POLITICS AND THE MEDIA
INTERVIEWED BY COLIN WRIGHT
David Barsamian is the long-time producer of Alternative Radio, a weekly radio program that features interviews and talks by progressive voices such as Michael Parenti, Barbara Ehrenreich and Ralph Nader. Alternative Radio is often aired on KCMU's Mind Over Matters (Saturdays from 6-9 AM), and, since December, on KUOW's Weekend (Sundays at 10 pm).
I've been doing it nationally since 1986. I'd been doing radio since 1978 locally in Boulder, Colorado. But then in 1986 I was stunned to learn how inexpensive the satellite system is, to distribute radio programs in particular. Now I'm on about a hundred stations including about 20 in Canada, from Halifax to Victoria.
David has also recently edited collections of his interviews with Noam Chomsky, Keeping the Rabble in Line, and Edward Said, The Pen and the Sword, both published by Common Courage Press.
I caught up with David in November when he spoke to a large audience at Red & Black Books.
You've been doing Alternative Radio for 8 years?
Could you talk about the philosophy behind it?
Well, I do a weekly one hour program that is dedicated to presenting views and perspectives and analyses that are ignored and distorted by the dominant corporate-controlled media. I focus on such topics as the media themselves, which I believe to be a major source of disturbance and propaganda in the political and social culture. Also, the environment, Native American issues, human rights, and those kinds of things.
Particularly in the last few years I've taken a great deal of interest in trade and economic issues. You have today this phenomenal paradox of corporate profits soaring, people poor. This is a really a unique phenomenon in American economic history. Usually when profits went up, workers' salaries and benefits would increase.
But for the last 20 years, American workers have watched their wages decline or stagnate. This is barely talked about in the corporate-controlled media for obvious reasons: they're not going to report on information that reflects badly on their owners. After all the function of the corporate-controlled media is to be an organ to promote the interests of their owners, not to undermine them.
And that's why alternative, independent media is badly needed in the United States, urgently needed. It must be a principal task of activists and progressives to organize and promote different forms of independent media, be they journals, weeklies, monthlies, newsletters, organizing talks, having discussions in peoples' living rooms with a few people, organizing film showings, videos, listening to tapes, copying tapes, passing them along to friends. There are all kinds of crucial media tasks that need to be accomplished in order to not just refute the tidal wave of right-wing corporate media but actually to turn it back.
If A.R. airs in a hundred cities, why do we have trouble in Seattle getting it on a regular basis?
Well, to a large extent, it really turns on the managers of the particular radio stations themselves, and what they perceive to be "proper programming" for their listeners. Because the program is offered free of charge, they've got to reject it on the content of the programming.
Unfortunately, I would say 200 of the main NPR stations don't broadcast Alternative Radio because they find the ideas very threatening to the existing arrangements of power and privilege in this country, which, more and more, these stations have come to reflect. Now this was not the intention for public radio in the United States when the Public Broadcasting Act was enacted by Congress in the mid 1960s. At that time, and this is almost verbatim, the enabling legislation saw public radio and public TV as giving voice to the voiceless, to the under-represented and minority communities and points of views in various communities.
Well, what do you find, 30-35 years later? We find much of the programming on PBS and NPR to be rather narrowly defined ideologically. In fact, we have right-wing tilted programs for example on PBS.
Incidentally, this is going on simultaneously with the propaganda campaign that PBS and NPR are left-wing! This is an extraordinary Orwellism. Where is the evidence that PBS has left-wing leanings? Is it in William Buckley's The Firing Line? Is it in The McLaughlin Group? Is it in Wall Street Week in Review? Is it in The Bloomburg Business Report? Program after program on PBS reflects a definite bias. That's true, but it's not a left-wing bias, it's a right-wing bias!
There's no question about that. Why won't they show the Academy Award-winning film, The Panama Deception? Or Manufacturing Consent, the documentary which has won many international awards? So there are many examples of a right-wing tilt. There are very few examples of anything remotely approaching a left-wing point of view.
I talked about PBS. NPR is not much better in the voices that it gets on its programming, on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the media watchdog group based in New York, did a very carefully documented report on who gets on. The report showed, quite conclusively, that most of the guests, the opinions, and the experts, that were on the air were either present or former government officials, corporate managers, or right-wing think-tank specialists.
As well as this drift to the right in public media, we have the extreme right-wing taking over talk radio. How do you think that is affecting American public life in general?
All of these right-wing talk show hosts are white males, and what they're about is mobilizing resentment. They're mobilizing the resentment of white males who are getting pink slips instead of pay checks, or who are getting pay checks over the last 20 years that are getting smaller and smaller.
The main tactic of these talk show hosts is scapegoating. They attack Affirmative Action programs, women on welfare, immigrants, refugees. They're scapegoating defenseless, vulnerable sectors of the population that cannot fight back, that have no voice. They're not blaming the corporations which are largely responsible for the tremendous increase in poverty in the United States.
This hasn't happened by accident. The growth of right-wing talks shows is fueled by capital. Rush Limbaugh, who was a failed talk show host in Sacramento, moves to New York, gets a studio at WABC, which is owned by ABC, which is owned by Capitol Communications, which is one of the biggest media monopolies in the world. And all of a sudden Rush Limbaugh is on 500 radio stations, is on hundreds of TV stations, and has a newsletter with a paid circulation of 500,000 How does that happen?
It happens because groups with very directed ideological goals who command capital are able to buy time on the air and are able to project their message nationally through mouthpieces like Limbaugh, and locally through people like Mike Seigel.
And this phenomenon is turning the country to the right? What about the recent elections?
The recent elections have a lot to do with the politics of reaction, targeting women and people of color as not victims, but as perpetrators of the decline of the U.S. economy. In fact, even people like Limbaugh say the American economy is in trouble. And for once he's telling the truth.
But he doesn't identify corporate power as the cause for the decline. It's ascribed to a decline in family values. So if only women would get married and live in families again and stop being promiscuous, going around having children out of wedlock, watching pornography, smoking dope, and all of these other horrible things, then America can be restored to its noble and honorable heritage. Until or unless that happens, the agenda of the right-wing has to do with ending promiscuity, restoring family values, controlling what people watch, controlling what people read, getting into their bedrooms and living rooms. These are essentially all lifestyle issues, and they're calling for massive government intervention.
But on social issues, like housing, education and health care, they want the government to disappear. The government is to get out and let privatization happen, which means unregulated corporate control of all aspects of our lives.
Turning to how to reverse these trends, you've probably interviewed Noam Chomsky more times than anyone alive. Could you say something of what you've learned from working with Noam?
Well I've learned to not accept rhetoric in place of fact and documentation. Chomsky has made me focus my work, to insist on evidence, and to care about people. That is, not to forget about our own humanity, because that ultimately is the transcending feature of who we are. Chomsky is a singular figure in a political landscape that is corrupt and venal and dominated by opportunists who have sold out for career advancement and material gain.
In your work, you travel around the country. Do you see some positive trends also, in the alternative media circles that you come in contact with?
We're doing this interview. That's an example of a positive trend. There exists in Seattle independent media. There are bookstores, like Red & Black Books, like Left Bank. There are independent organizations. Those things locally need to be nurtured, need to be multiplied, need to get into communities where people are concerned about education, health, the environment and all these issues.
Again, thinking globally, nationally, but bringing it back in a practical way by asking what can I do? What is my talent? Is it public speaking? Can I can teach people how to use software or get on-line, to become electronically fluent? But it takes an effort and it takes commitment. It's not just rhetoric.
We also need to hold, not just the corporate media but also public radio and TV as well, to standards of objectivity and fairness that they're constantly B.S.-ing us about but do not fulfill. Go to board meetings of these entities and when there's an open discussion, raise your hand and bring to the attention of the boards of directors, "All your programming is entirely one-sided. It's all right-wing. When are you going to have other points of view on the air?"
Sure there's a right-wing tilt to this country. The media is driving it! So you get results like on November 8, 1994 where people are voting more and more not on the real issues, but with their anger which is being directed toward the Clintons and the supposed left bias of the media, immigrants who are taking their jobs, single mothers on welfare, and all these other diversions.
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