David Barsamian loves public radio, but he hates what it has become - a mouthpiece for mainstream politicians and a timid political presence, unwilling and unable to challenge conventional thinking. Barsamian, who produces a weekly radio program out of Boulder, Colo. featuring dissidents' voices like his longtime collaborator, Noam Chomsky, will be in Bend to discuss his work and what it will take to reclaim the airwaves from corporate America. The presentation is sponsored by KPOV, as part of its ongoing look at alternative media.
the Source Weekly: Do I hear birds?
David Barsamian: Yeah, I'm in my garden. I've a lot of stupid dandelions. It just rained yesterday, which is good because it's pretty easy to get them out.
tSW: You've got a new book out called Targeting Iran.
DB: I've also got a new book with (Noam) Chomsky out, called What We Say Goes and there is information about that on my website.
tSW You've collaborated quite a bit with Chomsky.
DB: Probably more than anyone. It's one of my claims to infamy, or claims to fame, depending on your perspective. But yeah, I've worked closely with Chomsky for, woah, 25 years now.
tSW: How did that partnership come about?
DB: Quite unintentionally, I wrote him a letter. This was in the late '70s, and I was quite surprised he replied. Usually when you write to famous people you get a form letter back or complete silence. But he wrote a lovely reply and I responded to that, and it started this correspondence. And then it occurred to me, well 'Why don't I do an interview with him?' This was at a time when Chomsky, who in the late '60s was very well known because of his opposition to the wars in Indochina, had been largely forgotten and eclipsed. So we're talking late '70s; he was kind of off the radar screen, even on the left among progressives.
tSW: In your book The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting you spend a bit of time discussing how folks like him have been really marginalized in the mainstream media.
DB: That's not a controversial statement. We know how infrequently (they appear); it can be measured. It's not a matter of opinion; it's a matter of fact. If you say something that's conventional, 'That the United States is doing good in the world - that it's a benign force, that it's trying to help people.' It's like saying: you love your mother; you love your family; you love God.
It's not controversial. You don't need to provide any documentation or background. But if you suggest something different, then people go into paroxysms. How should I describe it? They become shackled... So if you say that, then you need time to explain a position that is unconventional. And that is what the corporate media are not prepared to grant you... Particularly television where most Americans get their news, or lack of news, from. And that is very unfortunate because I think it weakens us as a democracy. As Jefferson supposedly said, 'An informed citizenry is the backbone of a democracy.'
tSW: One of the things you lamented was the early promise of public broadcasting; it was supposed to be a format for alternative voices.
DB: Yes, that was in fact in the language of the enabling Congressional legislation...which is the last piece of Great Society legislation that Lyndon Johnson was able to get through...in that legislation it says...that public broadcasting should be a forum for controversy and debate, and, crucially, should provide a voice for those in the community that are otherwise unheard. I think that is something we should really try to uphold. Unfortunately, the performance of public broadcasting has been a disappointment over the years.
tSW: As someone who produces an alternative radio program, can you talk about the challenges of trying to work with public broadcasting?
DB: Happily, I must say Oregon is more of an exception to the rule when it comes to public radio. Because the NPR stations in the state, OPB particularly, the big network, have been much more open to having diverse voices and diverse points of view; that's not the case in other parts of the country where it's very difficult for a station manager and program directors to even entertain the idea of getting some dissident voices or some critical perspectives on. They've become very timid over the years. And there's some reason for it. It's because of the political attack from the Right Wing that claims that these types of stations are not loyal to America; they betray the country, etc.
tSW: You've traveled recently in the Middle East, what's it going to take to restore America's credibility?
DB: The media needs to get some dentures back into its mouth; it needs to start biting. It doesn't mean that its critical just for the sake of being critical, but (that) it performs a service when it examines statements made by government officials against the record, against proof, and provides that information to the citizenry rather than accepting things just on the face.
David Barsamian's program, Alternative Radio can be heard Tuesday nights at 6:30pm on KLCC, 88.1 FM.