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“The media acts as a megaphone for those in power,” says the executive producer and host of Democracy Now.Amy Goodman is one of the leading journalists of our time. -She is executive producer and host of Democracy Now, a daily, independent radio and television news program broadcast on 650 stations around the world.
“I’ve always been surprised that people say it’s a hopeful program because we deal with such difficult subjects,” she says. “But I think it’s hopeful because of the people we interview. They are both the analysts and those that are doing something about it, wherever they might be.”
Many people, including myself, have relied upon Amy Goodman’s reporting on the Bush Administration. She’s the left hook to the rightwing Administration’s assault on our civil liberties. She doesn’t flinch from tough topics like torture, and she interviews people other media neglect, such as Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni national who was a victim of the CIA rendition program. She scrums with the likes of Lou Dobbs. And her coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq goes beyond retired generals and Beltway pundits. Unlike other news programs, anti-war voices get their say on Democracy Now.
She has a missionary zeal and calls journalism “a sacred responsibility.” Goodman started out as a volunteer at WBAI, the Pacifica radio station in New York City. She went on to become WBAI’s news director. She launched Democracy Now as a radio show on the Pacifica network in 1996 and eventually it evolved into a television program.
She’s done her share of international reporting, too. In 1991, Indonesian soldiers beat her bloody and fractured the skull of Allan Nairn in East Timor as they followed a memorial procession. She and Nairn survived the Santa Cruz massacre, though 270 Timorese were killed. Goodman and Nairn were thrown out of the country and produced Massacre: The Story of East Timor, a documentary about the Indonesian and American involvement in the Southeast Asian nation. They won numerous awards for their reporting, including the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for International Reporting, the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, the Armstrong Award, the Radio/Television News Directors Award, as well as awards from the Associated Press, United Press International, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She returned to East Timor for live coverage in 2002 when the nation gained its independence.
In 1998, she and then-Democracy Now producer Jeremy Scahill traveled to Nigeria and documented the collusion between Chevron Oil company and the Nigerian Navy’s killing of two local environmental activists and other human rights abuses. Drilling & Killing won George Polk and Project Censored awards.
She is a rock star at places like WORT-FM, the community radio station in Madison, Wisconsin, which broadcasts her program weekdays. WORT is one of the many small stations Goodman visits and lends support to. “Independent media has been the hope for the last few years,” she says.
Reporting runs in the family. With her brother David, she has co-authored two books, Static and Exception to the Rulers. She somehow finds the time to write a weekly syndicated newspaper column.
I met up with Goodman in mid-December in New York City. It was 7 p.m. when I arrived at a locally owned cafe in Hell’s Kitchen. Goodman was in a meeting with her producers.
At fifty, she still dresses like she’s in radio. Wearing black jeans and black sweater, her brown hair showing shades of gray, she lacks the power suits and shiny mane sported by most television anchors.
She ordered a cup of coffee, a chocolate biscotti, and a plate of fruit. She told me she is a procrastinator. If it were up to me, she says, I would put things off until tomorrow. But with the show, when the tape rolls, and the countdown begins, you have to start.
Question: Talking to people who are the target of U.S. foreign policy is a hallmark of your show. How did that happen?
Amy Goodman: We have a special responsibility as American journalists. We live in the most powerful country on Earth. Yet there is probably a level of ignorance about our effect in the rest of the world because the media doesn’t bring it to us. It’s much more difficult for people at the target end to forget, to be oblivious, because they are right there living it every day. We have a responsibility here to understand what it feels like, because we are the ones who are creating that situation, whether we like it or not.
We’re constantly hearing from the small circle of pundits in Washington who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us, and getting it so wrong. Every network is the same. Unfortunately, sometimes public broadcasting sounds the same way.
The United States has the potential to have tremendous power for good. Right now, it just doesn’t have that position. But there are many, many people who make up a pro-democracy movement in this country, just like in other countries, people who really do deeply care. If we want to be safer here, we have to extend those voices to the rest of the world. That’s going to increase our national security.
Q: The FCC just relaxed media ownership limits. What’s your response to that?
Goodman: We’ve got hundreds of channels with fewer and fewer owners and it’s a very big problem. There’s the illusion of diversity but what matters is who owns these channels. That’s why regulations are so important.
The media is the place where we have a discussion with each other. We can’t know everyone individually. We do it through the media. When the kitchen table that we all sit around is controlled by a very few, they are deciding who comes to the table, and that can determine the decisions that are made, when we go to war and when we don’t.
Q: What do you think was the mainstream media’s biggest failing regarding the Iraq War?
Goodman: Simply that it beat the drums for war. As Noam Chomsky says, the media manufactures consent, and they did it for war. There were so many people all over the globe who were protesting the war. In February 2003, millions of people marched, yet the Bush Administration went forward, enabled by the Democrats.
The media act as a megaphone for those in power, the Democrats and the Republicans. When the spectrum of debate between them is very small, that’s as far as the media will go. In the lead up to the invasion, the Democrats joined with Republicans in authorizing war. The media overwhelmingly presented that point of view, that pro-war position, even though most people in this country were opposed to the war.
And now the latest news we find is that the Democratic leaders like House Speaker Pelosi, Jay Rockefeller, and former Senator Bob Graham were briefed for years on waterboarding, on torture. Where was the protest?
On Democracy Now, we’ve just spoken to Henri Alleg, the French journalist who was in Algeria, now in his eighties, who describes waterboarding as if it were yesterday. Because when you yourself are tortured, you never forget. He described what it meant to feel like he was suffocating, not “simulated drowning” but actually drowning.
Q: Immigration is such a big issue in this election but there doesn’t seem to be any real debate.
Goodman: We just did an hour with Lou Dobbs, who could probably be compared to Father Coughlin, though he denied that. I did the interview with my co-host Juan Gonzalez, who writes for the New York Daily News, a great journalist. We tried to stick to the facts.
We asked Dobbs about assertions he continually repeats, like a third of our prisoners are illegal aliens. Well, it’s just not true: 6 percent of prisoners in the state and federal systems are immigrants. And that’s divided between legal and undocumented, well below their representation in the population. If you keep hammering away that a third of the prisoners in this country are illegal aliens, then people are going to feel that they shouldn’t be here.
It’s the litany of misinformation, of lies, that really makes people afraid and turns fear into full-blown hate. I think that has to be exposed.
The beauty of community media is that we break the sound barriers, that we open up the microphones for people to speak for themselves. And then it’s harder to call people labels. I think it’s an epithet to talk about illegal aliens. They don’t sound human. You can set any kind of policy on a population when you don’t talk to them as human beings.
This drumbeat against immigrants has really turned many Republican Latinos against the Republican Party. They feel like this debate has crossed the line to anti-immigrant and racist, as opposed to a legitimate debate on what we should do about immigration.
Q: More and more people, especially young people, are getting news from “fake news” programs. What do you think of that?
Goodman: Well, since the main news programs are filled with falsehoods, at least they are laughing at them and they are making you see. I think it is teaching media literacy. It’s challenging the mainlining of lies.
Q: Why did you become a journalist? What inspired you?
Goodman: I saw it as a way to deal with issues of social justice. Even from when I was a little kid, I was inspired by my younger brother David, whom I write the books with. David had Dave’s Press when we were younger, and there were these little signs in our house up to his room that said Dave’s Press. He had this old Xerox machine, and you’d have to put all your weight on it to burn an image onto the paper. It was sort of a glorified family calendar. He would say things like, “Mom spanked Amy.” My mother would say, “You’re not airing any dirty laundry.” And then he would cry censorship. But he really cried, because he was a kid. And he had letters to the editor. My grandfather would write in and disagree with him on war. “I love you very much but I have to disagree with you.” David would write back, “Dear Grandpa, thank you so much for being my first subscriber, but you are being stupid about the war.” And then my great-uncle would write in. That’s where we would debate the political issues of the day.
In junior high school and high school, I was on our school newspapers, and they were holding the principal accountable. Then I just went on to a bigger stage.
But it’s important to hold people in power accountable, whether it’s parents or principals or what’s happening in the world.
Q: You and David have a new book coming out in April, Standing Up to the Madness. What’s it about?
Goodman: The idea of how people make a difference. People make up movements in every continent. Every action we engage in really does matter, whether it’s kids trying to put on a school play and being told they can’t talk about war. It’s about dissident soldiers and officers who say no. Even when the trend is going the other way, what it means to find that strength inside and say, “I cannot live with this.” This determines what direction we go in and defines history.
Q: You travel around the country a lot. What do you see as being the pressing issues right now?
Goodman: War is the defining issue. We cannot take the focus off of that because we are determining who lives and who dies.
In Iraq, the population is just decimated, displaced, killed. We have destroyed a civilization. It’s horrifying. And as long as that is going on I think it is our responsibility to show that. Then people can make up their own minds. But as long as it falls off the front pages of the newspapers, people can think, “Well, it must not be that bad.” It’s our job to make sure it’s front and center.
Q: What do you think of what’s being called the new “citizen journalism”? After all, community media has been around for decades.
Goodman: It’s a very big deal for the corporate media to define the idea that people other than the anointed few can write about or broadcast what’s going on in the world. The Internet has forced them into this [defensiveness] because there’s this explosion of different writers, viewpoints, and coverage from all different perspectives.
Q: Do you ever get discouraged by your work?
Goodman: The more difficult the issue, the more amazing people are in dealing with it. That’s where I find the hope. Even in places like East Timor, people had hope that in this terrible slaughter for a quarter of a century, they would see the end of it. They would be independent, a new nation would be born. It’s just astounding.
But in the midst of it, it was hard to believe. And yet the people whose families were being killed, they were the ones who were saying there was hope. You find that in some of the most difficult situations, whether it’s in another country or right here.
There are a lot of hopeful people who think that things can be better. We need to broadcast those voices. The most hopeless, cynical voices are those we hear or watch on television. And that can be very depressing. It generates apathy.
Q: Your critics say you are too much of an advocate. How do you respond?
Goodman: I don’t really know what that means. I care deeply about what I cover. And I think we have a tremendous responsibility as journalists to expose what’s going on in the world. When you see suffering, you care. We never want to take that out of our work.
Advocating for more voices to be heard? I plead guilty. Opening up the airwaves, joining people around the world in a global discussion about what should happen? I plead guilty.
As for advocacy journalism, I think the corporate journalists are the best model of that. We know their points of view. We know how important they felt it was to invade Iraq. We knew what it felt like to be in a tank or helicopter and to ask the pilot or the soldier to show how the gun was shot or how the helicopter flew. We learned all that from them. We learned who they thought was important to interview, and who was silenced, and that was the majority of people.
Those who are for peace are not a fringe minority. They are not a silent majority, but a silenced majority, silenced by the corporate media.
Q: Do you ever take any time off? Do you ever go on vacation?
Goodman: Sitting on my couch late at night is like being on the Riviera. After twenty minutes, I feel like I’ve taken a month’s vacation.
Elizabeth DiNovella is the culture editor of The Progressive and a volunteer at WORT-FM, Madison’s community radio station.