The Pacifica Crisis: An Interview with Juan Gonzalez

by John Tarleton Saturday, Mar. 10, 2001 at 7:49 AM

The former co-host of Democracy Now! talks about the nationwide campaign he is organizing to oust the Pacifica board.

errorThe Pacifica Crisis: An Interview with Juan Gonzalez
By John Tarleton

HOUSTON--Juan Gonzalez is an award winning journalist and until recently was the twice a week co-host of Democracy Now!, Pacifica Radio's popular morning news show. His dramatic on-air resignation on January 31 reflected the deepening crisis at Pacifica. He vows to return someday but only after Pacifica's national board has been cleansed of the "corporate vultures" he accuses of hijacking the nation's only independent, listener sponsored radio network. Gonzalez, who was flooded with thousands of emails in the wake of his departure, has launched a nationwide effort (www.pacificacampaign.org) to unseat the Pacifica board and have it reconstituted along democratic lines.

"No power sharing with these folks," he says. "...They will soon find out this is a listener sponsored radio network."

Gonzalez, author of Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and grew up in a New York City housing project. He is a veteran of many social struggles from Columbia '68 to the bitter 1990-91 strike at the New York Daily News, where he is a staff columnist. He came to Houston for the Pacifica board's March 3-4 meeting. It was a tumultuous weekend of rallies, protests, teach-ins and walkouts and Gonzalez spoke at the MECA Community Center and the Unitarain Universalist Church on back-to-back nights. He encouraged Pacifica supporters to "cut off the water and turn up the heat" on board members until they step down.

JT: Why have you chosen a more militant, direct action approach to trying to resolve this crisis instead of solely relying on legal remedies?

JG: These legal battles have been going on a couple of years. In the meantime, the Pacifica Board is creating a reality on the ground. They are systematically purging many of the stations of the most vocal, dissident and progressive programmers. If we don't do something soon, by the time the legal battles are won the network will have been dramatically changed for the worst.

What I believe is if we have an all-out campaign to cut off the money and to put pressure on the board members to resign, we can achieve success in this battle in a much shorter period of time. That's why I'm urging people not to give any money to Pacifica, to any of the stations, until this board is out and a structure for choosing a democratically accountable board is in place.

JT: Why did you leave Democracy Now! At the time you did? And, what was Amy's reaction when you told her?

JG: I had been telling Amy for several weeks that I was thinking of doing it. What finally made me do it was when a week before my resignation the new station manager (Utrice Leid of WBAI) announced a new gag order threatening to fire anybody who dared to say anything on the air about the continuing Pacifica struggle. I felt at that point I couldn't work under that situation. But if I was going to resign, I should think it out carefully and figure out the most effective way to do it.

That's why I waited a week until I could plan it out and talk to some other people so that we could get the message out not only to the five Pacifica stations but all the affiliates. As a result we've got thousands of responses from all around the country from people who heard that short statement on the air.

JT: In your work with Democracy Now!, what kind of impact do you think that show has had in recent years?

JG: I think it's had enormous impact. When we went to Seattle to do daily coverage of the WTO protests, there were a tremendous number of young people who told us on the street and in the meetings that they first learned that the protests were coming and got an idea of how to get involved from listening to Democracy Now! That's when we began to realize the enormous impact the show was having in keeping all of the growing number of anti-globalization protesters in touch with each other just by listening to the show on a daily basis.

I think it's having an enormous impact on young people, especially. Pacifica is saying that the people who listen to the show are 50-year-old white men and that they (the board) want diversity. The reality is that Democracy Now! Has enormous diversity in terms of young people and people of color. And instead of trying to build that up, they are trying to tear it down.

JT: What are some of the organizing experiences you've had that give you the confidence that you can pull this off?

JG: I've been involved in so many different battles. Not only in the Columbia student strike (of 1968), (and) in the Young Lords. In the New York Daily News we had a 5-month strike with 2,500 workers between 1990-91 that we won. But, the company was pulling the same line: we're either going to break your unions or we're going to sell off the paper. They tried to scare the workers into thinking they were going to lose their jobs. And in 1978, I was involved in a huge campaign in Philadelphia to get rid of Frank Rizzo in a voter referendum and hundreds of thousands of people were involved in that movement. And there's a few other labor strikes that I've been involved in that all involved thousands of people.

This battle is not as tough because the listeners of Pacifica are all intelligent, sophisticated activists. They all know how to wage battles of this type.

JT: You referred to the board last night as "3rd rate capitalists".

JG: Third-rate instruments of capitalism because they are not all capitalists themselves.

JT: What do you think of the way they tend to use the race card to divide people?

JG: I hit them directly on that today. JT: You sure hit a nerve with Bertram Lee

JG: I saw they had to hold him down. He must be the source of it, obviously. But, I think it's despicable the way they have attempted to use race to try to divide the Pacifica community. There's no doubt there's racism in American society. There's racism among many Pacifica listeners and programmers. But, the principle contradiction that is occurring here is that a group of neo-liberal oriented folks have gotten together with a bunch of comprador African-Americans to throw smokescreens up while they do a classic corporate grab of the Pacifica Network. Anybody with any sort of small understanding of how race has been used in American society can see through this scam. We have to confront it head on. And, we've got to educate people not to be taken in by what they are attempting.

JT: Assuming you succeed in this struggle to restore a grassroots Pacifica, where do you see the network fitting into this larger movement for a democratic media both in the US and around the world?

JG: Pacifica has the potential to be the anchor of the movement. But, as people are saying, the movement is much bigger. These Independent Media Centers have enormous potential. The public access movement within cable television, the alternative radical press, the alternative African-American and Latino press. There's a huge alternative press movement out there even though it needs to be better coordinated. But, Pacifica is the most valuable asset within that overall structure.

The Indy Media people didn't even want to have Pacifica within their structures. They only made an exception for Democracy Now! They had already made a decision that Pacifica had gone corporate. The Indy movement is the new generation. And those young kids are phenomenal. They are the next generation of journalists in the country. We have to nurture them and help them and learn from them as well.

JT: What originally inspired you to become a journalist? What's your vision

JG: That's a whole other thing. I'd rather not get into it tonight. The main thing is understanding the critical role the mass media play in American society. We need the independent media as well as the good progressive people that are in the corporate media. There's got to be a battle in corporate media. You just can't give up all that space. There's got to be a battle in corporate media to mount resistance from within while we help to build the independent media from without.

John Tarleton is an independent web journalist whose stories and interviews appear at www.cybertraveler.org.