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Can Al Jazeera save Pacifica radio?

The Washington Post reports what everybody involved in the Pacifica radio network has known for years, that the foundation’s staff are in conversation with Al Jazeera to broadcast the service over its five listener supported stations. I don’t know whether the discussions are going anyplace, but it’s obviously a great idea, so of course it has drawn fire from both the right and the left.

On the right, Newsbusters is running the obvious headline:

“Taxpayer-Funded Pacifica Radio Planning to Air Al-Jazeera Audio.” Pacifica—which owns five listener supported radio stations in Berkeley, New York, Washington, DC, Houston, and Los Angeles—gets $1.6 million in Corporation for Public Broadcasting money, the article notes. The implication, of course, is that your tax dollars will fund this terrorist evilmonger network from Hell that aired bin Laden dispatches after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

The fact that Al Jazeera also broadcasts interviews with U.S. State Department and Israeli officials and journalists isn’t mentioned. Why would Newsbusters want to do that?

Then there are a host of objections raised by Steve Brown, long associated with board governance at Pacifica station WBAI in New York City. In fact, the WashPost article is almost entirely based on Brown’s public criticisms of the possible deal. Based on my conversations with previous executive directors and board members, however, I can confirm that Pacifica has had a longstanding interest in some kind of arrangement with Al Jazeera, and has been trying to pursue the matter for about four years.

I really hope Pacifica can get this going. The network urgently needs to draw in a younger, more diverse audience, and it’s never going to be able to do that on its own. This is just the kind of outside-the-box breakthrough Pacifica needs.

Brown raises the following objections to the proposal, with which I respectfully disagree.

“I do object to the secrecy and lack of member input on an issue that could have dire consequences for the foundation. Do Pacifica’s negotiators—whoever they are—have the knowledge, skill, and experience to negotiate such a contract? Who are they? What are their credentials?”

The question of negotiation skills is a legitimate one, given Pacifica’s unwieldy system of democratically elected local station boards (and which, last time I checked, Brown supports). This system allows candidates to become part of Pacifica governance based on relatively few station subscriber votes. But the payoff for getting Al Jazeera audio on the five Pacifica stations is so potentially big that it outweighs any risks in the negotiation process.

“Al Jazeera is a totally government owned and funded broadcast entity, and the government that owns and funds it is among the most repressive on earth.”

Yup. If you’re looking for objective coverage of the situation in Qatar, Al Jazeera is not the place to go. It does, however, offer a fresh, complex, and original perspective on the rest of the world, one that lots of new folks might tune into Pacifica to hear.

“Another question is: Will Pacifica have the right to follow any Al Jazeera newscast with commentary, rebuttal, or elaboration of its own choosing? Will other Pacifica broadcasters be allowed to comment negatively on whatever Al Jazeera says, since there is a ban on bad-mouthing other Pacifica programs on the air. This in itself is not a minor consideration.”

Any attempt to stop Pacifica programmers from reacting to Al Jazeera broadcasts would be stupid and futile. They would openly defy the order. Were they disciplined for so doing, they would easily rally listeners to their support. It would be a huge brouhaha, and management would lose.

“It is not even surmise, but an absolute certainty, that if we broadcast Al Jazeera – without appropriate official comment and disclaimers—or even with appropriate official comment and disclaimers—support from many and perhaps most of our Jewish listeners could vanish overnight. Even though the decision to broadcast Al Jazeera is (arguably) legally and morally correct.

Let us be realistic. Jewish listeners comprise many of our major donors, and even among ‘ordinary’ donors they contribute far more than their numerical representation. So we could be looking at another ‘Skokie incident.’ (For PNB members too young to remember, this was a 1977 lawsuit in which the ACLU defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to hold a march through the Jewish residential village of Skokie, Illinois.)”

It’s just a tad unfair, I think, to compare Al Jazeera to a bunch of goose stepping schmucks from the suburbs. As for Pacifica’s Jewish listeners, if they’ve stuck around for the last twenty years of hooray-for-me-I’m-an-anti-Zionist rhetoric on various Pacifica shows, they’ll probably experience Al Jazeera’s far more sophisticated approach as a breath of fresh air.

“Although Pacifica management may have the legal right, I do not think it has the moral right to sign a potential bombshell—such as this contract is likely to be—without passing it by the membership, or at least the 5 LSBs in executive session. For once we sign, we are bound—for better or for worse.”

If the people who supposedly run Pacifica on a national level can’t take any risky, bold chances without submitting them to the organization’s five Local Station Boards, the network is doomed. I hope that, somehow, the people allegedly in charge of Pacifica can get to the other side of this project. If they can’t, it is yet another indictment of the foundation’s excessively democratic and wasteful system of governance.

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