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‘Democracy Now!’ host Amy Goodman on the failures of mainstream media

The sounds of silence 

‘Democracy Now!’ host Amy Goodman on the failures of mainstream media

It's official: Amy Goodman has become a celebrity. Touring the country to promote her new book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them (cowritten by her brother, David), the host of the independent news program Democracy Now! is frequently confronted by thousands of fans.

Democracy Now! has achieved notoriety for airing frank discussions with wide-ranging sources on such hot topics as media consolidation, the Bush Administration's approach to foreign policy, the peace movement, and so much more. But even before there was a W. Bush Administration, Goodman was transmitting foreign policy stories seldom seen in mass media; in particular, her 1991 reports of the Indonesian military's bloody occupation of East Timor.

In Rochester, Democracy Now! has also achieved notoriety for where it isn't. The local activist group Metro Justice has been working to get the program aired on WXXI. And those efforts, so far, have been unsuccessful. Station officials simply say the program doesn't meet XXI's standards for balance and objectivity.

"As long as you're not advocating for the establishment it's seen as advocacy," Goodman says. "Advocate for the establishment and it's seen as objective reporting. I think we simply have to be honest. Reporters have points of view. But our job is to be fair and accurate."

To preview Goodman's October 17 talk at the Metro Justice Annual Dinner, we spoke with her about the Democracy Now! approach to news reporting and XXI's refusal to air her program. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

City:As your book tour has taken you across the country, have you been able to assess any sort of political pulse among the people you've encountered?

Goodman: It's been absolutely amazing. Thousands of people are coming out. And the kind of people who come out, it's very much across the political spectrum. Military families, soldiers.... I really think what's happening now is a breakdown of political categories. People across the political spectrum care about corporate control. They care about people losing their pensions, an out-of-control war budget, issues of privacy like the USA Patriot Act.

We drew 1,500 people in Minneapolis, where we work with an independent bookstore and the community radio station. The bookstore is Louise Erdrich's, the Native American writer. And she said the book was hotter than Potter.

City:Whether you've liked it or not, you've managed to achieve, through the radio program and the book, a certain degree of celebrity. And I wonder how you feel that jibes with your role as a journalist.

Goodman: Well, I think it's just a testament to how hungry people are for independent voices. Not finding weapons of mass destruction exposed more than the Bush Administration. It exposed a media that alleged the same thing; that acted as a conveyor belt for the lies of the administration.

We have a chapter in our book called "Lies of our Times," that's the New York Times. We went through the front-page drumbeat stories alleging weapons of mass destruction. We did the "scoops" and the "oops" on each one of them. The Times did it recently in a little box on page A10. That's not enough. They need to do it as many times on the front page as these stories appeared, because the lies take lives. They really paved the way for war.

City: When you come to Rochester, you're going to be speaking to the local activist organization Metro Justice, which is working to get your program on our local PBS affiliate. These are your fans. How are you able to go beyond this and reach folks who may not know you exist, or people who disagree with the viewpoints presented on your show?

Goodman: The response we get from all over the country is not coming from the so-called usual suspects. We get calls from everywhere. Public radio typically attracts a very white, well-off audience. And we're turning that formula on its head. We're very much diversifying that audience. And I think it's becoming a model, and that's why NPR (National Public Radio) stations are picking us up. We're doing it just by reaching across the political spectrum.

City: Consumers of media are still extremely polarized. A lot of people who watch Fox News may not even know "Democracy Now!" exists. Is there no common place for public discourse anymore?

Goodman: I think there is. I think Democracy Now! provides that common ground. I think people who watch the networks, who watch Fox, do watch or listen to Democracy Now!. I really do. The level of frustration now, the hunger for independent information, I think we're not talking about a fringe minority or a silent majority. It's the silenced majority silenced by the corporate media. So there is a lot of common ground there.

As I was saying, the number of people who have lost their pensions as corporate CEOs bankrupt companies but still make a fortune themselves.... More than 1,000 US servicemen and women dead in Iraq.... People across the political spectrum care about this stuff. And we're not glossing over these stories. I'm not for reality TV; but, when it comes to war, I think we need reality media.

City: There's a lot of reluctance, though, to present images of the war in Iraq. And much of that is based on reasons of taste.

Goodman: That's interesting. We did an interview on Democracy Now! with Aaron Brown, the CNN host, and he talked about taste.

The issue isn't whether the pictures are tasteless. War is tasteless. It's not up to us to say "This is not in good taste." If they continue to sanitize the photos.... I mean, what would have ended the Vietnam War? You know the famous picture of the woman burning with napalm? It's our job to show it. Go to where the silence is to reflect what's going on.

City:This is something you talk about in the documentary "Independent Media in a Time of War." In that documentary and elsewhere you've been very critical of mainstream media. But I've noticed "Democracy Now!" occasionally practices "rip and read" --- reiterating news reports from outlets like the Washington Post or the LA Times. These are some of the very same institutions you've been critical of. How do you justify that?

Goodman: Well, we take each story and look at it. We are not saying that the New York Times never does a good investigation, or the Washington Post, you might as well throw it out. We don't say that. There are a number of reports that are very important in these publications.

What matters, though, is the drumbeat coverage. It's what they do on a daily basis that sinks into peoples' consciousness. What's on the front page headlines day after day, what people start repeating to their friends....

We encourage people to read from the bottom up: from the back of the newspaper to the front and from the bottom of an article to the top. But there's so much that's there that we feel is important to highlight. We feel these publications have a tremendous effect, so we report on what they're reporting.

City: Do you do any fact checking of the stories you report on from other media?

Goodman: Well, we do as much as we can. What we can do is attribute. I mean, if there's a story that someone has exposed, we do attribution. And we do our own investigations as well.

City: Alternative media have always lagged far behind the mainstream when it comes to resources. What methods do you think can be used --- and what methods has "Democracy Now!" used --- to level the playing field?

Goodman: Well, first of all, it's not just a matter of resources. It's who you turn to for information. There's the small circle of pundits we watch on the networks and read in the papers who are quoted all the time, who know so little about so much. We've just broadened that circle to people who are closest to the story. These are just the basic principles of good journalism. Sometimes all it takes is some good phone reporting, where you start finding, instead of the pundit, the person who is affected or who has written the policy. So that's what we do.

The media has reached an all-time low right now. The embedding process has really corrupted American journalism. You have hundreds of reporters on the front lines with the troops. Where are they in the Iraqi communities, hospitals, or the peace movement around the world to show the full ramifications of war?

City: You've been mobilizing reporters out to some of these non-embedded areas....

Goodman: And the response to that from the mainstream media has been interesting. We're called all the time by the biggest shows on the biggest networks. "Where did you get that?" All the time. Journalists are a big audience. And our motto is: Steal this story, please. We don't enjoy getting the Project Censored awards. It's a very dubious distinction: stories that had the least effect on the world.

City:Metro Justice has been working to get your show aired on our local PBS affiliate. The station addressed this with its Community Advisory Board over the summer, and I'd like to have you comment on some of the things station officials said about "Democracy Now!" in their meeting.

One of the statements made was that "Democracy Now! is a Pacifica program hosted by Amy Goodman, and Pacifica claims to be an independent form of media that's anti-Republican."

Goodman: We don't side with either major political party. That's not our job. We're not for them or against them. We report on them.

City:Why do you think WXXI would have the impression that you're anti-Republican?

Goodman: If you look at my book, the inside jacket has some interesting quotes. The first is from former President Bill Clinton: "Hostile, combative, and even disrespectful." And then there's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: "I've advised my mother to talk to no reporters because of you." Indonesian military called me a threat to national security.

We're reporters. We're not entertainers. We don't cozy up to power. Our job is to go where the silence is.

City:One of the other statements made is that "Democracy Now! admits host Amy Goodman has a political agenda and that the content of her program is driven by that agenda." They add that you are "not able to present all sides of an issue" and that you're "driving the content because of a political bias."

Goodman: I just wonder if they've listened to or watched the program. The program has won the highest awards in journalism. It has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the AP, UPI, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting....

City:They go on to say that "Amy Goodman was recently arrested in an anti-war protest in front of the White House for participating in the demonstration."

Goodman: That isn't true.

City:WXXI officials say they've realized that isn't true and they've made corrections to the minutes. But why do you think this incident was so widely misconstrued?

Goodman: There were not many people there. And there may have been a press release that went out where the people who wrote it weren't there.

This was a small group of women including Alice Walker and Maxine Hong Kingston. They had gone in front of the White House and had locked arms. I went up to them with my cell phone and I was calling different radio stations and interviewing them live on the air: Why are you doing this? Why are you willing to be arrested?

When the police started to move in on the protestors, I walked over to the police to pass the police line. So I was the first one they arrested. But I was very clear as to who I was. This does happen, and it happens all too often.

City:What kind of impact do you think the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's guidelines for objectivity and balance have had on public broadcasting?

Goodman: To really have a discussion about that, I'd have to sit down with you for a while. I think it's really important that the media serve a democratic society by broadcasting a full spectrum of opinion, to have a debate and discussion about the most important issues of the day.

Years ago, I went on the Sally Jessie Raphaël show. The biggest response I got was from women on southern military bases who called to say they never heard a discussion like this in the media about war.

I always say in my speeches that I see the media as a huge kitchen table that stretches across the country. We all sit around it and debate and discuss the most important issues of the day: war and peace, life and death. And anything less than that is a disservice to the servicemen and women of this country, because they say they can't have these debates on military bases.

I think it's very important that we honestly critique the so-called mainstream media, because I think it has left the mainstream. As I say in the [Independent Media in a Time of War]documentary, of the 393 interviews done on the four major nightly newscasts as we were leading up to a war in Iraq, only three were with anti-war representatives. That's not balanced media. That's media beating the drums for war.

City:Yet critics call what you do in representing these other viewpoints "advocacy journalism."

Goodman: As long as you're not advocating for the establishment it's seen as advocacy. Advocate for the establishment and it's seen as objective reporting. I think we simply have to be honest. Reporters have points of view. But our job is to be fair and accurate.

The Metro Justice Annual Dinner on Saunday, October 17, First Unitarian Church, 220 South Winton Road, at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. talk) is sold out, but talk-only tickets are available for $10 by calling 325-2560. For info on the talk or Metro Justice's efforts to have Democracy Now! aired on WXXI, go to www.metrojustice.org. Locally, Democracy Now! can be viewed on Rochester Community Access TV, Time Warner Cable channel 15, Monday through Friday from 12 to 1 p.m. Satellite TV subscribers can also view the program: It airs on channel 9415 of the DISH Network and channel 375 on DirecTV. The program can also be downloaded for free every weekday from www.democracynow.org

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