Embracing the Gadfly - the interviewed thoughts of MT Karthik

by Marc Herbst

MT Karthik was the KPFK Los Angeles news director from February 10, 2003 to November 2004, though from April 2004 until August 2004 he worked exclusively as the Pacifica Radio National Elections Coordinator. The network, of which KPFK is a member, fired him from his network duty. Covering then the presidential elections for KPFK he projected John Kerry the winner in Ohio and consequently the proper winner of the subsequent Electoral College vote. Soon after November 2nd, his contract with KPFK was ended 3 weeks early.

Michael Wilson, of the LA media lab c-level, invited Karthik to speak about his broadcasting experiences. At his lecture we learned that he viewed his tenure at Pacifica as an extended conceptual art project. Approximately 250,000 listeners of KPFK’s radio-land turned on Karthik’s nightly evening news broadcast that was also an artistic critical play with the media form.

From the KPFK Listener’s Forum, here are some descriptions of his work;

“Apparently aided by the advanced release of the President's (State of the Union) text, each carefully-paced applause was faded down during KPFK's broadcast so that listeners could instantly receive a rundown of facts and figures directly contradicting the statements just heard, or some clever and disrespectful rejoinder. Among the announcer comments I managed to catch in the brief 5 minutes or so of the broadcast I heard was a usefully descriptive- "unipartisan applause," a factoid about the prior Bush ownership interest in a professional sports team in response to a mention of steroids, and several other gems that I was just too busy laughing about to coherently report here. What the broadcast lacked as fair journalism, it made up for as guerilla theater, so the old corporate media debate about entertainment division incursions into broadcast news territory has finally hit Pacifica with a vengeance, thanks to the erudite playfulness of MTK on the M-I-C.”

-Terry Goodman

“MTK was a clearly disturbed individual who radically degraded the quality of the KPFK news cast. He imposed an unbelievable list of PC terms on the newscasters, making them to refer to US troops as "American Gunmen" and to the US Government as the Walker-Bush regime. This is but a self-indulgent, jack-off parlor game that demeans the intelligence of the audience and apes the style of Pravda.”


“I have listened to and enjoyed the experimentations that always is a part of MTK programming, whether it be news or other public affair offerings. Of course, there is disagreement with some of his presentations, especially the 911 fictional conspiracies, but always, I marveled at the drive that characterized this person, in his effort to bring out the freshness in many a dull but controversial subject.”

-Gordon J Stich


I interviewed Karthik on a dreary wet day at his house off the 170 in the southern edge of The Valley. The place was in the shambles of transition; the family moving to rural Japan. MT would be studying papermaking, his wife Tiffany would work at an alternative school.

Below are some of his thoughts, excerpted from our conversation:

Radio is a tribal medium, a vernacular medium. It has none of the hang-ups of the academy. In the Pacifica Network, KPFK is way out there in LA. You can say anything that you want there- two precedents all the way up to the highest courts say we can say, “fuck the constitution” as long as the context can be proven solid. The station’s attorney said so point blank.

During the initial war I increased news presence on the schedule by 200%. For six months after that I increased it 150%. I broke up Free Speech Radio News into segments and made the evening news have one host (not two) read. I fired the actors who were reading the news (this is LA) and pledged that no others would be used - rather I would train a team of multi-disciplinary writers to read. I added two reporters [both hires were women] and added music and breaks to make it more listenable for a young, hip audience. I am responsible for the theme music and for adding ambient sound in pauses - thunder from Mt. Washington, crickets from Studio City, ocean waves from Santa Barbara seaside. I invented an  "audio magazine" for the midday news in which music was programmed into the thing mixed under readers and between stories. I was the first News Director to go to Palestine in late 2003 and the UN during run up to war [early 2003] - and did this on my own dime and reported daily into midday and evening news.

I saw a real opportunity here. All those people who watch press conferences and State of the Union Addresses, we had grown into a significant critical mass and I was proposing, “Let’s use these tools to admit that we think it’s a crock of shit. Let’s be the Charles Beards of our era. Let us call a spade a spade, you know?!?”

Charles Beard authored the first critical view of the founding fathers.  Beard stood up in the academy and said, “I’m going to now write about the 55 white slave-owning property-holders who authored the Constitution and now I’m going to tell you that they did not shit marbles and they were in fact racist fucks. In fact, we have a major problem if were going to try and keep up the sham of our Republic by not letting women vote in 1920.” He said, “This is BS, we can’t continue lying about the founders.” I think he represented part of a real chance between 1920 and 1960 - the left that is now really so crushed could have flipped this whole thing then. We were really talking about admitting our failures. Beard and others found support from women whose men were off fighting in World War One, who had both peace motivations and suffrage motivations - these women who began supporting academics who opposed entry into these wars and who were supporting more diversity of culture. All this revealing of stuff builds up into 1968. KPFK was the place to do this same thing today, and I told them during my interview, that is what I want to do.

Without a public airing of the full story, we are fucked. So I ask everybody, why do we publish the dissent in a 7-2 decision of the Supreme Court? There has to be a record of the arguments of the dissent. I think its imperative for the future that there is an archive that says, “all this is ridiculous, I do not agree, not in my name!”

Because of everything, I was often accused of editorializing. I counter stating that editorializing is rampant on the other side, so rampant that it is being taken for fact. They have so successfully used AM radio. That’s imperative.

I am an activist who, in the context of KPFK and Pacifica, looked at the mission statements and understood pacifism to be the widest umbrella of consciousness throughout the network. I chose the pacifist ideologies as the most important ideology in an era when major wars are being conducted that are illegal. This guy, Bush, is illegally invading countries, bombing places. There is a war that is fucked; a pacifist station is obliged to take this kind of editorial position.

Even more so now. The two-paper town is so rare that journalism and the record no longer exist. Colin Powell could spend an hour and a half at the UN telling the world that Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons of mass destruction, that he is capable of delivering them to people and committing mass atrocity. Powell does this for 96 minutes and every paper presents it as fact. What you got was a non-competitive view that said, “we think Saddam Hussein is this. We think Saddam Hussein is that.” They didn’t do “We observed Powell pitching such and such about Saddam Hussein.” Now how did we at KPFK? We played not one clip of Powell or Jack Straw - their ideas were already in all the papers. We let people hear other voices that favored and opposed war- the UN ambassadors from Pakistan, the Syrian, the Chilean. Others on the Security Council who you could not hear anywhere else. We provided the competitive journalism that allowed a comparison to what you got in every other paper.

Ward Churchill. I wanted him to come on the air, telling him, “Look at this context I’m giving you.” I wanted Ward Churchill to come on after Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. I was thinking, “It’s imperative that if Ward Churchill’s message is ever to get to the mainstreamers it has to happen right after Bill Clinton.” It’s like, “is the whole project going to be judged right now or not? You know? We have a chance to judge the whole national project.” This sort of play-by-play is so threatening to the Democrats – it has concepts that only an artist could bring to news.

US American is an example of something linguistic that I generated with much assistance from Patrick Burke. We’d say “US American” for all references to persons, entities or policies of the USA. The term was meant to replace and correct American. American President Bush, American this, American that. Well, Chile is in America, Canada is in America, Mexico is in America. Listeners to our stations get that. It’s an antidote for that broadcast idea of The Global North being the most important. It is also important because it contextualizes the USA, which I believe must be isolated

But these linguistics were very collectively modeled. I never told anyone what to say. It was never an imposition because we knew that we were stretching shit. We knew it was problematic. The style manual we were talking about has very aggressive ideas. That’s what we needed though, a style manual for people who saw that all the press was producing it one way and saw a need for another story to be told. Thus, that other story needed some etiquette because it’s very subjective stuff- how far are you going to go?


The style manual is both antidotal and corrective to the current media environment. It’s antidotal as language designed to specifically counter other propaganda. The propaganda may not in-and-of-itself be false - such as George Bush’s  “I want Muslim Women to be free”- but it is in need of an antidote. It is also a corrective to out-and-out lies such as Bush’s State of the Union assertion that “yellowcake uranium is being sold by Niger to Iraq.” This is a lie and it has to be corrected because there was no yellowcake uranium being sold.

People critical of me saw a network director giving reporters a linguistic script – they equate a script with some sort of fascism, an erasure of difference. This didn’t happen. I acknowledge that pluralism and diversity are imperatives. In every instance when I wanted a certain language used, I used it first. We would have conversations in the newsroom, “All right, today we’re gonna say this.” It would be odd sometimes; everyone’s there and someone would snicker, another person would be like, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” I wanted to make sure that I was open with the whole staff. The linguistics were supposed to give you freedom. Those who saw that were attracted. They couldn’t believe that a news director was creating this context. Those that were not attracted, left.

The script was not mechanical, it was context specific. It was like, “we’re about to go on the air, what did Amy Goodman say this morning? What did Tom Brokaw say last night? What did the British papers say over the net?” How could we make that thing so that it is also on the continuum? Reviewing everybody and coming up with an alternative view of how to present the information that is still true and more edgy but rubs up closer to the vernacularly accepted truth because of the conjecture, the circumstantial evidence. The listener hears Tom Brokaw, hears Amy Goodman and us and is now more able to make an informed decision. “I have heard the gadfly, too!”

A good example of how we did it was when the word “insurgents” came up. We had been using “resistors” throughout, and we had seen this in the context of UN 1441 and the bombing of the no-fly zones. The LA Times was getting national attention for their question of whether they’d ever say resistance again – and in fact they did change it. We had to have a real open moment where I stood up and said, “Look everyone, we are not changing this term. No, this is a ‘no’ kind of thing, and if anyone wants to have that out now, have it out.”

As a journalist, I believe you should be extra-national - you should be outside of the state, like Neruda, like Paz. A journalist should be able to say, “I investigate your decision as a nation.”  A journalist should not just reproduce what the Pentagon says by repeating the fax they just sent, saying “The Pentagon says this....” That is what happens in many newsrooms. It’s counter to Columbia and Annenberg Journalism School models. This is bad. CJR is very upset. Annenberg is very upset. Investigation is fading. They’re all very upset that people are getting lazy and that people would rather write puff-pieces.

The Annenberg Model supports the model of the “two paper town.” That model relies very much on competitive journalism. It is a model of an objective, journalistic record. They call it the record. They say you are “on the record” or you are “off the record.” The record is: “All the news that is fit to print”. The record is, “No, our attorneys will not let you say that on TV.” The record is this non-existent thing. It doesn’t have political boundaries. Really, it is only based on what attorneys producing the media are willing to say. It’s the record that is fucked. If you want to get really wide out, its built on a system that is classist, racist, culturally inappropriate. It’s not really even descriptive, accurate.

The model that is based on the record is broken. At its most pure, in 1971 they said, “The president must be taken down! We will reveal the Pentagon’s Papers. We will take you down because you lied.” If that’s the ideal of holding people to the record, then there has been 30 years of obliterating the record as a tool. They’ve now created the imbedded journalist!

I consciously compromise that model of “objective journalism,” maintained by Columbia, Annenberg, and other schools. My model threatens people because they have been so indoctrinated by their model - anything that slightly stretches outside of it is threatening. I’m not particularly opposed to CJR/Annenberg, but there’s a need for a new journalistic model; coupled with this decline in true investigative principals is a laziness that is a direct result of journalism becoming professionalizing in a capitalist, corporate media environment. The media strategy at large is governed by capitalists’ need for products that are super-innovative, exciting and are produced at a rate that doesn’t take into account the possible impact of all this production.

My project is in direct conflict with right-wing media. But it is also against the media environment in the United States at large. The American media is different from any other environment in the world. In the English language, we have examples of other forms journalisms. In Britain it’s different. You have a left paper there that openly does their thing. And people buy their paper based on that awareness.

My critics think I went in the wrong direction. They think I’m playing into the weaknesses that have resulted from media’s deregulated pluralism. They think that instead of doing what I do, I should be strengthening what we think our culture should be - that I should be strengthening the record.

The record is that the Boland Amendment has been violated. But now it’s impossible to hold anyone accountable to this or any other violation. The old standards are a complete failure. I think that while today’s pluralistic media environment weakens the awareness of such narratives, it strengthens intuitive consciousness. Pluralistic media allows for collectivizing an understanding of how we view something. And this is where my critics see me as a danger.

I am the manifestation of that pluralism. My model is really subjective, experimental - seeing if we could stumble across anything useful. The art principals come in here. The model is aggressive in its own opinion. It has its own editorial posture.

A lot of what I was trying to do was to embrace the role of a gadfly. When you embrace the roll of a gadfly you say, “I will cover the fringe. I will cover it loudly, so that you don’t have to. And so you, the politician, can exercise the right to entertain the fringe and thereby move your position more easily because I’ll be the sucker who can do that for you.” This is embracing the gladfly.

One doesn’t accidentally become the gadfly. One doesn’t do it falsely by believing in something that is not correct or that has bad principals. The gadfly embraces conjecture and circumstantial evidence for the sake of allowing these on the table. The gadfly says, “Bush and Cheney knew of 9-11 and let it happen,” and then puts it on the table so we can all consider it as a null hypothesis. The gadfly says, “Kerry won and Bush cheated and the machines are how they did it,” and puts it on the table. It doesn’t have to be true; we can consider it and then debunk it. Carl Sagan comes to mind saying, “I hate these scientists who mock mediums and spiritualists. I would rather go to the spiritualists and investigate them as I would through science. Test them against a hypothesis. Test them and see if maybe they are intuiting something I can’t fathom because my tools can’t measure it.”

I had to do news this way because I knew that the other way wasn’t working. The 2000 election was a joke. I had seen this guy, Bush, in Texas my whole life and then to see the country get suckered like that. It was like: “God, we need more aggressive posturing.”  The journalists failed, they absolutely bought into his crap. He would spend money at key specific moments like no other. $50,000,000 in one weekend in South Carolina and they bury John McCain- who to even people I knew on the left seemed like a reasonable cat. We had nothing to combat this.

What I did on radio was to legitimize your feelings that what they were saying was a lie; that it was illegitimate. With me, you heard a formalistic mass-medium language presentation that expressed your conjecture, your accusations, your feelings, your intuition; your circumstantial evidence that the state is corrupt.

KPFK listeners would hear, “This is MT Karthik, and Donald Rumsfeld is a liar.” Just hearing it slightly shrinks that incredible propagandistic power of the corporate-owned, highly deregulated media. It slightly liberates in the way that art seen for the first time liberates.

With these thoughts, I do presume an intellectual righteousness. There is a truth that is being failed that can be corrected. The only reason I got to this level is that it’s become so bad that a lot of us are standing around saying, “Holy shit the country doesn’t know and the TV isn’t even talking about it.” I repeat over and over again, “9-11 has no connection to Saddam Hussein, 9-11 has no connection to Saddam Hussein.” Or, “This war is in direct violation of the UN charter. This war is an illegal act.” Just because the other media are not doing this!

I was involved in the apartheid struggle in ‘86, ‘87, ‘88, ‘89. I remember watching Mandela walk. I agree with Jeff Halper and all those folks who talk about ending apartheid as being one of International Humanism’s successes. It wasn’t Superman who flew out of the sky who said “You can’t do this anymore Botha.” It wasn’t the whites having some sort of cultural revelation. It was the world saying, “This is Bullshit! Let Sisalu out! Let Mandela out!” It was the world. It was that world that still exists but that has become tiny in some fucked up way because of the Globalist World, which I see as attached to the capitalist project in the same way that the Marxists do. It is very clear to me, in very obvious and simple terms, what is happening. I think we humanists exist, but we need a writer to formalize our consciousness.

On a facile level, any ism has the propensity to erase difference. But, here you have to look at Rene Cassin, the author of the International Declaration for Human Rights. Look at his investigation. He’s a French Jew.  He was asking how any idealism could not eventually lead to Genocide. He’s an attorney, he understands international law. He sat around for decades trying to write this declaration.

For our generation, we have to acknowledge that this document exists for answering these questions like no other document right now. It really does try to erase what America has invented, I mean that e-r-a-c-e as in race. Its very delicate territory. In Humanism you run very close to fascism and problems that are about definitions because you can conduct genocide through the obliteration of names. Ideally though, it is about letting people be. Yet it’s super delicate because there are some people who need more then others. That’s why the Zapatistas are so fucking key in this era. They made it clear that that there are people who do not have the numbers or access. There are people who are more precious because of their situation. And how do you act as judge on that?

I might say, “Jerusalem should be an international state. Fuckin’ stop it! We should protect it with an international zone, and just protect the shit! Just fuck all of you all!” These monotheists and the Palestinians. How do I tell them that?  How do you tell them, “All of you put your guns down, blue hats are coming in, no guns allowed in Jerusalem ever. No weapons, no guns, no bullets nothing. No weapons allowed in Jerusalem! It will be run by an extra-religious entity.” You can say that but they’ll laugh you out of the room. How do you author that?

We’re tired of waiting for society trapped in its modernist model of the nation state. “The five revolutions and the god-dammed birth of the Republics.” So the fuck what! Your bureaucracies that you’ve created in the name of your democracy are fucking everything up. We could feed everyone- we’re not. We could clothes everyone- we’re not. We could be doing all these things- we’re not. It’s apparent to us 40 year-olds traveling the major cities of the world. We are in agreement that we want our leaders to stop their bullshit projects and change the direction it’s going.

I think it’s predictable that things didn’t work out between Pacifica and me. I think that when I went into it with an artists’ model, I was going to collide with the capitalist way. There is no room for an artist’s project in that sort of thing - it’s a mass medium. Maybe we’ve identified the curse of the deregulated, corporate controlled mass media even in the non-profit sector which is supposed to be community oriented, and free of all that. It has been poisoned by the actual context. I took the position knowing the endemic problems within Pacifica but hoping to achieve something. Many people were so defensive and uncooperative, and I was met with a lot of hostility. So many people thought I was making changes because I wanted to make a career for myself. They didn’t see that I wanted to change the world; I wanted to author something new and affective. Pacifica is not a space for this sort of artist project.

I have grown to a place where I am so angry all the time when I consume media and read what’s going on around me. I am so angry all the time by what I see happening outside that I have become very emotional. I need some time away.

I think I can be useful to the USA but I don’t think I am right now. I am conducting things in a reactionary way in counter pose to a faction who has conducted a coup. This not the America I grew up with. It’s a manipulated facsimile of it. I have not felt good since 911. In those days immediately after, there was this chance. I was one of those people who did not freak out. I was watching those towers burn and thinking of them as the symbol they were. It wasn’t a big deal to hear Stockhausen’s comment. There was this little window right after it where you actually thought “shit this is gonna’ be great! We earned this, we now have to change our nature.”

But Bush isn’t saying, “We have a different philosophy! Join up, be a part of the freest culture in the world!” Instead, I am reminded of Bush saying, “This is a free country, you can believe whatever you want. We want finance faith based programs with all the religions, as long as they believe ‘do unto others as they would do unto you.’ “Other peoples all say the exact opposite. They say, “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you.”

My friend Rigo has a great line, “Do you want to live in the America of MLK’s dream, or do you want to live in the America that killed him?” That’s a good way to attach yourself to the possibilities. I love jazz. When I was a kid I was surrounded by racists. Listening to jazz music was an incredibly freeing thing. It made me feel like where I was wasn’t actually so toxic, like you could actually produce great art. It’s the human experience. America is not the evil empire. It’s not the Great Satan. No place is. Go there, there are 20 percent geniuses, 20 percent fucking morons. It’s a bell curve. When you get older you realize it’s just the structures that are in these places.

You’re a monk; you’re not a soldier. You come to them in every pluralized way. You try to say to them “Love not hate. Put the gun down, stand down, put the gun down.” More of the same; over and over. This is ultimately it. At 8 I knew it. At 16 I knew it, and I gotta go. It’s come to the point where they’ve painted people who look like me as a threat. When I go to the grocery store, they don’t look at me like a person who can tell them something that would make them more loving. Image-wise, I’ve been reduced, unable to give them something that could make them more loving. At best I could be “not a terrorist,” just maybe a “good American.” This is bad.