Friday, December 9, 2016

Rendezvous with Uncertainty: On Post-Modern Politics

IN THE SO-CALLED MODERN ERA, things basically made sense. Despite frequent setbacks, technical dangers and brutal dictators most people believed in the possibility of a better future, in the idea of changing the world that was also changing us. But now we live in a post-modern world. And although that need not be a pejorative label, it does tend to emphasize uncertainty, spectacle, and even the chaotic.
    The term “post-modern” first came into use after World War II, referring to literature and art that took modern forms to their extremes. Since then, it has evolved into a general attitude toward society. Characterized by skepticism, it forces “authorities” and “their” institutions to defend themselves against charges that they are no longer relevant – or just ignorant. Does this sound familiar so far? On the plus side, that attitude helped bring down the Berlin Wall and sometimes puts experts and leaders in the hot seat. However, it also tends to challenge any strongly held belief.
     Self-conscious and often self-contradictory, post-modernists tend to believe that truth is merely a perspective and nothing should be taken too seriously. The characteristic approach is ironic, emphasizing the doubleness in whatever is being expressed. One favorite grammatical device is quotation marks, either written or "air," reinforcing the idea that the words don’t mean what they seem. This expresses the defensive cultural logic of late-capitalism, and plays well into the schemes of media and political demagogues.
     Faced with machines that have made life more complicated and less secure, a vast amount of unsettling information, and an overwhelming variety of ephemeral “choices,” it is hardly surprising that people, especially the young, are no longer very impressed with much of anything. Their favorite media often revel in this sensibility and abandon the grand narrative approach once standard in novels. Although most commercial films continue to rely on the old linear formula – a hero overcoming obstacles to reach some obvious goal – few people actually believe in that scenario. Real life is so much more ambiguous and complex.
     At its extreme such an awareness can lead to disillusionment, nihilism, and a disabling narcissism that favors fads and raw power over ethics and any ideology. And these days narcissism no longer applies solely to “beautiful people” who can relate only to their own images. Narcissists can also be pseudo-intellectuals, calculating promoters, or self-absorbed rebels. Even more unsettling, they are ideally suited for success and power – callous climbers all too willing to sell themselves.
     In post-modern society, self-promotion is the ultimate form of work. It’s a state of affairs that, as we have just witnessed, can catapult a celebrity into power.
     In post-modern society the electronic media promote both chronic tension and cynical detachment. Most advertising implicitly suggests that appearances are what matter, while many of the programs reinforce an ironic distance, often winking that it’s just a put-on. And the news? An endless stream of largely trivial “facts.”
     What about truth? That’s the last thing we expect anymore.
     The technology of journalism has advanced more in the last decade than in the century before. Yet more and more, print, electronic and digital media fill time and space with self-serving advertorials and questionable news – increasingly fake –  often produced by hackers, PR firms and even governments. The race for circulation, clicks and audience shares has meanwhile placed a premium on titillation and superficiality, producing an ill-informed electorate.
     Journalistic professionalism and credibility are in free fall. Compounding the problem, corporate ownership and bottom line thinking mean that fewer responsible and trained journalists are available, especially to cover developments in foreign countries and remote locations. US television networks employ at least a third fewer correspondents than they did 25 years ago. Radio newsroom staffs shrank by 44 percent between 1994 and 2001, and foreign coverage by broadcast and cable networks has declined at least 70 percent since the 1980s.
     Newsroom staffs have also been slashed, unions have been forced to accept cuts, and the coverage has been dumbed down. More than 50,000 news industry employees, most of them newspaper journalists, lost their jobs in the first decade of the 21st Century. The result is that major stories go untold, and dire problems in many communities are ignored. It's sad to admit, but professionalism in reporting may be going the way of shortwave radios, fax machines, and the single-lens reflex camera.
     The inconvenient truth here is that there is no Constitutional guarantee that democracy will be fair, that people will be well or truthfully informed, or that the press will be competent.
     In fact, US society is currently experiencing a crisis of fact, leaving people with little to trust or believe. More and more they consume only information that reinforces their opinions. It's a vicious cycle, and many journalists aren’t helping. The first law of the profession today, as Alex Cockburn put it, is to "confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
     Thus far, the post-modern age has been characterized largely by fraud and scandal – questionable elections, corrupt leaders, fabricated accounting that devastates the savings of thousands, doped-up athletes, and plagiarized or phony news. Even scholars have been caught plagiarizing parts of their books. It became so common by 2007 that a peer-reviewed academic journal called Plagiary was launched. Its subtitle announced: Cross Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. One early investigation of whether student terms papers had been faked found that at least 30 percent of the papers submitted online had been plagiarized, at least in part.
     Another troubling development has been “photo illustration,” frequently involving fabrication of images using digital tools. It sounds like harmless fun, but given the power of images it has the potential to warp public perception in the service of biased or inaccurate stories.
     And how do the young get their news? Actually, many don’t bother, and those who do want to know what's happening don’t use print, or even radio and TV. They prefer handheld devices to surf online sources – many actually operated by think tanks and special interest groups that have figured out how to appeal to a mass audience.
     The emergence of “citizen journalism” and “new media” has reinforced the notion that professionalism is no longer essential, and maybe even part of the problem. The post-modern idea is that everyone can be a journalist, promoting "conversations" among equals as citizen reporters aggregate, edit and sometimes create their own news. The more options we have, goes the idea, the less control traditional media have over what is relevant – and the better offer we will be.
    But this presumes that professionalism no longer matters, and standards aren’t important. "New media” acknowledge few rules, but reliable reporting isn’t really so simple. For example, recognizing the difference between news, opinion, commentary and rumor can be a challenge. Serious journalists also try to cultivate skills like how to conduct fair and constructive interviews, how to find relevant and complete – not merely convenient – information, how to see various aspects of an issue, and how to convey what they find out clearly, efficiently and accurately. Without such skills, the public is vulnerable to distortions, biased reports, and blatant falsehoods.
     For all its benefits, the “blogosphere” has accelerated social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists. It’s not so different from the partisanship that characterized the press in the early 19th Century. But this version is far more pervasive. As a result, truth and facts have become debatable and more difficult to define.
     Conflict drives the news cycle, with partisan sources and obsessive bloggers often shaping the narrative. This makes it more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for opportunists to ignore or distort reality for the sake of pushing narratives and initiatives based on convenience or private interests.
     The result has been a loss of faith in almost everything, and an escapist mentality rooted in the belief that no meaningful change is possible. Popular culture feeds on this attitude, encouraging excess and striking poses while confusing commitment with fanaticism and "straight talk" with hate speech.
     Yet it's not all bad news. Along with skepticism comes re-awakened concern about the human condition and the planet’s health. The idea that “rational planning” provides all the answers is no longer so convincing, gone with notions such as “bigger is better” and nature is merely a resource to be conquered and exploited.
     In economics, the rigid approach to production known as Fordism, named for the man who brought us the assembly line and mass production using interchangeable parts, has given way to a more flexible, eclectic system emphasizing innovation and a post-industrial compression of time and space. The view that corporations and the global economy are only parts of a whole planetary system is slowly gaining traction.  
     As with most post-modern developments, however, there is a double edge. Re-engineering economics and work could lead to more worker-owned businesses, a renewed sense of community and environmental responsibility, and a groundswell against corporation domination. But it may simultaneously increase instability, turning even more people into contingent workers.
     Commenting on the implications, once presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy warned that post-modernism favors “fuzzy logic” and subjective impressions over rational arguments and clear thinking. It recognizes no absolutes, just degrees and disposable attitudes.
    “This predicament is not altogether reassuring,” McCarthy concluded, “as it may lead us to a state of ‘entropy,’ i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism as to what may result.”
     It has already given the US its first post-modern president. And that in turn opens the door for a right-wing cultural counterrevolution. Speaking on his own TV network years ago, Pat Robertson made the goal perfectly clear: “to mobilize Christians, one precinct at a time, one community at a time, one state at a time, until once again we are the head and not the tail, and at the top rather than at the bottom of our political system.”
     In a country founded on the principle of church-state separation, this may sound unlikely. But we should not be surprised that opportunists have seized the current chance to distort public debate and promote themselves as national saviors. Demagogues and evangelists have been doing this for generations. Not much has changed since the time of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy except the targets. Today it’s everything associated with multiculturalism, progressive politics and social justice. Fueled by Fox News and conservative powerhouses like the Koch brothers, they have mass marketed an extreme and paranoid ideology while immersing viewers in a false reality. Specious arguments and patent falsehoods are presented as history, biblical truth or scientific fact. Too often mainstream media let the avalanche of misinformation slide.
     An elaborate right-wing echo chamber has helped to create a distorted picture of contemporary reality that appeals to millions who feel insecure and hungry for clear and simple answers. In contrast, progressives have tended to put their faith in exposure. When enough people understand the extreme and illogical views of the Right, says this argument, their candidates will be rejected. Until recently, that felt like a good bet.
     But too many Americans, alienated and uncertain about their futures and the safety of their families and friends, are vulnerable to the politics of paranoia and blame. Bombarded with disinformation they have placed their faith and the planet's future in the hands of a gold-plated huckster who offers them slogans as answers and the illusive hope of a return to "greatness."
     Not very post-modern, and a recipe for even deeper disilusionment.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Land of the Blind: Everything is Connected

A Carlo Kostner Mystery
: Chapter Three :

IT MAY NOT be in the cards to finish this before moving on to a safer location. When I arrived – it feels like weeks ago but has actually been only days – Lucas said I could stay as long as necessary. But if someone wants to find me, it won’t take forever to figure out that I might call on an old friend, admittedly one with whom I had a very public falling out years ago.
     The association goes back even longer, more than thirty years, to when the three of us – Gene Montoya, Lucas Vega and yours truly – sometimes got stoned together, and, to a certain extent, shared an Aquarian dream. So did my first wife Miranda, a Native American princess and certified wacko, as well as the rest of the Coyote clan. But Gene was on a different road even then, a harder political track rather than our countercultural yellow brick road. 
      Lucas, being older and the one with real money, had the strongest sense of how he wanted to deal with the world. On his own terms.
     “We are at the center of the universe,” he proclaimed, then quickly stipulated, “Don’t laugh. What I mean is that our actions will spiral out and change everything.”
     In Lucas’ case the argument could be made that it wasn’t just bluster; his work was having a real world impact. The creator of a unique, organic architectural school that built on the philosophy of Louis Kahn – “to create a presence, consult nature,” he would say – Lucas Vega had fused design with ecology and attracted students to a remote sub-alpine workshop. By the time we met in the mid-seventies, just after I finished college, he was starting the next phase of his journey – visionary eccentric. Lucas was building an intentional community in the Southwest while promoting a radical agenda, a non-mechanistic vision of what it means to be part of a living whole. 
     “We are a body of humanity embedded in our living parent planet,” he said. I was always a sucker for great rhetoric and a Big Idea. Then again, he was right.
     The pitch was a bit abstract for Gene, even when he was high. Which wasn’t all that often. Speaking of drugs, it offended me, reading a GQ interview after the announcement of Gene’s presidential run, that he now claimed to be “the only person who didn’t get high during the hippie era.” It was an obvious attempt to erase his past and any association with the counterculture. 
     The remark was so Clintonesque that I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that he actually thought he could win the presidency. Very sad, considering how things worked out.
     The day we caught up at his campaign office I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Maybe it was because, on the way over, I had stopped at Lafayette Park to hear an anti-war presser and was somehow reminded of our original connection, the days when we were one for all and all for fighting elites. 
     Gene was getting closer by the day to the center of national power, and I was taking the reins of a media group with the potential to reach millions. So, maybe Lucas had it right, I thought. Our actions had spiraled out, and brought us here, and now presented the possibility of changing society. 
    Spokesmen for Veterans against the War, Grassroots America, and Act Now to End War and Racism – widely known as the Progressive Coalition – were talking about the failure of our latest imperial adventure, the domestic repression it had spawned, and, specifically, $40,000 in illegal postering fines. In the process, they decided to demonstrate the proper way to put up posters in a public place. Before they got far, the National Park Service sent in mounted police and a SWAT team to stop the demonstration and arrest the organizers. 
     As he was dragged away, the PC spokesperson shouted, “Now using wheat paste to put up posters is against the law. They’re criminalizing dissent!" 
     When I talked with Gene, the protest – and particularly the over-the-top response – was still on my mind. But Gene had no apparent interest in the travails of the anti-war movement. “It’s a sideshow,” he concluded dismissively. “Sure, I’m against the war. But you won’t change foreign policy or our role in the world with wheat paste.” 
     He looked like a candidate now – ramrod straight, perfect skin, immaculate suit, custom haircut – a very long way from his old self, a rumpled rebel with no fashion sense. Still, one of the first things I noticed on entering the office was his smile, broad yet not convincing, as if there was something going on just below the surface. Whatever it was, in our salad days he never would have bothered to hide it. Only the message was important then, that and The Movement. Any surrender to Form, any sort of slickness, was artificial, inherently bourgeois. 
     The first time we met we argued over precisely that point. My own view was that how you presented yourself, in other words the package, often determined whether people would even hear your message. Dark and defiant, with shaggy hair, worn out sneakers and torn jeans that road low on his hips, Gene dismissed the idea with a withering contempt.
     This was 1974, when Nixon was only months from resigning, and a group of us were invited to a meeting of students, campus leaders about to graduate from colleges and universities in California. The common thread was an interest in radically changing politics and the media. Of all the participants, convened by Wild Bill Masterson, a one-eyed independent filmmaker who had managed to sell most of us on his dream of establishing a new media empire in northern New Mexico, Gene seemed the least likely prospect. He was studying journalism but felt mostly contempt for its practitioners. His true obsession was monopoly control by huge corporations, a critique that sounded a bit too simple to me and hardly explained what to do about it. 
     But Wild Bill had something Gene wanted – people willing to buy into his vision, and Gene had something Bill needed – knowledge of the local terrain and plenty of contacts. He even had a site in mind for the project – a ghost town near Taos. 
     “You want to start an empire in a ghost town?” I was incredulous. “Does it even have electricity?”
     Gene didn’t hesitate to pounce. “That’s a racist statement. But what really bothers me is how uninformed you are for someone from one of the best schools in the country. It may be the boondocks for someone living in La-La Land, but there’s something going on there that isn’t happening in the rest of the country.”
     “What’s that?”
     “A people’s movement, amigo, a challenge to everything that’s wrong with the country.”
     “In a ghost town?”
     Bill tried to intercede. “Not there, Carlo, but in the general area. It’s being led by farmers and locals fighting a huge construction project.” 
      Gene finished the thought. “The Indian Camp Dam,” he explained. “It’s being pushed by a group of corporate fascists who operate through a front group, the Rancho del Rio Conservancy District. Stopping the dam, that's my priority.”
      It was the same way he sounded that day in his campaign office, spouting off about PIA and the other private military interests that were manipulating foreign affairs at the behest of corporate conspirators. As always, absolutely convinced about the righteousness of his stand, as well as the inevitability of victory in whatever struggle he took on. Yet blind to unintended consequences. This time he had seriously miscalculated. 
     As any investigative journalist ought to know, a good theory explains the available facts and cannot easily be contradicted. That’s why I was immediately skeptical about the announcement that my old friend Gene had committed suicide by poisoning himself with dioxin. The same toxin used on Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian President who was leading his country's opposition at the time of his exposure and discovered 1,000 times the normal amount of dioxin in his blood. Although his face was disfigured with chloracne Yushchenko survived and eventually became president anyway. 
     The amount ingested by Gene wasn't publicly revealed but it had to be considerably more. 
      Even harder to accept was that he ended his own life in the midst of a last-minute surge toward the presidency, and decided to do it with a chemical compound more likely to cause cancer, diabetes or long-term damage to the immune system. In other words, he couldn’t even be certain it would work. 
    The theory made no sense, as opposed to the idea that he was targeted, at the very least to be brought low by an attack that would prevent him from appearing in public during the rest of the campaign. 
     As for why, that was the easy part: he had become a threat to the wrong people. 
     Nevertheless, within 24 hours discussion of a possible assassination, accidental or otherwise, was ruled out and suicide became the consensus story, endlessly echoed on major media outlets, along with the suggestion that he had struggled with episodes of deep depression for many years. I found it about as convincing as the official story about the 9/11 attacks.
     Whatever you think about that, my point is that the official line didn't adequately explain all the available facts and was, to say the least, open to interpretation and challenge. Yet not even the Rose group’s talking heads wanted to go there.
     Lucas didn’t reject my analysis. But he was worried about my state of mind. I had arrived at his studio close to hysterics, more out of it than he had ever seen me, even after my break up with Miranda. Then I was young and overwrought, disillusioned about a failed marriage and a pointless job. This time I was a supposedly well-balanced, middle-aged and responsible executive. Yet I believed that some latter-day illuminati wanted me dead. 
     He listened patiently as I recapped the last few days, starting with Gene’s call shortly before he died, excited about his prospects for winning the race and eager to discuss his decision to publicly call for a halt to private military contracts. The issue was catching fire and the timing looked right, Gene said. The next day he was gone. 
     The day after that, as the first coat of whitewash was being applied to his untimely demise, I had to fly to Texas for the annual Rose Board of Directors meeting. That night I stopped at KLAP to appear on Against the Grain, a weekly show, and talked about my departed friend. 
     Just before going on the air, my mobile phone rang. The display showed a restricted number so I ignored it. During the interview I mentioned that Gene and I had talked at times, without saying how recently, and mentioned his concern about mercenary armies - without revealing his latest plan. 
     As I left the studio, I turned the phone back on to check for messages. The first voice, officious, cryptic, said that the Secret Service was sending a car and wanted to interview me as soon as possible. I never heard the next message. It was drowned out by the explosion, the sound of shattering glass and the screams of terrified volunteers. 
     “You think the two are connected,” asked Lucas after I finally reached his studio in a panic, “Gene’s death, the bombing at the station?” 
    “Are you high? He was going after guys with the best death squads in the world, not to mention the ability to monitor calls and figure out where we are. And I may be the last person who talked to him. Definitely not a coincidence.” 
    "So, are we safe here?"
    "Good question."

To be continued (when I know more..)

Sounds from the street 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Land of the Blind: Getting to Roseland

A Carlo Kostner Mystery
: Chapter Two :

THE THING ABOUT being a rescuer is that you tend to see problems as challenges rather than threats. You think, how bad could it be? After all, Rose Broadcasting was a revered institution, a national voice for peace and nonviolence populated with dedicated, sometimes gifted people. It was an honor to have an opportunity to lead, even if it felt a little tentative. The Board was rife with intrigue, and there were queasy rumors about the hiring process.
     Now I think: How bad could it get and where can I hide?
     Known as The Rose, it had taken the name of its late beloved founder Leonard Rose, and as a reference to what roses often represent – love and beauty. Anyway, it made for an enticing logo.
     Yet there was irony in the symbol. Rose is also the national flower of both the US and England. Long before that, early Christians adopted it as the symbol for their martyrs. The association with socialism and the left developed centuries later, linked to the British and Irish Labour parties, not to mention assorted left-wing political groups across Europe during the 20th Century.
      In May 1968, it became a badge of honor for street protesters in Paris.
      But the name also worked as a handy label for conservatives, for whom it served as more evidence that The Rose was pink, maybe even Red, a dangerous, subversive blot on the media landscape, a network of left-wing stations that “blamed America” for everything wrong in the world and supported disloyal, decadent elements in our society.
     Obviously that wasn’t how Leonard Rose had defined the mission, or how loyal Rose watchers saw it. For them it was the voice of truth and justice, a source of hope for a better world.
     Officially, it was the Rose Broadcasting System, a worker-managed, listener-supported multi-media company, owner of operations in half a dozen large markets, and frequent site of internecine political warfare. Over the decades it had grown from a single Los Angeles TV station into a network with billions in assets, millions of listeners, and a structure so Byzantine that even ardent defenders considered it dangerously dysfunctional.
     Before I became its chief executive, a colleague from the Pine Tree State dubbed it “the dream job from hell.” I found the description amusing at the time. Nor was I dissuaded when one Rose GM explained why he wasn’t interested in the job despite ample qualifications and political connections. “I want to survive,” he said. ”Professionally, and otherwise.”
     I followed up. “What the f--k does that mean?”
     “It means,” he said, “that people who get there also tend to get bloody. Rumors, media vultures, that kind of thing. It’s tough to find a home afterward.”
     He didn’t mention being assassinated or framed for murder. But obviously I should have taken the advice more seriously.
     A month later, I was on my way to Rose headquarters in New York, located behind an unmarked door in the same building as WARP, one of the oldest operations. But first, that stopover in Washington, DC to meet with Gene Montoya, American success story and the next big thing.
     Most people know the basics about Gene, or you might say, the “approved script.” Starting out the son of a poor Mexican immigrant and an Irish beauty queen, Gene Montoya had managed through hard work and political genius to become mayor, then congressman and most recently governor. At the time of my invitation, he was something even more exciting, a well-funded independent candidate for President. Less widely known was the fact that we were friends at one time, although I hadn’t heard from him since his star began to rise.
     In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention the last time we saw each other, about eight years before our reunion. He was standing in the third floor window of New Mexico’s state capitol, known as The Roundhouse and designed to represent the Zuni symbol for the sun – the only round state capitol in the country – watching dozens of anti-war protesters get dragged away roughly by the police for committing civil disobedience. I don’t know whether Gene personally issued the order, or even noticed me sitting cross-legged on the ground with the rest of an affinity group.
     For a while I held it against him anyway.
     This was definitely not the same dude I remember from our days with the Magic Coyote commune. Clearly people can change in twenty five years. In any case, about a year ago he asked to meet. Despite the hand-written invite – probably penned by a sycophantic intern – I didn’t believe that the reason was a sudden urge to reminisce about the good old days.
     That sun-fried afternoon in Santa Fe, when dozens of us were manhandled for demanding an end to bombing and lies – What else is new? – wasn’t the only time I was arrested for a good cause. About two years later it happened again, this time by accident while I visiting a campsite established to “Save the Rose.” There were earlier encounters with the fuzz, of course. All the Magic Coyote communards, myself and Gene Montoya included, were shackled and booked back in the day. It was the thing to do, a social obligation, a mark of honor.
     Saving The Rose had a similar allure. After all, it had been "hijacked" by corporate hacks and “We the People” would do whatever was needed to “take it back.” In other words, by any means necessary. Sartre coined the phrase but Malcolm X made it an article of faith and the Internet turned it into an acronym – BAMN.
      I use "we" somewhat loosely, since I wasn’t a member of the inner circle. But I did visit Ground Zero – a scruffy park near the business office on the outskirts of the capitol – just in time to be rounded up by the cops.
     The tension had been building up for months, and finally reached a boiling point when armed guards tried to arrest Gail Sahara, not yet the media celebrity she became but already popular as host of “Open Forum.” Then she charged on the air that the Board of Directors was scheming to sell the Los Angeles station. Her arrest was stopped by then CEO Carter Larkin (one of my discredited predecessors), yet Gail joined others on a growing list of the “fired and banned.” Within a week, thousands were committing not-so-civil disobedience outside Larkin’s office.
     All this may not seem especially relevant to the untimely demise of Gene Montoya. But it helps to explain the Rose as a born-again democracy, and why I could end up in charge.
     The"revolution" that created the “New Rose” began when the Board of Directors, chaired by former Under-Secretary of Education Rebecca Alice Lemon, voted to change the governing structure. There had been internal fights for years, but this time Board members claimed they were being forced to comply with government rules.
     The problem, claimed Lemon and her allies, was the Community Involvement Panels that “advised” management at the stations. The Corporation for Public Media had allegedly informed Rose executives that the Board would have to sever official ties with the CIPs to remain eligible for public funding. Even though Rose was financed mainly by listeners and underwriters, an increasing proportion of its revenue was being provided by the Feds. Cutting out the CIPs meant a bylaws amendment that would essentially make the Board self-perpetuating. Whether the CIPs ever had any binding control over the stations – and whether the change was actually what the CPM had in mind – are both fair questions.
     The first person to challenge the Board publicly was a producer, Hardy Berman, the professional curmudgeon who urged Gail Sahara to talk about the crisis on her show. Berman, an irascible, astute pro who found a home at the Rose during the sixties, was promptly suspended for violating a so-called "non-disclosure" rule. He later claimed that the trouble began when Larkin refused to renew Capital Bureau Chief Sandra Black’s contract.
     Black was a recent hire and popular with staff. Soon after that Larkin issued a statement intended "to clear the air." But his explanation included harsh words for both Berman and Sahara. The feisty host, probably egged on by the Berman, fired back by reading Larkin’s statement on her show, then proceeding to discuss internal network business. This violated a so-called "no dirty laundry" policy.
     There was a policy for almost any occasion, yet apparently never the right one.
     In her own defense, Sahara said her comments focused on “how concerned I was, as someone who has been with the Rose a long time, about what I considered authoritarian power plays and a wasteful bureaucracy." A few days later Berman was fired for letting her express that opinion. Sahara, an effective fundraiser, was spared but warned to shut up.
     In another version of the same story, Berman wanted to be fired in order to become a martyr and light a match under the activist base, and Larkin didn’t renew Black’s contract because she was too friendly with Sahara and Berman, who felt they could control her and thus the network’s political agenda. Still another version had the Rad Couple, as they were known, embezzling funds and writing themselves checks. Larkin never claimed that happened. But he did say an investigation of spending for “Open Forum” was being pursued. This was more than enough to rile the rumor mill.
     Anyway, a key moment was Berman’s removal – in handcuffs -- from the DC studio after an altercation with Larkin and the security staff. The story goes that Carolina Cruz – about whom more later– had just been selected to replace Black as head of the Capitol Bureau and asked Berman to come over for an orientation. That much was verified. Beyond this it becomes “she said, he said."
     Berman later claimed that Cruz threw her cell phone at him. She charged that Hardy was “belligerent” and "knocked over stuff," then falsely claimed that he had been assaulted. Whatever the truth, Hardy’s supporters were milling around outside the door, heard the ruckus, and were ready to believe him. But their presence also fueled suspicion that a subsequent public shouting match between Berman and Larkin in the hallway, complete with finger poking and enough contact for the alpha males to exchange spittle, may have been staged.
     What’s indisputable is this: Larkin called in security and they dragged Berman out of the building.
     But that was child’s play compared to what came next, As Sandra Black told the story, she had visited the office that same day to pick up her severance check. Although sensing that someone was following her home, she didn’t respect her intuition. When she stopped at a traffic light, a non-descript car – “like one of those unmarked government vehicles,” she told the police – sped past.
     A gunshot smashed through her windshield, missing her by less than a foot.
     The police couldn’t find a suspect, so no one was arrested or charged. Within Rose circles, however, the spin was that the attack was a warning – in response to the story being developed by the network, with Black’s support, about phony terrorist scares designed to gin up paranoia and justify just about anything in the name of national security. For some Roseniks, a government plot is the first and easiest explanation for any unexplained (aka suspicious) occurrence.
     How this relates to my working for the network has several angles. First of all, I knew the stories and, like other believers in the promise of progressive media, I wanted to help save the Rose.
     The Board and management had banned discussion of the crisis on the air. More staff was being fired, and as the protests grew Lemon asked the police to crack down on the demonstrators. With wartime logic in effect, the feds and cops had the tools and were ready to punch. But persistent protests forced the police to investigate the attempted shooting of Sandra Black.
     Over the next weeks, Lemon accused the opposition of violence and racism, the staff union filed unfair labor practices charges, federal mediation was launched, and a cadre of listeners filed a lawsuit demanding repeal of the “self-perpetuation” amendment and removal of the entire Board. Just when everyone thought the tension couldn’t get any worse, a confidential e-mail was circulated. It revealed a secret plan to sell off stations, a charge Sahara had leveled on the air before being threatened with arrest and banishment.
     By then I was on a cross-country road trip to the protest site, which had become a semi-permanent encampment surrounded by riot police and renamed Roseland. Less than two days after I arrived, cops invaded in the dead of night and made hundreds of arrests. I spent hours in a DC holding cell. But the next day Roseland was back in action.
     For me it served as a baptism. You might say I was born again as a part of Rose Nation. From that point on, I felt that I had a direct stake in the outcome of this revolution.
     It was also an effective, especially apropos distraction from grief, since that same weekend was the last time I saw Renny, the love of my life and the bane of my existence. After a bizarre courtship – she was considered an enemy of the state when we first met – we had lived and traveled together, driven each other nuts, and broken up on two continents.
     I am not over her yet.
     Second, I began to investigate questionable “terrorist” incidents, particularly the possibility that some of them might be hoaxes, and that line of inquiry led to “Outsourcing War,” which put our small production company on the map. The movie, which won some festival prizes, reached art houses, and was ultimately sold to Netflix. It exposed and tracked the creeping privatization of war, which has proceeded for decades but escalated sharply in recent times.
     Finally, and perhaps most crucially, I became General Manager and CEO largely because some people never forgave the other leading candidate for her ambiguous role in the network struggle. Carolina Cruz had survived the Rose Revolution – not surprising for someone who overcame an abusive father and death squads in Central America. She remained a muscular gatekeeper in the network. But neither her connections nor award-winning productions were enough to counter the charge that she was a power-hungry predator who could not be trusted.
     As insiders often said, “Welcome to Roseland. Feel the love.”

Next Chapter
Previous Chapter

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Land of the Blind: A Carlo Kostner Mystery

Chapter One
: Almost President :

GENE MONTOYA HAD a way of boiling things down that rang as simplistic. But it had served him well in later years when his main tasks as an elected official were shaking hands, fundraising, and giving speeches. The rhetoric evolved but the skill set stayed the same. Personally, I found life difficult to boil down into stark black and white, us versus them formulations. Existence looked like a huge grey area.
     Now it just looks absurd.
But that wasn’t Gene, who thought and spoke in certainties and absolutes that were reassuring to the many voters who repeatedly elected him. When we first met, for example, he was “totally opposed” to exploitive development plans being concocted by “capitalist pigs” who wanted to turn the area around Taos into a tourist destination. Ten years later, as a state Senator, he was equally certain that environmentalists were “trust fund elitists” who didn't appreciate the need of plain working people for basic services.
      Fifteen years after that, he was sure that Iraq posed a sufficient threat to its Middle East neighbors to justify crippling sanctions and bombing. But that didn’t stop him, when we met in his presidential campaign office, from thanking me for making “Outsourcing War” and calling it a “wake up call for the American people.” I suppressed a laugh when he added, “I especially loved the way you edited it, exposing those congressional hypocrites with their own words.” Instead I accepted the compliment and shared the praise with the crew.
     “You were always too modest,” he replied, pouring a glass of sparkling water I hadn’t requested. “But it’s like I tell the team: you have to package the message in a way people can hear it.”
     “You seem to be doing pretty well.”
     “We are, for a shoestring campaign that people called impossible or fringe six months ago. They told me: Nader couldn’t do it, and Sanders rejected the idea in favor of taking power in the Democratic Party. You can’t have an effective independent candidacy in this country, they said. But let’s talk about you. Rose Broadcasting, I’m impressed.”
      “I'm in shock.” It wasn’t completely candid. My real feelings were more a combination of disorientation and low-grade panic. “It took months to make the deal," I said, "and even when they made an offer, I wasn’t sure I should do it.”
      “Why the hell not? You deserve it.” This was beginning to feel uncomfortable, Gene Montoya acting like a fan, lauding my skill and professing deep admiration. Then again, he was a professional pol, and the best of them have a gift for making every person they encounter feel special, unique, the focus of their attention and sincerity.
      “I always thought you were hiding out in New Mexico,” he claimed. “I love the place, obviously, it’s my roots. But you, you came up in Los Angeles, surrounded by all that glitz and power, the image industry. And still you toss it off and go indie. I mean, didn’t your father work for Reagan?”
      He had obviously ordered up a dossier. Still, it couldn’t have been thorough since he wasn’t clear about my current situation. “So, are you still with what’s her name – the German…”
      “Renny. No, not for a while. As far as I know, she went home several years ago.”
      “Well, you’ve been with so many women, amigo, it’s hard to keep track. The Indian princess, I definitely remember her. Then Faith. You still see her, I assume, you have that great boy…”
     “Billy, yes. He’s doing fine. But you heard that his grandfather died?”
     “I know,” he said, affecting a solemnity that felt almost genuine. “A great man. You should do a film on him.”
     He was right about that. Paul Peterson wasn't only my son’s grandfather but an icon of the peace movement, a man whose dedication and simple living had inspired several generations. A descendant of President John Adams, he had rejected privilege and, after working at the Modern School in New Jersey, went on to found his own educational community, the Vermont Institute for Voluntary Action. Throughout the post-war period, during the sixties, and in the more ambiguous decades that followed, he inspired thousands through his poetry, his work at VIVA, and his exemplary lifestyle.
       “Did you know him?” I asked.
       “We met, toward the end. He visited my office with a delegation about Iraq, before the invasion. You know I didn’t support another war.”
       “Oh? What changed your mind?”
       He bristled but controlled his response. “I never wanted to go in,” he said, “but that madman had to be stopped. Now, I know people felt it was just as bad, maybe worse. But that’s the difference between staying in the opposition and working on the inside. You have to choose between flawed options. Leftists never seem to get that. You know the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
        “There was nothing good about –”
       “I know, I know.” He seemed eager to keep the conversation cordial, to the point of giving ground to keep it heading in the direction he wanted. “We learn as we go. That’s why I wanted to see you. We reviewed your film and I think you’ve hit on something key, something we want to talk more about in the campaign.”
     “Great,” I said, “you should. How about calling for a congressional inquiry, starting with PIA?” I was referring to the huge private military company that was at the center of a new scandal for shooting on unarmed civilians.
     “Exactly. But I need to know I can call on you during the campaign, as an advisor.”
     “Don’t you have people for that? I just started a new job, as you know.”
     He chuckled and reached across the glass table for a friendly slap on the knee. “That’s right, I do have people. Funny, no? We were going to overthrow the system, now it’s us.”
     “Speak for yourself. I still consider myself as part of the opposition. So, what’s all this really about?”
     The question was risky since it suggested suspicion of his sincerity. I didn’t want to be intimidated but there was no way to avoid some insecurity. Not that he was the first presidential candidate I had met. In campaigns past I had interviewed Bush (the father not the son, and definitely on drugs), interrogated Ted Kennedy (as he killed the Carter presidency in 1980), shared a breakfast with Walter Mondale (skin as grey as his rumpled suit), and discussed art with Howard Baker (decent photographer, slightly disoriented). Long before that, when my father served in the GOP establishment, I also had a moment with Big Ron as he was playing California governor.
     No, what put me on edge wasn’t the proximity to power, it was the feeling that, contrary to those encounters, this candidate apparently wanted something from me rather than the reverse. In Reagan’s case, I was mad for a handful of the jelly beans on his desk.
     Gene chose to ignore my tone and used the opening to display his knowledge of the topic that I'd spent several years investigating. “Look,” he said, “we know what they’re involved in – torture, illegal surveillance, worse. Our sources say that half the budget for military operations in the Middle East is currently going to private contractors. But like the film says, it's deeper – abdicating domestic security and military operations around the world to corporations. Private interests running our foreign policy, that’s what I want to put on the front page. And I want your help.”
     “I’m flattered.” It wasn’t a lie. He had done his homework. For the next ten minutes Gene described the current state of affairs – a growing global trade in hired military services that ran the gamut from cooks and maintenance on fighter jets to communications technicians and trainers, from recruiters and generals who provide strategic expertise, to fighter pilots and commandos on the ground, an exploding sector heading toward income of $200 billion a year.
     “Gail Sahara should be looking at this,” he urged. “Hell, it should be on the evening news instead of the latest pop-tart meltdown. We’ve got to make it happen.”
     “Easier said than done. I’ve barely started work, and I doubt whether Gail or the rest of the network is going to take up the issue just because I say so.” That was an evasion. Even if it could be orchestrated, his approach – a candidate and a media executive colluding to spike up the coverage of an issue – was more than merely unethical.  But I knew Gene wouldn't see it that way. He had his sights set on the bad guys and, as always, considered himself on the side of the angels.
       “Then you need to kick some ass,” he pressed. “But sure, you have to find your own way. My point is that we are in a position, finally, where we can make a real difference. I’m not running to hear the sound of my own voice.”
     “I was wondering.”
     He paused, almost not getting it. Like many true believers, Gene suffered from a bad case of irony deficiency. He had that in common with Gail Sahara and many Roseniks. One of the main causes of what I like to call truth decay, this debilitating deficiency develops when a person can’t handle paradox or see the difference between what appears to be and what actually is, in essence when someone can’t process the endless ironies we face. Some say ridicule, irreverence, even blasphemy, can be a cure. But I think it may be more like herpes.  If you have it, the problem can remain dormant for a while. But basically you have it for life and it’s bound to flare up now and then.
     Just as I was becoming uncomfortable Gene came up with a fleeting smile and a barely perceptible nod, a delayed acknowledgement that he did realize the comment was supposed to be funny.
     “No, this isn’t about me,” he said. “The stakes are too high. I’m running on two main issues – a new foreign policy based on cooperation and getting serious about climate change. But we’ve got to break away from the old scripts being forced on the country by the Democrats and Republicans. One side says Government is the problem and we should do nothing about the global environmental crisis. The other side says it's the solution to every problem but downplays the power of corporate pirates to block every avenue of change. People know they’re being offered false choices. But they won’t accept the argument that they are simply victims. They need a new narrative based on hard truths, high aspirations and fresh possibilities, not half-truths, complaints and limits.
     “Look, Carlo.  I know we haven’t always agreed on tactics, or even the nature of the problem.” He was on a roll now. “But here we are, on the edge of an historic moment. This issue – whatever we call it, mercenary armies, privatization, soldiers of fortune – it’s potentially very powerful. But you aren’t going to break through with a documentary, and I can’t make it a top line issue without a push from the media. Corporate outlets aren’t going to help, but maybe you can, and I have to ask. Think about it.”
     As far as Gene was concerned, he'd finished the pitch and the meeting was about over. I could tell because he leaned back, glanced at the door and snuck a peek at his watch. But it was also my chance to sign on with the Montoya Movement, pass and make a graceful exit, or try to keep the discussion going. Whatever I chose it had to be now. Very soon there would be a phone call or a knock to remind him about the next pressing appointment.  
     “Ok, I’ll see what’s possible,” I offered, working out the best way to go as I spoke. “You make a strong case. But you have to understand, these people, the group that brought me in and the staff – most of whom I haven’t met – are very absorbed by their own priorities. It’s a network, but the control has been mostly at the station level, with managers and local Boards. As for Gail, I barely know her and she’s not an employee anymore. She has her own operation, and we have a contract. She has editorial autonomy. So, I’m not sure I can deliver, even if I think it would work.”
     What I wanted to add, but did not, was that Gene was delusional if he thought an independent candidate for president could drive the national debate, even with the complicity of a network that reached a small percent of the voting public and the rest of the industry considered a platform for propaganda.
     Of course, I did turn out to be wrong about Gene’s potential, but not far off about my own inability to break through Roseland provincialism. Over the next year, while I attempted to harness the unruly organization while maintaining a fragile majority on the Board, Gene’s incipient movement became the most effective national challenge to the two-party system in almost a century. Less than two months before Election Day, he was polling above 25 percent and looked like a possible winner in California and a half dozen other states. The press labeled it “Montoya’s Moment.” Had the trend continued, it's very likely that no candidate would have achieved a majority of the electoral vote, thus tossing the decision into Congress.
     Gene had also accomplished what is known inside the beltway as the “full Ginsberg,” named for Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, who first managed the feat in January, 1998. That Sunday morning he was interviewed on five political chat shows and, contrary to Hillary Clinton, whose 2007 “Ginsberg” inadvertently led her to emit a disconcerting belly laugh during several exchanges, Gene delivered a series of pitch perfect performances that would have produced another bump in his numbers.
     But it was not to be. Less than a week later, a few days before I dropped from sight, Gene Montoya was found dead at his home, skin covered with cysts, pustules and dark eruptions, slouched in a lounge chair beside his backyard swimming pool.
     Not the campaign climax either of us envisioned.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Blaming Outsiders: An American Tradition Since 1800

This isn't the first time that the US has faced a potential constitutional crisis or charges that the presidential race was rigged with the aid of a foreign power.

Rumors of conspiracy and war were also rampant at the end of the eighteenth century. The "enemy" then was France. Some warned ominously that Napoleon's troops were moving on Florida and Louisiana. By April 1798 Congress had voted funds to arm merchant ships and fortify the harbors. In May it instructed US warships to capture any French vessel caught in American waters.

Public fears were on the rise and the pressure for action was intense. John Adams' wife Abigail supported a declaration of war and criticized Congress for acting too slowly. But the President and Congress decided instead to focus on enemies at home.

As the summer temperature soared past 90 degrees in Philadelphia, lawmakers went further than even Adams hoped, passing the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams called them emergency wartime measures. After all, there were more than 25,000 French immigrants in the country! And most of them were survivors of the slave uprising in Haiti on the island of Santo Domingo. Obvious security threats, right?

As historian David McCullough notes, there were French newspapers in Philadelphia as well as French schools, booksellers, boardinghouses and restaurants. “The French, it seemed, were everywhere,” he writes, “and who was to measure the threat they posed in the event of war with France?”

The Alien Act was a Trumpian initiative aimed directly at immigrants, increasing the period of residency to qualify for citizenship and giving the President the power to deport any foreigner he considered dangerous. But the more consequential law turned out to be the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to stir people up or write anything critical of the government, Congress, or the President.  Editor Noah Webster backed the idea, declaring it time to stop other newspaper editors from libeling public figures. Even George Washington commented privately that some publications deserved punishment for their attacks. War was the pretext, but a little censorship sounded reasonable to many leaders. We've heard similar calls from Trump.

Officially, the purpose of the Sedition Act was to crack down on illegal actions that tended to cause the disruption or overthrow of the government. Rather than a foreign spy, however, the first target was Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, an opposition editor in Philadelphia arrested for libeling Adams. In daily attacks he had belittled Adams as “President by three votes,” mocking his weight and describing him as a British tool. But Bache was never convicted, instead dying of yellow fever before he could stand trial.

Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was equally high on Adams’ list. After the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, he had demanded a roll call vote to see “who are friends and enemies of the Constitution.” Jefferson agreed, calling the repressive new laws an unconstitutional “reign of terror.” But what triggered President Adams into action was a letter to the editor. Responding to an attack in the Federalist Vermont Journal, Lyon wrote the US should stay out of war with France. The Adams administration, he went on, had forgotten the welfare of the people “in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.”

There was also a comment about Lyon’s foot and the seat of the president’s pants.
That was enough for Adams and his allies. Lyon was placed on trial, in Vermont, in front of a judge who had run against him for Congress, convicted of bringing the President and government into contempt, fined $1,000, sentenced to four months, and marched in chains through the streets of Vergennes to jail. The sentence was imposed in October 1799, just a month before he was up for re-election.

But Adams and the Federalists had made a tactical error. They had targeted a hero, a popular figure who had come to the colonies as an indentured servant, fought the British with Ethan Allen, and married one of Allen’s cousins. As a result Vermont voters defied the President and re-elected him anyway. Despite Lyon’s occasionally extreme behavior the arrest had made him even more popular, an early example of the state’s outspoken, contrarian, and sometimes defiantly independent streak.

The next year, for the only time in US history, the President - John Adams - ran against the Vice President - Thomas Jefferson. Since Matthew Lyon’s trial for sedition, eleven more people had been convicted under Adams' law. But that didn’t stop the Anti-Federalist press from calling him a monarchist, an old man too impressed with the British. Some claimed he was insane.
The attacks on Jefferson were equally harsh, from weakling and French intriguer to libertine and unrepentant atheist who mocked Christian faith. But the criticism of Adams came from both Anti-Federalist republicans, who considered him a warmonger, and Federalists, who said he was too cowardly to confront the French.
The race turned out to be closer than anyone expected. Adams did well enough in New England, but lost in New York, the West and South. The outcome in New York was largely the result of Aaron Burr’s influence in New York City. Counting up electoral votes from the nation’s 16 states, Jefferson had 73 to 65 for Adams and 63 for Charles Pinckney, a Federalist stalwart from South Carolina. But Burr also had 73 votes, which created a tie. That meant the choice went to the House of Representatives.

Burr’s refusal to step aside and clear the way for Jefferson fueled suspicions that he was privately bargaining with the Federalists. Alexander Hamilton distrusted both men but opted for the current Vice President. “Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself,” he charged, “thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement…Jefferson is in my view less dangerous than Burr.”

In the end, the tie-breaking vote was cast by Lyon, the same person whom Adams had targeted with sedition charges. Lyon respected Burr as a New York power broker, but he was philosophically allied with Jefferson. It thus surprised few when he picked the Virginian over Boston’s first citizen to be the next president. Burr became vice president and Adams became a one-term President

In 1801, the former president was still bitter -- and still blaming immigrants. “Is there no pride in American bosoms?" Adams wrote. "Can their hearts endure that (James) Callendar, (William) Duane, (Thomas) Cooper and Lyon should be the most influential men in the country, all foreigners and all degraded characters?” All four had been charged with sedition.

Adams called them “foreign liars." He also charged, a bit oddly at the time, that there were “no Americans in America.” It all sounds too familiar.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Progressive Eclipse: Burlington & Bernie Sanders (Series)

Also appearing in 2VR: Green Mountain Noise

A serialized examination of the most successful
progressive movement in the last half century

In 1989 The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution described the rise of Vermont's progressive movement. But many things changed after Bernie Sanders moved onto the national stage, while new economic and political challenges created pitfalls. Putting Burlington's story in a larger context, this sequel also explores the impacts of the Occupy movement, the struggle to overcome the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and other challenges. But the main focus is Sanders' rise and the hotly contested 2012 mayoral race in which developer Miro Weinberger beat Republican Kurt Wright and Independent Wanda Hines. In a May 4, 2015 interview with Scott Harris on Between the Lines, series author Greg Guma discusses the potential and challenges of Sanders' presidential candidacy.

Progressive Eclipse takes a closer look at why progressives found themselves on the defensive despite a record of success. It also examines the decision by Sanders and Mayor Bob Kiss to invite military contractor Lockheed Martin to Vermont and other problems that emerged after Burlington launched a municipally-owned cable TV and fiber optic system. Revisiting several Progressive administrations, it chronicles the twists and turns that led to Sanders' presidential run and Weinberger's mayoral victory. The Prologue is included below, a complete e-book is available from Amazon, and the following chapters are available online:


“It’s time for a change. Real change.” That was Bernie Sanders’ slogan in his 1981 campaign for Mayor of Burlington.

The race had begun as a long shot but Bernie turned his shoestring operation into a real challenge. Nevertheless, even on March 3, 1981, Vermont Town Meeting Day, the incumbent and the local Democratic “old guard” still expected a decisive victory. After all, Ronald Reagan had been elected President only four months earlier. Sanders was no threat, they assumed, nothing more than an upstart leftist with a gift for attracting media attention.

Bernie wanted open government, he said, and different development priorities. He opposed an upscale Waterfront project and an Interstate access road to downtown.

He supported Rent Control. “Burlington is not for sale,” he declared. “I am extremely concerned about the current trend of urban development. If present trends continue, the City of Burlington will be converted into an area in which only the wealthy and upper-middle class will be able to afford to live.”

The incumbent mayor, Gordon Paquette, was a working class guy from an “inner city” ward who had grown up delivering bread and started his political career in 1958 as a Democratic alderman. By managing a patronage-based coalition known as the Republicrats, he had reached what turned out to be the pinnacle of his power as Burlington mayor from 1971 to 1981.

People called him Gordie, a street-smart political operator who knew how to appeal to Irish and French Canadian residents while meeting the needs of the business community. Comparisons with Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley were not uncommon. But demolition of an ethnic neighborhood near the Waterfront and a “master plan” to replace it with an underground mall, hotel and office complex had made him some enemies.

Cracks in the fa├žade of public calm slowly opened toward the end of the 1970s. Speculation drove up land values and rents, deepening the city’s chronic housing shortage. A restless youth culture emerged. Despite decent commercial growth, revenues couldn’t keep pace with the need for services. And the next steps in the city’s “urban redevelopment” vision would be disruptive – a highway into the center of the city, private waterfront development, and a pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown. The total cost, including public and private funding, was projected at more than $50 million. The local atmosphere was anxious and unsettled.

In January 1981, Paquette was nominated after a caucus fight for a sixth term. In previous races he had sometimes run unopposed. This time he prevailed in the caucus over Richard Bove, owner of the popular local Italian restaurant that bore his name. Afterward, Bove bolted the party to run as an Independent. Since Paquette was still a Republicrat at heart Republican leaders decided not to oppose him and instead banked on his re-election.

His main opponent became Sanders, a former “third party” radical running as an Independent who opposed Paquette’s proposed 10 percent increase in property taxes and promised to work for tax reform. He had never before run for local office, or even attended an entire City Council meeting. The recently formed Citizens Party, which had backed environmentalist Barry Commoner in the 1980 presidential election, ran three candidates for the Council, also known as the Board of Aldermen. The incumbents generally attempted to ignore their opponents, assuming that these electoral activists had no chance of upsetting the status quo.

But Bernie was hard to ignore, and local leaders of both major parties underestimated the growing influence of neighborhood groups, housing and anti-redevelopment activists, young people, the elderly, and the city’s countercultural newcomers. They also shrugged off the possibility that some of Paquette’s past supporters might want to send him a message.

By the time Sanders and the mayor finally faced each other over a folding table at the Unitarian Church tempers were hot. Bernie exploited rising local anger by linking the mayor with Antonio Pomerleau, the white-haired godfather of Vermont shopping center development. Pomerleau was leading in efforts to turn Burlington’s largely vacant waterfront into a site for commercial and condominium development.

“I’m not with the big money men,” Paquette protested. Frustrated and desperate to counter-attack, he warned that if Sanders became mayor Burlington would become like Brooklyn.  He looked honestly shocked when people hissed at him.

On March 3, with a few thousand dollars, a handful of volunteers and a vague reform agenda, Bernie Sanders won the race for mayor by just ten votes. Burlington had elected a “radical,” a self-described socialist who was determined to change the course of Vermont history. A Citizens Party candidate for the City Council, Terry Bouricius, meanwhile became the first member of the party elected anywhere in the country. In an odd twist, Bouricius won in Ward Two, the same place that had given Paquette his first term on the City Council 23 years earlier.

Prior to Sanders and the Progressives, Burlington had become a cultural backwater run by an aging generation, unresponsive to the changing needs of the community. If you attended a council meeting the first question often was, “How long have you lived here?” Political competition was the exception. Clannish Democrats and compliant Republicans made the rules.

The next three decades proved just how much the political establishment underestimated Sanders’ appeal, not to mention the potential for a progressive movement in the city and across the state. By 2011, the Queen City was known nationally for its radical mystique and “livability,” transformed from a provincial town into a cultural Mecca, socially conscious and highly charged. Over the years Burlington’s progressives not only consolidated a base in local government, they challenged the accepted relationship between communities and the state, and helped fuel a statewide progressive surge. They also weathered the storms of succession struggle.

Three progressive mayors managed Burlington for 29 of the 31 years after Sanders’ first win. Although Democrats continued to dominate the City Council during most of that time, and a Republican candidate for mayor could still win, a multi-party political system had changed the shape and style of city government, and, beyond that, fundamentally altered Vermont’s political landscape. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Lost Radio Horizons: Before the Fall on Planet Pacifica

 Talking to Pacifica, 2006
It should have been a dream come true. But I couldn't stop worrying. Smiling nervously at the crowd, hundreds of radio producers, hosts and tech people gathered at the Portland Hilton for the annual meeting of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, I beat back anxiety and began to speak.

"It's good to be with media makers who don't believe that climate change is just a rumor," I told them, "who don't think immigrants coming to the US for a better life should be turned into criminals, and who didn't need over three years to figure out that the administration manipulated public opinion and distorted reality to go to war in the Middle East." 

It was sincere. But also a good way to break the ice with a radical audience ten years ago. Looking back, things don't seem to have changed that much. Denial, resentment and lies are still politics as usual. 

Six months before that I'd been home in Vermont, co-editing a statewide weekly newspaper, writing articles and working with correspondents from around the world. If someone had predicted that I would move to Berkeley and run a radio network, I would have checked their pupils. Friends don't let friends drive crazy.

For a long time I had been working in the world of progressive politics and independent media, writing and editing, developing documentaries, attending protests and organizing conferences, getting arrested for good causes, and taking part in assorted campaigns. In Burlington, Vermont's largest city, I'd edited newspapers and magazines, and helped win a non-violent political revolution that put Bernie Sanders and other progressives in charge for three decades. In Vermont and New Mexico I led social justice groups. In Burlington and Santa Monica I ran bookstores. Basically, I was an organizer, manager and communicator, and, on a good day, a change agent. Reinforcing the image, I'd even named one of the book businesses Maverick.

Yet none of that prepared me for Pacifica, a multi-million dollar left-wing media network with hundreds of union employees, a thousand volunteers - demanding to be called "unpaid staff," a labyrinthine democratic governance structure, and a storied history of rough internal struggles. I had been Executive Director for three months, and was delivering my first talk to an audience beyond the Pacifica community.  

"Although I've been a journalist," I explained over the luncheon clatter, "I also have come to believe that words aren't always enough. That's why I went to the border between Nicaragua and Honduras with other members of Witness for Peace during the Contra war, why I committed civil disobedience in front of the gates at a GE armaments factory, ran for local office as a progressive insurgent, and spoke out publicly against the Iraq war and attacks on fundamental rights..."

At first they were more enthusiastic about the meal being provided by the network than anything I had to say.

"What have I learned along the way?" I asked the room. "That corporate media's handling of the news has become increasingly unreliable over the years. In fact, mainstream journalists find it difficult, if not dangerous, to cover stories that do not fit neatly into what is known as the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, corporations have developed sophisticated strategies to promote the stories they want to see, and prevent others from being aired or published. The result is perception management, a highly effective form of social engineering."

That is precisely why alternative sources are important, despite their battling factions, difficult personalities and frustrating structures, I said then. And I still believe it. "Small, accessible and affordable technologies can help people to challenge the knowledge monopoly of elites. And radio is one of the most accessible vehicles for alternative viewpoints. It's intimate, production can be inexpensive, and can reach people through hundreds of outlets around the country and sometimes the world. And at community-run stations there is certainly more diversity and programmatic pluralism than almost anywhere else in media."

People were starting to pay attention. But what they wanted to hear most was my vision for the country's original listener-sponsored radio network. I had been working on that since my first days on the job. In a nutshell, I explained, my agenda was to get more local voices on the air, to revitalize the network's moribund national programming, to maximize its human and overstretched technical resources, to honor and expand its diversity, and to encourage people to work together with more mutual respect. 

As modest as this may sound, it would have been as reasonable to promise peace in the Middle East. But I didn't know that yet. And thus I proceeded to read excerpts from the statement developed more than a half century earlier by Pacifica founder Lew Hill. They were noble ideas - to be an outlet for the creative skills and energy of the community, to promote the full distribution of public information, to provide access to and use of sources of news not brought together in the same medium. With each, I offered examples of how the idea could be applied in the early years of a new century.

But there was something even more important to say, something I wanted to share and very much hoped was true. "Pacifica has finally emerged from its extended internal crisis," I said. "And maybe it is ready to stop making war on itself." At this point the room exploded with cheers and applause. I had struck a chord, appealing to the desperate hope shared by almost everyone there that the battles and negativity of the past decade were over.

From that point onward, they heard most of the plan. In particular, a three point agenda - programming, organizing, and peace. "By programming I mean locally-generated, mission-driven national programming," I said. "By organizing I mean better internal organization to make full use of resources and talent. And by peace I mean a process of reconciliation. It's time to bury the hatchets and move on." More applause. 

But how did it go? Not as well as I hoped. For the next two years, attempts at management reorganization ran up against protests about local autonomy and suspicions that there might be another national power grab. We made some improvements in collaborative national programming, but there remained a core demand that each station control its own airwaves. Thus, no changes could be made without a long, thorough and, some would argue, seemingly interminable process of consultation with many stakeholders. As Pacificans often ruefully mused, democracy is messy. 

Technological investment was delayed or deferred by a tendency to create budgets from the bottom up, an approach that left issues of concern to the national organization for last, and made reductions in spending on network-wide needs the easiest solution whenever money was tight. Meanwhile, coordinated marketing was virtually impossible in an organization where no one really spoke for the organization without fear of being blindsided. I never saw much consensus about image, except perhaps to be a passionate cheerleader for every good cause that came along.

Pacifica was also grappling with several long-term issues: Difficulty adapting to fundamental changes in audio distribution, declining listenership and the erosion of Pacifica’s traditional revenue source, and, after several cycles with a new experimental structure, the need to make some serious adjustments. But declining audience and listener loyalty could only be addressed by looking hard at programming, and this was linked to questions and confusion about Pacifica’s mission and organizational structure.

Things went from bad to worse over the next decade. As network historian Matthew Lasar noted, in 2015 a report from the Pacifica National Finance Committee’s chair "put the network’s operating deficit at $2.17 million, with liabilities leading assets by over $4 million. Much of this money is owed to Democracy Now!" Beyond that, Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding was being delayed due to problematic accounting, and the organization struggled to recover from a divisive public confrontation. In 2014 a fired executive director and her supporters had barricaded themselves in the Pacifica national office until the board ultimately dislodged them with a temporary restraining order. Afterward, conspiracy theories flourished as California’s attorney general conducted an audit.

But those problems came later. In 2006, Pacifica was in relatively good shape, financially and organizationally, and it was time to wind up my remarks to the broadcasters in Portland. 

"There's more to the mission," I began, "and much more to say. But for now, please consider this: The tasks facing independent media in the months and years ahead are crucial. With the administration in free fall and the Right in disarray, it's time to seize the moment. The question is how. My suggestion is that we work together, set aside our minor differences and squabbles - we can get back to them later - and project responsible advocacy, real news and informed opinion. While doing that, however, we should also celebrate our differences rather than allow them to divide us; after all, isn't respect for diversity one of the things that distinguishes us from the forces that have used fear of those who are different to undermine freedom? 

"Our job, as I see it, is to bring a sharp critique and a progressive vision to millions of radio listeners, to wake up the airwaves and shake up the world. It is an opportunity we should not miss, and a responsibility we cannot afford to ignore."

Looking back, this was probably a high point of my time on Planet Pacifica. I'd given voice to a vision that resonated with many of its stakeholders. For weeks afterward, staff and Board members and people who worked at affiliate stations, whether they were in the ballroom or read the speech, said they'd been inspired. Six months later, at Pacifica's Annual Meeting, I was able to report more progress, as well as the highest revenues in network history.
But those remarks also expressed a misreading of the situation. Or perhaps just lingering faith in an elusive dream, rapidly vanishing over the horizon. After all, no speeches - no matter how popular or persuasive they seem, and not even the best of intentions are enough to change ingrained economic and political realities or a divided culture that has taken root over generations. Democracy also doesn't guarantee success, civility or harmony. It's a lesson I've seen demonstrated more than once, from New York and Burlington to Albuquerque and Berkeley.

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