Peeling the Whitewash
An interview with Amy Goodman
Amy Goodman is tough. She’s smart. She’s precise. And she may very well be the busiest journalist alive. When I grabbed the attention of the “Democracy Now!” host last week over the phone, I asked her how her day was going. I received a two-minute response on the number of cities she’d been to since that morning, the number of lectures she’d presented and the order of bookstore signings she was soon to attend, including one in Albuquerque this Thursday, Sept. 28.
Apparently, Goodman’s been going five miles a minute since junior high, when she discovered journalism in the neighborhoods of Long Island. She soon went on to become the editor of her high school newspaper, the Maroon Echo, and a few years later landed herself at Harvard, where she received a degree in anthropology. After spending 10 years as the producer of the evening news show at WBAI, Pacifica Radio’s station in New York City, she co-founded the left-wing “Democracy Now!” in 1996, now one of the most well-known syndicated news and opinion shows in the country.
Along her path in journalism, she’s won numerous awards, wrote a New York Times bestselling book with her brother, investigative journalist David Goodman, called The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them, and was once nearly killed while covering the independence movement in East Timor in 1991 during what is now known as the Dili Massacre. Now, she and her brother have a new book out: Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back.
Last week, the Alibi snagged a few minutes with Goodman in between a lecture at the Mike and Mary Wallace House in Ann Arbor and a fundraiser in Detroit to talk about the role of media, the secrecy of the Bush administration and things everyday citizens can do to “unclog the information artery.”
One of the focuses of your book is the current state of the media. Can you talk to me about the “information war” this country is in?
Well, I think that we are just facing a grave crisis. In this time of war, it’s absolutely critical we have an independent media because information is power. Information is the currency of decision-making in this country. It’s how we make decisions and determine the policies in this country and around the world. And we need to have accurate information, we need to have a media that doesn’t whitewash the images of the war, that just presents them to us as horrifying and frightening as they may be, and then people make up their own minds.
In your book, you talk about how the Bush administration has used the media to manipulate its public image, and part of that is through, as you said, whitewashing the war. How is what the Bush administration is doing different from what past administrations have done?
It’s just that the media’s more consolidated so it has more power. With consolidation, the biggest effects didn’t start during Bush, they started under Clinton with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It’s just concentrated even more, and that’s a serious threat to democracy because you need more media owners. What matters are the media moguls who are gobbling up the smaller TV and radio stations, not to mention the consolidation of newspapers.
Where do you think that consolidation leaves the role of journalists today?
Well, like the title of our tour is “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” we have to break the sound barrier, bring in the voices of everyday people who are deeply affected by these policies. Present news from the victims’ perspective and those that are doing things to change the world, not just that small circle of pundits in Washington who know so little about so much explaining the world to us. That’s why grassroots media’s so important—grassroots, global, unembedded media like “Democracy Now!”
“Democracy Now!” is in its 10th anniversary, and that’s just amazing growth—it’s now in 500 public radio and television stations, low-power FM college community stations and, of course, in Albuquerque on KUNM, [and many more]. I think it’s just a testament to the hunger for independent voices, the millions of people who hit our website, who access the program in general, every which way.
It seems like there’s a lot of intimidation out there for journalists right now, a lot of journalists being prosecuted for publishing information about the government. For instance, just a couple weeks ago charges were brought against Greg Palast by the Department of Homeland Security. Do you think that has an effect on the amount of information that’s coming out? Do you think journalists are being quiet because they’re scared of what might happen to them?
Uh-huh. I think the pressure comes top-down. I was just with this group of journalists who were talking about the pressures within their media organizations to go along with the war, to not present as many rebuttals to the administration. We call it in Static the “Access of Evil.” That’s trading truth for access in order to get that next quote. You know, you don’t want to challenge the government as much cause you might not get that quote.
We call the book Static because in this high-tech digital age, the high-definition television and digital sound, we get ever more static—that is, a veil of distortion, lies, half-truths, misrepresentations—when what we should be getting is static of another kind, the dictionary definition: criticism, opposition, unwanted interference. We shouldn’t be covering for power, we should be covering power. We are the fourth estate, we shouldn’t be for the state. And we should cover the movements that make static and create history, or create static and make history.
In your book you talk about the days following Hurricane Katrina, and how the media was, as you say, “unembedded” by the government and reporting honestly and openly about what was happening in New Orleans. And you say it was the opposite of what’s happened in the media with regard to Iraq and other national issues. Where do you think the media stands post-Katrina? Do you think reporting has become more honest or more fearless, or do you think we’ve backtracked to where we were before?
Katrina was a good example of what the media should do—show up. A side effect of President Bush not responding and sending in troops is that there were not troops to embed with. So we got unembedded reporting—we got reporting from the victims’ perspective in Katrina in New Orleans, and it really shocked the nation. That’s very important. I mean, you saw bodies floating by, reporters crying as they talked to people who just lost their loved ones in the flood and the hurricane and the aftermath and the drowning of this American city. And we rarely get that in the corporate media. It is a model for the way the rest of the media should be. For example, covering in Iraq—bringing us the pictures of the babies, the women with their legs shot off, or blown off from cluster bombs, soldiers dead and dying. It’s our job to show this. I once interviewed Eric Brown, the former CNN anchor. He said it’s really a matter of taste. Well, I think it’s the war that’s tasteless.
What do you think keeps journalists from showing the information they’re supposed to show in this country?
I think editors and publishers either were feeling pressure or creating pressure. For example, you have the New York Times exposing the NSA spy scandal, and that was a very important piece. The only problem was they did it a year after they had the piece. They did it in December of 2005, when they had it more than 13 months before. Just do the math. That is, they had it on the eve of the election, and people care about spying. But the administration asked them not to run it, and so they didn’t. Now, let’s take that again. The people who are running for re-election asked them not to run it, and so they didn’t run it. And they ultimately ran it a month before one of their reporters was going to publish it in his own book. That would be a little embarrassing—the New York Times not having what a New York Times reporter was exposing in his book. And so they published it. We’re not supposed to be working for the state, we’re the fourth estate.
When talking about things like wiretapping—the true policies of the Bush administration—do you think most Americans are aware of what the Bush administration has done and is doing in regard to torture and wiretapping and all these other issues you mention in your book? And if they’re not aware, do you think the American people would stand for those things if they knew they were happening?
I think that they wouldn’t. I think that these issues matter: spying, lying, dying. The American government spying on Americans, lying about the pretext for war, soldiers dying as a result, not to mention Iraqis—this matters to the American people. We need a press that’s defiant. We need a press that is there to expose what is going on, to monitor the centers of power, as the Israeli journalist Amira Hass said. We’re not there to win a popularity contest, we’re not entertainers. We’re reporters, we’re supposed to go to where the silence is.
For people who are reading this interview, or people who read your book, or who listen to “Democracy Now!” and try to pay attention to things that are happening in the country, what can everyday citizens do to fight back and try to bring awareness to the general public?
Support independent media to get the truth out. Read a great variety of sources. Support KUNM, support KSFR in Santa Fe, support public access. Use the Internet so we don’t lose it—the whole issue of net neutrality is absolutely key, that we all have access to this great grassroots globalizing force that is the Internet, not just the well-off corporations getting privileged positions on the Web. It is absolutely critical we open up the airwaves, we unclog the information artery, so that all can have access—that makes for a healthy democratic society.
You’re one of the most well-known journalists of our time right now. What got you into journalism, and did you ever imagine it would take you this far?
Well, I always did journalism at a grassroots level. In junior high school and high school I was editor of my high school newspaper, the Maroon Echo, in Long Island, as were my brothers in their years. And that was our hobby, that was the thing we did as a way to, well, at the time it was to hold the principal accountable (laughs). It’s about holding people in power accountable. And it was just one way to work on social justice issues, and expose things that separated people, that made it more difficult for some than others. And I guess that’s just always been my way of dealing with that—of working to make the world a better place.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you very much. Thank you so much for being there and doing the work that you do.
Come to a Q&A and booksigning for Static with Amy and David Goodman this Thursday, Sept. 28.
UNM Student Union Ballroom, 7 p.m.
Tickets are $20, students with ID get a $10 discount, and people who purchase a book ($23.95) will get $5 off the price of admission.
Ticket proceeds benefit KUNM