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Media Alliance 25-Year Anniversary Interview with Raul Ramirez, Executive Producer of News & Public Affairs at KQED-FM

MF: How did you become a member of Media Alliance?

RAMIREZ: I was working as a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. I had been in town since 1974, so it was about three, three-and-a-half years. It was in the very early days of Media Alliance when it was on Columbus Avenue at the Ecology Center. I liked what I saw, which was a sense of community among people who were freelance journalists. I thought the idea of people getting together and organizing to talk about their work and perhaps other things in the future was terribly exciting.

MF: And then you got even more involved, right?

Ramirez: I became involved in a lawsuit in which a former deputy district attorney, an assistant district attorney, and two former homicide inspectors in the San Francisco Police Department sued the Examiner and Lowell Bergman, who was then a freelance reporter, and me, over a series of stories that Lowell and I had researched and the Examiner had published in 1976. So, this must have been '77. There was a libel lawsuit filed by the police officers and the D.A. It is a long, convoluted story, but when the Examiner refused to represent Lowell and began to talk about him as a source rather than a collaborator in these stories, Lowell and I and a number of journalist friends and acquaintances and a few others formed a defense committee to raise money for an attorney, and Media Alliance became the organization that was almost synonymous with the committee. Media Alliance certainly was the primary organizing force behind the Bergman and Ramirez Defense Committee. The case dragged on for eleven years--actually, fifteen years. After the trial, the ACLU agreed to represent Lowell and me in the appeal, and we carried that appeal to the California Court of Appeals and on to the California Supreme Court, which, eleven years later, ruled that there was no libel.

MF: What was it like culturally, socially, politically to be a journalist at the time Media Alliance came together?

Ramirez: If you were working with one of the mainstream papers in town, [for example], the Examiner, it was a period of a lot of change and experimentation. On the other hand, if you were outside--you were a freelance reporter or a journalist--these were wonderful years to be reporting in the Bay Area. There was so much going on. It was not the '60s, but in the '70s there was a lot of the aftermath of the '60s. There were a lot of stories--the emergence of a strong gay and lesbian community in San Francisco, a lot of political movements that were thriving, and struggling at the same time. So for a journalist, it was a terrific period. Unfortunately, at the same time, for those journalists who were not affiliated with institutions, the pay was very poor. There were no rights, as evidenced by the way that Lowell Bergman was treated by the Examiner. There were no rights, and there was no real security.

MF: What have been some of the most effective things you are aware of Media Alliance doing?

Ramirez: Giving a collective voice to freelancers, providing a helluva lot of very valuable training, taking a leadership position on issues that effect journalists and journalism in general. All of those things have been, and continue to be, very valuable contributions.

MF: How has journalism changed as a profession? What issues or problems would you like to see Media Alliance address as an organization?

Ramirez: The concentration of ownership in the news media is a serious threat to the potential diversity of voices in an area where diversity is very badly needed in news coverage, the presentation of information, and so on. Going back maybe ten, fifteen years, the emergence of the MBA editor--that is an editor who is looking more at the bottom line than at the First Amendment--has been and continues to be a real serious issue. On the other hand, I think reporters today are better trained. They are smarter than when I was their age. I think there is so much more scrutiny of what the media do, that, in a lot of ways, there is more accountability than there used to be. At least, there is a lot more chatter than there used to be.

Media Alliance could make a contribution by doing something you don't see a lot of being done any more--Media Alliance used to do this, I don't see that it does this much anymore--that is to create a safe venue for the discussion of important journalistic issues. I don't see anybody, including Media Alliance, doing that at the moment. I see Media Alliance taking a courageous stand on a lot of issues, but that is different from creating a venue where people feel comfortable coming to discuss and debate issues. I think a return to that would be a good contribution.

MF: Can you give an example of some issues you are thinking of?

Ramirez: I think we very badly need a discussion about the implications of the lack of journalistic standards in the dot-com industry where content producers call themselves journalists, yet don't have a basic understanding--at least in my experience of a lot of people I have seen--a basic understanding of some of the fundamental principles of fairness, and the fundamental principles of separating the commercial mechanism of an organization from its editorial function and role. I don't see much being done about that. I'm not aware that Media Alliance has played a role in that. I wish it did. I think Media Alliance could really make a contribution.

MF: What would make for a safe venue for such discussions?

Ramirez: By safe, I mean safety in the eyes of the beholder. Safety is in the level of comfort where people feel they are not coming into an ambush. There are times when Media Alliance is very adamant in its advocacy role. I am not condemning an advocacy role, but when you are very adamant in your advocacy role, it is no longer possible for you to be a trusted host. Now, I am not saying that Media Alliance is not, but I am saying that there is not an organization out there at the moment that is doing this.

MF: You mean the difference between taking a position and creating a space where people can discuss different positions and different ideas.

Ramirez: And I think it's possible to do both. . . . For example, I don't think that Media Alliance can play a significant role in getting a balanced discussion going on the KPFA situation, because the organization has taken such a strong stand. When your director gets arrested in favor of one side, the other side is not going to want to be there if there is a discussion. . . .

Media Alliance is going through an interesting evolution. It has become more of a community, grassroots organization than it was before. I think that is healthy, but it also creates limits on its ability to be an arbiter in the discussion about journalistic matters.

My sense has been that Media Alliance was an example that a lot of people around the country looked at and were inspired by. I think that was the case, and certainly, as I traveled, I heard people say that. Its direct influence is here, but the inspiration has gone much beyond the Bay Area.

MF: What is the perception of mainstream journalists today of Media Alliance?

Ramirez: Over the past couple of years, in the perception of a lot of mainstream journalists, Media Alliance has drifted much farther into the political world than they feel comfortable mingling with. And you know that's something for the leadership of Media Alliance to acknowledge and discuss and make its own decision as to whether that's the place that it wants to be. That, in turn, affects its ability to play a role in the discussion. It may be that maybe Media Alliance is not the vehicle for the internal self-examination of mainstream media any longer.

MF: So mainstream journalists are shying away from involvement with Media Alliance because they see it as too, perhaps, activist.

Ramirez: Well, yeah. You know, there is something that has been hammered into the brain of journalists in this country for many, many years: don't get involved in the story, translated into, "You're not a part of a community. You're not a part of organizations. You are not a part of many things." So, you have a range of people, from people who still feel that you need to have an ethical discussion to decide if you see somebody dousing themselves with gasoline and pulling out a match, do you put down your pencil and pad and try to take away that match, or sit there and not interfere with the story, as if there were a choice between being a decent human being and being a journalist. There should be no choice. There should be no conflict. And then you have the whole spectrum from that to people who are very much at ease with being more involved and being more active. Journalists, in mainstream newsrooms certainly, are very uncomfortable with direct action, very uncomfortable with the idea of picketing or being arrested or involved in ways other than reporting. So you find an increasing level of discomfort the more active they perceive an organization to be.

MF: And you don't think this is because they feel that they might get in trouble for involvement? Is it really a journalistic standard for them?

Ramirez: Well, it's hard to know what comes first. It's hard to know who is acting because of how their peers or their supervisors might react to their involvement. It's difficult to say where one begins and the other ends. I do think that it's very much ingrained in the thinking of journalists that you stay away from the story, even if the story happens to be you. This is another example of where there has been for the longest time a real problem for journalists of color, and for women journalists, and for gay and lesbian journalists. You came into the newsroom and were perceived as being--in many newsrooms--as being incapable of being fair-minded and evenhanded in the coverage of issues involving the community you came from, begging the question of everybody else, as if somehow others don't also have a political viewpoint that they try very hard and very honestly to rise above.

MF: And for yourself, how do you negotiate the difference between being an activist and a journalist?

Ramirez: I think being a journalist IS being an activist, and the real question that faces each and every one of us is which of the tools of journalism do we use, and do we use only the tools of journalism?

MF: And how is being a journalist being an activist?

Ramirez: Every day we make hundreds of subjective decisions about what to shed light on, how to characterize it, how much to expose something. Those are all very political decisions, and those are all very active decisions. So, the act of ferreting out information and bringing it to air is very much of an activist act. We may color it any way we want, and we may adopt standards so that we may keep it away from the vagaries of the day, and I think that that is good and well, but being a journalist is being an activist.

Raul Ramirez has been News and Public Affairs Director of KQED-FM since 1991. Ramirez has worked as reporter for The Miami Herald and The Washington Post and as a reporter and editor for the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Examiner. He teaches journalism at San Francisco State University.

Martha Wallner is a Media Alliance board member. Carol Harvey transcribed this interview.