2844Peace Correspondent - Common Dreams
- Apr 2, 2003Peace Correspondent
'Democracy Now!' Host Amy Goodman Is Making Her Voice
Heard on Iraq
by Michael Powell
NEW YORK -- And now for the news:
"President Bush last night claimed a war in Iraq would
set the stage for peace in the Middle East, but he did
not set any deadline or detail any specific steps." .
"The Financial Times describes the Bush
administration's financial analysis as 'a piece of
fiction.' " . . .
"In Australia, 43 legal experts warn that an attack on
Iraq is a violation of international law." . . .
"And the United States asks aid groups in Baghdad for
civilian satellite coordinates in Iraq" -- pregnant
pause here -- "Is it to bomb them or save them?"
"This is 'Democracy Now!' " says the anchor. "The war
and peace report." Cue the lilting Bob Marley reggae
This is not the news as Brit Hume construes it or Dan
Rather intones it. In a "Showdown: Iraq,"
Blix-is-nixed, pack-my-trench-coat-honey testosterone
media age, Amy Goodman and her radio show, "Democracy
Now!," beam in as if from some alternative left
Broadcasting on the Pacifica Radio network from a
book-strewn loft in an old firehouse a half-dozen
blocks from Ground Zero, Goodman is a daily polestar
for those who crave the antiwar perspective that
mainstream networks and newspapers often consign to
"War coverage should be more than a parade of retired
generals and retired government flacks posing as
reporters," Goodman says after the show. "Why not
invite on some voices that are not Pentagon-approved?"
Her 9 a.m. magazine show mixes investigative scoops (a
recent report detailed how the Bush administration
quashed an FBI investigation into Saudi Arabian
funding of terrorist organizations), reports from
foreign correspondents, and very few generals. She and
her co-host, New York Daily News columnist Juan
Gonzalez, speak, unabashedly, to those who oppose a
war with Iraq, a roomier club than one might imagine
from watching cable television news channels.
A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that six in 10
Americans harbor doubts about using force in Iraq,
while 40 percent are opposed to any invasion.
The audience for "Democracy Now!" is small but
growing, and the show is influential among antiwar
activists. More than 120 stations carry it, including
WPFW-FM (89.3) in Washington and some public radio
affiliates. And in the last two years, it's begun
broadcasting on Web TV (via www.democracynow.org) and
public access television channels around the world .
And starting today the formerly 60-minute show expands
by an hour to accommodate more reporting on the war.
Its politics can veer toward communion for the
progressive choir. But in this age of corporate media
conglomeration, when National Public Radio sounds as
safe as a glass of warm milk, "Democracy Now!" retains
a jagged and intriguing edge.
Goodman is the show's center, a slight 45-year-old in
a pullover vest, jeans and sneakers. Her unruly brown
hair is streaked with gray. She can break out a
playful smile, and punctuate an interview by opening a
hatch in her office floor and sliding down a fire pole
to the floor below.
More often, though, her intensity burns through.
In two decades of reporting for Pacifica, she's been
beaten bloody by Indonesian soldiers as she charted
East Timor's battle for independence. And she's
wandered the deltas of southern Nigeria charting the
environmental and human rights degradations of the
Nigerian army and Chevron Oil Corp.
For such work, she's received some of mainstream
journalism's highest honors: The Robert F. Kennedy
Journalism Award, the George Polk Award and the
Overseas Press Club Award (an honor she declined at
the podium on awards night -- more on that later).
But the awards seem beside the point. Her Edward R.
Murrow comes always with a twist of Emma Goldman.
Goodman leans forward in her chair, trying to explain
what's so very clear to her. "I feel this is a very
urgent time, for this nation and the world," she says.
"The clock is ticking towards war. We can't do enough,
we absolutely can't."
She begins broadcasting at 7 a.m. every morning, and
works until near midnight, talking to sources, reading
documents and talking up funders. (Although the show
raises $2.5 million annually for the Pacifica network,
it, more than any other program, runs on a shoestring
budget: $800,000.) Each Friday, she heads to the
airport, hopping planes to such places as Seattle and
Albuquerque, Boston and Cleveland and Ithaca, N.Y., to
talk about the coming war with Iraq.
Her eye sockets look a bit hollowed out. It's hard to
leave phone messages for her because her voice mail
keeps filling up.
"She doesn't say 'no' very well," says Michael Ratner,
a friend and an attorney with and president of with
the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Sleep? Her friend, Elizabeth Benjamin, head of the
Legal Aid Society's Health Law Unit, chuckles.
"I wish she got more of it. Amy has so much passion to
right the wrongs of the world."
The Amy & Bill Show
Three years ago, President Clinton placed an Election
Day call to "Democracy Now!" For Clinton it was
supposed to be two minutes of get-out-the-vote happy
talk with a progressive radio show and then: Gotta go.
Except Goodman began by asking: "You are calling radio
stations telling people to vote. What do you say to
people who feel the two parties are bought by
corporations and that at this point their vote doesn't
make a difference?"
"There is not a shred of evidence to support that,"
And they were off and running, Amy and Bill, debating
American politics, the health effects of sanctions
against Iraq, and whether Clinton would pardon native
American activist Leonard Peltier. Why, she asked, did
he fly back to Arkansas in 1992 during the
presidential campaign to execute a mentally impaired
Goodman is the reporter who sinks her teeth in and
never lets go, and he was the president who never
gives up hope of winning you over. "You have asked
questions in a hostile, combative and even
disrespectful tone," he scolded Goodman at one point.
Then he kept on talking.
In this insider media age when oh-so-serious reporters
measure status by access to the powerful, Goodman is
the journalist as uninvited guest. You might think of
the impolite question; she asks it. She torments
Democrats no less than Republicans.
When former senator Bob Kerrey called a news
conference to defend himself against charges he
committed a war crime while a soldier in Vietnam,
Goodman asked if perhaps a war crimes tribunal should
be set up to examine the guilt of the war's
architects, such as Henry Kissinger.
Kerrey's halting demurral made a few television
broadcasts. But Goodman's question displeased some
establishment media worthies. That Sunday, NPR
reporter Mara Liason went on "Fox Special Report With
Brit Hume" and complained that Goodman was not really
a journalist and that no one would have asked such a
question in Washington.
Last year Goodman sneaked into the World Economic
Forum, a hermetically sealed gathering of the powerful
(and a few well-behaved journalist guests) in
Manhattan. She found Nicholas Platt, a former U.S.
ambassador to the Philippines and asked him if
American support of Indonesia was worth it, given that
its military killed tens of thousands in East Timor.
Platt squinted at her and inquired (on the air): "What
ax are you grinding right here?"
"I survived a massacre in East Timor," Goodman
Growing Up Amy
Goodman grew up a movement child, the daughter of
radical parents in Bayshore, N.Y., across from Fire
Island. Her father, a physician, was featured in a
poster for nuclear disarmament, the image of a
mushroom cloud in his stethoscope. (Going further
back, she is descended from prominent Hasidic rabbis,
although she counts herself a secular Jew.)
After graduating from Harvard in 1984, Goodman came to
New York City. She fiddled with the radio dial and
found WBAI, the New York affiliate of the
cacophonously left-wing Pacifica, a network founded in
the 1940s by pacifist Lew Hill. She heard vegans and
pagans, performance artists and beatniks, jazz
musicians and black nationalists.
"It was New York, in all of its beauty and all of its
ugliness," she recalls. "And it wasn't trying to sell
a thing. I was riveted."
She took a video documentary class, began volunteering
at the station and a few years later became the
station's news director. She's never left.
In 1991, she traveled to East Timor with journalist
Allan Nairn. They fell in step one day with a Timorese
memorial procession. As the procession passed a row of
Indonesian troops, the soldiers brought rifles to
shoulders and began firing, killing 250 men, women and
children. Nairn and Goodman huddled on the ground as
the soldiers began beating them with rifle butts.
"Allan put his body over mine," she recalls. "I
thought we would die."
Photos show them afterward, bruised and bleeding from
head to foot. The Indonesians expelled them. But
Goodman and Nairn made a documentary that drew
attention to this distant island, and not incidentally
explored the American complicity in backing the
As she accepted a prize for that work, Goodman was
asked to explain her approach. She replied: "Go where
the silence is and say something."
She has lived that advice, traveling to Yugoslavia,
Haiti, Cuba, Israel's occupied territories and Mexico,
often recording reports in the face of danger. In
1996, she started "Democracy Now!" as a daily
The shows are of varying quality. The politics can
sometimes seem predictable and the overseas telephone
lines can sound as if sanded with gravel. And
sometimes the guests are a bit . . . dated.
So on a recent day Ramsey Clark, the 75-year-old
former U.S. attorney general and patron saint of very
lost causes (former Yugoslav president Slobodan
Milosevic and the North Korean government, to name
two) wandered in to talk up his campaign to impeach
But on its best days, Goodman's show has the quality
of a good reporter peering under unexpected rocks.
Goodman talks with a reporter for the German
newsmagazine Der Spiegel about his investigation into
complicity of American and European companies in
selling biological and chemical weapons supplies to
the Iraqis in the 1980s. Another recent guest details
an investigative report in British papers that found
the United States was tapping the phones and reading
the e-mails of United Nations Security Council members
during the debate over Iraq.
Last Thursday she interviewed two veteran war
correspondents, Chris Hedges of the New York Times and
Robert Fisk of the Independent in London, about the
Pentagon's censorship of reporters.
"The press in the first Gulf War was completely
managed," said Hedges, who covered that event. "The
coverage was absolutely shameful."
Fisk and Hedges often worked outside the
Pentagon-approved press pools in that first war and
suffered arrests and beatings for their trouble --
from allied troops. "I was arrested by the Marines
after I was betrayed by a CBS reporter who said I was
not in the pool."
None of these stories and views have gotten much air
time on the commercial or publicly funded airwaves.
"There's such an hunger out there for an alternative,"
Goodman says. "It's almost explosive."
Two hundred thousand people jam the frigid streets of
New York City in early February, protesting the
planned war on Iraq. Vast puppet heads bob in the air,
along with placards reading: "Somewhere in Texas, a
village has lost its idiot." And throughout the crowd,
demonstrators tune radios to WBAI and Amy Goodman --
who is broadcasting live from the march.
Later, you find Goodman, sitting outside in a
director's chair on First Avenue, a pathetic
foot-heater kicking out little in the way of warmth. A
techie fixes a webcast video camera on her. It's
another of those alt-media celebrity moments: the
anchor without leg warmers or makeup, but with
politics and passion.
Actors Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, and
entertainer Harry Belafonte and Archbishop Desmond
Tutu stop by to chat. The broadcasts of their
interviews draw cheers far up the parade route.
The cold this day is wind-driven and cuts to the bone.
And yet Goodman sounds invigorated. Her life and
passions are one -- she works the vast majority of her
waking hours. She is single and has no children.
Even her friends aren't always sure what drives her,
"A lot of us have parents who were political, but
we're not willing to accept a life that has very
little room for pure enjoyment," says Ratner, the
Center for Constitutional Rights president. "Amy will
come to our annual baseball game up in the country
each summer, but a couple of hours later, she's gone.
"I would love for her to reserve some part of her life
Ask Goodman about this and she shrugs. She talks of
drawing inspiration from a century-old grandmother
who, when sick, organized her sanitorium. But quickly
she turns the conversation to the war for oil and
empire in Iraq.
She's not so much disapproving as disinterested in the
career arcs of her generational peers.
Two years ago, a new board took over Pacifica and was
accused of trying to pasteurize the network's
political edge. Goodman walked away and broadcast on
the Web for eight months. (That board has since been
overthrown and she has returned.) Four years ago, she
was invited to the Overseas Press Club's awards
dinner, where her Nigeria documentary would be
honored. She could not afford the $125 ticket, so she
and a colleague sat on chairs in the back. Secretary
of State Richard Holbrooke was the club's keynote
speaker that night, but the club's board, including
its chairman, Tom Brokaw, set the ground rules:
Holbrooke would not appear if he had to answer
Then Holbrooke gave a speech and noted that American
bombers had just hit a Serbian television station.
Goodman took the podium and declined her award.
"He'd just told a roomful of journalists that we've
bombed a television station and yet no one said a
word," Goodman recalls. "I said: 'Thank you, Mr.
Brokaw, but no thank you.' "
Goodman manages to recount this without sounding
terribly self-righteous. She respects a number of
mainstream reporters -- or, in her lexicon, corporate
media -- and she likes nothing better than when they
pick up her stories, with or without credit.
The interview at an end, she slides down the fire
pole, and you swallow hard and follow her. She walks
you to the door. Upstairs, her braided and
spike-haired producers prepare for the next day's
broadcast, downloading, cutting, fiddling with
soundboards like so many caffeinated maestros.
It's dark. She's eager to get back upstairs and rejoin
"There are so many deeply patriotic voices out there
raising questions about this war, and they aren't
being heard." She says goodbye, and reminds you:
"Steal our stories -- please."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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