Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 01, Jan. 06 - 19, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

Table of Contents


'Opening the airwaves to voices not heard'

In a career spanning 16 years, Amy Goodman , host of the WBAI daily newsmagazine "Democracy Now!", has earned a reputation as a fearless and uncompromising journalist. In 1991, Goodman and journalist Allan Nairn survived a massacre in East Timor in which Indonesian soldiers gunned down more than 250 Timorese. The radio documentary she co-produced with Nairn, "Massacre: The Story of East Timor," won some of the United States' highest radio awards. In 1998, she and co-producer Jeremy Scahill won the George Polk Award for the radio documentary "Dri lling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria's Military Dictatorship," which exposed the oil company's role in the killing of two Nigerian villagers on May 28, 1998. The documentary also won the Golden Reel for Best National Documentary from the National Feder ation of Community Broadcasters, and was selected by Project Censored as one of the "10 Most Censored Stories of 1998." Goodman has also reported from Israel and the occupied territories, Cuba, Mexico and Haiti.


Goodman is a popular speaker in university campuses, churches, and community and grass-roots organisations across the U.S. She addresses audiences on wide-ranging topics relating to the media, politics and activism. Since the turmoil at Pacifica, her aud iences, almost all loyal WBAI listeners, have rallied strongly to her support, although Goodman is careful to refer only obliquely to the subject in her talks. One recent wintry Saturday afternoon, Goodman was in St. Paul's Baptist church in Montclair in New Jersey at the invitation of New Jersey Peace Action to speak on "Post-Election 2000: Democracy Now?" Peace Action is the largest grass-roots peace organisation in the U.S. Nearly 300 people, mostly white and middle-aged, many of them labour organise rs, teachers and social workers, filled the hall, lunching on home-made soup and dessert. Several sported "Nader for 2004" buttons and peacenik caps. The tables were stacked with anti-nuclear literature and petitions against genetically modified foods. A mong the prizes up for auction were subscriptions to The Nation, Mother Jones, Z Magazine and other staple reading of the American Left.

This is home territory for Goodman and she gets a warm welcome. She is a compelling speaker, mixing informative fact, newsy anecdote and activist pitch, all in a tone that is at once matter-of-fact, crusading, humorous and irreverent. "I had an interesti ng call the other morning," she begins, and her audience erupts in gales of delighted laughter.

Excerpts from an interview she gave Bharati Sadasivam:

What do you see as the common threads in the 'softening' of NPR, PBS and other formerly independent media in the U.S.?

I think that corporate dominance of the media is the greatest threat to independent broadcasting. NPR and PBS are drowning in corporate money. You'll have PBS refusing a documentary on domestic violence that is directed, say, by someone who fights agains t domestic violence, saying she has a point of view. And yet you'll have a PBS documentary based on the book by Daniel Yergin (The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power), that is totally sympathetic to the oil industry, is sponsored by o il companies and has only oil experts on it. It's not seen as having a point of view when you've got corporate sponsorship, but questions are raised if a union wants to sponsor a programme.

But it's not only corporations. The media - NPR, PBS and the entire corporate media - share an establishment point of view with the rest of the elite in Washington. So the content is more and more uniform even though there are more media sources. A democ ratic media doesn't have to be aligned with the establishment. Take the reporting on Israel - it's outrageous and horrifying what's happening there. All you have to do is look at the numbers - more than 260 killed, most of them targets of gunfire, and th e targets overwhelmingly Palestinian. But the media are aligned with the Jewish establishment in this country, which is even further to the right than Israel.

How would you respond to those who say Pacifica must take steps to increase audiences?

It is not a question of bigger audiences. Democracy Now! is independent and hard-hitting and lives by its watchword, Exception to the Rulers, and knows that listeners will respond. The money has come pouring in - our audiographics show that Democracy Now ! is the most listened to programme in Pacifica's five stations. It has been building audiences and bringing down barriers between liberals and conservatives. During the 1991 Gulf War, I was on C-SPAN, and I said we weren't hearing anti-war voices - radi o and TV tend to cover peace protests on the streets but don't invite peace activists to the studios. I got hundreds of calls - from women throughout the South living on military bases, women who said they were against the war, who didn't want their husb ands and sons dying, and whose views were my views, except that we weren't hearing them expressed anywhere. That's what we're doing at Democracy Now! - we're opening the airwaves and breaking the sound barrier to represent the majority voices not heard a round the world. And we're doing this by not being on bended knee to those in power.

So the question is not one of audiences, but what we are up against. Foreign journalists always say that American journalists treat politicians as royalty. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, accepted the Overseas Press Club invitat ion to be keynote speaker at its awards dinner in 1999 on condition that he wouldn't be asked any questions. And the OPC agreed - this was during the height of the U.S. bombing, with more than 500 journalists in the room! (Goodman and co-producer Jeremy Scahill rejected the OPC award in protest against the Club's agreement.) And halfway through the evening, Holbrooke announced that the U.S. had bombed RTS (Radio Television Serbia) off the air, killing civilians. This was a direct war crime by the U.S., and would have been treated as such had it been some other country that did it. So what if RTS had garbage on the air, so do we have garbage on our air.

The media in the U.S. exist as a megaphone for corporate power. When Tom Brokaw (NBC anchor) read out our citation for the OPC award, he dropped Chevron from the title of our radio documentary, and just said "Drilling and Killing - Nigeria's Military Dic tatorship." CNN - we call it CMN, Cable Military Network - has retired army generals on its payroll so that at the drop of a bomb, they can have them on the air for expert comments. Why don't they interview peace activists the same way, even if they don' t put them on their payroll? More than half the American people were against the NATO (North Atlantic Teaty Organisation) bombings, but the networks and other mainstream media were building drumbeats for war, manufacturing consent, as Noam Chomsky says. The media have become cheerleaders for the state and we have to challenge this relationship.

You were criticised by your employers for bringing Green Party leader Ralph Nader on the floor of the republican national convention. What do you think of the Nader factor in this round of elections in the U.S. and of third-party politics?

A third party is a good idea, but let's start with a second party. The Democrats have gone further and further to the right, all the while telling "blacks and progressives you have nowhere else to go."... I think Nader was locked out of the media and onl y written about in the context of a spoiler and a threat to (Al) Gore. But Gore lost Tennessee and Arkansas - Nader didn't do that. And he took votes not only from Gore but also from (George) Bush. Something is afoot here. Nader attracted thousands to hi s rallies, he is touching a chord, cutting through liberals and conservatives - but the media don't report it... I don't think he takes women's rights lightly. (Nader came under flak from women's groups for dismissing concerns over abortion and reproduct ive choice as "gonadal politics".) But he must make women's issues and the military-industrial complex a more visible part of his agenda.

What stories would Democracy Now! do on India?

The first would be the anti-nuclear movement and the second the movement against big dam projects.

What do you think of the "indymedia"?

I think they are very important. I first experienced independent media centres (IMCs) in Seattle during the (1999) WTO (World Trade Organisation) meeting, then in Washington during the protests against the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary F und), and then in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the Republican and Democratic national conventions. It's people who've decided they are tired of seeing this global uprising against corporate power through a corporate lens or hearing it through a co rporate microphone. (Indymedia describes itself as "a collective of independent media organisations and hundreds of journalists offering grassroots, non-corporate coverage. Indymedia is a democratic media outlet for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth.")... Seattle was the first big expression of independent media. If the answer to corporate globalisation is grass-roots globalisation, community radio helps get the word out for grass-roots organising... It's very similar t o the notion of Pacifica radio stations - volunteers coming in and having access in a way they can never have in other radio stations.

Internet access is very important to independent media - and the more privatised that gets, the more we will lose it.

What has shaped your journalism and politics?

I grew up in a political household. My parents were peace activists in Day Shore, Long Island. My father led a task force to integrate schools that were de facto segregated - white kids went to white schools and black kids to black schools. The idea was that we would all go to school together. That was in the 1970s and it was a very heated time, with thousands of people coming out against the task force because they didn't want change. Even though I was young then, I was very proud watching my father ne gotiate his way for a more just system and standing up for it. My mother taught women's history and literature in college and went on to become a social worker. They were great role models for me. My grandfather is an Orthodox rabbi and I think my Jewish education has had a lot to do with my sense of social justice. Unfortunately we are not witnessing that in the Middle East (West Asia) right now. But I had a very different education.

What do you see on your horizon in say five or 10 years? What kind of political and journalistic space do you think you will have?

Well, I hope to be on Pacifica, doing Democracy Now! and broadcasting on radio and television, on cable access stations and on satellite TV, bringing independent media across the media, from radio to the Internet. I hope to be at Pacifica because it is t he only independent media network in the U.S. and I believe deeply in the institution.

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