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  The Long, Strange Trip of
David Hoffman

He's been a Hopkins lacrosse player, a draft resister, a "proto-Marxist" agitator, a hippie recluse, and a labor organizer. Now David Hoffman, A&S '66, has become the libertarian godfather of independent news media around the world.

By Dale Keiger
Opening Photo by Kellie Jo Brown

At 10 o'clock on an April morning, the government of Kyrgyzstan has fallen. This is not big news in most of North America, but David Hoffman exults. "Big things happening!" he says. Hoffman can't sit down. He perches at his desk to check his computer one more time. Then, past a world map on the wall and a bookcase containing volumes on politics and history, he steps into the hall and asks his assistant, Susan Clay, "Can you check the latest reports? Check Radio Free Europe; they're the best."

News from the Kyrgyz capital has been emanating from what might be called Radio Free Bishkek, which thrills Hoffman because the nonprofit organization that he directs, Internews, fostered independent news media in Kyrgyzstan. As protesters seized control of the government, much of the news reaching the Kyrgyz people was broadcast by reporters trained and supported by Internews. Hoffman reads from an e-gram sent from Bishkek by Internews' Elvira Sarieva:

The state TV . . . is taken over by the opposition, they agreed to show our news blocks that we were producing and collecting . . . and we had a chance to provide information through the Russian channel.

Hoffman smiles and says, "This is quite exciting."

For more than two decades, Internews has supported — with training, technology, and legal expertise — independent media in Algeria, Bahrain, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Egypt, Georgia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Vietnam, the republic of Yemen, and other countries.

From its headquarters in Arcata, California, it has helped build 29 independent radio stations across Afghanistan and establish independent radio in Kosovo. It has trained Pakistan's first non-government female radio journalists and educated citizens about their rights in newly independent East Timor. In Ethiopia, Internews has partnered with Hopkins' AIDS Resource Center in Addis Ababa to train local radio journalists in how to cover the country's AIDS epidemic. When the Russian government tried to control information about the savage war in Chechnya, Internews-trained journalists broadcast battlefield reports and images of coffins containing dead Russian soldiers. Internews trained and supported Rustavi-2, an independent television station in Georgia that played a pivotal role in the 2003 civilian revolt that toppled the Georgian government.

"David's idea is, 'Save the world by establishing a fourth estate in every former tyranny,'" says Robert Fuller, former director of the World Watch Institute and former chairman of Internews' board of directors. "David gets people to do things they wouldn't have dared to do without his conviction that it's all possible."

One idea had a hold on them: the potential of satellite television for direct,unmediated conversations between U.S. and Soviet citizens. David Hoffman is 60 years old, with graying hair and an easy manner. He seems taller than his six feet, perhaps because of his lean frame. He's an agitator, an operator, a visionary, and a promoter, and he can inspire contradictory judgments, even among people who have been around him for a long time. Peter Pennekamp has known Hoffman for 10 years and serves on Internews' board. He says, "David is one of those people with an interesting idea every 14 seconds. He's fairly brilliant. He's also a very loyal friend." Video producer Evelyn Messinger has known him more than 25 years and was a co-founder of Internews. "We were close for many years," she says. "I saw him as my brother. David is really smart and creative and fun." But she also says, "He's an opportunist. I don't think loyalty is his strong point."

What you make of him may depend on when you encountered him. During the last 40 years, Hoffman has been, in rough order, a carefree jock, a Marxist anti-war activist and draft resister, a PhD student, a Fuller Brush salesman, a labor organizer, a hippie ascetic, an anti-nuclear protester, a citizen diplomat, and a libertarian entrepreneur. Along the way he's had four children, two wives, a slew of girlfriends, any number of chickens (he raises Rhode Island Reds), encounters with American and French police, a brief fling with becoming a guerilla fighter, a breakdown and change of life triggered by a Martin Scorsese movie, and now Internews. He says evolution is his current religion, poverty is the great issue of our time, and Republicans are superior to Democrats in understanding independent media. He knows the key players in Kyrgyzstan but admits he can't name the mayor of Arcata. In the 1960s, he burned his draft card. In the 1970s, he grew his own organic food and read Eastern philosophy. In 2005, after the Iraqi elections, he sent Paul Wolfowitz, with whom he maintains a friendly correspondence, a note conceding the U.S. government may have been right to push for democratization in Iraq. "My friends here don't know what to think," he says. "The Wolfowitz stuff flips them out."

Arcata is in Humboldt County, north toward the Oregon border. It has an expansive and pretty plaza in the center of town with a substantial monument to William McKinley. Some residents dislike a memorial to a man they consider an imperialist president. Hoffman says he'd like to replace it with a monument to Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead guitarist who often sang, Lately it occurs to me/What a long, strange trip it's been.

It has been a long, strange trip, if you're David Hoffman.

Internews resides in a blue building formerly devoted to a car dealership's garage. Inside, its designers have created a faux village, with a miniature central plaza and office exteriors done up to suggest little bungalows. There are soft chairs and sofas, lots of natural light, lots of plants, and burbling fountains. The organization inhabiting this very Californian space might not exist had Hoffman not stopped by to see his first ex-wife and their two children in San Francisco on May 6, 1979. While he was there, something caught his eye on her television: A large demonstration against nuclear power was under way in Washington, D.C., and there was footage from the rally. Only it wasn't footage — it was a live satellite feed carried by a San Francisco public broadcasting station. Someone named Kim Spencer had found an obscure federal communications regulation that allowed him to rent unused time on a PBS satellite and beam the protest to any public station that wanted to air it. Hoffman had never seen American television used this way. "I was transfixed," he recalls. He decided he had to meet this Spencer.

After he did, some months later, he, Spencer, and Messinger (who is now Spencer's wife) began to meet for dinner with a small group of like-minded friends to discuss an obscure Chinese philosopher named Mo Tzu, issues of nuclear war, and the role television might play in those issues. By 1982, Hoffman, Spencer, and Messinger were sharing an apartment in San Francisco and had formed a loose partnership to explore ways to foster independent media. This was the beginning of Internews. In 1986, they incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

They spent a lot of time tossing around what they called TWICs — Totally Worthless Interesting Concepts. Brainstorming sessions were called "TWIC-ing out." One specific idea had a hold on them: the potential of satellite television for direct, unmediated conversation between citizens of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They'd seen the idea, dubbed "spacebridges" by a Russian named Joseph Golden, get a trial run at the 1982 Us Festival in California, connecting the music fest's American audience with a studio audience in the Soviet Union. The two groups mostly waved at each other, but the technology had worked.

Afghanistan: Internews now reaches nearly half the population.
Photo by David Trilling / Internews
Spencer, Messinger, and James Hickman of the Esalen Center for Theory and Research then took the idea and ran with it, aiming for more sophisticated and substantive spacebridges. In 1983, they linked Carl Sagan and a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science with the USSR Academy of Sciences, for a dialogue about nuclear war and its probable aftermath. Robert Fuller, who went to Moscow with Spencer, recalls, "We switched on the connection and nothing happened. The screen was black for 43 anxiety-ridden seconds. Then, suddenly, there was my brother, who was in Washington working on the sound. Nobody watched it in the U.S. except my dad. But the whole Soviet Union paid attention to this broadcast, and they learned for the first time that their country had missiles pointed at America, which hadn't been publicly known there. This had a staggering effect on the Soviet public. The next day on the buses and subways no one was talking about anything else."

Internews was still a tiny operation at this point, mostly unknown. Annette Makino, now senior vice president for communications, began as Hoffman's assistant in 1989. "I used to complain that we just sat around and wrote grant proposals and didn't actually do much. I get teased for that now," she says. Internews' profile began to grow when, in 1986, it facilitated Citizens' Summit, a town meeting via spacebridge between American and Soviet studio audiences, hosted in the respective countries by Phil Donahue and Vladimir Posner. Hoffman's real coup was to convince ABC News to devote an edition of Nightline to a subsequent spacebridge, this one — linking American and Soviet legislators — called Capital to Capital. The program was so successful, ABC ran seven of them from 1987 to 1990 and won an Emmy award.

By the end of the 1980s, Hoffman thought Internews had done about all it could to improve dialogue with Soviet citizens. But he had heard rumors of independent television stations going on the air all over the former Soviet Union. Intrigued, he and a philanthropist named Wade Greene sent a team of six Russian-speaking Americans to look for these bootstrap broadcasters. They found hundreds of them, all over the collapsed Soviet empire. Many were in massive, Stalinist apartment complexes that had been wired with a single antenna, ready for cable television. Pirate broadcasters simply tapped into the system to broadcast to everyone in the complex. "For about $7 you could buy a transmitter and start a TV station," Hoffman says.

The stations screened mostly pornography and pirated Western movies. But the Internews troika had an idea. Because of the spacebridges, Internews had contacts all through former Soviet television. Hoffman and his partners decided that they should find the necessary resources to train journalists and support establishment of a new system of independent Russian TV stations. They found a ready supplier of those funds: USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Jeanne Bourgault, now Internews' senior vice president for programs, was working in media development for USAID when Hoffman came calling. "David was unlike anyone I'd ever seen in my work in the U.S. government. Just full of charisma and full of ideas. And Internews' ideas were fantastic, and they had great contacts in the Soviet Union," she recalls. With a large grant from USAID, Internews created a network that eventually linked 600 Russian independent television stations and provided training, technology, and expertise to turn loose Russian media entrepreneurs in the creation of new stations throughout the country. Helping free people, or people struggling to be free, to create free media: Internews, and Hoffman, had found their mission.

Helping free people, or people struggling to be free, to create free media: Internews, and Hoffman, had found their mission. Hoffman grew up in Baltimore's Liberty Heights and Park Heights neighborhoods. He played lacrosse at City College well enough to be offered early admission to Hopkins at the end of his junior season. But the all-boys high school each spring put on a play, importing girls for the female parts. One of these girls caught Hoffman's eye in his senior year. "I decided that making out with her after play rehearsals was a lot more fun than playing lacrosse," he says. So he quit the team. Hopkins noticed and withdrew its offer. Only the tearful supplication of his mother convinced admissions to give Hoffman one more chance to be a Blue Jay. He played for legendary Hopkins coach Bob Scott and studied political science without vigor. His priorities, he says, were girls and lacrosse. "School was a distant third," he says, though he takes care now to say he has great appreciation for the education he received.

After graduating in 1966, he wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer and enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law. He lived in South Baltimore and there met people who, he says, radicalized him politically. They took him to New York for a rally against the Vietnam War, which made such an impression on him that he returned and began grassroots anti-war organizing, particularly as part of a project called Vietnam Summer, planned as a nationwide "teach-out." Thousands of volunteers would go door-to-door in 750 cities across the country to educate citizens about the war and mobilize them in opposition. Hoffman, to his surprise, found himself selected director of Vietnam Summer for Baltimore and Maryland. "I think I was chosen as leader because I was so fresh," he recalls. "They all saw me as a neutral person. I was in completely over my head."

He began counseling young men in draft resistance. One of his protest actions was to infiltrate an Army draft induction in October 1967. He and fellow protesters arrived at a Baltimore courthouse at 5 in the morning and found police out in force, having been tipped off. Undaunted, Hoffman climbed into the courthouse through an open back window and managed to get himself and five more protesters on the bus taking the inductees to Fort Holabird. The infiltrators planned only to hand out leaflets on how to secure status as conscientious objectors, but as the bus neared Holabird the inductees followed Hoffman's lead and began to chant, "Hell, no! We won't go!" Then they sat in the aisle and refused to disembark. Hoffman spontaneously went to the front of the bus, confronted a general who had boarded to order them off, and burned his draft card. He believes he was the first person in Maryland to do so.

In the latter part of 1967, having grown tired of law school, Hoffman moved to France, where he intended to write a novel about the June 1967 Roxbury race riots, which he had witnessed. He settled in a village in Provence near Auguste Renoir's estate. Then something odd occurred. "I stole a steak or something," he says, his usually sharp recall turning imprecise. Arrested for theft, he spent three days in solitary confinement in a French jail. "I was so fucking scared," he says. "I spoke in French on my own behalf in court, and they told me to come back in 10 days and sign some papers." Released from jail, he promptly escaped to Spain with a cast on his leg from a motorcycle accident, went on to Gibraltar, then Morocco. His plan was even odder than stealing a steak or something. Convinced that the U.S. was headed for revolution and civil war, he planned to go to Ghana and train as a guerilla fighter. This is hard to picture, he admits: "It was a totally romantic notion that soon got dropped. I never got closer than Tangiers."

He flew to New York on April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Back in Baltimore, on a rooftop, he watched fires burn from the rioting. Still harboring ideas of becoming a writer, he next went to Mexico. Radio coverage of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic national convention drew him back to the States. He married in 1969, taught briefly in an all-black middle school in Baltimore, then enrolled in a doctoral program in American history at the University of Colorado. He completed a dissertation on the socialist labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, but his doctoral adviser left the university, and the replacement adviser refused to accept the dissertation until Hoffman rewrote it from a less Marxist perspective. Hoffman did the rewrite, but then, he says, his adviser again refused it, this time because it contained two spelling errors. "I never got my doctorate," he says. "I could not bring myself to correct those two errors."

By 1972, he had a daughter and had moved to San Francisco, where he became, of all things, a Fuller Brush salesman. "I could sell to anyone," he recalls. "There was something demonic about it. I was too good at this." When he turned his powers of persuasion from brushes to union organizing, he was named northern California regional director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. After a move to Los Angeles, he worked for the California State Employees Union. He organized nuclear scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He had a son. His marriage broke up. Emotionally strung out, he went to a showing of Scorsese's film Taxi Driver and came out of the theater crying. "I was just fed up with Western civilization," he says.

A girlfriend took him north to rural Humboldt County. He loved it. "You could walk 150 miles and not see another person." He found a cabin to rent on Grizzly Mountain and moved in. There were 40 acres of land, no electricity, and no plumbing. Hoffman grew a huge beard and his own food. He practiced tai chi and read Eastern philosophy. "Very Sixties," he says. "I was totally hippied out." Maybe not totally hippied out. He kept up his air-mail subscription to the French leftist newspaper Libération. But his enthusiasm for Marxism had begun to wane. He read books on nature, the environment, ecology. Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature profoundly influenced him. "I went through a whole period of going from a Marxist to an evolutionist. I love evolution. It's now my religion." Three years later, he came off the mountain, checked in with his ex-wife, and spotted Kim Spencer's satellite broadcast.

With plenty of marbles left, Hoffman expects to have time to tackle countless more big issues. Topping the list: world poverty. In the 1990s, Internews began to attract serious money. George Soros and his Open Society Institute became supporters, as did, eventually, the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and dozens of others. USAID had made the large grant to establish the Russian independent television network. Evelyn Messinger secured a large sum from the National Endowment for Democracy to study independent media in Eastern Europe. Internews secured $8 million to set up a media center, a news agency, and broadcast and print outlets in Ukraine. "It changed just about everything," recalls Makino. "We became a lot more effective because we could hire staff and cover a lot more ground. We also had to become much more professional." Messinger, who eventually would have a falling-out with Hoffman, didn't like some of the changes. "The first phase of Internews was really a lot of fun," she says. "We'd come up with little bits of money and do things, all pretty ad hoc. But then the organization began structuring itself around getting money from the government. David really loved it, and I'm sure he still does." She felt that accepting so much government support limited Internews' flexibility. "There was now an intersection between the political interest of the U.S. and the work we were doing."
Internews used some of its new prosperity to support filmmakers who produced documentary footage of daily life in Sarajevo during the 199296 siege by Serbian forces after Yugoslavia fell apart. Conventional newscasts always showed snipers and bomb blasts. The filmmakers portrayed daily life under the gun. Says Hoffman, "In some ways, film of an old woman climbing 12 flights of stairs carrying a pail of water is much more powerful than more film of explosions." When the fighting in the Balkans subsided and the Yugoslav war-crimes trials convened in The Hague, Hoffman had the idea of broadcasting the trials to Bosnia. He approached Soros and said he needed $1 million by the next day. He got the money, and began beaming nine hours of daily trial coverage to Bosnia. "Seconds after we first went on the air," he says, "I went outside and just started bawling."

Beginning in 1998, Internews equipped pickup trucks with video screens and went from village to village in Rwanda, broadcasting a comprehensive documentary on the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The villagers were able to videotape questions for the judges and lawyers, who taped their answers for the villagers' subsequent viewing.

As he contemplates Internews' future, Hoffman confronts paradox. He believes that media need to be independent of government control. Yet 80 percent of his organization's money comes from the U.S. government. Hoffman insists that Internews turns down money from any source if it carries a requirement to promote an American geo-political agenda, but he knows perception can hurt Internews. "In the Middle East," he says, "training sessions often begin with discussion of whether Internews is really U.S. propaganda, or the CIA." As he looks at the increasing consolidation of media ownership in the U.S., and the Bush administration's efforts to influence and even package the news reported to the American public, he calls Internews' support for independent media in this country "the great undone." Yet while support for Internews has been bipartisan, Hoffman believes political conservatives have been stronger supporters than liberals. "Free media tends to be a libertarian concept," he says. "Liberals are more accommodating to state-run media and state institutions generally."

Internews doesn't succeed everywhere. Hoffman says it failed to exert much influence in Serbia, for example, and has had trouble establishing programs in Indonesia. Governments in Belarus and Tajikistan have outlawed the independent media that Internews fostered, and Vladimir Putin has shut down the national independent television stations in Russia. But Makino notes, "There are still hundreds of stations [throughout Russia's regions] that continue to report independently." Stations that Internews helped establish and train.

Hoffman continues to TWIC-out with more ideas. He wants to create an inventory of suitcase transmitters that can be quickly airlifted to a country on the verge of violence, to facilitate independent broadcasting that might veer countries away from internecine conflict; he envisions it as a kind of "pre-violence warning system" that also could be used for humanitarian emergencies. He believes more needs to be done to alleviate world poverty. He's not clear as to Internews' role, but says, "Poverty is the greatest issue of our time. Now that the East-West conflict is about over, we can turn to the North-South conflict."

"My therapist says I have a grandiosity complex," Hoffman says. "It's true. Evelyn [Messinger] thinks I want power myself. I don't think I want power. I want influence. If I wanted power, I'd be in Washington. Power is too much work. I'm a dilettante. I'm an effete activist. I want to be in California with my massage table."

Hoffman points to a basin full of marbles he keeps in his office. His two younger daughters, by a second and recently ended marriage, gave it to him. They used actuarial tables to calculate his life expectancy and put in the bowl one marble for each week the tables say he has left. Every Monday, he takes one and puts it in his pocket, carries it all week, then on Sunday throws it away. He takes this week's marble from his pocket and rubs it, then says, "There are plenty of marbles left."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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