On The Frontlines

Amy Goodman is no stranger to conflict. The journalist and radio host survived a massacre in East Timor in which Indonesian soldiers gunned down more than 250 Timorese. She won prestigious journalism awards for her exposé of Chevron and its complicity in killings in Nigeria’s oil fields. And she’s reported from Israel and the Occupied Territories, Cuba, Mexico, and Haiti. More recently she’s been at ground zero in New York City.

Ironically, it was a work-related battle that sent her there, before September 11. Goodman, a 44-year-old Long Island native, is the host of Democracy Now! Featuring the voices of activists, muckrakers, risk-takers, and “just folks,” the program provides grassroots coverage of political and cultural affairs. One of the country’s most important forums for progressive political views, it has been the most popular program on the independent Pacifica Radio network for years. Pacifica owns five stations around the country, including WBAI in New York, from which Goodman’s five-days-a-week program originated until last summer. Over the last few years, Pacifica has been engaged in fierce internal struggles, which, among other things, resulted in Goodman being suspended without pay in August, when she and the rest of the Democracy Now! staff went into exile, moving to a firehouse garret only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. But they continued to broadcast to community radio stations across the country with the help of another Pacifica station, Berkeley’s KPFA.

Then came 9/11. Democracy Now! was already on the scene. At a time when there were few dissenting voices in the mainstream media, the demand for its alternative coverage grew. A televised version quickly became available on public access stations, Deep Dish TV, Free Speech TV, and the Internet. In December, a legal settlement began to pave the way for Democracy Now! to return to WBAI.

Goodman talked recently with senior editor Karen Olson from her firehouse studio.

Where do you get your daily news?
All over the world. From people on the ground in different places. From newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and going to places myself. I read lots of different things–everything I can get my hands on. I bring in a pack of newspapers each day.

What book is on your reading table?
Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden. It’s a book about the American invasion of Somalia in 1993. Hollywood and the Pentagon rushed to release a blockbuster movie of it months in advance. It will lay the groundwork for the bombing of Somalia. The book is very important because so much of pop culture shapes and informs people about the world. Black Hawk Down will become the official version of history.

Have you seen any films lately that have engaged your imagination?
I just saw The Bombing. It’s about a Palestinian suicide bomber, about the families of the victims and of the Palestinian bomber and how they communicate with each other. I rarely go out to the movies, but one of my favorite all-time movies is David Riker’s La Ciudad. It’s an incredible story of what day laborers and immigrants face in New York–one of the finest movies I’ve seen.

Which radio programs do you most appreciate?
Free Speech Radio News is a very important way to get independent news. It’s a project of producers who are striking against Pacifica and independent reporters from around the world. It’s a virtual newsroom. It’s a very young, vibrant political group of reporters, and it’s what Pacifica should be. I don’t get to hear much else right now. In a way, we’re still hunkered down since September 11. I don’t think we’ve fully come out of that. I watch television–the networks, CNN–to understand how people come to adopt one point of view, because as Noam Chomsky says, the media manufacture consent. And the corporate media–I don’t think anytime more than now–beats a drumbeat for war.

What are the biggest challenges facing media today?
To stop the propagandizing for war. NPR does it. PBS does it. All the networks do it. There is this sense of rallying around the Bush administration at a time like this. The consensus that’s being celebrated is simply a blockade on information. I believe it’s our job to break the sound barrier and to really reflect the diversity of opinions in this country and around the world.

How did Democracy Now! get its name?
Six years ago we began as the only daily election show in public broadcasting. The idea was to look at the elections–not only the official candidates, but what people do during times of elections: why so many don’t vote, why so many feel alienated. So it’s not only a name, it’s a demand. I like to say Democracy Now! is not only a program, it’s a movement.

Who do you find to be some of the most interesting thinkers right now?
Noam Chomsky. Alice Walker. Julia Alvarez. Isabel Allende. Michael Franti, the hip-hop artist. Danny Glover, the Hollywood actor who’s not afraid to speak out. Eduardo Galeano. Sebastiao Salgado, the great Chilean photographer.
Farid Esack is a remarkable man, a Muslim liberation theologian who trained in the madrases of Pakistan and then became part of South Africa’s gender equity commission for four years. He opposes all forms of fundamentalism. He wrote the book On Being a Muslim (Oneworld, 1999). He is a very compelling thinker, activist, and writer.

What are the most important stories people should be hearing about right now but aren’t?
Casualties in Afghanistan. Marc Herold, a faculty member at the University of New Hampshire, has been counting casualties since October 7 based on many different international reports and newspapers. He believes that more than 3,700 civilians have been killed. It’s not something we know about in this country. If people were to see civilian casualties more in the media–pictures–that would turn people against war.

Is censorship on the rise?
It’s completely pervasive. It’s what our network, Pacifica, tried to do, which unfortunately makes it no different from the rest of the media. But it goes beyond censorship, which is just a blockade. First you block out the uncomfortable information, then you aggressively cheerlead for war, and that’s what the media are doing. The networks are a disgrace right now when it comes to coverage of Afghanistan and in blocking out all those who question what the response to terrorism should be.

What inspires you about American society?
People standing up and speaking out. That protects all of us. I’m inspired by the people I cover, by those who are not afraid to stand up for their principles no matter what the cost.

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