Five Minutes With
Amy Goodman is the co-founder and host of the national news program Democracy Now!. Broadcasting for free online, on the radio, and on television, Democracy Now! is one of the most successful independent media outlets in the world. Goodman is an investigative journalist and has exposed human rights violations, asked tough questions of high-ranking officials, and was arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention while covering an anti-war protest. She and her brother have co-written three books, and she was the first journalist to receive the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.
Minutes before Goodman gave remarks at Campus Progress’s Southern Regional Conference in Atlanta, Campus Progress spoke with Goodman about getting arrested at the RNC, the difference between advocacy and journalism, and why she got banned from the White House.
Amy Goodman: I can’t believe I’m doing this before coffee.
Campus Progress: I know. Me either. Sorry about that.
AG: No, no. It’s fine.
CP: The first thing I want to ask is: You graduated from Harvard with a degree in anthropology. How did you get into journalism?
AG: Well, I was doing journalism even before college. When I was in high school I was involved in my high school paper and in junior high school. I just always saw it as a way to pursue issues of social justice, to hold those in power accountable, to really work hard to get at the truth, and to bring out the voices of people from many different communities in one forum at one table—talk it out.
CP: Democracy Now! is one of the most successful independent media outlets in the world, if not the most successful. In many ways, it is far ahead of the rest of the industry, which is struggling to find a successful and profitable way to embrace multimedia. Democracy Now! is online, on the radio, on TV, and even in print with hundreds of thousands of dedicated viewers. Do you think this is possible in a for-profit system, like the mainstream media?
AG: It depends on what you mean by a “for-profit system.” For the profit of society, yes. I can only speak from my own experience with what we do. [I] deeply believ[e] that we need to work on every kind of platform to get independent information out, which is why we’re on community radio and NPR, Pacifica radio and PBS, and public access TV and then on the Internet. We believed from the very beginning in working online and open source so that everyone can get information out there. Part of the work is getting information out and the other part is shoring up these independent media networks. When we’re on a station, it’s bringing attention to that station, bringing resources to that station. Public access is under threat in the United States. You know, the telecoms and the cable companies don’t want to have these free channels. But they’re the ones—the cable companies—that get the monopoly in a town to have their cable network. They’ve got to give something back to the community. What better way to serve a community than to provide a space where people can make their own media, because the media are the most powerful institutions on earth.
CP: More recently at the Republican National Convention, you and a number of your colleagues were arrested while covering an anti-war protest. What do you think that says about where this country stands and the media’s role in it?
AG: It is very important that we not have a situation where the media is cracked down on. When journalists are out on the street, we have to be able to put things on the record without getting a record. We were not alone in being arrested. There were more than 40 journalists who were arrested that week. We were covering the protests. And that’s very, very important, to be able to cover those voices on the street. It’s not just the one orchestrated voice that was coming out of the Excel Center, the Republican Convention, or for that matter, in Denver at the Democratic Convention. That story is all over—in the corporate suites, on the streets, on the convention floor. If journalists feel that if they go outside they’ll be arrested, unfortunately, for many journalists that will keep them inside. And that’s the orchestrated message. Democracy is a messy thing, and people are all over saying and working on what they believe in. We’ve got to capture all of that.
CP: On the topic of protests and activism, you’ve been described by some as being too much of an advocate and not enough of an objective journalist. In your opinion, what line as journalists should we draw between advocacy and objectivity, or is there a line?
AG: You really can’t become more of an advocate than the corporate press. They provide the model. Just look at the lead-up to the invasion. All of the networks over and over again beating the drums for war. I know what every one of those journalists think because they talked about it all the time. The group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting did a study of the four major nightly newscasts on the two weeks around Colin Powell when he was secretary of state giving his push for war at the United Nations before the invasion. [On] NBC, ABC, CBS and the PBS News Hour there were 393 interviews done about the war. Three were done with anti-war leaders. Three [out] of almost 400. This is a time when the population was almost fully divided. Three of almost 400. That’s no longer even a mainstream media. That’s an extreme media beating the drums for war. When you bring in a different point of view—different points of view, I should say, because it’s not always two-sided. The issues are not just Democratic and Republican. There is a vast majority of people outside of that spectrum. That’s very narrow. As we saw in the lead-up to the invasion, the spectrum was almost nil. You had a few outspoken critics of the war, like Robert Byrd of West Virginia. But the main, leading Democrats—John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards—they joined with the Republicans in pushing for war, and the media reflected that. But the media should go beyond that because that’s where most people are and that’s our job. We advocate for bringing in more voices.
CP: Barack Obama has now taken office and the media has turned him into a super celebrity, if not a rock star. This is obviously a big shift from eight years of the Bush administration. How will the role of the media change, or should it change?
AG: The media has to be critical. The media has to ask serious questions. The media has to hold those in power accountable, whoever they are. There are massive issues to deal with, from global warring to global warming to the global economic melt down. The media has to bring many voices in. It’s not about one person. People are working on these issues in their communities in this country and around the world. We are now fully globalized around the world. Hearing what people are doing on different issues, not reinventing the wheel, but outside of the small power elite in Washington is very important. That’s the role of the media, to bring out those voices, bring out the voices of people who think outside the box because we’re talking about crises that challenge the fate of the earth. It’s got to go much bigger than the very narrow partisans that we’re used to hearing, that small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong.
CP: You were actually described by Bill Clinton as being hostile and at times disrespectful. What is your take on that?
AG: I thought it was just interesting that he was surprised in talking to a journalist that I would ask tough questions. We didn’t make an agreement with him before. He was calling into radio stations on the morning of the 2000 election trying to get out the vote for Hillary [for Senate], for Al Gore. We had a few minutes notice. They said the president was calling in, and that was it. He wanted to talk about getting out the vote. Well that was interesting to know what he wanted to talk about. That doesn’t determine what I ask him about. But that is why he was calling. So I asked him about that. I said some people are asking why vote. They believe corporations have captured both parties, and then give him a chance to speak. I mean that’s important, that he has a chance to express his point of view. And then I asked him about Leonard Peltier because it was the first time he was being asked publicly about whether he would be granting him executive clemency. He answered that question. In the end he did give clemency to Mark Rich. I guess Peltier wasn’t rich enough. Then I asked him about the bombing of Puerto Rico. He had called in during a Latino music show, so I was doing it with a guy who hosted the music show, Gonzalo Aburto. We were just asking about many different issues. I asked him about racial profiling. Al Gore had said that the first executive order he issued would be to ban racial profiling. So I said, "You guys have been in office for eight years, why haven’t you done it until now?" I asked him about the sanctions against Iraq and the number of people who died. And that was it. It was about a half-hour interview.
The next day the White House called and said that I would be banned from the White House. I said, "Why? He called me, I didn’t call him." They said, "We said he would talk about getting out the vote." I said, "That’s true. But I didn’t agree that those were the only questions I would ask."
"We told you he only had a few minutes." I said, "True." I said, "How many stations did he call?" They said, "40." I said, "Nobody took more than a few minutes?" They said, "No." I said, "Well, that’s just a sad comment on the media. He is the most powerful person on earth; he can hang up if he wants to."
CP: Campus Progress really tries to encourage young people not only to become activists, but also to become active journalists. Hundreds of people around the country are in the same position that I am in, where we’re trying to create something from nothing, to make our own contribution to the forum of information. That’s really hard to do, especially right now with the economic crisis and the state of the media and fighting apathy on campuses. So what kind of advice do you have for aspiring independent journalists and activists?
AG: To do it, to not be afraid, to bring a lot of people into it, and to work in different communities. Cover the stories of the different communities that make up your larger community. Then people will want to read about what’s happening with them and with other people. I see the media as a bridge between communities. Of course, work online.
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