because no vote of the National Board was taken and thus there was no authority for Mr. Vernile to take such action. Mr. Vernile and the National Board faction backing him argued in an appeal to the Appellate Division that the TRO was “issued in the dead of night” and therefore invalid, and further argued that “Pacifica owns the property, offices and equipment of WBAI and thus cannot ‘seize’ it from itself.”

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

The Appellate Division ruled in favor of the appeal, vacating the TRO except for the termination of the 12 paid staffers. That order vacating the TRO was issued despite WBAI’s argument that the Appellate Division has no jurisdiction to overturn a TRO in the absence of a grant of appeal, which WBAI’s filing said had not been given, and that “We could not find a single decision where an appellate court assumed jurisdiction so that it could vacate a temporary restraining order.”

The coup faction on the National Board then sought to endorse the coup after the fact. A phone meeting of the National Board was convened and a vote taken on October 12. By any reasonable standard, this vote could not be considered fair. Apparently realizing they would lose the vote, five anti-coup members of the board had their phones muted so they couldn’t speak and were thus presented from voting! WBAI representatives on the board were told they had “a conflict of interest” and shouldn’t be allowed to vote. No such suspension of voting rights has ever been handed down under any circumstance. With the five board members blocked from voting, the motion to give after-the-fact blessing to the coup was nine in favor and seven against.

However, an emergency meeting was called by a majority of the National Board for the next day, October 13, and this time, 12 board members (an outright majority on a board of 22) voted to reverse the coup and instructed the corporate law firm that the coup faction had hired, Foster Garvey, to “withdraw from all litigation on behalf of Pacifica.” The board had never approved the hiring of the firm, which has filed all motions in support of the coup and the coup faction. According to the advocacy group Pacifica Radio In Exile, “All 12 board members, who represent a quorum of the nonprofit’s board of directors, formally waived notice requirements for the special [October 13] meeting and convened on a conference line that did not permit the involuntary muting of participants.” It is also notable that the 12 anti-coup members included at least one representative of each of the five Pacifica stations.

The Pacifica faction then moved the case to federal court, and asked that court to issue a TRO reversing the October 13 vote, arguing that proper notice was not given for the second vote and thus should be vacated. That request was granted, with the court also scheduling an October 21 hearing. Until then, WBAI remains under the control of the coup faction and, effectively, WBAI supporters argue, under the control of the court. So reports after the initial state-court TRO was issued that WBAI supporters had won were premature. Additionally, station equipment was dismantled on the day of the coup, so work will be necessary before WBAI can resume local broadcasting should it be allowed to do so.

The federal judge who issued the TRO in favor of the coup faction issued an order “Enjoining Petitioners [WBAI representatives and two WBAI National Board members] from disregarding or causing others to disregard the properly passed motions of the Pacifica National Board on October 12, 2019, until such time as this Court has issued a ruling determining the validity of the October 13, 2019, motions.” The judge ordered that no meetings be held that do not follow Pacific bylaws and further ordered that WBAI’s lead attorney, Mr. Schwartz, have no contact with any Pacifica employees or National Board members.

The law firm that the coup faction hired (with no authorization from the National Board) is Foster Garvey, one of the largest corporate law firms in the Pacific Northwest. One of the firm’s specialties is “labor and employment litigation,” which for a law firm of this type means that it assists corporations in screwing its employees, no matter the pretty euphemisms the firm uses in its description of its labor services. That ought to be inappropriate for what is supposed to be a progressive community-based radio network. What is inescapable is that corporate ideology is so pervasive that our own institutions are far from free of it.

Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series on the Vietnam War provides yet another example of the narrowness of “acceptable” political discourse in the United States. More than four decades past the end of that imperialist adventure, having a serious discussion about it remains taboo.

The series also provides a fresh example of how the narrowness of acceptable discourse is disguised through the appearance of a vigorous debate. I will confess here I have not watched Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War, but the consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected: The liberal side of the “debate” on the Vietnam War, that an “honorable” effort was tragically miscarried because of “mistakes.”

The series has a long list of corporate sponsors, typical for a Public Broadcasting System production. One of the Koch Brothers, David H. Koch, provided funding, as did the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bank of America. Such blue-chip sponsors are not going to associate themselves with any organization that has the slightest potential of providing any challenging critique.

Rice paddies in Vietnam (photo by Simon Gurney)

But let us not reverse cart and horse. This is the sort of case where corporate sponsors, including fiercely anti-democratic ones like the Koch Brothers, provide funding because they are confident of what they will be getting. There is no need for any formal censorship because corporate control of the media will see to it that viewpoints challenging the mythologies of capitalism are deemed out of bounds.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass media decision-makers are men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered. Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

The press isn’t free if you don’t own one

Many folks on the Left have the idea that there is some sort of organized conspiracy among owners and managers of major media outlets to make sure that ideologically inconvenient perspectives are shut out. That simply isn’t so. Competition alone would prevent any such collusion; within “acceptable parameters” reporters and editors want to be the first to report news. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries.

The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Editors can reign in reporters with independent mindsets by not running unacceptable stories, or revising them so that dominate ideologies and mythologies are not challenged. When a reporter is fearless enough to follow the trail until some semblance of the truth can be published, even if in watered-down fashion, an exemplary punishment can be made of him or her (such as was done to Gary Webb after his reporting on the CIA). But even when that is not the case, a simple ignoring of a story can make it disappear.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped. An inconvenient story run once, then ignored, can even misleadingly be pointed to as “proof” that news is being reported no matter what interests are at stake.

One well-documented example will provide an illustration — coverage by elite media of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest in Poland murdered in 1984 by Polish secret policemen in contrast to coverage of priests and other church personnel murdered in U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships.

Human rights depends on if the U.S. supports the régime

In their classic book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed four U.S. media outlets that then often set the tone for the press — the most influential newspaper (The New York Times), the two main news magazines (Time and Newsweek) and the most authoritative television news broadcaster (CBS). Their study found 140 articles/broadcasts on Popieluszko and eleven articles/broadcasts on 23 victims in Guatemala during a period that overlapped with Popieluszko’s murder; the Times ran ten front-page articles on Popieluszko, none on the others.

The articles on Popieluszko routinely featured graphic descriptions of the details of his murder and consistently tied his murder to Polish communist authorities despite the fact that the murderers were swiftly arrested and found guilty in an open trial. By contrast, only four of the 23 Guatemalan victims had their names mentioned in any news account, little detail was offered for any of these murders, no remark was made concerning the fact that no arrests were made in any of these cases, nor was U.S. material support of the Guatemalan government that was behind the murders once mentioned.

None of the prevailing situation precludes energetic debate in capitalist mass media within the parameters set by prevailing ideological interpretations. Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. This brings us back to interpretations of the Vietnam War. At the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War (one in which the Times was a significant participant).

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war.

Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

So much for the proverbial “fighting with one hand tied behind the back.” And let’s not forget that the Vietnamese had already spent years freeing themselves from the grip of France, only to have the U.S. sabotage elections and resume the fight. That the Vietnamese have the right to decide for themselves how their economy will be structured, or even be allowed independent development at all, and that the U.S. used the full might of the world’s biggest military machine to prevent that, is still outside “acceptable” discussion.

Debate in the service of obfuscation

The liberal conception of an honorable effort that tragically failed is every bit an obfuscation as the conservative perspective that a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. But that these two narrow perspective were allowed to fight it out provided the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

To return briefly to Guatemala, there has only rarely been any effort in the U.S. to discuss Washington’s bloody role (and elsewhere in Latin America). The Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, after a 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) declared that the United Fruit Company’s massive profits there were a “U.S. interest” requiring intervention.

Allen Dulles, then the CIA director, met with a United Fruit official, promising that whomever the CIA would select as the next Guatemalan leader would not touch the company. The overthrow would institute a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

The worst of these dictators was General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose régime murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982. Ríos Montt was an evangelical Protestant preacher who declared that his presidency was the will of God. Ronald Reagan responded by paying a visit to Ríos Montt, declaring him “totally dedicated to democracy” and claiming that reports of human rights abuses were a “bum rap.”

Do you ever see of this (only one of dozens of examples that could be cited) discussed in the U.S. corporate media? I don’t, either.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

And when a particularly skilled team of producers is able to uphold the interests of elite institutions, corporate and otherwise, the red carpet will be rolled out. Slick, beautifully presented work beats ham-fisted propaganda every time.

Rogue newspapers or part of a continuum?

You’ve got to hand it to the old pirate, Rupert Murdoch — he’s still at the top of his form. His performance at the “Leveson Inquiry” in London last week was, in its own way, something to behold. Denying he seeks favors for his businesses, denying he has any influence, denying he knows anything that is happening within his company.

And Fox News is “fair and balanced.” There must be much unease within News Corp. these days, considering the number of old hands — some of whom worked there for decades — Murdoch so casually threw overboard. Before The Guardian last summer broke open the still unfolding News Corp. scandals, we were told hacking was the work of a single “rogue reporter.” Then it became the work of a single “rogue newspaper.” Next a “rogue country” perhaps? One can see where this might be headed, so Murdoch, in his two days of testimony last week, sought to head off the possibility that the, uh, whole company, might be “rogue” and so fell back on blaming his executives for keeping he and son James in the dark.

This week’s declaration by a British Parliament committee that Murdoch is “not fit” to run a major company does catch one’s attention. I don’t believe that extraordinary declaration can be separated from Murdoch’s appearance before that committee last year. The most common commentary then reduced his performance to personalized notions such as “doddering grandpa” in light of his long pauses and lack of answers offered.

What I saw in last week’s testimony was a boss used to being unaccountable to anyone — his crisp “no’s” and clipped phrases to the questions reflected someone used to giving orders and being in charge. His own manner betrays his role as the person in charge, whether that is tightly managing his properties or creating and encouraging a distinct corporate culture.

I should note that all Murdochs and the company’s representatives have consistently denied condoning e-mail hacking, phone hacking, paying off police and other accusations. We will have to wait for the legal systems and the parliamentary investigations to run their course to gain better understanding. But we can examine Murdoch’s newspapers.

Buy first, demand legality later

Take the New York Post. The Post wouldn’t exist it weren’t for special favors granted Murdoch. The United States used to have laws prohibiting “cross ownership” of media — you could own a television station and two radio stations in the same city, but no more, and no newspapers if you owned a TV station. When Murdoch decided to branch out into television in the U.S., he bought a television station in New York, despite already owning the Post, and had similar conflicts in other cities. Solution? He sought and was granted a waiver from the law, and eventually the law was rescinded.

News Corp. shareholders aren’t necessarily pleased with the arrangement as the New York Post loses money by the tens of millions of dollars annually. But it exists as a platform for Murdoch’s extreme Right viewpoints and as a bully pulpit. A good example of the latter could be made out of the Post’s attitude toward Hillary Clinton.

The paper for years consistently attacked Clinton in every manner possible, going out of its way to publish the most unflattering photos of her they could find, and sometimes doctoring them to make her look worse. (Fox News is often accused of doing that as well.) But in 2000, Clinton was a shoo-in to win a seat from New York in the U.S. Senate, and Murdoch thought it might be good to get on the good side of a powerful senator. Suddenly, Clinton was a hero, routinely lauded in the Post while her Republican opponent was mercilessly attacked. As soon as Clinton became a part of the Obama administration, she immediately reverted to her pre-Senate status.

Not altogether different from Murdoch’s British tabloids suddenly deciding that Labour was not the devil on earth, and backing Tony Blair when it was obvious he would become prime minister in a landslide. Not that any of these papers’ far Right rantings slackened for a moment. Business is business, no matter how well Murdoch can keep a straight face.

How much influence does Murdoch truly wield? Over the political process, evidently plenty, considering how British politicians all feared his considerable wrath, and how cravenly Republicans in the U.S. seek the favors of Fox News. Media outlets that are wielded as weapons of destruction with no regard for reality are coercive to democracy.

Influence or reinforcement?

But do such outlets truly change minds and shape public opinion? Here I have my doubts. When the “news” that is presented is so obvious biased and so obviously carries a political agenda, I don’t see that many minds will be changed; at most a minuscule number. The highest audience total I can recall hearing for any Fox News broadcast is perhaps three million — that sounds like a lot, but nonetheless represents only one percent of the U.S. population. An outlet such as that provides reinforcement for zealots unaffected by reality. That is poisonous to rational discourse, but is most unlikely to convert anybody not already predisposed to extremist rantings and bizarre conspiracy theories.

Sometimes it is suggested that the rantings of Murdoch properties makes comparatively less extreme Right-wing bias more presentable and thus making it sound reasonable. But I don’t think that is the case, either; such bias on its own is not necessarily persuasive. Propaganda is ineffective if it is recognized as propaganda; getting significant numbers of a society to support policies not in their interests has to be accomplished in diffuse and subtle ways.

What I believe moves public opinion is repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media. There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers.

That there is sometimes fierce competition among media outlets not only doesn’t militate against uniform assumptions and story lines, it actually reinforces those tendencies. Corporate-inspired ideologies pervade capitalist societies, and corporate ownership of the mass media ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries. The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until (and if) a significant countervailing pressure arises.

The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

It’s what the don’t say as well as what they do say

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped.

Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded from public debate at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. To provide an example, at the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War. This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting.

Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war. Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which North Vietnam’s urban and rural infrastructures were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. (And lest that media debate be seen as a backlash from the Right, it was the liberal New York Times that led it.) Thus there was all the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

Not covering certain news can be as important as covering news. The New York Times, to use it again as an example, regularly gives heavy coverage, often on the front page, of demonstrations in Moscow, yet published only a tiny article buried far inside the paper on the May Day demonstrations, some of which occurred only two blocks from its office. That is simply a different, more sophisticated method of marginalizing a mass movement than the crude, politically motivated attacks in the New York Post.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology — such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

We laugh at Murdoch properties declaring themselves to be “fair and balanced,” but as much as that laughter is deserved they are less an anomaly than we often think.