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The Ordeal of Summer Reese

Chaos at Pacifica

by ANN GARRISON

The Pacifica Radio Network, which includes the metropolitan stations KPFA-Berkeley, KPFK-Los Angeles, KPFT-Houston, WBAI-NYC, and WPFW-Washington D.C., is in turmoil again.  No surprise to anyone who’s been through all the years of crises, coups, sieges, and station takeovers.  As a Pacifica KPFA and WBAI reporter, who has also participated in the network’s democratic media experiment, silly as it often seems to outsiders, I think the best reporting so far has been Hillel Aron’s Left-Wing Darling Pacifica Radio Is Sliding Into the Abyss in the LA Weekly, because it includes historical notes that remind us why Pacifica matters.  The network’s heyday  was during the Vietnam War, which it opposed long before Walter Cronkite or any mainstream outlets. It also  broadcast the first reports of a U.S. correspondent on the ground in Hanoi and broadcast the Senate Foreign Relations hearings gavel to gavel.

After the war, during the the 1970s, Hillel wrote, the rise of National Public Radio (NPR)  cost Pacifica much of its listenership.  NPR was founded in 1970, five years before the end of the 18-year Vietnam War, with $256 million from the federal government.  I’ve been told that NPR was created to counter Pacifica’s message, but whatever its founders’ intention, it most certainly serves that purpose with regard to US wars and militarism.

Some NPR affiliates now carry Democracy Now, but NPR’s own reporting on foreign affairs is far more right wing than the Voice of America’s, which now resembles that of Reuters or the AP, and is produced by many of the same stringers.  If you don’t believe me, compare the NPR and Voice of America websites and/or their coverage on any particular foreign affairs story.  Or try listening to the Voice of America’s weekly Straight Talk Africa, an international broadcast hosted by Ugandan American journalist Shaka Ssali, then see if you can find anything like that on NPR.

During UN Ambassador Samantha Power’s recent trip to the Central African Republic, NPR reporters traveled with her, recording and writing down everything she said, with emphasis on her invocations of “Rwanda,” meaning the U.S.obligation to intervene militarily, to “stop the next Rwanda,” without mentioning that the history of what the U.S. actually did in Rwanda, between 1990 and 1994, is fiercely disputed by ICTR defense lawyers, writers, academics, and former UN Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, who said that “the Rwandan genocide was 100 percent American responsibility.”  Upon Power’s return, an NPR host asked her whether she gets discouraged in her crusade to rid the world of war crimes and mass atrocities.

Irony is a casualty of empire, and NPR is empire’s outlet.

And, one of the most evident divides within Pacifica now is between those who want it to be more like NPR, and those, including myself, who think there has to be an alternative to NPR, even if we support much of the local programming at NPR affiliate stations.

“Confidential” personnel matters

So what is Pacifica’s latest “crisis, “coup,” “siege” or “occupation,” depending on your point of view, all about?  “Confidential” personnel matters, as usual.  Hiring and firing, or more politely put, “termination.”  This time a one vote majority of the Pacifica National Board (PNB) attempted to fire the network’s top executive, Pacifica Radio Foundation Executive Director Summer Reese, near midnight at the end of a conference call, with no discussion allowed.  Members of the Local Station Boards, staff, and listener communities also complain that there was no advance notice to anyone on the national board or in the wider community.

Since Monday, March 17th, the offices of the Pacifica Foundation at 1925 Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley have been the site of a round-the-clock vigil, complete with air mattresses and sleeping bags, in support of Summer Reese, who has vowed to remain, holding her ground in the foundation’s executive offices, despite PNB members repeated demands that she leave.  Reese says that the Pacifica National Board attempted to illegally terminate her three-year contract, without regard to either the termination clause or the process stipulated in the contract.

Reese and her staff also allege that other stations, including KPFA, have so often failed to reconcile their books and submit requisite reports to the Foundation, and so resisted examination of the books by Foundation staff, that she has begun to suspect malfeasance and asked the California Attorney General to intervene.

Also in dispute is the election of KPFA Local Station Board Member Margy Wilkinson as Chair the Pacifica National Board, which gave her the power to set the agenda and preside over the conference call meeting,  Wilkinson’s election is reported to have resulted from a ranked choice vote, with only two candidates competing, in which a fifth place vote for Wilkinson was counted to decide a tie.  Reese says that the fifth place vote was a joke about Wilkinson being “a fifth column,” but we don’t really know because the Board member who marked Wilkinson fifth after marking  one other candidate first has not stepped up to own the vote or the joke.

Those of us on the outside can only ask why was the Board holding a ranked choice vote with only two Board members vying to become the Chair?

I know nothing firsthand about the allegedly unreconciled books, the suspected malfeasance, or the curious ranked choice vote for a PNB Chair, but I do have some relevant firsthand knowledge, as a KPFA and WBAI news and public affairs producer who has also participated in the attempt to create a democratic Pacifica, no matter how seriously silly it often seems to outsiders.  I hang in there not only because there has to be an alternative to NPR, but also because Democracy Now can’t cover or research everything in depth.  And, because, despite Amy Goodman’s huge achievement, Democracy Now still needs the reporting that filters up from its roots, the Pacifica Network, along with the feedback she receives from her NPR audience.

When news of the current stand-off began to leak out, I at first threw up my hands, saying that Pacifica’s internal war will never end.  However, now that I’ve learned a bit more, it seems like it might be an important step towards solving one of the network’s most basic management problems:  establishing and respecting policy and procedure for hiring, terminating, or laying off paid staff, including the requisite involvement of a Human Resources (HR) professional.  If an HR pro, perhaps even a labor lawyer, were consulted every time the network hires, terminates, or lays anyone off, then the sieges, sit-ins, and court actions would hopefully end and the cost to the network would be far less in the long run.

Dull stuff I know, policy and procedure, even written policy and procedure, HR and legal consultations, but Pacifica needs some of that dull stuff to end its internal drama and soaring legal expenses.  The network’s internal wars are dull stuff to most listeners, who are weary of hearing about it on the airwaves, where it competes with the news of aerial bombing wars, holocausts, climate catastrophe, extreme concentration of wealth, and the music and art we all need to chill.  Isn’t Pacifica supposed to be bringing us the most incisive reporting, the deepest thoughts, and the best strategies about all this?

Last year I spent several hours talking to the Pacifica Network’s insurance investigator and provided documentation regarding a KPFA hiring committee that I sat on which made its decision in ignorance of California law, in ignorance of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) labor contract, and in ignorance of Pacifica policy regarding affirmative action. In so doing, it left the station with a still unsettled, potentially large legal liability.

I”m no HR pro, nor was anyone else on the committee, so it’s not so surprising that none of us realized this until after the decision had been made, and I’m not reporting this to blame anyone else on the committee; it’s just clear that we needed the help of established, written procedures, and the help of an HR pro at any point of uncertainty..  As soon as I realized that we’d made these mistake, I warned the former General Manager, who could have simply asked the committee to reconvene and reconsider the decision, with the correct information about California law, the CWA contract, and Pacifica policy.

Would the decision have been different? Quite possibly, quite possibly not, but we’ll never know, because the previous General Manager didn’t instruct us to revisit the last stage of the process, which we could have done by convening for just a few hours, in a single afternoon.

Instead he got verbally abusive with me, refused to deal with the errors, and therefore created the liability that still lingers.  He is no longer KPFA’s GM, for whatever reason, and I do not know that reason because I’m not privy to the investigator’s report.  That report is a confidential Pacifica personnel matter.  But I do know that this kind of heartache could be avoided with established, written hiring and termination policies and procedure, including a requisite consultation with an HR pro every time Pacifica hires or terminates paid staff.   And again, the cost of the HR help, or of having a full time HR pro on the Foundation staff, would be far less than the network’s legal costs and its consequently high insurance costs for legal liability.

Someone is likely to say that I have violated the hiring committee’s confidentiality agreement, which was an agreement that “what’s said in this room stays in this room,” without further definition, but I interpreted that to mean that none of us would repeat anything any member of the hiring committee had said about anyone in the pool of candidates, which included eight members of the KPFA staff and listener community, so as to protect all our working relationships with one another.

And I am quite sure that confidentiality agreements are not license to break the law with impunity.

I’m still trying to understand how the Pacifica National Board’s attempt to terminate Executive Director Summer Reese came down.  I assume we’ll learn once we’re able to read whatever legal pleadings are filed and whatever ruling is handed down, because this is no doubt going to court.  I could be wrong, but right now it looks to me like carelessness similar to that I just described, because the PNB doesn’t seem to have respected the termination clause in Reese’s contract, or the process requirement, which obliged them to warn her in writing that they were dissatisfied with some aspect of her performance. Nor, it seems, did the Chair of the Pacifica National Board even allow discussion of a matter as critical as terminating the Executive Director.   I say it seems that no discussion was allowed, because that is what has been reported to me, but if a judge were to summon the recording of the conference call, that could of course be proven wrong.

Executive Director Summer Reese has said that she will go to court to keep her job because she believes in the Pacifica Network, instead of suing the Foundation for some hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance that she may have a better chance of both winning and finding a lawyer to represent her on a contingency basis. I can’t swear that she won’t sue for severance if she does indeed lose the job, but that’s her stand right now.

This will have to be settled in court because Summer Reese is holding her ground, with supporters, in the Pacifica Foundation building next door to KPFA, with a signed three-year contract in hand, and no one’s going to call the police without a court order.  If anyone did, the police would be unable to make a legal determination as to who’s in charge and possession is 9/10ths of the law. Meaning, in this case, possession of Pacifica’s executive offices, files, phones and other communications tools, not ownership of the building, which belongs to the Pacifica Foundation.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist who contributes to the San Francisco Bay View, Global Research, and the Black Star News, and produces radio for KPFA-Berkeley and WBAI-New York City.