Media

Voice of America

An interview with Amy Goodman, host of <i>Democracy Now!</i> &#151; the only &#147;daily, grassroots, un-embedded, international, independent news hour&#148; in America today.
Amy Goodman grew up in Bayshore, Long Island, the daughter of progressive activists. After graduating from Harvard during the Reagan era, she returned to New York City, shortly thereafter finding a home at WBAI, New York's Pacifica Radio station. In 1991, she was severely beaten while on assignment in Indonesia, after which she made an award-winning documentary — an early version of her take-no-prisoners style of journalism in which the U.S. government's complicity in the killing of East Timorese was duly noted.

Then, Goodman began hosting Democracy Now! on Pacifica as a temporary series leading up to the Bill Clinton / Bob Dole presidential race of 1996. The rest, as they say, is public broadcasting history. The program has grown in popularity ever since and saw a huge spike since Bush took office.

Goodman’s program is broadcast every morning on over 300 stations in North America "from a firehouse in lower Manhattan." Democracy Now! is available via the radio, TV, or the web and is currently the largest public media collaboration in the U.S. Goodman, Democracy Now!'s first and only host, along with Juan Gonzalez, has seen her popularity rise even further on the strength of her best-selling book, co-written with her brother, David Goodman: The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them.

While Democracy Now! amplifies the voices of "ordinary people from around the world" and considers the opinions of grassroots activists to be every bit as legitimate as those of "officials," don't call it "progressive." Goodman insists that political labels are "breaking down ... we have to have a new way of looking at the way people look at the world."

Goodman recently spoke with AlterNet over the telephone.

AlterNet: Everyone has a pet theory on why Bush won. What's yours?

Amy Goodman: If he won.

If he won, right.

Well, we know he didn't win in 2000, and we don't know about now. Because we are increasingly going towards a system that can't be verified and since, in the U.S., elections are held up as the symbol of democracy, it's very important that we be able to verify these elections. The fact that people are suspicious is a very big problem. The fact that you can have places in Ohio where there are 360 voters and 4,200 votes for Bush — this is a big problem. And that's just the places we know. There's also the huge amount of voter suppression and intimidation that goes on for Election Day.

Whether or not he won, even by their count, he's got something like 30 percent of the vote — this isn't very impressive. It is hardly a mandate and I think that's what matters because I think we have a situation in this country where, for example, most people are opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and yet the person who is behind that invasion and occupation has won, so I don't think that this is a mandate, certainly [not] for Bush foreign policy.

Given the predisposition of the American people and the media, do you think it's worthwhile to try and track down exactly what happened and the possibility that Bush didn't win, or do you think the energy would be better spent working toward reform?

Well, I think this is also an indication of the way the press works in this country, because if the press got worked up over it, this is precisely the kind of situation that the press investigates very well when it wants to. But the way the press operates in the United States is they express the spectrum of opinions ... of the establishment, between the Democrats and the Republicans.

But right after the election, the Democrats once again joined with the Republicans — this is not an issue that they wanted to explore, the issue of the vote. And so the press simply didn't go further than the Democrats did. I mean, there's hardly an opposition party in this country and the press, which should be there to hold those in power accountable — and that's both parties — simply does their bidding, it simply acts as a conveyer belt for their lies.

So why does the corporate media allow the contours of the debate to be set by the Democrats and the Republicans?

I don't know why. I know that they do it. In the book I wrote with my brother, David Goodman, The Exception to the Rulers, we talk about the "access of evil." Bush talks about the "axis of evil," you know, we talk about the press' "Access of Evil" and that is trading truth for access in order to get the next... lie, in order to get the quote from the player himself, whether it's Rumsfeld, Bush or Cheney. They trade truth for access, and that's unacceptable.

The government needs journalists more than the journalists need the government. The journalists should be standing up and not acting as a megaphone for those in power. I mean, that's not our job, there's a reason why our profession, journalism, is the only one explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution. Because we are the check and balances on government, we are supposed to hold those in power accountable, not cozy up to them.

How do you think the right-wing echo chamber from The Heritage Foundation, to Fox, to Rush Limbaugh – how have they been so effective in setting the debate?

They took the media very seriously from the beginning and have built up this right-wing media infrastructure, and it has had an impact. But I have to say, I don't think that the people who listen believe everything they hear. I don't think they're hungry for hate speech and bigotry that spews from the airwaves, and militarism.

By the way, I don't think it's just Fox, I think it's all the networks. But I think what cable provided that we didn't have before with the networks was 24 hours of news and I think people are really hungry for information. I mean in a globalized world, people do care about what's happening here and other places in the world.

Now, much of it is rhetoric, much of it is just propaganda; but it's someplace where you're not getting sitcoms, where you're not getting soap operas, where you can actually tap into information about what's happening. So I don't think it's hopeless.

I also think that Bush not finding weapons of mass destruction exposed more than the Bush administration — it exposed the media that acted as a conveyor belt for the lies of the administration. It's not just Fox that was alleging it, it was CNN, it was MSNBC, it was NBC, ABC, it was The New York Times, it was The Washington Post, day after day, front page, above the fold, lead stories in the newspapers and television about weapons of mass destruction.

Bush could not have done it alone with a little megaphone on the steps of the White House. People would not have believed what he was saying. He needed the entire media apparatus to echo what he said and that's exactly what they did. I mean you take one example, in addition to the weapons of mass destruction, just the Pentagon's name for the invasion, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Now the Pentagon names it, you know that they research the most effective, propagandistic name, but the media is not supposed to take that name and name their own coverage with that, but that's exactly what they did — NBC, MSNBC, CNN — called it Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Actually the Pentagon had come up with a name before Operation Iraqi Freedom — they had come up with Operation Iraqi Liberation, but they realized the acronym was O.I.L, and so they had to come up with something else.)

So the name of the coverage was that (Operation Iraqi Freedom), and when you have something like that, when you have Dan Rather the night of the invasion, the night the bombs began to fall, saying "Good morning, Baghdad," you have Tom Brokaw saying the night the bombs are falling, you know March 19, 2003, "We don't want to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because we're going to own that country in a few days," you have to ask if we had state media in the United States how would it be any different?

With Fox's wild popularity and CNN, MSNBC scrambling to catch up, it seems that it would be a financially profitable model (for a network) to actually offer people information that separates itself from both the government's propaganda and Fox's dutiful reporting of it. Why hasn't that emerged?

Why instead do they try to outfox Fox? Why does General Electric (owner of NBC), which during the Persian Gulf War, together with Westinghouse, which then owned CBS — Westinghouse and General Electric, two of the major nuclear weapons manufacturers making most of the parts for most of the weapons in the Persian Gulf War — why does it look like a military hardware show not only on Fox, but on these networks as well?

Because they too are beating the drums for war. I mean, you look at what happened on the eve of the invasion: Phil Donahue was on MSNBC, the most popular show on that failed cable network, and he was ousted. And that secret NBC report came out right before the invasion saying that they didn't want Phil Donahue to be this program that allowed anti-war voices on — they didn't want this anti-war face as the symbol of their network when the other networks were waving the flag.

One of the really big stories ... is the level of dissent within the military. We saw nothing like this at the beginning of the Vietnam War, but to the highest levels, people are questioning what is the U.S. doing in Iraq.

I come from New York and my governor is George Pataki and he went to Iraq and he said that he wanted to take a piece of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square and lay it into the foundation of a new World Trade Center. If he ends up doing this it will be the first proven link between 9/11 and Iraq (laughs).

The media puts this parade of retired generals on their payroll — also politicians — and they all share one point of view: They are pro-war. You rarely hear an anti-war voice.

Alberto Gonzales (was) just confirmed as the nation's attorney general, the highest law enforcement officer in the land, who provided the memos, who laid the legal groundwork for the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo. Now, most interestingly, among those who are most vocal against him were a whole group of retired generals and admirals who said that Alberto Gonzales put U.S. soldiers in harm's way, endangered U.S. soldiers, because if this is the model that the U.S. is going to use for treating prisoners — not respecting the Geneva Conventions or calling them "quaint" or saying that they don't apply — what will happen to U.S. soldiers who get captured in other places in the world?

It's really important to hear what people in the US military are saying, thousands of U.S. service men and women are saying "no" to returning to Iraq – a number have gone to Canada, a number are simply saying "no" here. That hardly gets any coverage. I think this is a definition of patriotism that rarely gets heard in the mainstream networks — people who deeply care about their country and don't believe that the best is represented when they kill innocent people abroad.

So where do we go from here? Where should progressives put their energy now with regard to the media? I mean, do you think things like Air America are the answer or do you think we should climb inside the corporate media's tent and try and change that?

I think that the whole issue of taking back the airwaves is an absolutely critical issue right now. Media activism has proven to be extremely successful. The last year you had Michael Powell, chair of the FCC, trying to push through the largest media consolidation this country has ever seen.

You had Michael Powell, right, son of Colin Powell — Colin Powell helps to lead the war in Iraq, his son Michael Powell pushing through media deregulation. His father leads the war in Iraq; his son leads the war on diversity of voices at home. Media monopoly and militarism go hand-in-hand. That unholy alliance has to be broken. We have to "un-embed" the media because that's what threatens democracy.

We cannot hear people, we can't hear the dissent — dissent is what makes this country strong. We need a media that gives voice to those who are most targeted right now – like Arab Americans, Muslims, people of South Asian dissent, populations that are very vulnerable; hundreds of them arrested after 9/11. We don't know the charges against them; they don't know the charges against them; we don't know their names, and who led that? The man that's being confirmed as head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, who the ACLU has said led some of the greatest racial profiling in this country's history.

The media is supposed to be there for everyone, and when it simply acts as a megaphone for those in power it does a disservice to a democratic society. I think media activism is what's going to save this country. It's people understanding that we can make our own media. I think we have to challenge the corporate media — they're using our airwaves as well. If they don't do their responsibility their licenses should be revoked. They don't own those airwaves; they're simply leasing them.

And we have to build our own media infrastructure, and that's what we're doing at Democracy Now!. I also think Indymedia on the web, at indymedia.org and Pacifica Radio are so important. There are many community radio stations around the country, and public radio stations, and public access TV is also an area that allows people in their own communities to make their own media. I mean in the same way that people built the Pacifica Radio network — the only independent media network broadcasting in this country, not turning to corporate support, but simply turning to listeners.

The whole issue of cable TV, of public access TV, is something very precious. Media activists talk about cable companies — they get a monopoly in every town ... In exchange for that monopoly, they have to give over a few public interest channels to the community. Sometimes they pay for those channels, but that's the trade-off and those are channels for people to make their own media, to make their own television.

These are all important avenues. We also video and audio stream at democracynow.org and millions of people access our programming that way, and we put up our programs on MP3, so that stations around the world can take our broadcasts everyday. We're a daily, grassroots, un-embedded, international, independent news hour. Community radio stations across Canada run Democracy Now!, across Australia, in Europe. I think we have to work in every platform, every media forum, to get out information because people understand that that is critical, that's what's essential to make informed decisions, is getting the information.

You mentioned Democracy Now! — that, along with your book, have been incredibly successful but how are you and other progressive media outlets going to pull in people that are so far from this point of view — from the truth, frankly?

I really do think that political labels are breaking down. I think that's already happening. I mean, I travel across the country and everywhere I go, people across the political spectrum come out. Conservative Republicans, like progressives, care about issues of privacy. Conservatives care about corporate control, about media moguls who are gobbling up the smaller stations, about the "Clear-Channeling" of America. This is a threat to everyone.

There's a visceral feeling about one media company, a mogul, owning the newspaper, the radio, and the television in one town. There's just a gut feeling against it. We saw it when Powell tried to do it — two million people responded, wrote and called Congress and the FCC and said “No!” Powell was raked over the coals by everyone from Trent Lott to Barbara Boxer.

People just have a gut feeling when all your information is taken over by one media source — Clear Channel forbidding anti-war music, requiring anchors to go to pro-war rallies, firing the South Carolina “broadcaster of the year” because she dared to utter an anti-war point of view. I think people feel that's un-American. And so, I don't think there's just one political stratification in this country.

I don't think it's political labels anymore — that it's so easy to figure out that only one group will listen to one outlet. I find that everything is breaking down — we have to have a new way of looking at the way people look at the world.

What do you think about the internet, and blogging — what sort of impact will new technologies that sort of democratize media creation have?

The more decentralized, the better; the more sources of information, the better. At Democracy Now! we always try to give people more access to lots of different forms of information linking to many different sites because it's in no one's interest just to rely on one source of information. For too long, the networks have monopolized information and really just channeled one kind of propaganda, and we've got to break the sound barrier, and we do that by many people getting involved, so I support as many ways of getting out any kind of information as possible — it makes us all healthier, it protects us all.
Evan Derkacz is a New York-based writer and contributor to AlterNet.
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