Sharper than the Serpent's Tooth, the Sting of Liberal Soft Censorship

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By Bill Bianchi, PDA-Illinois

Shakespeare’s King Lear complained that raising thankless children felt like the sting of a serpent’s tooth.  Today progressives might feel the same sharp pain from the media censorship by those liberals and liberal institutions we thought to be allies and friends of the progressive movement.  

Recently Torey Malatia, Chicago Public Media’s (WBEZ) CEO and President, decided to censor the Tavis Smiley and Cornel West radio show for their continued criticism of Obama’s center- right policies.  See story here.  This week’s Chicago Reader carries the story of censorship going on at Northeastern Illinois University.

And last year the New York Times edged out two progressive writers, Frank Rich and Bob Herbert, who consistently castigated the Democratic Party and President Obama for failing to live up to their progressive promises.  Here are the stories, starting with Smiley and West.

Smiley and West described their one–hour weekly show, which airs on WBEZ Sundays at noon as, “an energetic fusion of thought-provoking, intelligent, and stimulating conversation on every subject — from news and politics, to entertainment and culture.”  

A Poverty Tour:  Over the past year Smiley and West went on a year long road trip holding town hall meetings to “highlight the plight of poor people of all races, colors, and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible during this difficult and dangerous time of economic deprivation and political cowardice.” 

What they witnessed on the road often became the grist for their radio broadcasts. No other program I know of dealt with poverty so effectively and made the connections to political policy so clearly.  Probably, their highlighting of those political connections and the Democrats' political inaction when they were in power, has alienated folks who run NPR.  But Smiley & West's reports and discussion were well supported, and they included voices from around the political spectrum.

In a letter written to WBEZ listeners disappointed by the cancellation, CEO Malatia suggested that the Smiley and West had become "far less inclusive." In his strong response, Smiley pointed to his array of diverse guests, including this past summer where he featured exclusively conservative voices for a week.

Pacifica Radio issued a statement strongly objecting to WBEZ’s action.  It said that Chicago’s WBEZ is doing “… a disservice to its listeners and described the cancellation as an act of “symptomatic of censorship of independent voices.”  It added, “There need to be more, not fewer, voices of independence along with challenging, thought-provoking analysis.”

A WBEZ spokesperson had said that Smiley & West’s tone of “advocacy” was “inconsistent with our approach at WBEZ.” On that last part, Pacifica further expressed its dismay, particularly because Malatia said that “Smiley & West” was becoming too much like Pacifica’s “Democracy Now!” program.

“It is disappointing when the term advocacy is used as a smear to trivialize the presentation of intelligent and passionate discussion that is sometimes critical of the American status quo,” said Pacifica Foundation Chair and Interim Executive Director Summer Reese, in a PF press release.

Smiley’s complete reaction letter can be found here. 

In addition to WBEZ, several other public radio outlet cancelled the show including stations in Boston, St. Louis, and Minneapolis.  But WBEZ’s loss may become Chicago’s gain as Smiley has implied that other Chicago stations are interested in his program.

Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU).  This summer the school’s administration abruptly shut down NEIU radio station WZRD over the protests of its student staff.  The Reader contributor Leor Galil's Three Beats gives the background. 

“Founded in 1974, WZRD 88.3 FM, [was] a rare surviving example of a free-form station. It has almost no genre-focused programming or specialty shows; DJs [could] play almost anything they want, and they were encouraged to explore the greatest possible variety of non-mainstream music.” 

In addition to the free form music, the WZRD also provided probably the only source of left commentary and news, such as Democracy Now! Sitting in your living room, you could hear actual live Marxists talking about current events.  I suspect it was the political programming more than the free-form music that prompted NEIU administrators to dissolve the student club that ran the school's radio station and bar its members from the facility.

WZRD remains on the air, but it's staffed by an administration-approved skeleton crew and mostly broadcasts an automated stream of music.

Where Have You Gone, Frank Rich and Bob Herbert? 

The departure of well known commentators Frank Rich and Bob Herbert from their high profile perches on the New York Times opinion pages was very puzzling.  Both had large readerships despite or maybe because they consistently criticized the Democratic Party and the President for their neo-liberal economic policies and gradual dismantling of constitutional protections. 

At their leaving, both Rich and Herbert wrote temperate departure letters to their readers, full of sound professional and personal reasons for departing with no trace of hostility toward their employer.  Stuff like “I decided that after many years it’s time to step away, and devote myself to writing thoughtful, long form works that are not possible...” [I made up that quote, but that’s the tone.]

I don’t buy it.  These farewells sounded like more sophisticated versions of the tired refrain mouthed by countless corporate bosses after being canned, “I want to spend more time with my family”.

No commentator in good health and at the height of his game leaves the mountain top because he wants to see what the view is like further down hill.  Let’s face facts, Rich and Herbert were pushed out, albeit gently.

Not convinced their leaving was politically inspired?  Check out the article that appeared in Frank Rich's usual spot in the New York Times on the Sunday following his departure (4/3/11).  Entitled, Why Walk When you Can Stroll?   It boldly presented the naked truth about the use of baby strollers in Manhattan!  Whoa, tell it like it is.

It appears that the liberal wing of the ruling elite, the ones we used to call allies, are gradually tightening censorship of any criticism of their support for neo-liberal, pro-corporate policies.  Whose voice will be silenced next?