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Fighting Bias with Bias: The David Pakman Show.

Reaching millions across the globe, David Pakman is the head of a non-corporate political talk show recorded from a small studio in Massachusetts.

Predominantly syndicated across the US through radio, public access TV, and the internet he presents his take on current events to a core audience of radical liberals and reactionary moderates who tune in for both serious subjects and satire. 

While critical of the American culture of corporate media there are aspects to his type of opinion based show that might seem to follow the form of entertainment over enlightenment, sensationalism and bias over truth and investigation but within this there appears to be a strong tone of investigative thought. Openly biased in his opinions on specific topics Pakman presents issues in a particularly bi-partisan way that challenges the idea of how people have consumed quasi-doctrinal political knowledge in the past and raises pertinent questions on how people may become politically informed in the future. 

The opinionated talking head may not be a strictly American phenomenon but the individualistic ethos of the United States has certainly perfected the model. Talking to Pakman one gets a sense of a highly intelligent, charismatic person, who hasn’t perfected the craft of debate in isolation to a political agenda, but rather one who continues to the master the tools of broad-spectrum communication with a specific aim in mind; unpacking mainstream media from corporate bias.

Trebuchet caught up with David Pakman to discuss his weapon of choice; politics.

Trebuchet: Tell me about the history of the show.
David Pakman: The show started in 2005, at the time I was and undergrad college student, so it was a very on the side, part-time sort of thing. It was originally called Midweek Politics and then through the years as I completed my education the show continued to grow. We started at a community radio station and then we had the opportunity to build a small studio at which point we changed the name to the David Pakman Show back in the November.

Trebuchet: How many stations are you syndicated on at the moment.
David Pakman: Over 130, across five countries, but 98% of those are here in the US. We’re on a network, Free Speech TV, which in mainly in the US via satellite, and then there’s a handful of others one in Ghana and one in the UK but possibly elsewhere. 

Trebuchet: Historically, having your friend come on board really help the show out. I’ve heard that he really pushed you to go further, increased production values and so on.
David Pakman: Yeah, well to say… I had to basically drag him in, so to suggest that he volunteered or anything would not be accurate. I had to really convince him.

It was just me at first and the show really was not good, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I was so scared to have anyone disagree with me that I would just kind of straddled the middle, or what in the US is considered, the middle. I barely gave an opinion and I was just really reading news. It was terrible. So eventually the show got more personality, I thought that even the people with ‘middle views’ are going to disagree with me so I might as well take more of a position I agree with. So Louis joined, and this was just when we were still on the radio, and he provided a second voice to bounce ideas off which worked well. But even then, within the show there is a bit of audience controversy on ‘is Louis good or bad?’

Trebuchet: What was the controversy; was he too radical? Too moderate?
David Pakman: No, he was seen as too bland. In other words, some people think that he doesn’t express himself well. Not that he was too moderate but that he didn’t clearly express himself or how strongly he feels about his ideas.

Trebuchet: Would you say about the tag ‘alternative media’ has a positive cache for you?
David Pakman: I don’t know if the term alternative media fits, and I bet that the connotation would be different in Europe than in the US. Here it means an alternative to corporate media. We are a non-corporate media source where in the US a lot of the narrative is around ‘is this particular media outlet Conservative or Liberal’ and I think that there are some distinctions there. In the US, the media is overwhelming corporate and no matter what variance there may be on particular issues, the resulting perspectives come from a particular corporate voice.

Trebuchet: So does this independence allow you to talk outside of a party line?
David Pakman: It’s a different approach. A good example to me is the Barack Obama birth issue. To sum up, the issue is that there is an idea that there is a group of people that question whether Barack Obama is an eligible US President based on where he was born. Their opinions range from he wasn’t actually born in the US, he’s Indonesian, where his father is from etc. and tied up in this is whether he is a Muslim. So this narrative started and Media outlets immediately started doing two things that I don’t do.

They immediately starting giving both sides of the argument equal standing. Not counting times when they present even more than two sides equally. I think people get blinded by this idea that, on any issue there are two equal arguments. Which I don’t think is the case, not every issue has two even sides. For example if I was to say to you…

Trebuchet: Isn’t that a subjective judgement on your part? 
David Pakman: Let me put it this way; we hear in the narrative, we’re fair and balanced, we’re having a debate showing perspectives on both sides and touting the importance of an even playing field for both sides.

I think of it as, we had the Superbowl a while back and the Greenbay Packers won and then to have another party come in and say ‘I think the Pittsburg Steelers won’. It’s an extreme example but to me the Obama birth issue embodies that. So while people say ‘Barack Obama is a legitimate president’ others that ‘He’s a Muslim’, a ‘Kenyan’ etc. corporate media never asked the question whether or not this was a legitimate topic for discussion and we DO ask this question.

Trebuchet: It strikes me as dangerous ground to say that certain issues only have one perspective that is right, historically saying that to have a ‘fair and balanced view’ (which is the fox news line, rightly or wrongly depending on how you feel), allowing both sides to voice their perspective is important except in possibly incontrovertible cases like who won the Superbowl.

How does this idea of there being one perspective come through in your perspective contrasted with how corporate media presents a ‘fair and balanced’ view?
David Pakman: To circle back on the Obama birth thing, instead of focussing on the different argument and evidence on whether or not Obama is a legitimate president my focus is on 1) who is, statistically, buying into the idea that this a legitimate point of view? Overwhelming it was shown to be Fox news viewers 2) what is at the foundation on why this is even being discussed?  

My position is that at its base it is about race. What does Barack Obama being a Muslim, or Native American, or Kenyan, or Indonesian all have to with each other, despite that in and of themselves they are actually conflicting theories. It is that Barack Obama has dark skin and that his name is ‘Barack Hussein Obama’. So that was the discussion I found more interesting is how did this permeate the national media landscape?  As opposed to the question; ‘is Obama a legitimate president or not?’ where the answer is ‘Yes, he is.’ There is no real information suggesting otherwise, that’s it.

Trebuchet: What then are the aims of your show; business, personally and as a politically?
David Pakman: Aims in what sense? In the sense of getting specific pieces of legislation being passed?

Trebuchet: That’s for you say really. In the UK people might for a different way of voting, or as Ralph Nader puts it a different system of government, or something as simple as making people more aware politically and getting them more involved in the processes that exist.
David Pakman: I would say that with a narrower focus there are so many things that I could name. For instance people being more aware of corporate influence on politics and the media. Something that’s under the radar for so many people, making people think ‘what money influences what I see and read in the news about politics’. And then there are number of political issues; Women’s rights, equality and Gay rights, Inequality both in terms of people’s income and but also inequality in terms of access to the legal system. I mean for all that has been reported on Wall Street we still haven’t seen a single person go to Jail. If those people were poor do you still think none of them would have had any criminal charges brought against them? It’s hard to believe for me.

So in a narrower context I could list things all day, more broadly it’s about bringing people into a frame of mind that they’re thinking about politics; whether is when you watch sports, there’s a lot political going on, or in entertainment shows, again there’s a lot going on politically, but in general it is about expanding the discussion on that level.

Trebuchet: Personally?
David Pakman: Personally, I really enjoy doing the show but I also have a Masters in business administration so I’m very interested in the growing of the show as a business. I enjoy that aspect of the show as much as the performance aspect of it.

Trebuchet: Do you think of yourself as a performer?
David Pakman: Yes, to some extent you are. Am I exactly the same on the show as I am sitting around with friends? No, but the same could be said of a college professor who isn’t exactly the same as he is when he’s in  front of a classroom full of students. I think how you speak is very important to how people will perceive what you’re saying, separate from what it is you’re actually saying.

Trebuchet: While it’s rooted in politics is there a particular focus to your program?
David Pakman: It’s political and everything that relates to that. So it’s culture, current events, sports, entertainment, media all those things are related in that sense.

Trebuchet: On what basis to choose your interview subjects? How does the process work?
David Pakman: here are two types of interviews; there is breaking news and then there are general topic interviews. The other day we interviewed an author/activist who deals with the implicit and sometimes hidden gender components in politics.  That’s the type of story where it doesn’t matter if we do it last week or next week. To me it’s just an interesting story that adds another angle that doesn’t relate to breaking news.

Trebuchet: Do you have research team or is it just you and Louis?
David Pakman: Our team is pretty much Louis and myself, and also my brother, who is also our TV director. We all do the majority of the research and I get a ton of emails and comments on our Youtube videos which provide us with a lot of ideas, angle and items to look into.  A lot things really start with the audience.

Trebuchet: Given the information loop you have with your audience through these comments are there certain threads that have developed through the course of the show?
David Pakman: What I hear from people is that they like the interview style where there is a package along with questions so that if they haven’t been following a particular issue they can get a level of background and context through the course of the interview. Now a lot of people might say that the context that I give in the interviews is biased and I wouldn’t disagree. Certainly that’s probably true.

When I ask a question I try to already know what answer I’m going to get and based on that have a number of follow ups that will increase the either level of tension or the level of interest in the interview.

Trebuchet: What are your biases?
David Pakman: I am progressive, particularly on social issues. I look at everything in terms of the context of how the issue has already been discussed or bought or sold by a corporation and talk about things from that angle. Generally for any particular issue there is already bias. For example yesterday we talked about abortion issues and I’ll talk about it from the angle of; if republicans really believe in not meddling in people’s lives the last thing politicians should be discussing the minutiae of patient/doctor decisions. Which I’m told is a much more common position in Europe.

Trebuchet: The red flag that comes up often in information about you regards your position on Israel. Some reports say that you’re pro and other say you’re critical. Especially with regard to your relationship with Pacifica radio network. Can you clarify your position?
David Pakman: As a starting point of our 130+ affiliates, plus Free Speech TV, plus Youtube, plus podcasts etc Pacifica makes up about 12 to 14 of our affiliates, so just to put it in that context first of all.

Pacifica is known in US, to say this as objectively as possible, for airing what I would call more favourable coverage of the Palestinian side of the conflict. I come at it from the position of being a moderate on the issue of Israel and Palestine, or what I would consider a moderate. I vehemently disagree with the side that says that there is absolutely no reason why we should consider the treatment of Jews over the last 150 years (or even longer) when we’re thinking about what should happen in Israel. And that Israel is objectively a bad people with a bad government, and that they doing a long laundry list of bad things. I also reject completely, what in the US is typically the side of the neo-conservatives, which says ‘defend Israel at all costs’. Now inevitably, others insist that you’re either one side or the other. For instance I completely disagree with what’s going on with the settlements and I believe it is wrong to continue building on the settlements and when I hear officials say ‘these aren’t settlements, they’re people’s homes’ I disagree with that. But I am convinced that a lot of anti-Israel sentiment which many claim has ‘nothing to do with anti-Semitism’ is about exactly that, because when you follow up with people and say ‘well okay what should Israel do?’ People like Helen Thomas (the reporter) reply that ‘Jews should go back to their home countries’. I will never support the American left on that type of statement.

So with Pacifica that is a big contrast with their narrative.   

Trebuchet: So they were not comfortable with your opinions?
David Pakman: Pacifica have never said anything to me. There was one particular station that said we were too pro-Israel. Now the interesting thing is that we never talk about Israel and Palestine on the show, conversationally I have mentioned that we really don’t fit in with conservative or progressive media because of my ranging position on a number of issues. In other words, while there was discussion regarding a potential issue (related to bias) there was never actually a discussion of the subject, if that makes sense.

Trebuchet: What I’m getting a sense of is that the tone of what they (Pacifica) do and your show seems to be equally biased in a sense in that they support a certain viewpoint.
David Pakman: My show?

Trebuchet: Yes.
David Pakman: Certainly, the show is entirely my viewpoint and that of the guests that come on the show.

Trebuchet: I’m interested in contrasting that with the old media viewpoint of objective journalism. What’s your relationship with objective news?
David Pakman: I make it very clear that my program, while it deals with news and politics, is an opinion show. Now issue is; what if I decided that my show no longer was an opinion show (which I think would be very boring) but rather I wanted to become a reporter. I still wouldn’t (be able to) eliminate bias. So many reports and reporters are riddled premises and suppositions that are hugely biased. So I would firstly reject the premise that anything is unbiased, whether the context is opinion or fact I think differs. That being said there is a huge range, on the one hand there is factual reporting that is tinged with bias and then there something completely different, which is what we see Fox news doing in the US.

Trebuchet: Do you separate facts from opinion in the discourse of your own show?
David Pakman: Well, for any story we do I have to present the facts. But here we’re getting into hairy territory because many of the people that do what I do, from wherever on the political spectrum they are, would claim that the context that we’re providing is the objective true context.

However, those that disagree (with them) would take issue with that. I would be naive if I were to suggest that I was presenting a completely objective context and then commenting on it because I know that… well who could really do that?

Trebuchet: Do you think you challenge your own biases on your show?
David Pakman: Sure, I think we do that with our guests as well as through Louis, who is encouraged to play devil’s advocate to my opinions, and vise versa. 

Trebuchet: So having someone like the members of the Westboro Baptist church is presenting a different opinion than your own?
David Pakman: Yes, although the Westboro example doesn’t exactly fit. As in, that case isn’t so much about hearing two sides of an issue, because I’m hard pressed to say what the issue actually is, rather that (and this goes back to what I previously said) it’s more about people knowing that extremists of this level exist. There aren’t always two sides of a discussion that are even. ‘God Hates Fags’ is not a reasonable counterpoint to rights for Gays and Lesbians. To me, it’s not about ‘let’s have one side of this issue and another’ but… well it’s not exactly a parody and satire but close to it.

Trebuchet: On this topic, let’s talk about sensationalism. To be honest, this was how I first heard about your show was through a shared clip of the interview with the daughter of Fred Phelps.
David Pakman: With regard to our show the Israel and Palestine discussion is actually a pretty minor controversial point compared to the controversy surrounding the Westboro Baptist Church. We’ve interviewed the Westboro Baptist Church a number of times, we’ve interviewed a Navy Chaplain that claims to have performed a lesbian exorcism, we’ve interviewed the guy who wanted to burn Koran’s on 911.. etc.

The criticism we get is that we’re doing something wrong by having these people on the show as it’s giving them a platform, and it’s giving them a voice, and it makes them seem legitimate. I reject this completely as the idea that these people go away if I don’t interview them is wrong.

Moreover, the type of interview we do with them, if you can’t tell that the entire position is being satirised as if it requires serious analysis, then… That’s a risk I’m willing to take compared to the number of people that will see it and go ‘wow this really exists’. 99% of the people will know it to be absurd but also know that while there is a wide spectrum of opinions there are also people out there that have opinions that are off the map.

Trebuchet: Playing devil’s advocate here, don’t you think that giving these people more exposure will surely lead to more people joining their ranks by giving a focal point for otherwise alienated and dissolute people to align themselves with iconic hateful groups?
David Pakman:  I’ve discussed this with the public relations person that I work with, as well as our production team, as well as media people, who are operating at a much higher level than myself, and this is a topic that keeps coming up. The same thing could be said about, for instance, condemning the thing that Rush Limbagh said last week I would have to either read it or play a clip. In doing so, some people might agree with him and not my condemnation but I really believe that on the whole, and in the long term, the numbers work out in my favour. I think that many more people will be sympathetic to my side rather than the other and if people find my site via a sensationalist piece we do, the hope is that they stay for the more serious matters as well. During the week that we released the Westboro interview on Youtube we increased many views for the other interviews that dealt with government and other rights issues. So in the long term we are going to get our message out to many more people if we sprinkle in some of these extremist interviews.

Trebuchet: So you’re an evangelist then?
David Pakman: In what sense?

Trebuchet: In the sense that you draw people in with the sensationalist stories and then give them some more useful information that later on.
David Pakman: Sure, from every angle that we’ve talked about, from what is fun for me to do, to what makes sense from the business standpoint, to what is fun for people to see; I think a mix of things is good. We try and have guests from both sides of the political spectrum. We try and have guests that are extreme and not extreme and have a mix of programming. I think it’s more about whether people are interested in the show as a whole, and whether people come in on me talking for three minutes about tax policy or whether they come in on me talking to Shirley from the Westboro Baptist church, for me it’s about getting my ideas out and the more different things we do the more people will be brought in initially and then hopefully they stay.

Trebuchet: What’s your greatest success so far?
David Pakman: I think really that since I finished graduate school and the media work I’ve done, the amount of traction we had so far; 7 million views on Youtube, first page on Itunes, features in the Washington Post, CBS, the Huffington Post, from something that started with absolutely no budget! We started out burning CDs of the show, that was the budget, buying CDs. I think it’s great.

Trebuchet: Would you be interested in opening the door for people, maybe not direct competitors, to do the David Pakman show in say, French? Or German? Or Ethiopian?
David Pakman: I regularly help people and give them advice the best I can, whether for clients – for a fee, or whether for individuals – when I speak at colleges or wherever, and even people that email me randomly.  Within reason I give people advice on doing what I have done, knowing that I am not by any means the expert on it, but I am accessible to people. So I’m always glad to do that. I’m regularly in email contact with people starting a podcast and at the moment I’m in contact with someone starting a business focussed talk show so I’m always glad to help. But you know, what for most people might appear to be competition to me is really just a complementary product. My show is only an hour at a time and most people if they find another show that they like won’t stop listening to my show. So as I see it, the more people that are interested in this type of content the better it will be for me. I believe in enlarging the pie.

Trebuchet: Thank you very much, it’s been a real pleasure speaking to you.
David Pakman: Thank you and good luck with Trebuchet.

Pakman’s decision to relegate factual objectivity under opinion and presentation is an interesting position to take. He is open about his biases and covers stories that he personally finds interesting or within his particular worldview. But rather than being myopic this rigorous candour allows people to understand his bias and to take the context that he provides as it is from his point of view. This is his main objective; getting people to question the sources that deliver news and political rhetoric and understanding it from the position that the news is a human event, seen by a person, who has biases, perspectives and interests, and reported to an audience who is similarly ensconced in various world views. Rather than trying to look at everything from every point of view and working out the perspective mean by encompassing all points of view it seems that Pakman would like us to view the news as being motivated by interested parties that aim to elicite specific responses to the issues presented. The objective reality of a, now past, event is unimportant compared to the specific ways people are being enticed to react. 

The consideration here is not that reaction is in itself is bad, but that the post terrorist, 9/11, paranoid natural calamity reactionary mediascape we live in pushes us to have an unreflexive emotional responses justified by immediacy. Act now, before it’s too late. 

Arguably we cannot control these things from happening; natural calamities are part of the world we live in and when denser populations meet with the increased capacity of individuals to create destruction through advances in military technology there is an inevitability to these events that has become key tools for various political and corporate opportunists. What stops Pakman being lumped in with conspiracy theorists is that it appears that he is aware that this is largely a systemic component of how corporations exist rather than a conscious force of will. For many topical issues there are related products that people can buy which might potentially ameliorate the audience’s sense of powerlessness. For instance, a news story on infant mortality during car accidents followed by an advertisement for an ‘advanced defence system for child transport safety (i.e. more secure car seat)’ would presumably see an increase in the amount of sales based on that particular advertisement. The extent to which new stories are matched with similar products is unknown, but corporate media is to some extent beholden to their advertising sponsors and it doesn’t beggar belief that the promotion of issues beneficial to their products isn’t encouraged.

The role of corporate sponsors completes the triangle with politics and news, and according to Pakman news can lay the groundwork for a particular political product to appear more necessary and immediate. It seems strangely relevant that unaffiliated media spokespeople like Pakman are using the same techniques as many corporate opinion shows to enlighten pre-biased audiences to bias while at the same time getting their own positions across. The internet it seems has allowed people to create shows to cater for any particular standpoint and if media critical shows like Pakman’s are ultimately successfully we’ll have an equally unbiased audience, active and eventually informed.   

The David Pakman Show can be found here.
Illustration by John Close


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