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The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting

Brian Hull

As the night of November 13 fell on Kabul, so did missiles, some of which destroyed the offices of Al-Jazeera TV, a network considered to be the "CNN of the Arab world." CBS reports that the U.S. forces that bombed Al-Jazeera's offices had no idea they were located there and thought that the building was instead an office for the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. On November 14 the radio program Democracy Now, hosted by Amy Goodman, interviewed Al-Jazeera's managing editor in Kabul who assured Goodman that the U.S. government knew exactly where their office was. In fact, he said, they had requested and received its location from him numerous times.

So who actually is closer to the truth, CBS or Democracy Now? The answer to that question has serious implications about U.S. commitment to freedom of the press beyond its own borders. And it is precisely questions like these that radio journalist, writer, and activist David Barsamian is committed to bringing to the light of day. His weekly radio show Alternative Radio thrives on giving the public access to perspectives and information that receive little or no attention in the mainstream media. The hour-long program, founded and directed by Barsamian in 1986, is broadcast locally in Fort Collins on Wednesdays from 6-7 p.m. on 89.1 FM KGNU. The program is also broadcast internationally on more than 125 public radio stations (consult for a complete program listing). It features such dissident luminaries as Noam Chomsky, who, without Barsamian's forum, would rarely be heard on Colorado's airwaves.

Barsamian is also the national producer of Making Contact, another weekly radio program. Though impressive enough by themselves, his endeavors in public radio do not sum up the multi-faceted Barsamian. He is a public speaker of notable repute, and he is also the author of numerous books co-written with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Middle East scholars Eqbal Ahmad and Edward Said. His books cover a huge range of vital issues, including, how the media shapes public opinion, and how the Middle East and the Arab world are often framed in a limited and distorted context. Quite sure that the conversation would be a engaging and timely one, it was with much pleasure that I interviewed Barsamian on November 8 in a bustling Boulder, Colorado coffee shop.

Clamor: We heard that this week you are releasing a book called The Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting?

David Barsamian: Yes, it's a new book published by South End Press. It describes the increasing commercialization of what was supposed to have been a non-commercial TV and radio network in the U.S. These commercials incidentally are called euphemistically 'underwriting announcements' but they're straight-out commercials. You hear them on National Public Radio as well as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). And along with the commercialization has been a sharp shift to the right in terms of the content of the programs. Most of the censorship that occurs at NPR and PBS is one of omission not commission. Stories are left out. Voices are completely occluded from participating in debate. So, for example, you never hear Michel Parenti, or Angela Davis, or Howard Zinn; people that I feature on Alternative Radio on a regular basis.

What do you think has changed in PBS and NPR's policy to make them more commercialized? Is it because there was a lack of government funding for public broadcasting?

The funding structure for NPR/PBS has always been problematic. There's never really been a commitment to have a well-funded, secure public radio and TV system in the United States. It was deliberately designed to keep it dependent on Congress for funds. So, like any other entity, TV and radio would have to go to Congress and essentially plead its case for funding. Now it's different in this case because these are media. Media are politically powerful and influential and so Congress has exacted a price for their monies. And that is more coverage of what they're doing and less coverage of what people are doing, what grassroots organizations are doing, what NGO's are doing, what ordinary citizens are doing around the country.

Has Congress told them that explicitly?

It's a remarkable system that we have in the United States, because the system of censorship is very subtle. In a dictatorship like Iraq it's not at all opaque as to what's happening. It's quite clear to the citizenry that the news is controlled by the state. Here it's quite different. The news is controlled by a handful of corporations, who work very closely with their kindred brethren in the state.

Being someone like yourself who's so aware of the efficacy of the mainstream press in disseminating their version of world events, do you ever feel frustrated or overwhelmed or that what you're trying to do is like treading water?

I don't feel that way at all. I get tremendous feedback from listeners all over the country who call, write and send me emails, and say Alternative Radio is their electronic umbilical cord. They depend on it. It's the most important program that they listen to on the radio and that they get perspectives and ideas that they don't find anywhere else. And the comments I appreciate the most are the people who say "you know I may not necessarily agree 100 percent with what Alternative Radio is producing but I certainly learned a lot and appreciate it being there." And I think that's really important because for a democracy to flourish we need a wide spectrum of opinion. We need an informed citizenry that has a range of views to select from, from A to Z. And what we have today is a range of views from A to B. From GE to GM. So there isn't a lot of diversity and it's interesting that people like Jefferson and Madison, the founding fathers, even at that time, this was 220 years ago, long before media monopolies, recognized how important diverse information was for the vibrancy of a democracy.

So they were advocates of freedom of information?

They favored a wide range of opinion. In theory we all could be media workers. There's nothing stopping you from starting a newspaper or a magazine or a TV network or a radio station except millions of dollars. So market constraints inhibit the ability for people to create their own media. So there's the censorship of the marketplace. And if you do programs or if you try and do something that essentially swims against the tide in a commercial system you won't get commercial support because the people who buy advertising savor the status quo. They don't want to make waves. They want stability. Stability is a code word for no change, because change is considered dangerous. The political system that we have in the US is a plutocracy, it's a 'cashocracy', its $1/one vote. We have two business parties, with slight differences between the two, Republocrats or Demopublicans. So there isn't a lot of choice. And when it comes to corporate controlled media there's even less choice. There's very little difference between Time and Newsweek and US News and World Report. There's very little difference between ABC, NBC, and CBS and CNN and Fox. Although, I must say CNN and Fox have now moved so far to the right they're tipping over the scale. CNN and Fox are competing between the 'extreme right' and the 'far right'. They are extremely jingoistic, chauvinistic, and militaristic.

What are your views on the causes of the war?

In the commercial media it's been pretty much a monochromatic, one-note samba. "They hate us. Islam breeds hatred. Muslims are fanatics." And you see that straight across the board. There's no discussion of reasons for September 11 and to provide reasons is not to exculpate or excuse or apologize for criminal terrorist acts, it's to provide information. One interesting thing is what we know about the suicide bombers. There were 19 guys, 15 of whom were from Saudi Arabia, the "number one" US ally in the Middle East, and they were middle class people. One guy was in his 40's. Most of them were fairly well educated. That doesn't fit the classic profile of a suicide bomber.

Which is what? Brainwashed?

No, who's usually some teenager in Gaza who has no family, who has no work, who's never been to school, who's illiterate. That's the classic kind of suicide bomber. I think if Americans started to examine why terrorism occurs generally and why this specific act occurred that it would make them feel very uncomfortable. Because it would require Americans to look at certain issues that they're largely shielded from. For example, the United States is the imperial hegemon. It rules the world. It's called a 'superpower'. But we could use a more graphic term: it's an 'imperialist state', and we all benefit from U.S. imperialism-you, I, the people who are reading this article. Americans constitute 4 percent of the world's population and we consume about 40 percent of the world's resources. Just think about that. What effect does that have? The mechanism that allows that to happen is force. It's military might. It's a system of alliances that the U.S. has around the world. So when you have 4 percent of the world consuming about 40 percent of the world's resources you already have a tremendous structure of inequality and globalization, the 'new face of capitalism' has accelerated the gap between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots. That has created a tremendous amount of resentment and antipathy toward the haves, that's us, from the have-nots.

There are three other factors that motivated the September 11 attacks, and other attacks. One is unconditional US support for Israel. For 35 years now Israel has been occupying Palestinian land. It's been colonizing that land. It has over 150 settlements; I should call them colonies, not settlements, because that's a euphemism. 150 colonies with 400,000 colonists that have essentially taken land from the Palestinians and have siphoned off the aquifer (the water supply). If you go to see these colonies it's quite striking. I've been there a couple of times. On this side of the street, let's say, you have swimming pools and green lawns and very nicely constructed homes. People would like to live in that kind of atmosphere. And across the street people are living in ramshackle, run down housing with corrugated roofs, and in some case with open sewers, with dirt roads, with no infrastructure, with very limited running water. And that's made possible how? By U.S. support, $5 billion a year and full diplomatic and military support. Israel uses Apache helicopter gun ships that are made in the United States and that are given to Israel under the military aid packages. It uses F-16 fighter jets to bomb Palestinians. All of these things are seen in the Arab world, narrowly, and in the Islamic world generally, as very unfair and unjust and they would like to see the United States be more even-handed in its treatment of the Palestinians.

Two other issues that I should mention are the ongoing U.S. support for sanctions against Iraq, which is now in its 11th year and the ongoing bombing campaign of Iraq. Iraq is bombed on a regular basis. It barely makes the news anymore. The sanctions, which the U.S. enforces, have resulted in the deaths of one million Iraqis. A half a million of these are children under the age of 5. When Madeleine Albright was asked if she thought that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five was a high price to pay, she said "it was worth it." So the death of half a million Iraqi kids under the age of five according to Madeleine Albright is worth the price. Now that is seen in the Arab world and in the larger Islamic world and as an act of terrorism. And why is the U.S. insisting on a course of action that has failed? Saddam Hussein is still in power. He's as strong as ever. He drinks champagne and eats caviar every night. He and his henchman around him have enriched themselves under the sanctions regime because they control the black market.

The other factor at work here that has created a lot of antipathy towards the United States is support for dictatorial regimes in Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia. These are not even countries in the sense that we understand countries. These are family run businesses. You know how the Walton's run Wal-Mart? That's how the Saud family runs Saudi Arabia. And they franchise different aspects of the state government and economy to different family members. There are about 700 princes that run Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is run by the Sabah family. Why isn't the U.S. supporting democracies? People see a double standard. They see US support for a democracy movement in China but they don't see it in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Why not? Those are important questions to ask. They see U.S. support for some UN resolutions but not for others. Why isn't the U.S. supporting UN security resolutions 242 and 339, calling for complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza? It voted for those resolutions.

Getting back to Afghanistan, I remember Colin Powell said in May that there was a humanitarian crisis looming.

It's interesting that you should mention May because that was about the time that the United States gave $43 million to the Taliban as a reward for their reducing the cultivation of opium, which is the raw ingredient for heroin. So the U.S. was giving money to the Taliban as recently as this past spring.

The humanitarian aid is incredibly cynical. No one can really describe it in any other terms. The Nobel Prize-winning French doctors group called Medecins Sans Frontière (Doctors Without Borders) say that these humanitarian food drops are 'a propaganda operation'. First of all, it's very little and secondly the Afghan countryside is littered with mines and it makes it very dangerous to go out and retrieve the food. Third, the color of the food packets is bright yellow. The color of the cluster bombs is also bright yellow. So when kids see these bright yellow things out in the field somewhere they could just run out and grab them and blow themselves up. Cluster bombs are being used by the United States. These are anti-personnel weapons.

They don't detonate when you drop them?

They fragment and are designed to hurl shrapnel over a wide area of land. It's a very devastating weapon. It doesn't blow up a building or a tank. It's anti-personnel.

Are they left behind or are they dropped?

Many of them don't explode. The failure rate, this is an interesting thing, if someone wanted to look at performance, is high.

I was interested in talking to you about the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act is very disturbing. And I think that people who call themselves conservatives should be front and center outraged at the provisions in this new legislation. It greatly expands the ability of the state, of law enforcement agencies like the FBI the CIA and police departments to increase surveillance to expand wire tapping, and most ominous of all to be able to keep people under arrest without charges. That's called preventative detention. You could be held by the state on the suspicion that you may be guilty of a crime or that you may be thinking of a crime. You could be held as a material witness. Right now there are over a thousand people being held some of them for close to two months, since the events of September 11. They cannot defend themselves. They don't have access to legal counsel and even if they did the legal counsel wouldn't know how to respond because they don't know what evidence the state has that they're using as justification for holding these people. So that is very Orwellian. This is right out of 1984. And I think this poses very serious threats to democratic values that we all cherish and hold dear. Now I also want to say that I think that terrorists, people who commit crimes, should be brought to justice. We want to see the people who were responsible-we know that the 19 people who hijacked the planes are dead. But who financed them? Who organized it? Who did the planning? We want to see terrorists brought to justice but is war on the poor Afghan people the way to realize that? Is that a good way we're going to bring the terrorists to justice as Bush proclaims? Are the Afghan civilians that have already been killed in the hundreds responsible for the events of September 11? Of course not.

Do you think this Patriot Act could pose a threat to the anti-war movement?

Yes of course because it would lead to infiltration, it would lead to agents provocateurs who would become parts of various NGOs and peace groups and disrupt them.

Just like what was going on during the Vietnam War?

During the 60s and 70s, not just the Vietnam War but the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the feminist movement, the American Indian Movement; all of them were infiltrated by state security forces and essentially compromised. So that's a tremendous danger and I'm very apprehensive about it. The FBI has always salivated for more power. Law enforcement as an institution always feels it doesn't have enough mechanisms to do its job. This is an institutional impulse. Regardless of the facts of whether they have enough or not. What the so-called representatives of the people have done by the vote of 99-to-1 in the Senate and 360 to 60 in the House is to deliver to the state security apparatuses carte blanche to arrest and detain American citizens as well as immigrants as they see fit.

I'd like to end on an optimistic note. What do you feel is a positive result of this current crisis?

It may lead to greater understanding of the imperial role the US plays in the world and may lead to a US foreign policy that is more consistent with the ideals and values that America espouses.

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