The Danger of Opening a Door We Cannot Close by Daniel Borgstrom
Summary: Underwriting is camouflage for advertising. Pacifica has never allowed it’s anti-war mission to be susceptible to corruption by accepting advertising funding from mainstream corporate sources. With so many un-declared wars, now is not the time for Pacifica stations to start underwriting.
The Pacifica Radio network, which includes five stations and about 250 affiliates, is facing a financial crisis which could mean the extinction of the network, and out of sheer desperation, the Pacifica National Board is now thinking of seeking funds from underwriters. It sounds tempting, very tempting, but it’s not the way to go. By accepting funds from underwriters even with the best of intentions, Pacifica would be opening a door we cannot close; a door that keeps opening itself wider and wider, ultimately to money we cannot control.
That has been the experience of many progressive organizations whose missions were diverted or even reversed. Pacifica would not likely be an exception, and if foundations and corporations fund our radio stations, we’ll be broadcasting their version of news and analysis.
The corporate media is a prime example of how funding works, and it doesn’t take an MBA in finance to understand it. I remember my high school economics teacher (half a century ago now) telling us that a newspaper could better afford to offend its readers than its advertisers. “Subscriptions barely pay for the ink and newsprint,” the teacher explained. “The newspaper’s main income comes from advertising. No paper can afford to offend those advertisers.”
Although mainstream media outlets don’t deny their corporate nature, they do pretend to be fair, loudly proclaiming themselves the “free, unbiased media,” which they’re not. The Washington Postsays on its masthead “Democracy dies in darkness,” which is true, but the Post is itself part of the darkness and has promoted every U.S. war in living memory (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.). The New York Times calls itself the “Newspaper of Record,” which it certainly is — a record of the official national security state narratives and their various twists and turns on any number of topics ranging from the JFK assassination, to 9/11, to Iraq, to “Russiagate.”
NPR/PBS pretend to be something of an alternative. They hold fund drives and are to some extent public supported, but they accept funding from numerous corporate sources, including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AT&T, Koch Industries and many more. NPR coverage reflects the sensibilities of their wealthy funders.
Of course, we’ve seen those corporate outlets do publish some excellent, well-researched and insightful journalism. Usually, as in the case of the Watergate exposés, it makes the newspaper look good, like a watchdog for the public interest, and it may even fit in with the agenda of some powerful faction. But not always. There was Gary Webb, an award-winning journalist of the San Jose Mercury News, who famously wrote about the connection between the CIA and drug smuggling. It ended as a lesson for journalists who dare to overstep the bounds. More recently, CNN’s Marc Lamont Hill made a speech at the United Nations where he expressed support for the Palestinians; CNN fired Hill the next day. That’s the world of corporate journalism, the “free, unbiased media.” Yes, they do have some excellent journalists. There was Seymour Hersh, who’s no longer welcome at U.S. media outlets; the only place he could go with one of his recent articles was Germany. Not all journalists are outright fired; some, like the late Robert Parry, quit in frustration; Parry went on to found Consortium News, an independent online news outlet now headed by Joe Lauria.
I wish I could say that censorship doesn’t happen in our network, at Pacifica Radio. Well, it does. KPFA (94.1 FM) in Berkeley is Pacifica’s flagship station; there, last August General Manager Quincy McCoy canceled the popular (and controversial) program “Guns and Butter” hosted by Bonnie Faulkner. The program’s entire 17 years of archives were also erased from the KPFA website, and this was done without any transparent process such as listeners expect at a supposedly democratically run community station. When over sixty fans of Guns & Butter showed upat a scheduled KPFA forum to protest, the station’s manager was out of town on vacation.
Guns and Butter has now joined the Unz Review, a selection of “interesting, important, and controversial perspectives largely excluded from the American mainstream media.” Ron Unz said, “I suspect that Pacifica’s severe financial problems may have allowed outside donors the necessary leverage to finally remove a long-standing thorn in their side.”
Actually, Bonnie’s show continues to be aired on other Pacifica stations and affiliates; only KPFA discontinued it. But could Ron Unz’s suspicions about outside donors be well founded, at least at KPFA?
Meanwhile, KPFA’s programmers feature on-air guests such as Karen Greenberg, Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, who tells us the FBI and CIA “are there to keep us safe.” It is of course fine to have such guests on the air; I think we should, but they should be asked insightful and challenging questions — which tend to be avoided. So we, the KPFA listeners, are often left to hear the same basic neoliberal groupthink that’s on CNN or CBS or NPR.
Then there’s “Russiagate”; we get plenty of that along with other evidence-free doctrines of the corporate media, now being echoed on KPFA. Such is the trend; a trend which goes back many years, but recently it’s been getting worse. (See Ann Garrison’s “We Love the CIA!”—or How the “Left” Lost Its Mind). That’s the trend at KPFA; and it does look like KPFA’s management may indeed be preparing to make the station’s airwaves acceptable to prospective corporate funders.
It wasn’t always that way. KPFA dates back to 1949, and during the McCarthy the station bravely exposed the Cold War propaganda. Likewise during the Vietnam War, it was an antiwar voice. For decades the station maintained a long and honorable tradition of independent, free speech and radical programming, but revolutionary projects don’t always stay revolutionary forever, and the current situation is much like the George Orwell story “Animal Farm.” That is, a clique among the staff at KPFA have set themselves up as the gatekeepers, and as in Orwell’s story, they’ve found allies outside the farm. The station’s elite are today allied with local Democratic Party clubs, and the general manager goes on the air announcing that station is part of the “Resistance.” It’s a resistance that doesn’t resist war.
Reportedly some small stations are accepting underwriting from small business, such as neighborhood bakeries, various collectives. For them, a small scale operation, it may work if they can limit it to that. However, the dynamics can be different at a large station, particularly at KPFA, where expenses are much larger and finances as well as programming are already spiraling out of control.
This neoliberal trend at KPFA cannot be reversed with large injections of money from underwriters. Nor would it be likely to save the network. A couple of years ago we saw a preview of what happens when the current KPFA management gets an infusion of cash. That was in 2015; the station received a bequest of about $600,000. Instead of putting that money to good use, and laying some away for a rainy day, the manager (Quincy McCoy) canceled an upcoming fund drive and the station burned its way through the unexpected gift of free money. When it was gone (some say “squandered“), there was little to show for it. Projects which legitimately needed money were still not attended to.
Although there is something of a firewall between KPFA and the parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation, I fear if the network were to okay underwriters, it would go much the same, except that unlike the case of a one-time bequest, the door would now be opened to ongoing searches for free money.
To reverse that trend at KPFA, we must begin by giving up the notion that we can resolve our problems with free and easy foundation money. Lew Hill’s vision for KPFA/Pacifica, when he founded it back in 1949, was that it must be listener sponsored. Lew Hill was right. That is the way KPFA/Pacifica can maintain its dignity as a source of trustworthy, independent programming and preserve its progressive antiwar voice.
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DANIEL BORGSTRÖM is a sitting KPFA LSB member and is with ” Rescue Pacifica,” a group working to keep the network intact and defend KPFA’s traditional antiwar voice.
KPFA 94.1 FM is one of five stations of the Pacifica radio network located in major cities across the country. The other stations are WBAI 99.5 in New York, WPFW 89.3 in Washington, DC, KPFT 90.1 in Houston, and KPFK 90.7 in Los Angeles. There are also about 250 affiliate stations.