J'accuse! The Betrayal of WBAI
"Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose."
— George Orwell
"You have the right to free speech... As long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it."
— The Clash
"And still it moves."
— Galileo, upon his excommunication for asserting that the Earth moves around the Sun
After more than 20 years on the airwaves of WBAI-New York, the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade was officially cancelled the day after my last broadcast of March 15. This was explicitly presented as a result of my relentless criticisms in recent weeks of the station's direction, and specifically of my attacks on "other producers." I will here answer these charges, and demonstrate how the show's cancellation is illegitimate. But first I will make the obvious point that this episode clearly exposes the lie that there is no "gag rule" at Pacifica Radio's WBAI.
My conflict with WBAI program director Tony Bates—and, by extension, station manager Berthold Reimers, who has acquiesced in his decisions—began almost immediately upon his arrival from California in 2009. His strong emphasis on fund-raising premiums that peddle health quackery and bizarre conspiracy theories of a right-wing bent had succeeded in getting KPFK out of the red, we were told. But I protested it on the air—calling out the premiums by name. In late 2009, Tony called me in for a talk, and said this would not be acceptable—at least not during the fund drives. We worked out a compromise, whereby I would invite Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates onto my show to critique the theories, and make this interview the premium for my own show. I would refrain from calling out the premiums by name, but focus on the ideas. In the short term, this worked.
Then, last summer, WBAI promoted a conspiracy potboiler by the infamous crackpot David Icke—who maintains that the world is secretly run by "shape-shifting reptilians" from another dimension, who appear to frequently have Jewish last names. Of course it is impossible to criticize these "ideas" without explicitly calling out David Icke—there aren't (thankfully) that many people who assert that we are secretly ruled by alien reptilian overlords. I stated clearly the hopefully obvious truth that WBAI's promotion of Icke is a profound embarrassment—both over the air and on my website.
A few weeks later came the "Halloween Massacre" in which WBAI's schedule was dramatically and capriciously re-jiggered. In this shake-up, the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade was exiled from its 20-year midnight slot to 2 AM, and shaved from 90 to 60 minutes. The notion that this was anything other than a retributive measure is, I believe, quite transparent—despite the requisite denials.
After this, I announced that the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade was returning to a state of "resistance" for the first time since the Christmas Coup period (December 2000—February 2002). I stated that I would aggressively confront WBAI's misguided direction in my broadcasts until my demands were met. These were three: 1.) A public apology or statement of reconsideration for having aired the crypto-Nazi David Icke, and a commitment to eschew such material in future; 2.) a moratorium on new premiums until the extensive backlog of owed premiums is cleared out; or a "premium amnesty" in which listeners with outstanding premiums could have the option of writing them off in exchange for a year's extension of membership; and 3.) a return of the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade to its original timeslot, in recognition of an inappropriate punitive measure.
Before I detail the mechanics of what happened next, I have a few words to say about each of these points.
Management's claim that the premium backlog is being addressed warrants the utmost skepticism. There are certainly several hundred outstanding premiums, and a figure of over a thousand has been broached to me. When I inquire about the WBAI t-shirts that listeners have been owed, sometimes literally for years, I am told more need to be printed up—yet there is no indication that anybody is taking responsibility for this. The premiums department is under-staffed, and with a constantly increasing workload, chaos is inevitable. Even the Chip Berlet premium that I offered as a compromise measure was apparently not reliably sent to those who pledged for it. When I have personally followed up on listener complaints, even locating the lost premiums meant digging through deep and seemingly orderless piles. Listeners who have pledged over $100 for premiums that were hyped relentlessly during the fund drives are left waiting endlessly. Continuing to aggressively pitch premiums before this problem is resolved constitutes an arrogant and cynical betrayal of the listeners.
Even if a premium moratorium can be dismissed as unrealistic when the station desperately needs to raise money, my suggestion of a "premium amnesty" was a win-win. The only reason to reject it was to avoid admitting that there is a problem.
And even if the backlog were addressed, the hard-sell premium approach to fundraising would still constitute a betrayal of the Pacifica mission. As I have repeatedly pointed out on the air, in his 1951 essay "The Theory of Listener-Sponsored Radio," Pacifica founder Lew Hill wrote of the importance of a base of listener-supporters "who have not responded to a special gift offer...but who use this means of supporting values that seem to them of basic and lasting importance." (Emphasis added.)
The content of the premiums, however, is a more fundamental issue. One of the few positive moves taken by the previous management at WBAI was the sacking of "health" guru Gary Null, who has become a mini-mogul by marketing dubious products ("Gary's Green Stuff," "Gary's Red Stuff") and hubristic claims ("reversing the aging process"). Ironically, Null's return to WBAI comes on the heels of his hospitalization last year for taking one of his own products—an "Ultimate Power Meal," which he claims the manufacturer spiked with more vitamin D than his formula called for. This explanation begs the question of whether Null's own formula was safe. More to the point, the notion that we can maintain good health through purchasing such sexily-dubbed industrial products rather than simply eating right is a reversal of everything good that came out of the "natural foods" movement.
I do not take calling out other producers by name lightly. Gary Null, however, does not even come into BAI, but produces his show remotely; he is nationally syndicated on several other stations across the country; and his recent return to BAI is another embarrassment. Further, he is exploiting WBAI to build his commercial empire, much as he exploits the gullible and ill who purchase his products. I do not consider him a legitimate producer.
In my final broadcasts, in addition to directly taking on Gary Null, I also explicitly criticized the "Zeitgeist" film series by director Peter Joseph—the latest entry in creepily fascistic conspiracy potboilers aggressively promoted by WBAI. This admittedly isn't quite as bad as David Icke (reptilian overlords are a tough act to beat), but probably worse than many similar such offerings in recent years—such as the endless 9-11 pseudo-dissections; or The Money Masters, a turn on the old banking-conspiracy trope with a special endorsement from Milton Friedman, whose free-market doctrines were famously emulated by Chile's fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The oddly named "Zeitgeist" series, in addition to recycling specious theories about 9-11 and hegemonic world conspiracies dating back to biblical times, also appears to promote more sinister and openly right-wing fantasies. (No, I am not going to waste my time watching it, but this is clear from its website and Wikipedia page, which can presumably be considered reliable in this instance.) Among these is the "North American Union" hallucination —the notion that NAFTA was the first step towards a European-style monetary union and dropping of border controls between the US and Mexico. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this exists, of course; in fact, the US is notoriously building a security wall on the Mexican border! One would think (or hope) that most WBAI listeners would support a loosening of border controls in the Southwest.
Where does this idea come from? The first promoters seem to have been the John Birch Society, the radical fringe of Cold War anti-communism. With the demise of the Soviet bloc, they had to find a new enemy, and appear to have hatched this theory to exploit anti-immigrant xenophobia just as they once exploited anti-communist Russophobia. Others to tilt at this windmill include Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and self-styled "Stop the North American Union" mouthpiece Daneen G. Peterson, who luridly warns of an imminent "overwhelming human tsunami of illegal aliens."
What the hell is WBAI doing in this company?
I will be told that the NAU theory is only mentioned in one of the Zeitgeist trilogy, and not the most recent which BAI was aggressively pitching in the last fund drive. I am not impressed. Unless the Zeitgeist producers have clearly repudiated the NAU trope, it remains a part of their (using the word properly, for a change) zeitgeist. Furthermore, I understand that BAI was offering the complete trilogy as a premium package.
Right-wing conspiracy theory and anti-Semitism inevitably go hand in hand, and WBAI seems to be working hard to live up to the old calumny against it. The Judeophobic undertone was evident in The Money Masters, with its dark ruminations about foreign bankers undermining American sovereignty, and it isn't even an undertone in David Icke—it is blatant.
Which brings us to the last target of my on-air ire the night of March 15: after Gary Null and the Zeitgeist was WBAI's new golden boy, George Galloway—the British politician, who just lost his parliamentary seat last year. He isn't exactly a conspiracy theorist, and his left-wing credentials are superficially good thanks to his opposition to the Iraq war and support for the Palestinians. However, you don't have to scratch very deep to find an ugly reactionary instinct.
Galloway denies that there is (or was) a genocide underway in Darfur, asserting it is "one of the big lies which Bush and Blair invented." On the question of Western Sahara, Africa's last colony, he says: "I am against the partition of Morocco." Those with any familiarity with the struggle in Western Sahara know that talk about opposing the "partition of Morocco" is akin to opposing Israeli withdrawal from "Judea and Samaria." The Sahrawi Arab people of Western Sahara are just as illegally occupied by US-backed Morocco as the Palestinians are by US-backed Israel—similarly in defiance of the United Nations and world opinion. What accounts for Galloway's double standard? Perhaps a fondness for authoritarian regimes, especially those that affect an anti-Israel posture?
In a hilarious video collage on a conservative website called Propagandist, Galloway emphatically denies supporting Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—interspersed with footage of him telling the dictator to his smiling face of his "support for your election campaign." (Yes, it is too bad only conservatives feel compelled to call pseudo-leftists like Galloway out on their hypocrisy.)
In Galloway's victorious 2005 campaign against Oona King—who happens to be both the second Black woman to serve in the House of Commons, and a Jew—WBAI's new leading light was accused of making an alliance with Islamist elements in the Bengali community who viciously Jew-baited King on the campaign trail. Galloway's Respect party denied the charge, but there was a similar controversy over the dropping of an LGBT rights plank from the Respect platform in apparent appeasement of "right-wing Islamist" elements in the coalition.
But the real proof of Galloway's anti-Semitism (or, at the least, willingness to exploit anti-Semitism) is an interview he did after his election with the loopy conspiranoid site Prison Planet, in which he both blames the Jews for persecution of Jews (including bringing Hitler to power), as well as for unleashing global terrorism upon the West.
The assertion that "the Zionist movement, as it is well documented, funded Hitler before World War Two" is a paraphrase attributed to Galloway rather than an actual quote—but when he was later asked about the interview by the UK Jewish News, Galloway responded: "I stand by all those comments. Everything I have said there is fact and there are shelves full of books to prove it."
In an actual quote in the interview, he said "the American people are paying for" the "ideology of Zionism"—an implicit reference to 9-11. Not for the crimes of our own government, but for "the ideology of Zionism." The perennial scapegoat game.
I have been told that calling out Galloway on anti-Semitism is a "tactical error" because it is a "badge of honor" on the left to be accused of anti-Semitism today. This comment utterly misses my motives. I don't want to attack George Galloway for some arbitrary reason; attacking him merely serves the aim of exposing anti-Semitism at WBAI and on the "left" in general. Why, in contemporary leftist discourse, is it legitimate to call out the implicit anti-Mexican racism of the Zeitgeist, but not George Galloway's anti-Semitism?
It is obvious that cynical use of the anti-Semitism charge has dangerously muddied the political waters. I indeed wear it as a badge of pride that my name appears on the Jewish Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening (SHIT) List, thanks to my WBAI programming in support of the Palestinian cause. I utterly refute the notion that calling out real anti-Semitism constitutes in any sense a defense of the ideology or program of Zionism, or a betrayal of the Palestinians.
The night of my last broadcast, Galloway had been the featured speaker at a benefit for WBAI, and it was just announced that he is to begin a new high-profile talk show at the station. I charge that this is as much of a retrogression as the return of Gary Null, if a less obvious one due to Galloway's greater subtlety. I do not apologize for my on-air criticisms of him. I repeat my challenge to the listeners: If anyone can provide plausible proof of the North American Union, or the legality of Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara, or that the Zionists funded Hitler's rise to power, I will eat my every word.
Mechanics of the Termination
Nothing about the termination of the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade was legitimate. Ironically, on my penultimate show of Feb. 8, during the fund drive, I raised over $1,000 for the station—in 60 minutes, starting at 2 AM on a Tuesday night. What's more, I did it while explicitly not pitching the premiums, while urging the listeners to forget the idea of premiums altogether, and while strongly dissenting from WBAI's recent direction. After the broadcast, I e-mailed Tony and Berthold, saying that I claimed this as vindication and asking if they were ready to talk. After some initial equivocation and sarcasm, they indicated that they were, and that "schedules and programming" were up for discussion.
I was optimistic, and requested that they name a time to meet. A game of e-mail tag ensued, in which they were slow to respond to me (admittedly, this was the middle of the fund drive). As days turned into weeks, my hope evaporated. Gary Null was aired practically round the clock. When I was pre-empted for fund-drive specials, it was for the Zeitgeist rather than something I could support like the Daniel Ellsberg or Noam Chomsky premiums. George Galloway's star precipitously rose at WBAI.
So when Tony called me at home on the day of my next scheduled broadcast, and told me that I shouldn't go back on the air until after we'd talked, I replied, "I don't know how much there is to talk about." The show's final status was left ambiguous.
The Tuesday after that, I was pre-empted for Women's Day programming. The Tuesday after that, March 15, I was at a loss as to what to do. I had still heard nothing from management. On Monday, I had sent e-mail again asking for a clarification of my status. None was received. I figured it was better to lose my program for speaking my mind than being a no-show, so I went down to the station. I asked the fellow who was on operations duty that night if anything else was scheduled for my slot. He said no. I did my cantankerous broadcast.
The next day, Tony called me to say that I wasn't supposed to have been on the air because I was suspended, that the station was going to "terminate the relationship" with me, and that this would be sent in writing. I respond that I had never been explicitly told I was suspended—certainly never in writing, despite having sent several e-mails.
Furthermore, as I have stated many times, the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade is a collective, even if the burden has mostly fallen on my shoulders in recent years. In fact, at the time of the Halloween Massacre, I had been in California on assignment for over a month, with co-host Ann-Marie Hendrickson filling in for me. Management made no effort to contact Ann-Marie to inform her of the schedule change. She was left to glean what she could from the grapevine, while I found a message from Tony on my answering machine when I returned to New York.
I assert that even if I am barred from the airwaves for perceived excesses, Ann-Marie Hendrickson should be afforded the option to continue producing the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade if she so chooses.
I was an outspoken dissident under successive WBAI management regimes, and fastidiously avoided lining up with either of the toxic factions that have been tearing the station apart for nearly 10 years. The danger of such a position is that I am accused by the dogmatists in both factions of being in the other faction. This is all hogwash. The enemy isn't a particular faction but factionalism—by which I mean the willingness to compromise principle for tactical expediency. Both sides have done plenty of that.
It was the former regime of Bernard White that began the conspiranoid trajectory, and I vocally dissented at the time. Yet I did not support the campaign for Bernard's removal for fear that we might do the proverbial frying-pan-to-fire maneuver. My cynicism now seems entirely vindicated.
However, I will not be joining the pro-Bernard opposition faction known as Justice & Untity, which uses the most divisive tactics imaginable in spite of its name. Worse, they remain in an unprincipled alliance with the retro-Stalinist Workers World Party/International Action Center, which continuously makes excuses for—and often avidly supports—mass murder (Tiananmen Square, Bosnia, Saddam Hussein, now Libya). This crew has no legitimacy to oppose WBAI management.
I am often baited for daring to criticize when I have no solution to WBAI's financial woes. I respond that having a solution is not a prerequisite for the right to protest the station's actual direction. And in fact I do have a proposed alternative: That WBAI abandon its race to the bottom, its shameless pursuit of the lowest common denominator, and start restoring intelligent programming. This is the only thing which holds out any hope of building back up a loyal subscriber base that supports WBAI to support WBAI, and not to get some potboiler or snake-oil in the mail. Maybe it is too late for this. I don't know. But I do know that the current trajectory is straight towards hell, and urgently needs to be rethought.
Solidarity or Betrayal?
Too many WBAI producers are willing to compromise in the interests of keeping their shows. Compromise is inevitable of course, but there has to be a line you cannot cross. Think: What are you legitimizing with your presence on the airwaves? Where is the line beyond which you cannot embrace something even with the complicity of your silence? Quackery? Xenophobia? Jew-hatred? Censorship?
I put this to the producers at the station whom I still respect, who are many. Others have disappointed me bitterly. When Robert Knight was removed from the air under the Bernard White management, I vocally and repeatedly protested this in my own timeslot. I did so at risk of losing my show. I did so despite my disagreements with Robert on many issues. I did so because it appeared to me his sacking was an act of political retribution, and because I esteemed him as a producer.
Not only has he not now similarly spoken up on my behalf—he is deeply complicit in my exiling. In the same shake-up which exiled the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade to the wee hours, Robert was given a Monday-to-Thursday afternoon news hour slot. Making room for this, and Gary Null's five days of hourly programming, was seemingly the justification for the wholesale schedule reshuffle. Far from dissenting, Robert has directly benefited from my silencing—while engaged in unseemly on-air crowing about "the new WBAI" and its supposedly improved direction. It pains me to have to call my old colleague out on a betrayal of solidarity.
This is a case study in the dangers of factionalism. But maybe it doesn't have to be that way.
I call upon all producers of good faith to speak out on the air. No, you needn't be as intransigent and relentless as I was—but say something to distance yourself from the foul-smelling propaganda and arbitrary wielding of censorious power that reigns under the current management at WBAI. It is our only hope.