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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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Dissent on Film: de Antonio's Art and the FBI

The FBI tracked the activities of Emile de Antonio for 50 years. They watched, assembled files and sometimes even intervened directly in his life as he evolved from radical student into even more radical filmmaker. He wasn't the only person they followed, by a mile. But for many of those years, de Antonio also watched -- and spoke out effectively against J. Edgar Hoover and his Bureau.

In 1963 his first film, Point of Order, exposed the hypocrisy of the McCarthy era and launched a new media form, political documentary filmmaking without a narrative track. From then on, de Antonio, known simply as de to his friends, was an articulate opponent of repression and the establishment. Holding his camera eye up to reality, he translated some of the more disquieting political events of the late 20th Century into powerful indictments.

For artists and activists, de Antonio films like Rush to Judgement, In the Year of the Pig, Millhouse, Underground, and In the King of Prussia, are models of visual art as social critique and protest. His last film, Mr. Hoover and I, took his critical awareness yet another step, combining the story of his own "relationship" with the FBI and his critique of the film industry. 

Basically, he ended up being a filmmaker who didn't particularly like movies. "I go about once a year," he admitted with some pride.

During a visit with him in September 1989, only a few months before his death at age 70, de Antonio dismissed most movies as "industrial products. They're not art, because they lack the ideas of one person or one small group of people that you usually find when art is made."

Turning movies into a money-making business had debased the form, he felt. "Some people make art, but most of them make films as business products just like shoes." Disdaining the rationalization of the market and dominance of movie chains, he had concluded that "the logical thing is to make a film as cheaply as possible, a film that is hostile to every assumption about filmmaking."

Thus, Mr. Hoover and I had no written script. Instead the filmmaker, who was also the main actor and one of the primary subjects, made a list of topics, things like his personal knowledge of Harvard, the military, suppression of films and the life of Hoover. He would paste a word or phrase to his light stand, turn on the camera, and just talk. "It wasn't as if I was reading off a teleprompter. I'd just look and see the word and that would get me going," he recalled. "I'm not sure that I have much camera presence, but by hearing myself do a take, I'd do it over again and eventually manage to get it OK."

Aside from the director, the only cast is his wife Nancy, who gives him a haircut as he recalls the past, and John Cage, who talks about chance and indeterminacy while baking bread. The sequences are intercut with monologues and old Nixon and Hoover footage.

Stripped of technical effects, the film provides no distractions from the matter at hand -- how de Antonio's life, the FBI and Hoover intersected over the years. The project began with the idea of basing a film on FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Once he had thousands of pages, however, he was overwhelmed. The files went back to 1936, when he was only 16 years old. 

"And I've never regarded myself as a dangerous person," he joked, "except when I worked for the United States government."
Dangerous or not, de Antonio was marked early for special FBI attention, possibly due to his membership in the Young Communist League, John Reed Society, and American Student Union, a less radical version of SDS. More shocking, in his last year at Harvard, the files revealed, he was slated for "custodial detention," archaic code for a World War II internment camp.

"No one ever explored what that really meant," he said, "how many people were involved, and who was involved. I have to think it was a very big number, because I was a college boy when this was going on. My crimes were not very substantial."

Even after de Antonio enlisted for combat duty in the Air Force, the Bureau tracked him during  the war. And they "got really serious" afterward when he started making films. His documentary on the Weather Underground attracted special ire. "For five year, they had been searching out the Weather Underground people and were unable to find them," he said. "So, it was kind of weird that two middle-aged guys, Haskell Wexler and I, could go underground and spend a few days with the Weather people. That obviously made the FBI look ridiculous."

In response, the Bureau tailed him, broke into his house, and took him to court, all apparently in hopes of tracking down the urban guerrillas. In previous cases where the government targeted someone in the film industry, it eventually won. From blacklisting to jail, the chill was invariably effective. But this time stars like Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine and Martin Sheen supported his right to freedom of expression and signed a widely circulated statement. De Antonio also had a strong legal case. But in the end, he thought, "the thing that won it was publicity. That's what this country is about."

However it happened, the government lost that time.
But it wasn't the only time the FBI and Hoover took aim at him. Bookings for his film on President Nixon, Millhouse: A White Comedy, were allegedly cancelled after FBI agents told theater owners that Nixon would have to be given equal time. "Equal time was never applied to film," he explained, "but more importantly, Nixon was the president of the United States. He was on the tube every day!"

The only film of his that they didn't try to suppress, he believed, was a documentary on painters, which grew out of his early work as an art teacher and his friendships with leading contemporary artists. Among them was Andy Warhol, who called de Antonio "the only art teacher I ever had."

"A characteristic Warhol statement," he laughed. "Some of it wasn't true, of course. He had a perfectly respectable art education at Carnegie Tech, but I did teach him something about painting."

"Incidentally," he added, shifting back to his main topic, "Warhol had an extraordinary FBI file. He made this film, Lonesome Cowboys, which was about these gay cowboys that were patting each other's asses and kissing each other. The FBI went crazy. They thought this was a denigration of a major American art form, the macho cowboy." 

Despite his own harassment, de Antonio could see the bigger picture. He understood that control of culture and information is more subtle and thorough than agents disrupting films they consider subversive. "Television has already done it to America," he said grimly, "and in a much wider area than politics. It has totally brainwashed people."

Yet he could also see some hopeful signs, even before the birth of the digital age. For example, upper middle class people, who could afford to buy access to premium channels, were already beginning to turn off the old TV channels. "The networks are biting their nails because the people who really buy things, the larger ticket items of capitalism, don't really look at TV anymore. They look at presidential debates, they look at the news. They look at the tube. But not the networks."

Another positive sign was the interest in televised government proceedings on CSPAN. Due to his own special interest in President George H.W. Bush, he had recently been binge-watching hearings chaired by Senator John Kerry that examined drug links to the Iran-Contra scandal. "Everything you need to know to blow away Bush is in those hearings," he had concluded. But at the same time he doubted that anything would come of the evidence. The major news media were already backing off the story. 

Yet that didn't stop him. In a book on Bush that remained unpublished, he delved into the significance of the president's college membership in Skull and Bones. Both Bush and his father, Prescott, were in the private society. Among other credentials he found significant, Prescott Bush chaired Brown Brothers Harriman, then the most influential private banking company in the world.

"Private banks are like Skull and Bones, very secretive," he said. "The very essence of a private bank is secrecy." Following social and historical threads, his research also led to the face of another Skull and Bones member -- also name Brown, and from the same private firm -- a face that appeared in 1905 on the currency of Nicaragua. Putting an American's picture on Nicaragua's money was part of a loan deal between Brown Brothers and the government. Delayed by a lawsuit and still unpublished when he died, de Antonio described the book as "a view of Bush that most people haven't seen."  
One of his conclusions about the former president: "He was in the CIA long before he became director of it. The most important thing Bush did, prior to becoming vice president, was in the Ford years. The CIA was crumbling and he spent one year there, and the idea was to clean it up, make it fly straight and get rid of certain elements that were a threat to it. He was very effective."

He was less impressed, and even more suspicious, about Bush's handling of drug problems. "In 1982, Reagan appointed Bush head of the south of the border drug task force. His assistant was Admiral Murphy, who had been his assistant in the CIA. Bush did nothing, he said nothing. In fact, the importation of drugs grew by over 300 percent in the few years he was head of the task force. And he was close to Noriega at this time. Bush was in intelligence, and Noriega was an asset for the CIA before Bush ran for president."

Swinging between pessimism and optimism, he worried that the future of free expression was in serious jeopardy. Yet he was hopeful that developments like CSPAN, cable and the home video market would give people access to the ideas and information they need to make more informed choices.

"Is television improvable?" I wondered.

"Not the networks," he said.

But cable companies are owned by the same interests, I pressed. "Why should they be any different?"

"There is only the hope, the possibility," he replied. "Take CSPAN, which doesn't take a position. Its position is to report the whole thing. It's as objective as you can be. Anything it does is as it plays. The analogy in science is the best: there is no objectivity anywhere. Heisenberg's conclusion was that when you measure the atom you change it. Looking at it changes it."

At first intuitively, De Antonio seemed to have applied Heisenberg's principle to film, producing, directing and, in the end, starring in documentaries that both observed America's political underbelly and contributed to the process of change. 

Point of Order brilliantly encapsulated the hysteria of anti-Communisim. Two decades later, In the King of Prussia illuminated the conflict between religious witness against nuclear weapons and an inflexible legal system. In both cases his observations -- without comment -- were powerful enough to change hearts and minds. And, in the end, his own surveillance of government misdeeds proved more effective than anything the FBI ever did to him.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

FBI Follies: Exploiting the Census (What's a Spot Check?)

Sometimes it takes only one document – and some good timing – to shake things up. In early 1980 it turned out to be an FBI report about the surveillance of a nurse practitioner named Jed Lowy. Like many people, Lowy just happened to be in the “wrong place” at the wrong time. In his case, that place was a so-called Vermont “commune” that the bureau considered a gathering spot for alleged “extremists.” The difference was that Lowy obtained his FBI file via the Freedom of Information Act and then shared it.
One entry in the file revealed that the bureau was trying to identify the driver of a Blue 1970 Volkswagen, which had “previously been observed at New Left locations in Vermont.” The Albany FBI office contacted its Newark, New Jersey counterpart and discovered that the car belonged to a 53-year-old man, Lowy’s father. A search was initiated to see who might be driving it.
The article I wrote for the Vanguard Press, published on April 4, 1980, charged the bureau with misusing the US Census. The country was just days from beginning another one. The evidence was a document that said the following: “A (deleted) to (deleted) the (deleted) of a spot check for the 1970 census resulted in a (deleted) with the (deleted) from whom the following was obtained.”
Not much to go on. But in a letter to Lowy the Bureau explained that the deleted portions referred to other people whose privacy rights were being protected and the investigative techniques that had been used. Once they had Lowy’s name, they had zeroed in on him through the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles and continued investigating for another six months. Despite the absence of any evidence they kept at it because of an alleged association with the Fresh Ground Coffee House, “a known contact point for extremist(sic) and associated with the Red Mountain Green Commune.”
When I contacted the FBI, an agent in Washington, DC office issued the standard denial: “The FBI does not utilize census information. Period.” Once I read portions of the memo, however, he decided to get back to me. In a follow up call, the new line was that he wasn’t “at liberty to discuss documents that the FBI has.” He didn’t repeat the denial. We had struck a nerve.
The story created an immediate sensation, shooting across the country within hours. Vermont’s congressional delegation said the repercussions could be serious and promised to investigate. By the weekend, our scoop was a national sensation and Lowy was being interviewed on the CBS Evening News. A week after the initial story, the FBI acknowledged that, although census information hadn’t been used, an agent had indeed posed as a census worker.
The technique, a bureau spokesman told the New York Times, was known as “pretext interviews,” in which agents assume false identities. But he added that new FBI guidelines said agents shouldn’t pose as representatives of other Federal agencies without the consent of that agency. That, of course, raised the question of what the Census Bureau actually knew. Unfortunately, the investigation never went that far.
Instead, the FBI released a less deleted version of the memo. What it revealed was that a “pretext call” – the first deleted phrase – to the Lowy home had “resulted in a conversation with the maid…” In other words, an FBI agent had posed as a census worker to find out more about a 30-year-old health worker who had merely visited a “commune.” FBI Director William Webster protested that the technique was legal – but added that all field offices had been told not to do it.
Attorney General Ben Civiletti was a more candid. In a letter to US Senator Patrick Leahy, he said the FBI knew “it is wrong for an FBI agent to pose as a representative of the Bureau of the Census for any reason,” and had so informed its special agents. Webster subsequently put the revised policy on paper: the pretext of being a census worker shouldn’t be used, or even requested.
What we never learned was whether it was an isolated occurrence or a standard procedure. But a small crack had been made in the covert iceberg. An alternative newspaper had ignored the Washington consensus to challenge the intelligence community. It wouldn't be the last time.

Related Story: Total Exposure - The End of Privacy 

"The largest problem may not be conventional surveillance -- a bugging device installed with a warrant, or a cop with a camera -- but rather the indiscriminate use of video and other tools, along with the implications for manipulation of human behavior. People who know they are, or may be, watched end up acting differently. Through a combination of design and commercial accident, businesses are grafting surveillance to Skinnerian theory to create a powerful new form of conditioning."

Related Story: Crimes of the Surveillance State - A Victim's Story

"The ultimate test for any drug, device or technique, argued the report, was “application to unwitting subjects in normal life settings. It was noted earlier that the capabilities of MKULTRA substances to produce disabling or discrediting effects or to increase the effectiveness of interrogation of hostile subjects cannot be established solely through testing on volunteer populations.”

Related Story: Secrets R US - From the NSA to Outsourcing

"How often, and to what effect, covert operations have succeeded is another of the mysteries that comprise an unwritten history of the last half century. Beyond that, systems like Echelon violate the human right to individual privacy, and give those who control the information the ability to act with impunity, sometimes destroying lives and negating the popular will in the process."