- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

No dissent allowed by management

Nine years ago, New York's John Cardinal O'Connor heartened 20,000 union supporters massed in front of the New York Daily News building by supporting a strike by that paper's reporters because, he said, management had manifestly been bargaining in bad faith.

Currently, there is a nationwide strike of journalists, but it's not about wages or because management is cutting benefits. On Jan. 31, more than 40 freelance reporters and contributors to Pacific Network News a daily half-hour broadcast of listener-supported Pacifica Radio went silent. Pacifica Radio consists of five stations (in Berkeley, New York, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles and Houston) and more than 60 affiliates.

The strikers are protesting censorship of the news by Pacifica management led by Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of both the United States Civil Rights Commission and the board of the Pacifica Foundation. Pacifica was founded 50 years ago as an alternative, from the left, to mainstream broadcasting as, in print, were the liberal Village Voice and, from the right, National Review.

I have often been interviewed on Pacific Network News, criticizing political correctness on the left as well as attempts by certain Christian fundamentalists to insist that this is a Christian nation. Pacifica has been most accurately and concisely described by Frank Ahrens of The Washington Post as a combination of valuable journalism mixed in with some wild-eyed zealotry.

From the start, Pacifica's mission statement pledges to promote freedom of the press. Until recently, internal disagreements on politics and other matters could be heard on the air. But last year, when Mary Frances Berry began to propose changes that were regarded by both its reporters and many listeners as watering-down Pacifica's progressive (that is, left-wing) bent, management suppressed dissension on the air.

This is not a First Amendment issue. Privately owned companies are not bound by the First Amendment. But a largely listener-supported network that professes to be above alleged commercial broadcasting limitations on free speech would seem to be gravely compromising its principles when it places a gag rule on any discussion on the air of criticism of its plans to change its direction.

On KPFA in Berkeley Pacifica's flagship station a critical commentator was dragged out of the newsroom in mid-sentence by security personnel; the station manager was fired; protesting staffers were locked out; and throughout the Pacifica network, a ban was imposed on letting listeners who subscribe to the station know what was going on. When 10,000 indignant supporters of free speech demonstrated at KPFA, police officers were summoned, and there were many arrests.

I doubt if any other radio station in the country has as many committed listeners who would rally on the streets to oppose censorship by management.

In the Internet's "Salon" magazine, Judith Coburn a former colleague of mine at the Village Voice and a first-rate reporter notes that Mary Frances Berry used contacts at the Justice Department to get a department official to call Berkeley Police Chief D.E. Butler and ask him why KPFA supporters who were peacefully demonstrating outside the station hadn't been arrested. And in a letter to the East Bay Express, Police Chief Butler himself wrote to complain: Many labor disputes have taken place in Berkeley over 25 years, but the Pacifica Foundation's decision to turn a labor dispute into a mass arrest situation was a first.

Among the many acts of news suppression at KPFA and other Pacifica stations and on the network's most-valued series, Pacific Network News was the censoring of Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" program. Amy Goodman has won journalism awards for, among other things, reporting at great peril from East Timor before the bloody repression of democracy there attracted major media attention. She was censored for reporting on censorship at Pacifica.

The striking freelance reporters and contributors have now started an alternative news broadcast, Free Speech Radio News, which is made available to Pacifica's affiliate stations, some of which are boycotting Pacific Network News.

This alternative to a once-alternative network reminds me of Chicago Tribune columnist Stephen Chapman's observation: Liberty wasn't guaranteed by the Constitution. It was only given a chance. Not that anyone has asked me, but I will not appear on Pacific News Network during the strike. Solidarity forever or at least so long as Mary Frances Berry is in charge.

She continues to refuse to return my calls, and the calls of others, about the strike.

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