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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1999, pages 51, 84


Don Bustany: Truth Be Told

By John C. LaMonte

Don Bustany, the avuncular host of the popular “Middle East in Focus” radio program, opened his Nov. 20 broadcast with a succinct statement of its importance:

“Voices that speak out about the injustices perpetrated by the Israelis upon the Palestinians are almost never heard in our mainstream media. The Israeli establishment doesn’t want Americans to know what’s really going on over there, and it has enough economic and political leverage here in the U.S. to suppress such coverage in our major newspapers and broadcasting companies. But ”˜Middle East in Focus’ is dedicated to bringing you honest information through honest people—courageous people.”

And so it does—week in and week out—but it hasn’t been easy. Initially more a magazine of Middle Eastern culture when it first aired in southern California on KPFK-FM (98.7) in 1979, the program had a succession of hosts until Bustany took over in mid-October of 1996.

“In the early years, the program was on a couple of nights a week in the evening,” recalls Bustany. “It was spawned by the hostage crisis in Iran and covered news and featured poetry and local cultural events, but by the time I came aboard as host, the need to provide objective coverage of the contemporary history of the Middle East was grave. Certainly, you couldn’t get the straight news in the mainstream media.”

That has not changed, making “Middle East in Focus” essential listening for anyone who wants an in-depth appraisal of the fast-breaking events in that area.

Recent programs provided insight on the resignation of U.N. Oil-for-Food coordinator Dr. Dennis Halliday, on the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the jailing of legitimate Kurdish representatives in Turkey, issues about which the mainstream media was mute.

For years the program aired on Sundays from 1 to 2 p.m., a prime time for public radio listeners. As a listener-sponsored station, KPFK is relatively free from corporate influence, directly or indirectly, through funding. However, the sphere of “Middle East in Focus” is not a general interest subject, so the listenership is necessarily smaller. Ratings on public broadcasting are not big enough to show up on the commercial rating services. Still the program seemed to have found its audience, and Bustany was dismayed when early in 1997 he was told by the program director that “Middle East in Focus” would be temporarily dropped from KPFK’s schedule. This after Bustany had demonstrated the importance of the program in serving as an illuminating alternative to commercial broadcasting.

“Management was very candid with me,” Bustany related. “It was said there was hostility toward the show from an ”˜obvious quarter.’ I interpreted that to be the Israeli lobby. I was told the program was going to be put on hiatus for three months, but if you’re in broadcasting, you know that’s not a hiatus. When a show goes off the air for three months, it’s off the air, period.”

And thus was joined the battle to keep “Middle East in Focus” coming to its listeners. Bustany could draw upon a lifetime of experience as a campaigner for justice in America’s dealings with the peoples of the region—and more than a half-century in the turbulent world of broadcasting. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Bustany has a master’s degree in communications and is a veteran production coordinator for television and radio shows featuring Mary Tyler Moore, Bill Cosby, and Casey Kasem.

“I told KPFK they couldn’t take the program off the air,” Bustany said. “It’s too important to too many people and there’s nothing like it anywhere in the nation. You can’t kill a program like this, I said, and still claim that you’re serving the community.”

Bustany’s impassioned argument prevailed, and management agreed to keep “Middle East in Focus” on the air, albeit shifted to Friday afternoons and cut back to a half hour (2-2:30 p.m.).

“At first we tried to continue our policy of taking telephone calls on the air,” Bustany said, “but a half-hour is not enough time to do that when you have guests who have a lot to say—like Alexander Cockburn or Richard H. Curtiss or Admiral Thomas Moorer.”

Ironically, Bustany now believes the loss of impromptu telephone calls has proved to be a plus. “Sometimes kooks used to call in, wasting time,” Bustany said. “So, okay, they might be interesting for a minute or so, but now with all of the talk shows across the radio dial, you can hear a high percentage of kooks every day, and the novelty of that is gone.

The novelty now is presenting truthful information about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the situation of the Kurds, what’s going on in Iran, and the status of women in Muslim countries—not biased, pro-Israel news articles.

“What I want on the program,” Bustany continued, “is to present the truth. There are those who say there is no such thing as objective truth—that truths conflict. But when someone takes something from someone else, it’s not objective to claim that God gave it to him! And to those who demand ”˜balance’ on the program, I say, when is the truth ever balanced? Most of the time, the truth comes down on one side or the other. In Arab-Israeli issues the bias of the mainstream media has almost exclusively favored the Israeli side, and that is not truth. The truth is suppressed and hidden. Partial truths are lies.”

Bustany feels that “Middle East in Focus” must counter sophisticated Israeli public relations machinery. “Look at the subtle way they’ve shifted the debate on Palestine to bits and pieces of the lands,” he said. “They’ve co-opted any statement by the Palestinians that all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and all of the Gaza Strip must be returned before there will be any peace.”

But this clever twisting of the truth, Bustany said, is to the long-term detriment of Israel, a belief he feels he shares with many of his Jewish listeners. “Often I hear from new listeners—rational, non-ideological Jews—who express their appreciation for our effort to maintain a reasoned approach.”

And on a related point, Bustany is adamant. “While the program is of great interest to Arab-Americans, it really addresses Jews and other mainstream Americans because that’s where the major leverage will come from to influence decisions made in Washington, DC.

“There is a core of people who are Jews—most of them American citizens but some Israelis—who are totally opposed to Zionist and Israeli policies. Some of them are Zionists in the sense that they want Israel to be safe and secure. Others are anti-Zionist in that they don’t want a Jewish state.

“But they all recognize the iniquities Israel is guilty of and the unfairness of the violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people. It’s these enlightened Jews with the courage to express their indignation on the air who may be Israel’s salvation. They have the persuasive power to save Israel from the fate it’s rushing headlong toward today.”

One particular event underscored this phenomenon for Bustany. “In the late ’80s and the early ’90s,” he recalled, “an Arab-Jewish dialogue group was very active here, and a Jewish member named Harriet Katz visited Israel and reported back on what she’d seen, describing to us the aggressions perpetrated upon the Palestinians by the State of Israel and relating the unethical policies that were being enforced.

“She finished up with one memorable sentence, pounding on the table top to emphasize each word. She said, ”˜Terrible things are happening there, and Israel is doing them!’ That impressed me greatly. It called my attention to the fact that many American Jews do object strenuously to what’s going on.”

Another target of “Middle East in Focus,” Bustany said, is the average, politically-interested American. “They’re a moving target—these people who flip across the radio dial—but sometimes you can catch them just right with a certain spoken phrase and they become regular listeners. I was told during the most recent fund drive at the station that many callers on other KPFK shows requested that our program be put on longer and in a better time slot.”

It would seem that in these times of tension in U.S.-Middle East relations, “Middle East in Focus” would deserve not only more air time in Southern California, but greater dissemination throughout the nation. Democracy, as Bustany has emphasized, requires that the truth be told.

Give yourself the opportunity to tune in on “Middle East in Focus.” Call your local public radio station and ask them to request the program from KPFK-FM, 3729 Cahuenga West, North Hollywood, CA 91604; telephone (818) 985-2711.

John C. LaMonte is a retired teacher and screenwriter living in the Los Angeles area.