An alternative voice

Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman doesn't hold back on her criticism of the mainstream media, the government and the status quo.

Published July 9, 2004

"The Bush regime has shamelessly exploited 9/11. It has revived everything that Washington loved about the Cold War. Substitute fighting communism with fighting terrorism, and you have the justification for many of the items on the Bush administration wish list. From tax cuts for the rich to pushing to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the failed "war on drugs' to war on the world - it's all just part of keeping America safe from terrorists."

- From The Exception to the Rulers, by Amy Goodman, with David Goodman.

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Amy Goodman wants to talk about oil, power and politics.

She wants to talk about how the Iraq war is mostly an effort by a presidency rooted in the oil industry to seize control of the world's second largest oil reserve. She wants to talk about how America's mainstream media enabled this power grab through silence and selective coverage.

She wants to talk about how, progressing through a 70-city tour promoting her new book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them, she has met throngs of people who see her radio and TV show, Democracy Now!, as a rare respite from business-as-usual, corporate-friendly journalism.

But when I call her New York office, Goodman is preoccupied, looking for Colin Powell.

More precisely, she's trying to hunt down a videotape of a news conference Powell held to admit that a report used to prove terrorism incidents declined in 2003 actually proved the opposite - mother's milk for a public affairs show that has accused the Bush administration of lying about terrorism for years.

When she finally tracks it down, Powell's latest mea culpa provides more fuel for Goodman's searing reports, which she has dedicated to exposing the excesses of modern corporations, government and media at the expense of the voiceless and powerless.

"It's not only about taking on the military-industrial complex, but it's about taking on the media-industrial complex," said Goodman, 47, who answers questions with long, passionate monologues, sharpened by years of public speaking and media appearances.

"The media is not fulfilling its obligation to be the exception to the rulers," she added. "There's a reason why our profession is protected by the U.S. Constitution: We're supposed to be a check on . . . government power."

Such is the pace Goodman - who hosts a daily radio show, a daily TV show and hits the road on weekends for speaking engagements and book signings - sets for her life and her work.

In 1996, Goodman began hosting Democracy Now! as the only daily election show in public broadcasting. These days, it airs on more than 200 stations nationwide (including WMNF-FM 88.5 at noon weekdays), with a TV version that airs at 11 p.m. weekdays on Tampa's public access Channel 19 and at midnight weekdays on the city and county public access Channel 20.

And despite Goodman's progressive perspective, her appearance Saturday as headliner of a fundraiser for community radio station WMNF and the Hillsborough public access TV organization Speak Up Public Access Television Inc. doesn't indicate a political leaning on the part of Speak Up, according to the group's executive director, Louise Thompson.

"We didn't pick (Goodman) because this is a liberal thing . . . she talks about the importance of alternative, independent media - media that doesn't come from large corporations," said Thompson, who tangled with politicians last year when county officials tried to cut funding to the organization over the sexual content of a show. "Our viewers and members are bound and determined to make sure there's another voice out there outside the voice we normally hear."

Goodman has a bit of history with WMNF, which continued airing Democracy Now! even after dropping most of Pacifica Radio's other programming back in 2001, when workers at the left-leaning network actively resisted attempts by board members to change the direction of the network.

Show staffers left the offices of longtime Pacifica affiliate WBAI in New York City and took Democracy Now! to a converted firehouse, speaking out against the very network that aired the show. And WMNF helped the Pacifica dissidents, providing part of their cramped space along Martin Luther King Boulevard in Tampa to create parts of an alternative report, Free Speech Radio News, that some stations used to replace Pacifica's evening newscast.

"Usually, if there's a cutting-edge issue having to do with foreign policy or the government or the corporate takeover of media, (Democracy Now!) is right on top of it," said Rob Lorei, WMNF's news and public affairs director and one of its founders.

"You get that other side (of mainstream journalism) that pretends they have no opinion on these issues all the time," Lorei said. "She tells listeners where she's at ahead of time, and you have to make up your mind. All journalists have a point of view; she's one of the few that's honest enough to say, "This is where I'm coming from.' "

Of course, there are times when this approach can seem needlessly confrontational - like spitting in the punch bowl at a party.

And if there's any criticism of Goodman that seems to stick, even from those who agree with her politics, it's that she can come across as strident and even sanctimonious in some reports.

For conservative media watchers, Goodman's work can feel like a betrayal of America itself.

"If you think that Jean Bertrand Aristide is the answer in Haiti, if you hate the Iraq war . . . if you want to know all the intricacies of the Green Party nominating process, she's your (source)," said Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"I listen to hear what's going on in that sliver of the extreme left," added Graham, who compared governmental support of Pacifica through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to handing grants to a militia group. "It comes from a predisposition that anywhere American power is inserted in the world is wrong. It's the idea that America is a cancer. . . . America is the evil empire."

Still, at a time when some mainstream news outlets are draping themselves in patriotism or reeling from accusations that they are biased in favor of liberal ideas, Goodman argues that American media isn't progressive enough - criticizing coverage of the buildup to the Iraq war, a lack of antiwar voices in global conflict coverage and more.

And though some mainstream media outlets now seem more willing to provide coverage critical of the Iraq war - cable TV news channels even showed images of four Marines killed in Iraq last month, a turnaround from times when editors resisted such graphic images - Goodman still resists the idea that corporate-owned news outlets have learned their lessons.

"The media reflects the power elite in Washington . . . the media iced out dissent (before the Iraq war) because mainstream Democrats supported it," added Goodman, who said she still can't get the kind of author interviews on morning news shows or cable channels that journalists such as Tim Russert or Tom Brokaw have gotten from their recent books.

"This year, there is a bit more dissension because we're in an election year and Democrats are critical," she said. "(But) people are fed up with the administration and media serving as a megaphone for those in power."

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"September 11 united Americans with people around the world who have been victims of terror. In my years working as a reporter, I have covered many horrors: war, torture, bombings, genocide. In most cases, I have had to fight to tell the stories of the victims, because doing so often implicated the U.S. government and its allies. From Timor to Iraq to Haiti, there always had to be a reason, a false balance to explain away the atrocities."

- Amy Goodman, The Exception to the Rulers.

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Such pointed perspectives often are shunned by mainstream journalists, who fear such tactics will brand them as partisan, biased mouthpieces for a particular political persuasion.

Indeed, the question that most often surfaces while listening to a Goodman report is simple: Does she consider herself an objective journalist?

"I just think we have to be fair and accurate and provide a forum for most people to speak for themselves," said Goodman, who calls herself a "peace correspondent." "We know the view of most journalists . . . that's not the issue. When NBC - not just Fox - uses as the name of their war coverage the military's own (code name) Operation Iraqi Freedom . . . you have to ask, if we had state-run media in this country, how would it be any different?"

Tough words coming from a reporter who has challenged both the Indonesian military and President Bill Clinton with equal fervor, earning prestigious journalism honors such as the George Polk Award and the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Silver Baton.

It also means counteracting some of the most reflexive actions of today's media and society.

During the recent Independence Day holiday, for instance, while mainstream TV and radio networks were drowning in flag imagery and talk of America's freedom, Democracy Now! featured actor James Earl Jones' dramatic reading of a long-ago July Fourth speech by slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

"What have I, or those I represent have to do with your national holiday?" Jones read, his voice thundering with Douglass' spicy indignation. "What to an American slave is your Fourth of July? To him, your celebration is a sham. . . . Your shouts of liberty and equality, a hollow mockery."

The show's Web site retains an archive of its coverage of Ronald Reagan's recent funeral, countering the mainstream media's gentle memorializing of a controversial conservative icon with tart reminders of the Reagan legacy's dark side.

"The (eight) years Reagan was in office represented one of the most bloody eras in the history of the Western hemisphere, as Washington funneled money, weapons and other supplies to right wing death squads," reads the introduction to their remembrances of the Iran-Contra scandal. "And the death toll was staggering - more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala, 30,000 killed in the Contra war in Nicaragua. In Washington, the forces carrying out the violence were called "freedom fighters.' "

It's all part of Goodman's central broadcasting ethic: To go where the silence is and speak.

"When people hear about suffering, they care," said Goodman, shrugging off the idea that mainstream media may spend less time describing atrocities in Haiti, the Sudan or East Timor because average Americans don't care.

"That's why it's such a problem when the media sanitizes war," she added. "All over the world, people are seeing the casualties of war, yet we don't see these images (in America). I would contend that if, a year ago, we saw babies dead or women with their legs shorn off . . . if we saw the horror of war for a week, the American people wouldn't stand for it."

Goodman, the daughter of politically active parents, discovered political journalism while she was a medical anthropology student at Harvard University, writing articles about an injectable contraceptive that was tested on thousands of black women in Atlanta.

By 1985, she was producing WBAI's evening news report, traveling to areas such as East Timor, a small island 300 miles north of Australia. The story of the beating she took while documenting the Indonesian military's violent occupation of that country in 1991 proves a compelling first chapter to Exception to the Rulers.

Now she sees hundreds of fans showing up for book signing events and speeches - evidence, Goodman said, of a hunger for independent voices in media exemplified by WMNF, public access and Democracy Now!

"We are living in the age of the largest media consolidation in history . . . (and) we need media that provide a forum for local voices on global issues," she said. I would say that our job is not to win a popularity contest, but to reflect what's going on on the ground. War isn't fun . . . it's horror, it's blood and it's gore, and that's our job; to show it."

Material from Times files was used in this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com


Amy Goodman will appear at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Carol Morsani Hall in the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N W.C. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickers are $15 in advance, $20 at the door.