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Breaking the Sound Barrier

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
05.03.2004 | MEDIA

Amy Goodman isn't the type to make a big deal of her own birthday. Intensely private with a Spartan work ethic, the founding host of Democracy Now! would rather talk about news bias in America, then talk about it some more.

"I've never seen anyone work harder at a job," says colleague Juan Gonzalez. But when Goodman turned 47 on April 13, she found herself in front of a capacity crowd at Cooper Union's Great Hall, a crowd singing that corniest and most unserious of tunes--"Happy Birthday." The night was billed as celebrating a dual release: the release of Goodman's first book, and the release of Democracy Now! contributor Farouk Abdel-Muhti from federal custody, where he had spent two years without trial and without being charged with any crime. When the singing subsided, Goodman blushed and quickly deflected any merrymaking onto this week's 55th anniversary of Lew Hill's inaugural broadcast on KPFA, Pacifica Radio's first station.

The next day, Goodman left for California and the start of a 70-city book tour that will include commencement addresses at Antioch and Hampshire colleges. Since launching Democracy Now! in 1996 on New York's Pacifica affiliate WBAI, Goodman has become a national media figure with a dedicated, active and growing audience. Her exposes of human rights abuses in East Timor and Nigeria have brought major journalism awards, while her bare-knuckled, sometimes confrontational interview style and fiercely progressive politics distinguish her from the rest of the tapioca field in commercial and public broadcast media. Withholding the fawning respect U.S. officials have grown to expect hasn't won Goodman the kind of "access" most journalists prize above all else, but that's precisely the point. "Most journalists are so worried about not being given access, that they follow like sheep," she says. "We can't trade access for the truth."

Democracy Now! currently broadcasts on 200 radio and tv stations in North America, including two dozen NPR affiliates and more than 100 public access, PBS and satellite tv stations. During fundraising drives on NPR stations that carry it, Democracy Now! often pulls in more donations than squishier NPR shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Goodman calls her program and its supporting network of independent media outlets "the largest public media collaboration" in the country.

Goodman's new book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them (Hyperion, $21.95) is part memoir, part manifesto, part media critique and part analysis of the Bush administration's ties to corporations profiting from the occupation of Iraq. Like her work in broadcast media, it hits hard and quick and buzzes with information you can't find on CNN. I recently spoke with Goodman at the Democracy Now! studios on Lafayette St.

Does the growth of Democracy Now! in the past couple of years surprise you?

It's astounding. Every time I open my email, another station is coming on board. Two to three stations a week. There's a hunger for more voices, a dissatisfaction with the media. You have this same small group of pundits that is on every network. I'm beginning to wonder if they don't just sit in one room and change the logo throughout the day: NBC, CBS, ABC. This small group of know-nothing pundits who know so little about so much, who just pontificate. And now they're wringing their hands, "How did we get it so wrong in Iraq?" Why don't they have someone in who didn't get it so wrong? Who a year ago was challenging the credibility of the evidence? Instead, they just continue to talk to each other.

Do you think the media's turning on the occupation, on Bush, and that the range of opinion is going to expand?

I think it's an election year. The media expresses the views of the establishment, and right now the Democrats are trying to distinguish themselves from the Republicans, so the media reflects that range. It's a false sense of debate, because a year ago, when the Democrats largely agreed--there were some stellar exceptions--but largely agreed with the Republicans, the establishment media just brought you that spectrum. So you had John Kerry and John Edwards joining with George Bush in authorizing war. Now they're trying to distinguish themselves. So we're seeing a greater range of debate. But it's the media's responsibility to bring out the views of people across the spectrum, across society. I don't even call it mainstream media anymore. I think [the] corporate media is extremist. I think it represents a fringe minority. I don't even call what we're not hearing the silent majority, but the silenced majority. Silenced by the mainstream media. It's inexcusable what the media has done and how it's serviced this administration.

What do you think the impact would be if the major networks broadcast the sort of Iraq reports DN! has aired, like Aaron Glantz's recent stuff out of Fallujah?

I think if the media broadcast the true images of war, if the media showed us the sheared-off limbs of Iraqi children, of U.S. soldiers, of women and innocent civilians killed in Iraq, I think we would eradicate war.

All war?

All war. I think people in this country would not stand for it. So you have a media that sanitizes war. That makes it look like a video game. All kids can tell you what the signs are, you know, the target on a gray, grainy image, the playing cards. With the cards, the media did what the Pentagon never expected. The Pentagon said it was beyond their wildest imaginings that the media would use these playing cards as they did. It was presented as giving the playing cards to the soldiers to find these Iraqi officials. In fact, almost none of the soldiers got them. It was given to the media. When I first saw the playing cards on CNN, I don't know why I was so shocked, but I am continually shocked. I could see them using the photograph within the card, maybe the photographs are hard to get--but when they brought us the whole playing card, that was it. From video games to playing cards. War is not a game. The rest of the world sees the gruesome images of war. The U.S. administration says, "That's propaganda." So do the networks. "That's propaganda." Now, what is propaganda? A victim of war laying strewn in a street? Or a playing card?

One of the images that stuck with me from your book is Sally Jessy Raphael having a complete mental breakdown when you turned Washington rhetoric around on American policy. Do you think that's a typical reaction people have when confronted with something they've never been forced to think about before?

I have to applaud Sally Jessy Raphael for even doing the show. It's very rare to have in the corporate media an honest discussion of war. There she had three women for the war and three women against it. The response was amazing. As I write in The Exception to the Rulers, the most interesting response I got was from women on southern military bases calling in and saying, "We agree with you, we've never heard this point of view before." They said that they can't have these debates on southern military bases. And it's up to us in civilian society.

That's the role of the media. To provide a forum for a discussion. For a debate about the most important issues of our day, of war and peace, life and death--not to be there as cheerleaders for war. And that's what the media has done. I was just talking to Col. Sam Gardner on the show. He said that when he did his whole piece on psy-ops at home, he was really blaming the administration for the lies and now sees the role the media has played in this. There's a reason that our profession, journalism, is enshrined and protected in the Constitution--the only profession that is. And that's because it is essential to the functioning of a democracy. It is the check and balance on government.

In Robert McChesney's latest book on the state of U.S. media, he actually ends on a positive note for the first time i think i've ever seen, regarding the overturning of the FCC decision this year to deregulate ownership laws further. All because of popular pressure. How important was that? Is the momentum still there?

It's extremely important. You have Michael Powell, the son of Colin Powell. Colin Powell leads the war in Iraq; Michael Powell leads the war on diversity of voices here at home. He thought he could get away with a stealth maneuver without holding any public hearings, or only one, in the dead of winter in Richmond, VA, without almost any publicity. He thought that he could get away with launching the largest media consolidation in the country. It's astounding that this committee, the FCC, this commission that very few people know about, without almost any corporate media attention, because the networks were busy joining with each other--you thought they were competitors, but they're joining with each other--filing briefs to support the FCC in its media consolidation. But with alternative media like Pacifica Radio and groups from unions to media activist groups getting word out, that led to two million people calling Congress and the FCC, or emailing and saying, no, they won't stand for this. It was across the political spectrum, from Trent Lott to Barbara Boxer.

Do you think the growth of Democracy Now! would have been so explosive were it not for Bush, 9/11, the wars...

I don't know. What I do know is that we should not be so unique. We're just doing the basic job that journalists should do. You go to where the story is. You go to where the silence is. You go to the people closest to the story.

You mention in the book that there aren't too many I.F. Stones working these days. Which journalists do you admire in 2004?

My colleagues. I'm lucky enough to work with my media heroes. Juan Gonzalez just broke a big story this week in the Daily News on depleted-uranium-contaminated soldiers. Alan Nairn is an amazing investigative journalist and activist who broke the story of the FRAPH [paramilitary death squads in Haiti] on the payroll of the U.S. intelligence agencies. You would have thought it was an old story, 10 years ago. Unfortunately it's a story that repeats itself today, with Aristide just ousted once again. The same figures in the paramilitary death squads are back again, after being convicted of murder, like Louis Jodel Chamblain, the justice minister working with the U.S. government as they re-take Haiti, after Aristide is ousted in what he called a "modern kidnapping."

When Bill Clinton called Democracy Now! on election day in 2000, do you think he had any clue of what he was walking into? It seemed like he'd never listened to the show before calling.

He was calling dozens of stations in New York to get out the vote for Hillary and for Al Gore. We got a call minutes before the show. I didn't even believe it. They said, "This is White House Communications," and I thought they said White Horse Communications, like the bar, and they said the president would like to speak to you, and I said, "The president of what?" Does this bar have a president? Is he really up at nine o'clock in the morning? But he did call in, and it was a tremendous opportunity to ask some questions.

I think about Elisabeth Bumiller, the Times reporter who explained why the press didn't ask Bush tough questions on the eve of war in one of his oh-so-rare news conferences: "Because of the gravity of the moment," she said. Which is precisely why you have to ask the questions! The gravity of the moment is sending young men and women into war! That's when you ask the most important questions of the day.

Do you find it's tough to get high officials, like Clinton, say, back on the show after they've taken hard questioning unlike they've ever received anywhere else?

People who come on DN! get a chance to air their views. That's very different from a lot of the media. So whatever their point of view, it's heard. We have a lot of debate and discussion. The people aren't cut off; they're not hung up on. They're not used as props so that the host can grandstand. They're used to hear their point of view.

Right, but do you find that people like James Woolsey, who on your show get a tone and a line of questioning they're not used to, do you find these people don't want to come back on?

You'd have to ask them if they don't want to come back on. The point of DN! is to air the greatest diversity of opinion, to do what the media has fallen so far short on now, and that is to be the exception to the rulers. It's thoroughly disgusting how low the media has gone when it's come to the invasion of Iraq, simply serving as a megaphone for those in power when they're supposed to be holding those in power accountable. It's particularly egregious because the lies take lives--it matters what the media does like no other time.

Do you see the success and booming of DN! as a parallel of what's happening in other grassroots media circles like IndyMedia? Do you see independent media thriving?

I think that independent media is definitely on the upswing, and I think it's blossoming all over the country and the world. It's an absolutely critical time. Indymedia is very important as a model. It blossomed in Seattle: Indymedia.org got more hits than CNN.com during the WTO protests, because people understood they weren't getting an honest picture of this global uprising against corporate power through a corporate lens. I think especially now, with many of the lies being exposed of the Bush administration and the fact that the media went along with them for so long. People across the political spectrum are very skeptical. Look at military families, for god's sake. They've paid the price with their loved ones' lives. More than 660 soldiers dead. More than 18,000, perhaps upwards of 20,000 evacuated, medically evacuated from Iraq. That's pretty astounding. We never hear these figures. More than 12,000 serious injuries. We never hear these figures. And they're saying "Why?" now. It's the media that failed them. Yes, their government did, but the government can only get away with it when the media doesn't challenge it.

Are you finding at DN! that there's an increasing audience of young people--high schoolers, college students?

Yes, and younger. There are a lot of young people, and they inspire me. Very early on, they know about being skeptical of those in authority and what they're being fed. That's the theme of our show. At DN! the motto is "the exception to the rulers." I think there's a natural constituency in young people. But also in old. Because wise people, older people, know that you cannot believe everything that you're told, or even most of it. Depending on where you're being told it, and certainly from the media. As George Gerbner, founder of the cultural environment movement, said: You know we're run by a media that's run by corporations that have nothing to tell us and everything to sell us that are raising our children today.

How does the program come together?

We have a group of producers, and we work through the day in coming up with ideas. People are calling in and emailing. We're combing the newspapers of the world over the internet and also newspapers that are brought in. We look at different websites. We have two jobs: One is to get at the stories and find the people who are closest to the stories. The other is to dissect the media coverage of the stories that are covered by the media. So it's a double job. Because the way people come to understand something is so often not by their own experience of it but from the media. So if you're going to present a very different point of view, you also have to talk about what has been presented. There's a lot of work to do every single day.

There's a silence about the war that's happening in Iraq right now, but then there's also the silence about issues that are happening domestically. homelessness, poverty...

It's all part and parcel of the same thing. You're absolutely right. It's that the journalists don't go to where the silence is. They go immediately to the celebrity, to the noise, to those who get the most coverage to give them more. And homelessness also relates to where society puts its resources, so that directly relates to war. Somehow we have enough money to spend for--I'm not going to say in Iraq, because it's not going to Iraq, it's going to U.S. corporations. Total corporate welfare for the largest corporations in this country. Bush is alienating many small businessmen and medium-sized businesses, because they see this. It's just another vehicle to get money to the largest corporations of those in power, like Halliburton.

In 2002, ABC's Nightline wanted to follow protestors at the World Economic Forum around, and they did this big profile. Then when it came time to run the show, they said, "I'm sorry, we can't run that because there was no violence. it's not a story anymore." How do you think the media is going to spin the RNC in general, and the protests around it?

The Republicans are clearly trying to control every aspect of this. The question is, will they succeed? They're saying that reporters won't be able to go in and out. If you're in, you're in. Which is another form of embedding. The really appalling practice of embedding, that the Pentagon has called a "spectacular success"--Victoria Clark, the Pentagon spokesperson who hailed from Hill & Knowlton, one of the most powerful PR firms in the world, talked about it as a "spectacular success"--it's basically bringing you war from one point of view: the trigger end of the gun. What about reporters being at the target end? Why not embed them in Iraqi communities? What about reporters being embedded in the peace movement around the world? We see the same thing at home. Jim Wilkinson, who was instrumental in designing the "cutter," the half-million-dollar tv studio for war where reporters could get no information, has also been involved in setting up the Republican National Convention here.

Which side of the convention will Democracy Now! be focusing on?

We'll be looking at both sides. The RNC is deciding who will cover them. Now, that couldn't happen if all of the reporters stood together and said, "You will not do this." See, the RNC needs reporters more than reporters need the RNC. Because it gives a legitimacy. They can have their spokespeople, but people have a natural skepticism about paid spokespeople. So they need a media that looks like it is weighing what is said. But when they don't weigh it, when they don't critique it, when they don't bring in other information, then they're a most destructive force.

As your profile has grown, have you found it difficult to get called on at press conferences?

I don't wait to get called on. I just ask the questions.

Kate Crane contributed to this article.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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