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Pacifica’s Crackdown: An Inside Account

by Kellia Ramares

Pacifica finally took over on July 13th.

I was a reporter for KPFA Evening News that night. In fact, I was waiting in the news control room, ready to go into the studio to read my copy on the Pacifica story when Dennis Bernstein came in, pursued by Lynn Chadwick’s carpetbagging “special assistant,” Garland Ganter, and three “goons with guns,” as some of us call them. Here is what happened:

1) Media Alliance, a Bay Area media advocacy and education group, received an email purporting to be from Micheal Palmer, a Houston realtor and Pacfica National board member, reporting to Dr. Mary Frances Berry, the Pacifica National Chair about his discussions with a radio broker over how much KPFA would be worth, and also suggesting the sale of WBAI in NYC. I received a copy of the press release from Mark Mericle, co-director of KPFA News. Here are some excerpts.

“Hello Dr. Berry,

I salute your fortitude in scheduling a news conference opportunity in the beloved Bay Area regarding one of the most pressing issues of our time………… [NB: The press conference was originally “invitation-only” and certain journalists were originally excluded because they were not on the list. This included the San Jose Mercury News. San Jose is the largest city in the Bay Area. Dr. Berry opened the conference to everyone upon her arrival at the conference site.–Kellia].

But seriously, I was under the impression there was support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit and re-programming immediately. Has that changed? Is there concensus among the national staff that any other than that is acceptable/bearable?

As an update for you and Lynn [Chadwick, Executive Director of Pacifica and the person who fired Nicole Sawaya, Larry Bensky, and Robbie Osman and imposed the gag order–Kellia] I spoke with the only radio broker I know last week…This is the best radio market in history and while public companies might see a dilutive effect from a sale (due to the approximate 12 month repositioning effort needed), they would still be aggressive for such a signal. Private media companies would be the most agressive in terms of price, which he things could me in the $65-75m range depending on various other aspects of a deal….Even with this data my feeling is that a more beneficial disposition would be of the New York signal [WBAI – Kellia] as there is a smaller subscriber base without the long and emotional history as the Bay Area. [F]ar more associated value, a similarly dysfunctional staff though far less effective and an overall better opportunity to redefine Pacifica going forward. It is simply the more strategic asset.

….The Executive Committe, at a minimum, should have access to experts (whether from Wall Street, NPR/CPB, Microsoft or otherwise) to get a strong reality check (me included) about radio and Pacfica’s position in it so that informed decisions can be made. My feeling is that we are experiencing a slow financial death which is having the normal emotional outbursts commensurate with such a disease….”

Reports of our financial death have been greatly exaggerated. KPFA recently finished a record breaking fund drive. Our goal was $400,000. We raised $605,000 and 6 out of 7 pledged “under protest,” which meant they were supporting the demands of the staff for the return of Sawaya and Bensky, repeal of all disciplinary action against other staffers, and mediation of the underlying dispute.

2) Media Alliance called a press conference for 1:30 PM outside the Alameda County Municipal courthouse in Berkeley just two blocks from KPFA. Scheduled speakers included Andrea Buffa, executive director of Media Alliance, Dan Siegel, an Oakland attorney about to file suit against the Pacifica National Board on behalf of the Pacifica Foundation and 18 local board members from several of the Pacifica network stations, and Robbie Osman, fired KPFA programmer. At 2:00pm, 13 of the 14 demonstrators arrested three weeks ago for staging a peaceful civil disobedience in front of the Pacifica National offices, which are next door to KPFA, were scheduled to be arraigned.

You should know that the arrests made in connection with that action were entirely peaceful and not made until Lynn Chadwick made citizen’s arrests on each of the demonstrators. The police required this of her because the police did not see any crimes being committed and the demonstrators were on private property. Later, Mary Frances Berry, who is chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights and Chair of Pacifica’s national board, called the Justice Department(the original report from Justice was that she called Janet Reno herself, but later they backpedalled on that) and Justice got the No. 3 guy, Joe Brann, who personally knows the Berkeley police chief, Dash Butler to call “friend to friend” to inquire about the police handling of the matter. Joe Brann is the one in charge of giving out money to localities so that they can put more cops on the street. (One wishes that Justice would spend more time on the LAPD and the New York Street Crimes Unit and stop wasting time with civilized police conduct).

3) At 11:30 am, news director Mark Mericle assigned me to cover the press conference and the arraignment for the Evening News..

4) At 1:15, Lynn Chadwick, with one hour’s notice, held a meeting with senior editorial staff, including Mark Mericle and Dennis Bernstein, co-host/producer of Flashpoints, the investigative news show that airs during the hour preceeding the evening news. I heard from participants at that meeting that Chadwick introduced Garland Ganter, of sister station KPFT in Houston, and Mark Torres, from sister station KPFK in LA. Chadwick said that Ganter would be her “Special Assistant” and that Torres would be assisting Ganter. She also re-introduced the gag rule, now in an even sterner form. (It was under Ganter than KPFT was stripped of its local news and public affairs programming as well as all its foreign language programming. This in a city that is, among other things, one-third Latino.)

Here is the “toothy” portion of Chadwick’s memo:

” In the event that we continue to experience the type of problems we previously have, Pacifica is committed to enforcing its policies and my previous directives prohibiting on ar or in-the-media disucssion of matters pertaining to Pacifica or KPFA management decisions or any internal or external grievances or personnel or labor relations-type matters involving KPFA or Pacifica. [Definitely sounds like she got a lawyer’s input on the language–Kellia]. This direction [sic] applies to all KPFA or Pacifica personnel, including employees and volunteers alike, is without exception and also applies to all news broadcasts and programming. Any violation of this direction [sic] will be dealt with as a serious act of insubordination as well as a violation of an important Pacifica policy and will result in disciplinary action, including immediate termination. We hope that those of you who have previously engaged in inappropriate conduct will understand the nature of this final warning and will comply with it….”

However, aware that there would be a press conference that afternoon, Dennis Bernstein asked if it would be permissible to cover Pacifica if mainstream media was on the same story. According to Bernstein, Ganter indicated that this would be permissible.

5) At about 1:20, I left for the press conference in the company of Leslie Kean, co produced/host of Flashpoints. We each covered the press conference, entered the courtroom and witnessed the arraignment and interviewed the attorney for the demonstrators and some of the demonstrators themselves. I returned to the news room at about 3 and Leslie followed soon thereafter. Contrary to public comments by Elan Fabbri, spokesperson for Pacifica, Dennis Bernstein was NOT at the press conference. Fired KPFA programmer Robbie Osman was there, but Dennis was not. If Elan cannot tell the difference between Osman’s voice and Bernstein’s, that just goes to show you how out of touch with the staff Pacifica management is.

At the press conference, Andrea Buffa of Media Alliance noted that MA had contacted its Internet Service Provider to trace the source of the email. To the ISP’s knowledge, it came from Palmer’s email account. Buffa called for Palmer or Berry to confirm or deny the authenticity of the email.

6) At approximately 3:30pm Mark Mericle presented me with the Chadwick memo quoted above, for my information. He said nothing to encourage or discourage me from proceeding with the story. I elected to proceed with my story despite the threat of termination. (I had joined the News Department as an intern on March 2nd.)

7). Flashpoints began airing at 5:00pm with 40 mins on a recent “Unity” convention of minority journalists held in Seattle. (The next day, Elan Fabbri would be quoted in local newspapers as claiming that Bernstein had spent his entire hour’s show complaining about Pacifica. She later admitted that she had only heard 10 mins of the show.) Then Leslie Kean, NOT Dennis Bernstein, introduced a 14 minute cut of the press conference, stating that the listeners would hear three speakers. She noted that this press conference was also covered by commercial press. She later said that she made this announcement because Ganter said it would be permissible to cover Pacifica stories covered by the mainstream press. (The SF Examiner and several other reporters from print journals, someone with a video camera, and I was told, KQED radio, the NPR outlet in the Bay Area). There was no commentary, just the clip of the conference. After that two short statements in support of the staff at KPFA were aired, one by Mumia Abu Jamal, the other by Skoop Nisker.

8) At about 5:30 pm, Mark Mericle received a phone call from Dr. Berry authenticating the Palmer email, denying that the station was for sale and claiming that Palmer was “an idiot on the question.” A summary of that phone called, including her reference to Palmer, which Mericle got specific permission to use–I heard him ask–was inserted into my copy on the Pacifica story and would have been read had the Evening News been broadcast as usual.

9) At 6:00 pm, Flashpoints ended normally and the Evening News began normally. Mark Mericle was anchoring for the moment and began reading headlines. My story was scheduled to run second, after a story on the Senate vote on the patients’ bill fo rights. Just as the news cast began, Ganter summoned Dennis Bernstein into “his” office and informed Dennis that he was being placed on indefinite administrative leave, effective immediately and that he was to leave the building. Dennis made his way to the news control room followed by Ganter (a beefy man taller than Dennis) and three of the armed guards from the firm Pacifica had hired, a firm that specialized in “hostile terminations.” Please note that Pacifica’s mission is to promote peace and social justice. The staff of KPFA regards the bringing of weapons into the station as an obscenity.

There was a bit of pushing and shoving at the entrance to the control room. I witnessed this because I was geting ready to enter the studio to voice my copy on the press conference/arraignment. Dennis got into the control room and Aileen Alfandary, the news co director and co anchor that evening, tried to get Dennnis into the studio with Mark. They were prevented by the armed guards. Dennis, in vehement, but nonviolent verbal terms, refused to leave and asked if the guards were armed (they were silent) and would they hurt him if he refused to leave. He kept identifying himself as a reporter who had just broadcast a public press conference. On three occasions, Dennis was backed by the guards into the tape recorder that was running Mark’s story on the patient’s bill of rights, three times Mark left the studio to restart the tape, then he gave up. He directed the engineer to put on the control room mike. Then he got back into the studio and did running commentary over the guards’ confrontation with Dennis. After about 4 minutes, Ganter and Torres took over a downstairs production room–KPFA operations director,Jim Bennett, told me this–and knocked the news cast off the air. After a few minutes of dead air, they replaced it with, of all things, tapes of Marxist-Maoist analysis of capitalism. My story on the press conference/arraignment was never aired.

10) Fairly soon the demonstrators started arriving. Dennis stayed on the floor of the news control room. Various other people on staff, including Wendell Harper, our main Evening News reporter, taped the goins on. Leslie Kean got some of it on video. During the course of the night we contacted and fielded calls from various media. Berkeley City council people and the city manager arrived. More demonstrators arrived, more police, this time in riot helmets arrived. Arrests were made downstairs in the lobby and outside. Some people tried to block the police vans by laying down in from of them, etc.

11) At about 11:35pm, after being ordered by Ganter to leave, and warned that any paid staff arrested would be immediately terminated, Berkeley police peaceably arrested News Directors Mark Mericle and Aileen Alfandary, Flashpoints coproducers Dennis Bernstein and Leslie Kean, Robbie Osman, me, and three KPFA listener/supporters. We were handcuffed and taken in the black mariah to Berkeley police station three blocks away, where we were booked on misdemeanor trespass, cited and released.

The management called the rest of the staff, said that they were being put on paid administrative leave and the station has been broadcasting archival tapes ever since. Ironically, they are tapes of people such as Angela Davis, Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Parenti, who are on our side and ever critical of type of corporatist conduct Pacfica is now engaged in. [NB 7/27: Several days later, the Pacifica Radio Archive indicated that it would no longer supply tapes, because several interviewees had called to object to being being used as scabs by having the tapes of their interviews used this way.–Kellia]

So there you have it. A Foundation which holds an FCC license as a public trust, which has a mission dedicating it to peace and social justice, and giving voice to the voiceless, and which is headed by an African American law professor who currently chairs the US Commission on Civil Rights, has imposed censorship, backed by armed guards, and taken over the oldest listener-supported radio station in the nation. Again, I must emphasize that contrary to earlier reports in some media, Dennis Bernstein’s show was not pulled off the air, it was the Evening News that was pulled. And Dennis was not forceably dragged from the studio. In a great triumph for those who believe in the power of nonviolent action, he faced down 4 men taller and heavier than he, three of whom were probably armed. His courage enabled himself and other journalists in the newsroom that night to continue to function as journalists, to get this frightening story of corporatist (and possibly government) censorship out to the world.

I have recently read the statute under which we in the newsroom were arrested. It is part of the California Penal Code governing trespass for refusal to leave when asked. The statute specifically states, ” … this subdivision shall not aply to persons on the premises who are engaging in activities protected by the California or United States Constitutions…” We were there as journalists. They don’t have a case.

 

Kellia Ramares Kellia@pacbell.net

For more information see http://www.savepacifica.net

To scope out the security force Pacifica has hired (using listener donations, perhaps?) check out their website at http://www.ipsaintl.com

Dennis Bernstein’s web site is http://www.flashpoints.net

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