Letter to Rep. Major Owens
on the Democracy Now! Murdock/Gonzalez debate, and the call for "dialog"

Rep. Major Owens
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC

Dear Rep. Owens,

Yesterday a debate was aired on Democracy Now! between Pacifica Board member John Murdock and former DN! co-host Juan Gonzalez. I am hoping that you heard the debate, as I would like to share some thoughts about it with you.  I am a long-time activist both in the Pacifica cause, as well as in the microradio movement in which I know you take an interest. I have provided links to documents supporting my statements below.

In the event that you missed yesterday's broadcast, [1] Mr. Murdock mentioned that you had met with Pacifica CEO Bessie Wash, though he did not report what transpired in the meeting. Your congressional statement was aired near the top of the broadcast, however no one in Washington, D.C., heard it, as the Washington station WPFW censored the entire program. An old tape of a lecture by Amy Goodman was played instead.

When Ms Goodman learned this, she asked Mr. Murdock to intercede with the WPFW management to air the broadcast.  Mr. Murdock claimed that he could not intercede because he was in the Pacifica Network News studios. This was a disingenuous statement, as WPFW and PNN are in different rooms in the same facility.  This lack of candor characterized Mr. Murdock's entire performance.

Since the eruption of the Pacifica crisis onto the national scene with the lockout at KPFA in 1999, the PR approach taken by the Pacifica administration has been that the controversy centers on labor-management relations.  Gag rules have been justified by the argument that such discussions are personnel matters.  [2] Then, as now, this ignores entirely the majority of this movement, the listener-sponsors, who do not want the stations they helped build stolen from them.

Yesterday, Mr. Murdock moved forward with a new PR approach that debuted earlier this month at the Pacifica Board meeting in Houston, Texas, a call for "dialog."  Mr. Murdock's call for "dialog" is rather like a monarch holding court.  His subjects may express themselves, but have no power whatever within the system of governance to alter the will of the monarch or to remove him.  Our movement is about democracy, and that includes media democracy.  Fundamental to the concept of democracy is that the people who are affected by a decision must be the ones making it, and that means the listeners and workers of Pacifica, not Mr. Murdock and his allies.

Pacifica Board meetings have always contained a "Public Comment Period," where, for years, the public has objected impotently to the machinations of this group.  We have no reason to attribute good faith to Mr. Murdock and his associates' sudden call for "dialog."  It seems like another ploy to delay what must come to pass, the resignation or removal of Mr. Murdock and his associates.


Station Sales

Yesterday, Mr. Murdock made the statement that the Board has no intention of selling any Pacifica station. Since 1999, dissident Board member Tomas Moran from California has been trying to propose a by-law amendment that would codify a no-sale clause into the by-laws. His proposed amendment never made it out of committee, the committee, in fact, of which Mr. Murdock is chairperson.

Mr. Murdock's group, until recently, refused to seat Mr. Moran who had been appointed to that committee almost two years ago.  Mr. Moran's appointment to that committee was made in view of the public, and is on tape.  In spite of this, Mr. Murdock's group repeatedly denied this appointment had occurred. [3]

Why might Mr. Murdock and his allies have suddenly relented and agreed to seat Mr. Moran?  Because three lawsuits filed against Mr. Murdock and his colleagues have passed the roadblocks, demurrers, and bogus change-of-venue requests filed by Mr. Murdock's law firm, that have been set in the way of Pacifica constituencies trying to remove the predators.

These efforts at "dialog" will no doubt be placed before the judge, to dissuade him from issuing restraining orders against the board-packing and by-laws amendments that Mr. Murdock's group wishes to implement by portraying Murdock and company as reasonable and responsive.  Hearings on these injunctions are scheduled for next month.  While the law prohibits evidence to be entered in the record regarding "settlement" discussions, these fall outside of that definition, and would therefore be admissible.

We have been repeatedly lied to, and are sick of it.  In 1999, then spokesperson for this same Board group, Chairperson Mary Frances Berry also made public denials that discussions of the sale of stations were occurring.  Shortly afterward a dissident Board member, Peter Bramson, held a press conference to reveal that Berry had lied. [4] And all of this followed earlier revelations by watchdog group Media Alliance in San Francisco that they had obtained a misdirected memo from now Board Treasurer Micheal Palmer, advocating the sale of either KPFA or WBAI. [5]

Following a broadcast, by KPFA journalist Dennis Bernstein, of a Media Alliance press conference on the memo, horrified listeners in the Bay Area heard Mr. Bernstein pursued by armed guards placed in the station by Pacifica.  Mr. Bernstein was removed because his broadcast was deemed a violation of the "gag rule."  Mr. Bernstein, as well as dozens more KPFA staffers and listeners, were arrested, and the station was shut down for three weeks.

The only regrets expressed by Pacifica Board Chair Berry, who brought on Mr. Murdock, was that she had not acted sooner to stifle dissent. [6] More than a half-million dollars of the listeners' money was spent in efforts to gag broadcasters attempting to inform us of serious problems with the governance of Pacifica; or, to hire spin-doctors to lie to us. [7] Until this takeover-attempt began in the mid-nineties, Pacifica had no need for "communications directors" or public relations firms.  We are outraged that our own money is being spent for these purposes.

Furthermore, revelations in the East Bay Express [8] confirmed that the KPFA shutdown had been planned at least a month in advance, as the Palmer memo indicated. Equipment necessary to re-route the signal, as well as personnel ready to implement the orders had been put in place well before that day.  It was not a spontaneous "error of judgement," as after-the-fact spin-meisters have suggested.

As you can see, Mr. Murdock's associates have a long track record of lying.

Mr. Murdock's by-laws proposal about which he seeks "dialog"

Mr. Murdock calls for "dialog" about changes to the Pacifica by-laws. However, he and his colleagues have been the recipients of tens of thousands of communications from the Pacifica community that have made clear what kind of by-laws we want: democratic, accountable ones that give all of Pacifica's constituencies a meaningful role in decision-making. Mr. Murdock is especially aware of this, as his law firm is defending the Board predators against three lawsuits [9] arising from the previous by-laws changes that disenfranchised stakeholders and moved Pacifica farther down the road to centralized, corporate oligarchy.  A lawsuit by listeners, as relators for the attorney general of California, specifically asks the court to mandate the enfranchisement of the listener-sponsors in the Pacifica by-laws.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Murdock puts forward a "draft for discussion" his proposal reflects none of the "dialog" that the community has been trying to have for years. Instead, his draft calls for several provisions so egregious that their mere presence in the document is a demonstration of bad faith as far as we are concerned. [10]

For example, Mr. Murdock's proposal accords even greater power to the "Executive Committee" which has been command central for the Pacifica takeover.  It would permit a handful of Executive Committee members to decide via a conference call to sell a station.

It would also enable a simple majority of the Board to vote to expel other members, instead of the 2/3 presently needed. This obviously refers to Mr. Moran, Leslie Cagan, and other dissident Directors (two of whom are suing Mr. Murdock and his colleagues.)  On this, you need to run the numbers:  Mr. Murdock is one vote short at the moment, either to eject the dissidents or to ram through his proposed by-laws.  I think this may explain why he is interested, so suddenly, in "dialog."

In order to pass by-laws amendments, the law requires that notice of a vote must be given in advance of the board meeting. Therefore, it was not possible for Mr. Murdock's faction to add the additional new member in time to ram through the by-laws.  Because of the court cases, the Board predators are, for the first time, dotting all their i's.

However, creating diversionary "dialog" would enable Mr. Murdock and company to turn this disadvantage to advantage.  By pretending to offer dialog, they will attempt to persuade the judge that a restraining order on their conduct is not needed.  Once the restraining order has been denied, after costing the people's forces thousands of dollars and many person-hours, they may come at it again.  It's no wonder they want to discredit Juan Gonzalez's call for a boycott; they are using the listener-sponsors' own money to fund their campaign to steal Pacifica from the people who built it.

Mr. Murdock spent more than a few moments in yesterday's broadcast decrying "hate speech" allegedly used against him and his colleagues. Actions speak louder than words, it has been said.  Mr. Murdock and his allies' actions could fairly be characterized as "hate actions" against Pacifica, its traditions, and its supportive community of listeners and workers.  I would say that this trumps speech of any kind, no matter its content.

Anti-Union activity

By submitting a grotesque proposal for negotiation, such as Mr. Murdock's by-laws draft, one may hope to set the terms of negotiations on a ground where opponents are forced to compromise those terms. This is a familiar situation in union contract negotiation, and especially familiar to me, as a former union steward at a Pacifica station. A similar strategy was used by Pacifica and their previous union-busting consultant, American Consulting Group, to eradicate our contract's provisions of worker empowerment, which included the union's ability to inspect financial records and to block exactly the sort of "restructuring" which Mr. Murdock and his colleagues are conducting at Pacifica. [11]

The firm Mr. Murdock works for, Epstein, Becker & Green is notorious for assisting corporations to quash union-organizing.  Mr. Murdock himself represents HMOs, which persistently attempt to deny treatment to sick people so they can make bigger profits.  Lawyers have told me in confidence that EB&G is known for its unscrupulous tactics.  Lawyers will never, of course, say this publicly, so ask a few you know in the labor field to speak to you off the record.

Mr. Murdock blithely suggested that banned workers should pursue their grievances through their union.  However, management consistently ignores grievances, thereby necessitating expensive arbitration procedures  [12] that, again, USE THE LISTENERS' MONEY to fund their attempts to squash the workers.  Mr. Murdock leaves redress for the monumentally aggrieved listener-sponsors out of the equation altogether.

A Pattern of Intimidation Discouraging Candid Discussion of Pacifica Policies

Your peremptory removal from WBAI's airwaves earlier this month was unique only in that you are a member of Congress.  Ordinary community members, as well as broadcasters, have suffered this fate for many years at other Pacifica stations.

At my former station, KPFK in Los Angeles, a written order from the management has existed since 1996 that orders station personnel to cut off the air any caller who attempts to raise issues concerning Pacifica; or, who attempts to announce a community meeting to discuss Pacifica matters.  And this order remains in place. [13]

While Mr. Murdock, his associates, and their management-surrogates have often claimed that their actions are for the benefit of the listeners, programs attempting to cover the issues at Pacifica stations have been repeatedly censored.  [14] As in your case, this is rationalized by claims that those with critical views are spreading "disinformation."

That hardly demonstrates an interest in "dialog."

I recall one incident much like what you experienced that I heard on the air at KPFK, when that station was undergoing the process of gentrification now underway at WBAI. Ron Wilkins, a long-time host of an African-issues program had as his guests several programmers of color from KPFK and other Pacifica stations, who had been removed from the air.  The announced topic was the treatment of programmers of color at Pacifica. The program was taken off the air mid-broadcast by station manager Mark Schubb, and Mr. Wilkins, his guests, and the engineer, were permanently banned. Even a volunteer who was in the building fixing computers at the time was banned merely because he was seen talking to Mr. Wilkins in the studio after the program was truncated.

At KPFK especially, management spokespersons have claimed that such coverage must be suppressed because it damages fund-raising totals. Pacifica News director Dan Coughlin was attacked on those grounds, and subsequently removed in 1999, for reporting on a boycott, by 16 of Pacifica's affiliates in response to policies implemented by Mr. Murdock's allies. [15]

What does this really mean?  That, if the broad base of donors were given access to information as to how their money is being spent, they might choose to withhold it?  If Mr. Murdock and his associates are truly acting in the best interests of the listener-sponsors, as they ought, why has there been a consistent effort to hide the facts about their activities and policies behind gag rules?

But this is not just about policies that Mr. Murdock may claim were established prior to his tenure (though that in itself would be as credible as Dennis Hastert disclaiming legislation put through under Newt Gingrich).  Mr. Murdock's firm recently sent letters to several web sites, maintained by listener/worker groups critical of the management of Pacifica, threatening them with trademark infringement actions if they don't shut down.  [16] Not only are these SLAPP suits legally indefensible, they are being paid for with donations the listeners contributed, which were certainly not sent to Pacifica for that purpose.

Furthermore, a member of Mr. Murdock's firm told an attorney representing the site-holders that they intended to bring suit in Virginia (!) a location hundreds, or thousands, of miles away from the locations of the would-be defendants, thereby heaping hardship upon harassment.  [17] This may be the normal manner of operation of Mr. Murdock's firm, but it is certainly inconsistent with Mr. Murdock's calls for "dialog."

Why are Mr. Murdock and his Allies Still in their Positions?

Tens of thousands of angry donors and former donors have written, called, e-mailed, faxed and protested in opposition to the policies of Mr. Murdock's group.  If Mr. Murdock and company were merely community members seeking to serve, this massive level of disapproval would have long ago caused them to resign. Mr. Murdock and friends are supposedly serving as volunteers.  I say supposedly, because such great efforts have been made to keep all but a select few from examining the books, that there is no way of knowing where the money is going.

Another feature of Mr. Murdock's by-laws proposal was to allow financial compensation to Directors for "professional services" and to allow the transfer of funds from the sale of assets to other "non-profit organizations."  These "services" could of course include legal fees and real estate commissions on the sale of Pacifica stations.  Given that WBAI might fetch as much as 200 million dollars, even a three-percent real estate commission, for example, is a sum of money that would inspire more than a few people to endure nasty letters or public denunciations.

These "non-profits" could of course be administered by Mr. Murdock and his allies.  What possible good faith reason could exist for putting forth a by-laws proposal containing such language, whether a draft or not?  Pacifica has never been a granting institution. Why would a group that, on the one hand, has repeatedly justified its actions on the grounds that it will increase the future financial stability of the organization, be in such a hurry to give away money to "non-profit organizations?"

It comes down to this: we don't want our news-programming watered down, ideologically strait-jacketed, or replaced with music.  We don't want gag orders on our broadcasters.  We believe that "internal station business" is OUR business as well, and we demand a right to know how our donations are being used, and to participate in decisions about Pacifica's present and future.

Pacifica stations play a central role in our lives as activists and citizens.  They are not merely one entertainment venue among many.  We want the mechanism to remove persons who are betraying the mission of Pacifica, or who are acting malfeasantly, without having to spend many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue lawsuits, while our donations to Pacifica, intended to perpetuate free speech radio, are used by Murdock and his cronies to squash it.

The fact that Mr. Murdock and his allies have not offered to step down, call elections, and run on an open declaration of their "vision," considering the circumstances, is strong evidence of ulterior motives in my opinion.  Given all this, the measly offering of "dialog" is offensive and unbelievable.

I believe you were right-on-target when you said people in powerful places want to smash this voice.  That is because these stations were founded to examine, and are examining a vision of a world without domination, based on cooperation, equality, and freedom; not profiteering, militarism, obedience, manipulation, coercion, or conspicuous consumption.

One thing I have noted is that though the names and faces at the top of Pacifica have changed over these six years, the program of destruction has proceeded relentlessly. I think this strongly supports the implication of your speech, that ultimately, this is being directed from outside through proxies.

We are tired of hearing the Pacifica Board babble of Arbitron ratings and audience growth, [18] euphemisms for a watering-down of the political and intellectual quality of Pacifica by commercialization.  [19] We, the listeners and workers who have built this organization, are individuals, not numbers.  We are not faceless, anonymous receptive ears, to be replaced by another group of anonymous ears at the whim of some self-selected "leadership's " format change.

For more than 50 years, Pacifica has been a "home," with an open door and fire on the hearth, to welcome those who seek a better world.  As in any home, the family squabbles.  As with any home, it always needs improvement (not a wrecking ball!).  But this is no family squabble, this is a burglary!

We don't want "good radio" or "great radio."  We want OUR radio, and we will fight to the death to keep it.

I very much appreciate your general stance in support of a citizen-media. Corporate media is useless and offensive, and so-called public radio has been transformed into a propaganda outlet for "free market" philosophy. You must realize that Congress made this happen, by passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Until that is repealed, and multi-station ownership outlawed, nothing will change.  How is this to be done, when our political process is so utterly corrupt that few people like you are permitted to hold office?


Lyn Gerry
Waterloo, NY


[1] On-line audio of 3/16/01 Democracy Now! Broadcast

[2] http://www.pacifica.org/board/docs/sp990419.html

[3] http://www.ringnebula.com/PNB/PNB_1999_1031.htm#Tomas_Moran_on_gov_com

[4] http://www.radio4all.org/freepacifica/bramson.htm

[5] http://www.counterpunch.org/sellmemo.html

[6] http://www.radio4all.org/fp/0825mimi_re_mfb.htm

[7] http://www.radio4all.org/fp/0808lockout_costs.htm

[8] http://www.radio4all.org/fp/0730thompsonebx.htm

[9] http://www.radio4all.org/fp/endgame/legalupdate.html

[10] http://www.radio4all.org/freepacifica/murdock/murdock-bylaws.pdf

[11] http://www.glib.com/letter.html

[12] http://www.glib.com/sharan_grievance.html#ulp

[13] http://www.radio4all.org/fp/gag.gif

[14] http://www.radio4all.org/fp/1209counterspin_axed.htm

[15] http://www.savepacifica.net/991102_coughlin_cooper.html

[16] http://www.savepacifica.net/domainname_response.html

[17] http://www.wbai.net/dom2-16-01pc_let.html

[18] http://www.radio4all.org/2000/0225giovannoni.htm

[19] http://www.radio4all.org/2000/coughlin_speech-trans.html