Before she began working as a Grit TV producer-host, Blue Grit author Laura Flanders used to co-produce and host a non-commercial daily alternative morning news show called Undercurrents with Dennis Bernstein and Robert Knight of KPFA’s Flashpoints (http://www.flashpoints.net/) daily alternative evening news show. Following is the second part of a 1991 interview with Flanders that appeared in the June 26, 1991 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newsweekly Downtown.
Whenever Downtown has asked any of the Establishment media workers `Are you free to cover any story? Are the business interests controlling you? Is there censorship?’ all the broadcasting personnel, all the editors we’ve spoken to, say: `It’s like the separation between church and state. There’s a line in the sand drawn. We’re as free to do anything we want.’ And that there’s no need for any noncommercial programming like Undercurrents. How would you respond to people who are saying that?
Laura Flanders: Well, I think that you have to ask the very simple question, which is: if there’s really no restraint being exercised on reporters, why is it that there’s so little political variation in the mainstream reporting that we read and that we see on the television?
There is a kind of homogeneity about the vast majority of the reporting that we’re exposed to. And it seems to me that it’s because of a very deep sense of belonging on the part of those reporters. That they tend to express the attitude that they are a part of some kind of Establishment that they believe in, that has rules they believe in, that has a relationship with the economic system that they stand up for. And that their reporting takes place within that to try and keep some truth to the concept of a free speech amendment—or because they believe in informing people about their environment, not about changing it. I think we can get into what the mechanics of control are. But I think more than anything it’s the sense of being part of the status quo that most mainstream reporters exhibit, as far as I can see. And at Undercurrents we’re very clear we don’t have that sense of belonging. We have that sense of irreverence that comes with being placed and placing ourselves very strongly outside the Establishment.
How do you decide what topic to devote a show to?
Flanders: Well, Undercurrents is a news program. So we are on a day-to-day basis dominated by what’s the breaking news. We’re the first news program on WBAI’s morning program and we do have a responsibility to address the breaking news of the day. Sometimes we do that in headlines and then address continuing stories in the reports that are given the greatest focus. But more often than not we’re calling people at 12 at night and saying “sorry, we have to cancel the segment tomorrow because we have to do a show on Ethiopia” or a show on whatever is the breaking news—the assassination of Ranjiv Gandhi, for example.
But couldn’t you say the breaking news is in some ways determined by what the Establishment media says is the highlight of the day?
Flanders: Well, we try and balance that out. For example, we have a commitment to cover the situation in Central America. We have, I feel, a fairly loyal responsibility to maintain the profile of a country like Nicaragua or Honduras or Guatemala or El Salvador in the public eye when the mainstream media is not paying any attention to that country—or South Africa.
So our overall agenda is to try and cover in a consistent way stories that are dropped in and out of the mainstream. But when Ranjiv Gandhi is assassinated it’s very important also to have an alternative perspective on what’s going on there. And right at the time when the mainstream is churning out its version of events. I feel we have a responsibility to challenge the version of events, the version of the truth that’s being handed out.
It’s like a tug of war, how much to kind of, in a dignified way, distance oneself from what the media is considering the important story. And how much to enter into the fray and provide the story.
How does your guest list compare with National Public Radio's guest list or Channel 13’s guest list on the MacNeil/Lehrer news program? And how would the work that Undercurrents is doing differ from the National Public Radio, which might make some of the same claims Undercurrents makes?
Flanders: As far as the guest list goes, I would say that in one area, in particular, we have surpassed every other mainstream, and even most of the alternative news programs, which is in the area of women reporters, women analysts, women commentators. I would say that we have, easily, 50 percent women staff. Easily. Which is unheard of. All the top guests—as has been documented by Mother Jones and F.A.I.R. and other places—of MacNeil/Lehrer and Nightline are white men.
With respect to the comparison to NPR, we have a very strong tradition of going in a country to an indigenous person of that country or somebody who’s lived for a long while in the country that we’re reporting on. So we have a lot of international voices, non-U.S. voices.
NPR, even during the Gulf War, focused mostly on analysts and commentators from the U.S.. So, just listening, you’d certainly hear more accents on Undercurrents. And that’s just a question of guest lists.
With respect to the content, NPR did a series of reports sort of summing up the Gulf Crisis. And the last episode was on their coverage and on the whole concept of “high-intensity warfare” and how the “military had a strategy of using the most power they could” and that “this would shorten the War.” They basically came down saying “Well, that was a legitimate policy and it did work.”
We would never be drawn that much into the Administration’s way of thinking about things.
You mentioned that you have had many more women analysts as guests than either National Public Radio or MacNeil/Lehrer or the networks. Why do you think there’s resistance in the mass media to having more women commentators, women broadcasters, on their news programs?
Flanders: I think they have women broadcasters who look like kind of propped-up dolls, as far as presenters go, with this kind of plastic look to them. And they’re seen as the kind of `pretty face of information.’
As far as using women as experts, I think that there is still resistance to having women speaking out on the concerns of the day: the geopolitical concerns, the international political concerns. You know, the “mega-issues.” Women are brought on to those talk shows that you mentioned, like the MacNeil/Lehrer for example, to discuss what the mainstream considers “women’s issues.” So, if you’re lucky, you get some women talking about abortion or about rape. And not even on those cases is it guaranteed.
But as far as having women speaking about international issues in foreign policy, how many women did you see during the Gulf War? Almost none. Barbara Ehrenreich was on a lot. Hannan Ashrani from Palestine.
How to explain that resistance?...You know, we never finished the feminist movement. We never ended the campaign against sexism in this country. It’s not over. And that’s a perfect example of it. (end of part 2)
Next: U.S. Political Prisoner Marilyn Buck: A 1994 Downtown Interview—Part 2
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