Sometimes The View Is Better From The Rear View Mirror
Verna Avery-Brown's Talk at the Teach-In on Pacifica, Washington, DC
February 25, 2000
Hi, I'm Verna Avery-Brown
FORMER ….Anchor of Pacifica Network News…..
AND I EMPHASIZE FORMER ANCHOR BECAUSE SOMETIMES…. THE VIEW IS BETTER THROUGH THE REAR VIEW MIRROR….
(and of course it’s a lot easier to think, once the severance check has cleared)
I agreed to speak here tonight….basically to offer my experience at Pacifica…for what it’s worth…and to hopefully enhance your understanding of what’s happening at a station ---WPFW and a network we all love and support.
And so, I'm going to talk about why I decided to abruptly leave a job I cherished and worked at for over a decade….
When I first walked through the doors of the PNN newsroom in 1988…I was coming straight out of a career in commercial radio news…if I did switch to FM it was by accident, while I was surfing the dial looking for the Motown sound.
I was the epitome of political incorrectness… Politically I was clueless…if it wasn't the Republicans, the Democrats or the "mean ole communists"…they had not registered on my political radar screen. The Green party, the socialists, the Libertarians…I could have put what I knew about them in my eye and still not blink.
Chlorofloracarbons….bovine growth hormones…the Chiapas Indians….East Timor…none of this meant a thing to me. I may as well had landed on another planet…
And as a general assignment reporter…I was expected to learn these issues, care about them and portray them in such a way that others might be informed.
Over the years - - - I was assigned to different stories every day…on every subject imaginable… and somewhere along the line…I begin to r-e-a-l-l-y hear the stories…
I heard the story of Julia Butterfly…a woman who made her home in a giant redwood tree for 2 years in order to protect it from the loggers who were perfectly content with raping the old growth forest in order to increase their precious profits.
I heard the story of 9-10-11 year old girls in Bombay who were stolen away from their families and forced into sexual slavery…or in some cases given away by their fathers to help earn money for the families…forced to put on make up and perform sexual favors….at the moment they reach puberty so their families wouldn't have to starve to death.
And I begin to realize that their stories of economic deprivation was not so different from the stories of young black girls/women…right here in Washington D.C. who because of a lack of resources…lack of nurturing…lack of access to recreational facilities…are left to "fend for themselves" and wind up fighting and killing one another after school for entertainment. The girls/women I spoke to are now serving lengthy sentences for ….murder.
And hearing those stories…. I began to see the invisible geopolitical , socio-economic connections between the lives of all people of color across this continent…this world…. the controlling forces of the IMF…the World Bank…the impotency of the UN….the U.S. military industrial complex… and for the first time I saw the puppets and the puppeteers…
I heard the plights of black farmers…eloquently articulated and dramatized when they brought a caravan of tractors lead by a mule named "struggle" to the front of the White House. The institutional racism and injustices practiced against them was so deeply rooted…it took a court order to get them what was rightfully theirs.
... I remember when the farmers' caravan came to D.C. and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House….I just could not resist the urge to climb upon that tractor with the leader and interview him as the caravan proceeded.
…….. (other reporters were asking …who’s that ?? …ahhh Pacifica… but I felt proud to have that distinction…) I felt proud because I know the rich legacy of Pacifica.
and there are so many other stories…I could go on for hours….
"Granny D"…who walked across country to protest campaign finance reform…(and Pacifica covered her story even before she reached the end of her trip).
And there was …the young white guy who turned his skin black for a college experiment…. by taking some pills …and how he couldn't stand being a black man for more than a week, because of the way people were treating him….while nothing about him had changed, except…. the color of his skin….the lesson: racism is alive and well in America. He told me he scrubbed his skin so hard it bled…there are countless stories…..
But one of the things that made a major impression on me when I first walked through the door over 11-years ago…were the people. In the newsroom… I was the only African American….(of course back then I was called black) ..but they ( my white…oh so liberal colleagues ) were all just as sensitive to the issues of racism, sexism and ageism…and all the other isms……as I was….and in many cases…they were better informed. Yet we all knew I brought a unique perspective.
When I first got there….I wasn't exactly homophobic….but lets just say…..I had a whole lot of questions about homosexuality… and they all began with why ?… why would anybody want to….why are some people attracted to the same sex…why ?
But through my work at Pacifica I came to understand why…
But more importantly I realized the real question is "why not" …why shouldn't people be allowed to express their sexual orientation…however it manifests within them. Why shouldn't they have equal protection to pursue their own choice of lifestyles…
Why not ?…..and while I'm still just as straight as the day I walked through the door (and proud of it) I like to think I'm not narrow…in my thinking. and I thank God….and Pacifica for that deep understanding of my fellow human beings.
Yes I said God…. most of my white colleagues were/are atheists/agnostics….and of course that didn't sit well with my then Baptist, middle-class upbringing…but while I heard them saying they didn't believe in God…their actions….their compassionate nature…their commitment sure seemed godly to me
Amy Goodman - - -from WBAI… who was literally caught in the crossfire of the brutal military regime trying to protect the lives of East Timorese activists…by giving voice to their cause.
And I reached the point where I felt….I don't care whether they believe in God or not ….just keep doing what you're doing….it’s all right with me. (And I'll just keep believing in God).
And then I met other African Americans and people of color within the network… people with that same fiery spirit, passion and commitment…Samori Marksman/Dredd Scott Keys/Jose Santiago/ Maria Karione/ Sheryl Flowers…and I felt proud to be amongst this caliber of people.
And than when the confrontation at KPFA took place…it brought things to a head at PNN … for some time there seemed to be a rift developing…. two distinct political camps were forming.
There were those who seem to carry with them a respect for the principles upon which Pacifica was founded. and remained committed to the struggle for equality, social justice and peace and seemed eager to do what was necessary to protect those rights.
And there were those who seem to no longer embrace these ideals with the same fervor…and went out of their way to question the need for affirmative action, …they rolled their eyes when stories involving gay and lesbian rights were pitched during morning meetings…issues concerning African Americans or other people of color were routinely placed at the bottom of the cast on the days when they were producing the show….many of my story suggestions were summarily dismissed as …not news worthy… or I was questioned about…the news peg. Suddenly I had no news judgement ???
Everything Democracy Now did - - - with it’s award winning team of journalists…was suddenly frowned upon as unbalanced… knee- jerk liberalism, or advocacy /activism journalism. Professional jealousies were so heavy in the air you could see it. And the PNN news was often comprised out of pettiness on those occasions when these individuals were producing the show.
Dan Coughlin - - - a fair-minded, compassionate, intelligent committed producer was ridiculed and undermined. He was made a target of their campaign to gain permanent control of the newsroom and they went about this with the secret endorsement of Lynn Chadwick and Dr. Mary Frances Berry.
On two occasions I spoke personally to Dr. Berry about the forces at play in the newsroom… Dan and I both met with Lynn Chadwick …they listened, made promises and then acted in ways directly contrary to what we had discussed. They had aided in creating an extremely hostile environment for Dan and I in the newsroom.
Then…Dan’s duties as producer were re-assigned. He was no longer to head up the news…he was given a "bogus assignment" which to this day….has not been fully clarified….the only thing that is clear, is that he has nothing to do with producing the news.
Dr. Berry would no longer accept my phone calls. Here is a woman, I had long respected…. someone I considered to be among the icons of black civil rights leadership. …my 15-year old son portrayed her life’s work as a subject for a history essay in school. I was dumbfounded by her actions. And hurt by her rejection.
Before I resigned…I made one final attempt to put into writing all of my concerns about the direction of the PNN news. I was the only African American journalist in that department at the time. Our engineer is black, but rarely if ever participated in show content decisions. My opinion as the anchor of that show was completely and utterly disregarded. And the chairwoman of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights was ignoring my concerns.
To this day…I have not gotten so much as an e-mail from Dr. Berry…
I could not… and can not understand why she has taken this course of action….but if this network is to ever return to the bold, courageous outlet for peace and social justice that it once stood for…change has to take place at the top …I E-mail know if that means to remove Dr. Berry…or whether that means somebody moves her to examine her heart and do what’s necessary to heal this institution. But change has to take place at the top. It’s the head that tells the body what to do…the body doesn't give the head orders….any substantive change must come from the top.
And so in closing….that’s why I left. I left because I no longer felt the renegade spirit of Lew Hill was in control of Pacifica.
I left when I realized the majority of the board members were too timid…too uninformed …or too conservative to give a damn to step in and make the necessary changes…
I left because the Pacifica….I had …fallen in love with….no longer existed. and I left because I refused to lend my name…my voice… my energies to a farce.
But even as I leave this network…I do so with my commitment to the cause of progressive journalism…firmly intact.
And while I pursue other avenues for this expression…I urge you all to fight for the station…the network that we all love and cherish.
Monitor the PNN news…demand that coverage of the Amadou Diallo verdict be critical, penetrating and incisive. Listen and take note of what you're not hearing as well as what you are hearing. Write, call and e-mail the producer…insist that WPFW and Pacifica national news reflect the interests of the community it serves. Put WPFW general manager Bessie Wash and program manager Lou Hankins on notice.
It’s fine to play jazz…I love jazz as much as the next person…but what are you hearing when the music stops ? Is it progressive, informative, critical coverage ….or just rhetoric.
And I'll leave you with that…I'm available to answer any questions at the end…
peace and blessings…my friends.