Conversation with David Barsamian

Journalist, author, and lecturer, David Barsamian is perhaps best known as the founder and director of Alternative Radio, a weekly one-hour public affairs program that began in 1986 and today reaches millions of listeners from on top of an alleyway garage in Boulder, Colorado. Like Dahr’s Dispatches, Alternative Radio is a news medium sustained solely by the support of individuals.

Omar Khan: You’ve said of the media that “most of the censorship occurs by omission, not commission.” Can you illustrate this in the case of US news coverage of Iraq?

David Barsamian: There is a structural relationship between media and state power. They are closely linked. Who are the media? Not just in the United States, but around the world, they’re a handful of corporations that dominate what people see, hear, and read. They have been able to manufacture consent, particularly in the United States, for imperialist wars of aggression. That’s exactly what I call Iraq—an illegal, immoral war. I’ll just give you one example: the New York Times, this great liberal newspaper, had 70 editorials between September 11, 2001 and the attack on Iraq, March 20, 2003. In not one of those editorials was the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Tribunal, or any aspect of international law ever mentioned. Now, those guys know that these things exist, and that’s a perfect example of censorship by omission. And so if you were reading the New York Times over that period, during the buildup to the war, you would not have had the sense that the United States was planning on doing something that was a gross violation of international law, and national law for that matter.

The reporting on Iraq has been so atrocious: people talk about how the bar has been lowered in journalism. I don’t think it’s been lowered. I think it’s disappeared. It’s not visible anymore. The servility and sycophancy of journalism has reached appalling levels, and the catastrophe that’s unfolding in Iraq is a direct result of this. There are huge consequences for not reporting accurately. And, sadly, it’s the Iraqi people that are paying in huge numbers, and Americans to a lesser extent.

OK: You’ve called the media “a conveyer belt.” This departs from a view of such omissions to be the result of delinquency on the part of media professionals. Your metaphor instead seems to suggest a mode of production, rather than any kind of conspiracy.

DB: To describe objective reality is not to conjure a conspiracy theory. “Conspiracy theory” has become a term of derision that is used against people that engage in analysis of the official story. One way to dismiss anyone who challenges the official interpretation of events is to say that you’re a conspiracy theorist. In other words, you’re a jerk, you’re a moron, you believe in UFOs, aliens, flying saucers. Of course there are clearly sectors of the military-industrial complex that benefit from war. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is a fact. We know who they are: Honeywell, General Dynamics, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon. These are the major military contractors that have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for weapons. They are major weapons traffickers. They don’t meet on a rollercoaster, on a ferris wheel, or on a carousel. They meet in offices. They sit down at tables. They drink coffee, they eat donuts. It’s clear, it’s out in the open.

The United States makes 50% of all the weapons that are being exported around the world. The US spends more money on the military than the 15 largest countries combined. And that spending is increasing exponentially. The military budget is approaching half a trillion dollars. So there’re clearly winners and losers. And if you have stocks in those corporations I just mentioned, you’re raking it in, man. It’s a picnic for you.

OK: How has the increase in media concentration affected this?

DB: In Ben Bagdikian’s Media Monopoly in 1983, he said there were 50 corporations that control most of the media. Then it became 28, then 23, then 14. Then 10. Then, in his latest book, it’s down to 5. 5 corporations control the media. And by the media, I don’t just mean TV. I mean Hollywood movies, radio, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, books, books on tapes, CDs. 5 corporations.

From 1983 to today, 2005, increase in concentration in the media has paralleled that of state and corporate power, and also of the increasing tendency of the United States to become even more aggressive and militaristic: witness the invasion of Grenada, the invasion of Panama, the first Gulf War, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the invasion and ongoing occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

And I am convinced that if Iraq had gone the way the neo-cons predicted—that they would be greeted with sweets and flowers, and that the war would be a cakewalk, as they said—they would have turned their gun sights on Syria and Iran. But right now, because of the level of resistance in Iraq—and don’t forget about Afghanistan, as well—they’ve had to slow down.

OK: So what fundamentally distinguishes commercial news from advertising?

DB: The distinction has become increasingly blurred. There are instances we know of where the Pentagon generated video news reports and then gave them to various TV stations. This is spoon-fed propaganda coming straight from the Pentagon and being broadcast as news. Yes, there’s supposed to be a difference, but that difference is increasingly blurred. There’s a dependency relationship between corporate media journalists and state power. They depend on government for news, for information, for favors, for all kinds of perks. Thomas Friedman boasted that he used to play golf with the Secretary of State James Baker. Brit Hume said he played tennis with Colin Powell. If, on the other hand, you’re a working journalist, and let’s say, you’re assigned to the White House—and you ask challenging questions. Pretty soon, you’re not going to get called on at these press conferences. Pretty soon when you request a meeting with the Deputy Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, your phone calls aren’t returned. In other words, you’re being blacklisted. Your editor is flummoxed because he needs stories from people in power—they depend on people in power for information. That’s the kind of incestuous relationship, that the dynamic that’s going on there. You risk your career when you go up against power. I remember Erwin Knoll used to be the editor of the Progressive Magazine. He died a few years ago. He told me once that, when he was a reporter in Washington—he asked Lyndon Johnson a very challenging question. Johnson kind of brushed him off, and after that, Knoll got the cold shoulder from the White House.

OK: I hate that.

DB: After that, he was transferred. That’s the way they can control the game. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s the way power works. Look, if you’re a powerful person and I’m a journalist, wouldn’t you want me to write flattering things about you—

OK: Definitely

DB: —to praise your accomplishments to a wider, national audience? Of course you would. But there’s also a structural relationship. The electronic media is actually licensed by the federal government, by the Federal Communications Commission. So here’s another area where there’s this relationship. The airwaves belong to the people of the United States; they constitute—probably, it’s hard to measure—the most valuable physical resource in the United States.

You can’t grab the airwaves. You can’t put up your finger right now and touch them. But the airways are part of the patrimony of the people of the United States. And what has the FCC done over many years? It has given away this valuable resource, and we don’t even get anything for it. They don’t even pay for the right to propagandize—we pay for the right to receive propaganda. All this despite that the Federal Communications Commission enabling legislation specifically says that the airways belong to the people.

OK: What about telecommunications reform in 96-97?

DB: The Clinton Telecommunications Reform of 1996 unleashed a tsunami of mergers and takeovers. It has produced the greatest concentration of media in the history of the world. That’s when clear channel went from a few dozen stations, out of its base in San Antonio, to today where it’s over 1200 radio stations. It’s become the dominant radio monopoly. And that was under the liberal Clinton, Gore—and I remember very specifically, the liberal New York Times editorialized at the time, when the legislation was enacted, that this legislation would produce a bonanza for the American public. They’ll get more variety, they’ll get more diversity. They’re the real winners.

Bruce Springsteen had that song about ten or fifteen years ago, “57 Channels and Nothing on.” And now, if he were rerecording that, he’d have to put a zero at the end. Now there are 570 channels and nothing on. There is so little information of value that is available to American consumers of commercial TV.

OK: Thank God for PBS and NPR.

DB: They were created to be genuine alternatives to commercial media. But they themselves have become largely commercialized. They have what is now called “enhanced underwriting.” What does that mean? That means commercials. They have moved way to the right, in terms of their programming. PBS, for instance, which I call the Petroleum Broadcasting Service. So much of its revenue comes Exxon Mobil, and Chevron-Texaco. NPR has become a mere shadow of its former self. I mean—and I don’t want to overstate it, since it was never spectacular—in its early days, it still had some cojones, it still had some sense of rebelliousness. It’s been largely tamed now. You hear the commentaries, the discussions on Iraq…it’s not that different from commercial media. It’s different in a key area of sophistication and civility. They’re very sophisticated. They’re very polite. People speak in complete sentences. You’re not interrupted. No one’s yelling at you. (These are the characteristics of “Hardball,” and the shout shows of commercial TV.) And so it’s seductive in that way, particularly to the kind of ruling class. They like that. People who’ve gone to Ivy League colleges, you know, they like to have to have their news, sip a glass of port, and listen to some “reasonable discourse.” I listen, particularly to National Public Radio; their range of opinion—maybe it’s A to D. Whereas the commercial media, maybe it’s A to B. That’s not a big difference. They both pick from the same golden rolodex of pundits and experts from the Washington and New York think tanks: the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Georgetown Center for Strategic Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

There’s one woman in particular that I listen to, on NPR. She hosts “Sunday Edition” in the morning, her name is Lianne Hanson. She constantly has people like Walter Russell Meade, from the Council on Foreign Relations, or Kenneth Pollack from the Brookings Institution in D.C. These guests come on, and they make the most outrageous comments. Those comments simply go unchallenged. And they come back time and time again. They’re part of the golden rolodex, this list of these names that circulates. And people like Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and many others who are critical—they don’t get airtime. But they’re saying the wrong things. They’re not saying the things that are acceptable; they’re saying things that are outside the spectrum of legitimate opinion.

Any kid with a basic education can figure this out. If you watch the programs, or listen to the programs, or you read Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and the other newspapers and magazines—whose name appears? How often does it appear? How are the pundits that are on talk shows on Sunday morning? Who gets on “Meet the Press”? “Face the Nation”? It’s not complicated.

OK: All of this talk of expertise sort of reminds me of a reason given for all sorts of problems that the US military encounters abroad: “bad intelligence.” This reason is cited across party lines by folks who know full well the repressive role the CIA and FBI have played throughout the last century.

DB: And keep in the mind the utter condescension for international law that this implies. If we have a smarter CIA, we can fight aggressive, illegal wars more effectively.

OK: Contrast this voice in both commercial and public media with the one that you’ve been putting on radio stations every week for almost 20 years.

DB: I started Alternative Radio very much with the mission of public broadcasting in mind—to provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard. I took on this mission because public broadcasting had abandoned it. We don’t chase money from corporations and foundations, so actually have the means to pursue it. We need to build coalitions with marginalized groups here and in the Third World. Today, on the radio and in my other projects, I’m trying to bring more voices from the Third World. Two of the books I’m working on right now, for example, are with Arundhati Roy and Tariq Ali. I think it’s important to reach out to other groups who are also struggling for justice.

OK: On behalf of Dahr Jamail, Abu Talat, and Webmaster Jeff Pflueger, thank you for your time.