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October 4, 2002
Pacifica Caves in to Smear Campaign
by ROBERT BUZZANCO
On April 17, a program titled "Jewish Voices" [JV] aired on KPFT, a Pacifica radio station in Houston, Texas. Just a few months into Pacifica's "renaissance" after a California court victory had apparently returned the network into progressive, and thus safe, hands, KPFT had aired many shows that were absent in previous years. I myself had been on several times in the first months of 2002, interviewing Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Phyllis Bennis, Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez, Ed Herman, and Dan Coughlin (the Executive Director of Pacifica), to name a few. Before that, for two years I had been the co-host of "Progressive Forum," a weekly show hosted by Wally James and dedicated to covering world affairs and local politics.
But the JV show was something quite different. Just moments after it began, it became apparent that this show was pressing an aggressive Zionist message. The guests included an official from the local Israeli consulate, a Rabbi, and the executive director of the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee, Donna de la Paz. The show was being produced by Stan Merriman, an operator in KPFT politics and a local activist in the Democratic Party. In the course of this program, it became clear that the hosts were strident apologists for the Sharon government [an MP3 recording of the show is available at http://www.acksisofevil.org, at section C, 2]. The worst part, however, was their treatment of callers. They cut off people trying to disagree with them and would not allow opposing viewpoints to be heard. I can't think of anything more antithetical to the Pacifica mission than censoring callers who challenged the type of Zionist propaganda that was being aired on that show.
I had my own program scheduled to air afterwards, beginning at noon. I would be interviewing Vartkes Saatdjian, an official from the Venezuelan consulate, who would be talking about the recently-failed coup against Hugo Chavez. At around 11:50 or so, I went into the studio to prepare for my program. With me were Mr. Saatdjian and Jay Galik, who would be running the board that day. Also present were Steve Brightwell, the KPFT engineer, Janice Blue and Jac Battise, both of whom have shows on KPFT, Scott Parkin, a local activist who just happened to stop by to pick up camera from me, and Jeff Wittig, a local attorney who was with Scott. In addition to those seven was Greg Geiselman, a member of the KPFT Local Advisory Board [LAB] and someone with whom I have had several conflicts regarding the mission of KPFT. While I, and many many others in Houston, believe that KPFT should be a "voice for the voiceless," Geiselman and Merriman and a few others accuse KPFT of being "pro-Palestinian," they attack the Middle East coverage of Dennis Bernstein and others, and they want equal credence given to the Zionist position.
With my show slated to begin at noon, I became concerned that the JV show was running over. It was about 11:55 or so and they were still taking calls, and cutting off the callers. I began to express my concern about the time of the show and Geiselman confronted me, telling me I was being rude to KPFT's "guests." The JV hosts were still in the studio at this time, now almost noon, and Geiselman and I began to shout at each other, with me telling him that apologists for the terror regime of Ariel Sharon were hardly "guests." Finally, Brightwell intervened, and from a microphone in the engineering room cut in and said that the show was over. It was past noon by now. I was in a hurry to get on the air, so I grabbed Mr. Saatdjian and gave him instructions [sit to my right and put on the headphones . . .] and then talked to Jay Galik about our introductory music [The Clash's "Washington Bullets"] and I instructed him to play a station identification to buy a few more seconds. Saatdjian and I went into the studio and after the song ended I said "Welcome to KPFT. This is Bob Buzzanco on 'Open Journal.' That was the Clash singing 'Washington Bullets' which is an appropriate song because today Washington's bullets are helping to kill women and children, doctors and ministers, clergy in Palestine. You're listening to KPFT?the voice of the dispossessed and voiceless. The past hour you may have thought you were listening to Fox as we had on apologists for the terrorist state of Israel. We're reverting to regular Pacifica programming right now."
And then the firestorm hit!
Even before my program ended, Geiselman, Merriman and other local Zionists were beginning a campaign of slander and smears that continues to this day. While I was doing my interviews they went to the station manager, Duane Bradley, and complained about my on-air comments, claiming that I was trying to speak for KPFT with my final comment about "regular Pacifica programming." But, according to eyewitness Janice Blue, that was their only complaint. Later, however, they came back and related another charge to Bradley, one they had not mentioned at any point earlier. I had, they claimed, used an racial epithet against the JV hosts as they left the studio. According to Donna de la Paz, I "hissed" at her the slur "You Jews" as she walked out. In over two decades as an activist and scholar, with an extensive record of publishing and public speaking, I have not used racial or ethnic slurs, and anyone who knows me is aware of that. Moreover, as an American radical, it would be ignorant to attacks Jews given their historical role in radical politics, from Emma Goldman through Sidney Hillman, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and up to Amy Goodman today. The allegations were preposterous.
The clear truth is that I was focused on my guest and my board operator and was paying no attention whatsoever to the JV hosts as they left the studio. I said nothing to de la Paz, and I could not pick her out of a lineup. No one else on the JV show heard anything. And there were the seven witnesses mentioned above besides myself who have testified that I said nothing. However, after the fact, Geiselman, with whom I'd been arguing, claimed that he heard me say this. Geiselman, however, claims that I followed the JV hosts into the lobby and yelled it at de la Paz, whereas de la Paz herself claims I said it as I passed the JV group going into the studio. So, one would think, having seven eyewitnesses testifying that I said nothing, while there were two people, with different agendas and conflicting stories, charging that I used a slur would be overwhelming proof that this allegation was false, and the whole episode should have ended there.
But, because of the persistence of the Zionist slanderers and the craven approach of KPFT and Pacifica's national leadership, a long-term smear campaign had just begun.
Within hours, Merriman, Geiselman, and other Zionists, particularly Edwin Johnston and Dan Jones, political rivals and well-known disruptive elements in the KPFT community, had placed messages on every internet message board relating to Pacifica [and some that weren't even directly Pacifica-oriented] from New York to Los Angeles claiming that I had used a racial slur and that I was anti-semitic [a good chronicle of the whole episode and supporting documents can be found at http://www.acksisofevil.org].
As a professor and radical activist, I take my reputation very seriously, and I believe that anti-semitism is a serious offense. But using contrived allegations of anti-semitism to attack a political enemy is just as wrong, and it is slanderous. I expected, naively in retrospect, that Pacifica would never allow this to continue. How wrong I was. In addition to the participation of KPFT producers and LAB members, the KPFT management did nothing. Bradley, the GM, took the position that "the best thing to do is to do nothing." When I talked to him just days after the show and controversy erupted [ironically I had left town on Thursday to go to Washington D.C., where I was a co-anchor of Pacifica's national coverage of the late April peace demonstrations, and didn't return until the following Monday] he said he was not inclined to deal with this matter. "If I issue a public statement clearing your name," he told me, "I'll get a ton of complaints from the Jewish community and I don't want to deal with that." The day after the JV show aired, Jac Battise went to Bradley and told him that she was a witness to the event and confirmed that I said nothing and she said she would be glad to publicly state what she knew. Bradley, however, never asked her to contribute her story nor told anyone about her exculpatory evidence.
All Bradley had to do at that point was issue a simple statement saying that these allegations were clearly not true, and that Pacifica would never condone nor be party to a smear campaign against its programmers. Bradley, once again, did nothing, and the smears continued.
And so the controversy deepened. That next Wednesday, April 24th, there was a scheduled LAB meeting. I did not attend. At that meeting, a member of the Pacifica National Board [PNB] from Houston, George Barnstone, who had been appointed by the previous GM Garland Gantner, requested that the LAB vote to remove me from the air because of my alleged anti-semitism. After consultation with others there, he changed his proposal to have me investigated. Barnstone, an ACLU attorney and Pacifica officer, got the LAB to agree with him and they, in my absence, voted to hold a McCarthyite inquisition of me.
And, once more, Bradley did nothing. At this point, I began to contact the national leadership. I'd known Dan Coughlin a bit so I called him up and explained the situation. While I was used to being attacked for my views [one has to be thick-skinned being a radical in Texas] I told him that allegations of racism went over the edge of acceptable political debate and I expected a different response from Pacifica, which prided itself on being an independent and alternative voice. Moreover, I stressed to Coughlin, this was an in-house hit job, with LAB and PNB members the heart of this smear campaign, and Bradley was doing nothing about the continued assault on my reputation. I had been silent thus far, I told Coughlin, because I didn't want Pacifica to have bad publicity, but I would not fall on a sword for Bradley or anyone else. My reputation, I made clear to Bradley and Coughlin, was not to be used as currency for their own craven approach. Coughlin promised me that he would call Bradley the next day [we spoke on a Sunday night] and have him issue an apology and exoneration to me. It never happened.
With the smears thus continuing, Pacifica caving in, and a hostile environment at KPFT, I saw no reason to stay on the air, and at that point resigned as a programmer. As I saw it, this was more of a strike or boycott against a network that rhetorically claimed to speak for the dispossessed and stand up to the power structure, but had in fact been terribly complicit in the ongoing Zionist slanders against me. The issue, as I saw it then and now, was not so much that I was the object of a slander campaign, but that Pacifica had a moral and legal obligation to challenge it, not just for me but for any programmer. I think we all know that Pacifica would not have been silent had this happened to Amy Goodman, but apparently a programmer in Houston is fair game.
Within the Pacifica community, there was one official willing to stand up for principle and attack this Zionist smear campaign. Carol Spooner, the PNB National Secretary and one of the "saviors" of the network through her suits in the California courts, publicly called on Bradley, Coughlin and Cagan to end Pacfica's involvement in this sordid episode. Most importantly, she pointed out that if Pacifica officers would not even stand up to a poorly-managed and absurd smear campaign in Houston, it would stand no chance when the Justice Department or FBI told them to tone it down. Meanwhile, the "investigation" by Barnstone took place. Barnstone interviewed De la Paz, Geiselman, Merriman, and two other people from the JV show. He did not interview any of the seven exculpatory witnesses. Only Janice Blue's testimony was taken, and that was because she pursued Barnstone and forced him to include it. He made no attempt to talk to the others who would have exposed the slander and the smears.
Fortunately for me, a couple of KPFT activists, Curt "Scooter" Schroell and Hep Ingham, actually looked into the affair, interviewed all the eyewitnesses, collected the documents and issued a report which overwhelmingly proved that I did not utter an racial slur and also revealed the nature of the smear campaign, available at the <www.acksisofevil.org> website (the name is a spoof on political rivals who referred to me as the head of the local "axis of evil"). Once Barnstone's bogus report was done, I asked Bradley for a copy of it. He ignored my email messages and phone requests for the report. Then, on May 24, another LAB meeting was held. At the outset of the meeting, the LAB's parliamentarian, Ted Weisgal, proposed that the "investigation" of me be rescinded because Barnstone, as an ex oficio LAB member only, had no standing to make the motion for it. The LAB agreed and repealed the investigation. That did not end this situation or the smears, though. Even though the LAB conceded it had no standing to investigate me, Geiselman and an ally of his, George Reiter, a KPFT programmer and Green Party candidate for office, who considers himself a Jewish peace activist but supported this Zionist smear campaign, voted against cancelling the investigation. When I asked for time to speak and respond to these charges, a PNB member from Houston, Theresa Allen, voted that I not be allowed to talk. When I finally spoke I was interrupted by Charles Smith, a new member of the PNB, and the LAB Chair, Deb Shafto, and others tried to rebut me and cut me off during my talk.
Duane Bradley also spoke publicly for the first time, and, as expected, took the easy way out. He could not determine who was right or wrong he said, despite seven eyewitnesses and two contradictory stories by the people making the charges, and he apologized to De la Paz and the Jewish community of Houston.
All this occurred while the Director of the Pacifica Board, Leslie Cagan, was present. I had spoken with Cagan the night before and she assured me that Pacifica was aware that these Zionist smears against me were part of a larger pattern and had included Dennis Bernstein and Amy Goodman as targets. Yet, after the meeting, Cagan told Janice Blue, who had made an impassioned speech on my behalf, that she believed de la Paz heard someone sneeze "achoo" and thought it was "You Jew." Blue simply pointed out to her how offensive and preposterous her statement was. Bradley piled on then. Though the LAB had rescinded the investigation and he had rejected previous requests from me for the report, he now placed the report, which had been declared moot by the LAB but which perpetuated the smears against me, on the front page of the local Independent Media Center website.
Throughout all this, the venomous smears against me continued on every internet site relevant to Pacifica. Bradley, Coughlin and Cagan continued to sit idly by, caving in to a Zionist smear campaign and allowing a programmer to be slandered because they did not want to act. In fact, Coughlin later told Ingham that he would not intervene in the Houston situation and offer an apology and exoneration to me because "the Zionists will jump down my throat."
Meanwhile others began to be smeared. Local programmers like Janice Blue, Jac Battise, and Ken Freeland were smeared by the same group that had come after me. Bradley never once defended any of them. National figures also become objects of the attack. In early July, Ed Herman, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn sent a letter supporting me to Bradley and another to Coughlin and Cagan. Bradley not only did not respond to the letter from these three longtime activists, but passed this email along to Geiselman, a key member of the smear team, who then either showed it or described it to Edwin Johnston and Dan Jones, who began to publicly attack the three authors of the note. Moreover, they publicly claimed that Chomsky and Zinn had renounced their letter and apologized for it. This, of course, never happened but that did not stop the slanderers from continuing to attack Herman and the others and from making absolutely false claims about retractions and apologies. Although Herman, Chomsky and Zinn had all played significant roles in the fight to gain back Pacifica, Bradley, Coughlin and Cagan never commented or tried to stop these public attacks against them.
Facing this continued onslaught, I sought legal help. David Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston, where I am a history professor, took on my case. We sent a letter to Bradley demanding an apology and exoneration. Pacifica has responded with dodges and stalling.
First, a "mediator" from New York, Janet McEneaney, came to Houston, where she met with my attorney and me and asked us to submit to arbitration, though she conceded that the charges against me were lies. But Pacifica did not even follow through with that offer.
Now, Pacifica wants to send an "investigator" to Houston to review the case. Given the fact that this event has been played out publicly for over five months and there is a complete record available, this investigation is simply another attempt to cover-up, dodge and stall.
So far, Pacifica has caved in to a Zionist smear campaign, has spent untold amounts of listeners' money to defend slanderers and smear artists like Geiselman and Barnstone, refuses to defend programmers, and even denies due process and ignores the presumption of innocence.
The lesson in Houston is that false charges of anti-semitism used against radical voices work! I have no desire to participate in KPFT, while those individuals at the heart of the smear campaign continue to program shows, serve on the LAB and PNB and constitute Bradley's inner circle. Programmers at KPFT are still under assault, charged falseley with anti-semitism, and Bradley will not defend them.
Many of us in Houston were active in the long struggle to win back Pacifica and were thrilled in January when, it appeared, we had prevailed. But just months later, it became clear that the "new Pacifica" could be as craven and conservative as the old network.
When this all began, I believed, naively as it turns out, that Pacifica would never be a party to this kind of race-baiting campaign to smear a programmer. I was obviously wrong. The real tragedy is, as Carol Spooner pointed out, that Pacifica's acquiescence in this case sets an ominous precedent, and the network will hardly be able to mount a defense in the future when John Ashcroft comes after its programming.
Robert Buzzanco is associate professor of history at the University of Houston and author of Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era and Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life. He can be reached at email@example.com
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