SAUL LANDAU'S LETTER ON "PACIFICA BASHING"
In mid-February of this year Saul Landau issued an "Appeal to All Progressives: Stop the Pacifica Bashing!" And he got some 40 liberals and leftists to sign on, many associated with The Nation and Institute for Policy Studies. (For a copy of the letter, a list of signers, and numerous commentaries, see: http://www.savepacifica.net/strike/landau letters.html). Many of us on the left who have closely followed or been involved in the Pacifica struggle were appalled at the letter, and after several exchanges with Landau I am more convinced than ever that his initiative is not only terribly wrong, it is also the most divisive and damaging antileft act in many years. Let me explain why.
Many of us feel that the turmoil at Pacifica over the past five years is mainly attributable to a management group that is trying to transform the network--which owns five stations and provides programs to several dozen others--from a left bastion with local roots and providing local service into a mainstream institution that will attract a different and possibly larger audience and will not be so upsetting to Washington power brokers and funders. This has elicited a strong resistance from staff, volunteer employees, and local audiences, and the result has been firings, lockouts, strikes, frequent censorship, a temporary closure of KPFA, management threats to sell off one or more stations, and poor morale in the traditional staff that feels under siege. But the management has succeeded in largely transforming the Houston and Washington D.C. stations into the desired mold, with more music and less politics, and substantially less left politics. The Berkeley (KPFA) and New York (WBAI) stations have put up more resistance, and the task of mainstreaming them is incomplete, as it is also in Los Angeles (KPFK). The Pacifica management has moved its offices from Berkeley to Washington D.C., away from a dissident audience to the home of the dominant power brokers, in what some of us call a "reverse carpetbagger" operation. For many of us, "Pacifica" is not that management, the real Pacifica is the 30+ year veteran Larry Bensky, fired last year by the management, Verna Avery-Brown, the ousted anchor of Pacifica Network News, Amy Goodman of WBAI and Democracy Now, other staff fired or under threat, and the large and devoted traditional audiences who have been willing to go out on the streets by the thousands to protest the new order.
In Landau's letter, "Pacifica" means the management, and Pacifica bashing is attacking that management, whereas for those of us in resistance, the management is responsible for far more serious crimes than "bashing." But Landau only calls the management's crimes "mistakes" and "lapses in judgment," and while he asks for a halt to "bashing" he doesn't demand a legally binding pledge not to carry out the threat to sell KPFA, nor any other action from the management. Landau has also never put up a public letter calling for any changes in management composition, control, or policies. In short, his letter is de facto management apologetics, which was conveniently put forward just a few days before a board meeting in Washington. During that meeting board chair Mary Berry several times quoted from Landau's letter in support of her position.
I have repeatedly asked Landau, by what moral authority does the Pacifica board and officers decide to reorient the network toward the mainstream and carry out its firings, censorship, and effective abandonment of a sizable left audience? Isn't their power deeply undemocratic, with a self-perpetuating body doing its thing without any accountability to staff or audience? Isn't this illegitimate authority? Landau has never replied to these questions, but clearly he and some of his co-signers are unwilling to challenge this unaccountable authority and are prepared to accommodate to it in a way that is a bit surprising for liberals and leftists.
Landau's letter speaks of critics of the management that "paint this progressive network as some sort of runaway, rightwing juggernaut in the grip of a dark conspiracy." Notice how he makes the "network" identical with its management. But this reference to the critics' "dark conspiracy" is silly. I have told him that we don't think there is any "conspiracy," but rather that there is a policy agenda that we passionately oppose. But he hangs on to the notion that we believe in a dark conspiracy.
Landau also keeps saying that Pacifica's progressiveness is demonstrated by the continued existence of programs like Democracy Now! And I respond that counterrevolutions are not completed overnight, especially when there is resistance, so that progressive programs will only go one at a time. I also tell him that Amy Goodman has been repeatedly admonished to soften her program and feels under siege, so that her eventual departure looks probable if the existing management retains its power. But this doesn't register with Landau.
The sad fact is that he really seems to agree with the counterrevolution in process. In response to my claim that we are fighting to save the only left radio network in this country as a left institution, he replies that while it is true that a left- oriented community and local orientation helps a left cause, "small watt transmitters would be very well suited for local left community radio." In other words, we should abandon Pacifica and leave the Washington management to do with it whatever it wants. We should be satisfied with a more appropriate, even if marginal, vehicle. But why should the board have a right to abandon the traditional sizable and committed audiences and go their own way? He simply asserts that he agrees with their policy of allegedly "seeking larger audiences," at the expense of staff and existing audience preferences, and the notion that maintaining a seriously left network is itself an important objective has no weight for him.
Landau puts an unwarrantedly positive gloss on the objectives of the Pacifica management, asserting that they want "a larger...but still progressive audience." How he knows their aims as regards audience politics is puzzling. He fails to mention that audience size can be increased without compromising substance. The Pacifica management's extensive use of commercial consultants, the cultivation of corporate and Washington power brokers, and the steady pressure on radicals to tone down their messages or get out, suggests that they are mainstreaming not primarily to enlarge audiences but rather for ideological, political, and financial reasons. The modern breed of consultants to public stations regularly urges depoliticization, getting rid of radicals, and displacing the public sphere with uncontroversial music as the road to legitimacy and financial solvency. The Pacifica management is closely following this familiar course.
Detailed inquiries have established that a number of the signers of Landau's letter did so on the basis of personal relationships and trust, in complete ignorance of the issues at stake. Nevertheless, that Landau and others on the left have signed on to this apologetic for the Pacifica management and its slow strangulation of that network as a left institution has angered many people. It is a wound to left solidarity that is going to be extremely difficult to heal.