Democracy Is Messy
Journalist Amy Goodman works to clean up dirty politics
By Camilla Mortensen
If you’re one of those Eugene Weekly readers who opens this paper just to complain about the liberal left-wing media, you’re going to love complaining about Amy Goodman when she speaks at the WOW Hall at noon Monday, Nov. 23. She makes even EW look a little less left as she takes shots at conservatives and Democrats alike. Former President Bill Clinton called her “hostile, combative and even disrespectful” after an interview, while former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich told her, “I have advised my mother to talk to no reporters because of … people like you.”
Goodman both writes the headlines and has been in the headlines as one of best-known independent media journalists on the frontlines of the news, and as an outspoken critic of U.S. policy and politicians. She is one of the hosts of Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report, which is broadcast from New York City to 800 stations across the country including UO’s KWVA 88.1 and KSOW 106.7 in Cottage Grove as well as on public access television. She comes to Eugene to promote her new book Breaking the Sound Barrier, with the book’s editor and former Democracy Now! staffer Denis Moynihan.
Goodman has made her niche covering the stories the mainstream media does not or will not deal with. In 1991 she traveled to Southeast Asia to report on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and witnessed Indonesian soldiers gunning down 270 East Timorese men, women and children. The soldiers beat her and fellow journalist Allan Nairn as they covered the murders. Their subsequent documentary, Massacre: The Story of East Timor, won awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for International Reporting.
In 2004 while the mainstream press was repeating the U.S. official party line that Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had resigned, she interviewed Aristide and reported his claims that he had been forced out by the U.S. military. After Democracy Now!’s website received more than 3.5 million hits on the story, the mainstream media began to cover it, in what Goodman calls “trickle up journalism.” These and other stories that otherwise would have gone uncovered, undercovered or unnoticed are Goodman and Democracy Now!’s bread and butter.
Though her radio program draws in more left-leaning media consumers than conservative listeners, she says, as a reporter, “Of course journalists have opinions, but what’s important is that people are fair and accurate.”
She says, “We’re involved in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and news is brought to you by a media that is profiting.” Goodman points out the irony of hearing news about the current health care debate on TV stations funded by commercials paid for by drug companies. That’s why she says independent media is important and why alternatives to big corporate media outlets like public radio and alternative weeklies like EW are needed. She says, “You look at everything from global warming to the economic meltdown to health care. You look at the corporate media and who has the microphone through which we learn about it.”
And of the issues in the news today she says, “Of course the economy is extremely serious. Rates of unemployment are so much higher in communities of color. Poverty is a dire issue. Global warming is critical.” Goodman says Democracy Now! will travel to Copenhagen to broadcast about the climate talks next month. Finally she says, “There’s no more serious an issue a country can engage in than war.”
Goodman is found not only in independent media sources (aka the indie media) that operate on donations and public funding; she’s also gone a little more mainstream with a weekly syndicated column distributed through King Features, the same company that carries Spiderman and Blondie comic strips and the “Ask Dr. Ruth” column. While EW doesn’t carry Goodman’s column for lack of space (feel free to bug us about that,) it’s available at democracynow.org and in major newspapers, including The Oregonian.
Goodman’s book is comprised of selected stories from her weekly column (see sidebar). The column and the book, both titled Breaking the Sound Barrier, give editorial commentary on the news Goodman reports on Democracy Now! Listening or watching the show, the audience gets what Goodman says is essential — fair and accurate reporting. Reading the column gets you Goodman’s take on the story. A recent program featured an interview with the family of a soldier who died in Iraq. His parents were denied a presidential letter of condolence for his death from Obama because of a policy against such letters for military suicides. Goodman asks the questions and lets the interviewees tell their own story of their son’s death and their attempts to get the White House to acknowledge he died serving his country.
But in her syndicated column on the story she takes a position, writing, “Obama should certainly write letters of condolence to the Keeslings and to others whose loved ones have found that the only sure way to end the living hell of war, or to escape the horror of its aftermath, is to kill themselves. But an immediate withdrawal from the wars Obama inherited is the only way to stem the bleeding.”
Thought she may have a column available through the mainstream, corporate press, Goodman says, “Independent media is where it’s at.” She stresses the ongoing need for alternatives to corporate media, saying, “What with the entire mainstream press corps amplifying Bush’s false allegations of weapons of mass destruction, we need a different kind of media.”
She says, “We’re the same journalists during the Obama administration as we were in the Bush administration. We hold each accountable.”
Under Obama, rather than Bush, Goodman says on the subject of White House transparency: “The wall is a door. The door is open a crack, and the question will be is: Will it open or be slammed shut?”
Keeping that door to information open, she says, will come from grassroots action and “simply providing a forum for people to speak for themselves. When someone speaks from their own experiences, that shatters paradigms.”
Instead of writing the headlines and the stories, Goodman’s experiences were the headlines and the stories in September 2008 when the veteran journalist was arrested at the Republican National Convention. She was among the more than 40 reporters, bloggers and filmmakers at the convention (including one blogger who wrote about the convention for EW) who were assaulted and/or arrested by the police. Journalists from the Associated Press as well as daily papers and local television stations were also arrested — the AP’s associate counsel called the arrests of two of its photographers “unprovoked smackdowns” — but it was Goodman’s arrest, captured on video, that generated public outcry.
“I mean, it was just outrageous,” Goodman says. “My colleagues and I were just covering what was happening on the street and what was happening on the convention floor.”
“Democracy is messy,” she says. “Not everyone gets to talk into a microphone and our challenge is to cover it all.”
Goodman says that while making her way over to speak to the Minnesota delegation at the convention, she was told that her producers Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar had been arrested. Video from Salazar’s arrest shows the police throwing her to the ground while she was screaming “Press! Press!” to let them know she was a journalist covering the event. Salazar was bloodied during the arrest, Goodman says, and “the first thing they did was take the battery out of her camera.” Kouddous was also thrown down and beaten, Goodman says.
When Goodman went to find out what had happened, wearing both her visible convention ID and her Democracy Now! ID, she was grabbed by police and arrested.
Goodman was arrested for obstructing the legal process and interfering with a peace officer, while her producers were charged with suspicion of felony riot. All were released after several hours, and the city of Minneapolis decide to drop all charges against reporters cited for unlawful assembly. The charges against Goodman and her staff were also dropped.
“We shouldn’t have to get a record while trying to get things on the record,” she says.
One reason Goodman is so popular with the left is her vibrant defense of free speech and activism. Her book tour includes a stop at Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement, before she moves on to Eugene, a city whose anarchist community received much of the blame for the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) riots, which have their anniversary this month. “When the workings of the machine become so odious,” Goodman says, “when people feel that issues require putting your body on the line, I think that is considered in the finest of American traditions.”
“I think we have to be careful of the police overextending,” she says. This remark may hit home here, where the Taser debate took off after the Eugene police Tased Ian Van Ornum, a participant in an anti-pesticide rally that was being monitored by Homeland Security, after he was already lying facedown on the ground, according to video from the Taser’s camera. The debate has resurged after the recent Tasing by the same officer, Judd Warden, of a Chinese UO student in his own apartment. The student didn’t speak English and could not understand the officer’s commands.
Goodman’s book contains a column exposing the Obama administration’s spying on peace activists in Olympia, Wash., a violation, she says, of the Posse Comitatus Act preventing U.S. military deployment for domestic law enforcement. She also writes of an activist arrested for using Twitter to disseminate information about police locations during the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. They raided the activist’s home, took computers and his wife’s property, Goodman says. She points out the irony there when the U.S. government tries to silence its own protesters: “We know how the Obama administration felt when the Iranian protesters Tweeted” during the disputed Iranian election, she says. “The State Department intervened to make sure Iranians had access to Twitter.”
So how do Eugeneans make sure that the media covers the vital but sometimes ignored stories? Goodman says, “You can make demands of the media, both independent and corporate, to cover stories you feel are important.”
Face What Change?
Amy Goodman’s latest book, Breaking the Sound Barrier (Haymarket, $16), is a selection of the award-winning journalist and radio host’s columns from the last three years. The topics are familiar. The pieces are clustered under headings like “War,” Climate Change,” “Health Care,” “Elections” and, most interestingly, “News From the Unreported World” — and so, frustratingly, are many of the stories.
Goodman is a direct and forthright columnist; her work to draw attention to underreported stories, to endlessly point out the hypocrisy of politicians, the incredible problems within our political system (her pieces on campaign financing are particularly strong) and illuminate the work done by those fighting for truth and justice is vital. The stories retold here serve to remind readers how many things haven’t changed, and how much work remains to be done, but they also feel overly familiar and are occasionally repetitive (in at least three instances, stories, quotes or anecdotes reappear).
Sound Barrier would be a stronger book with just a bit of new material: Several stories refer to cases set to go to trial, or other uncertain situations; even something so simple as an update on those stories which have reached resolution would give the book more meaning to those who are already familiar with Goodman’s tireless work. If she sometimes paints things as a bit simpler than they are, Goodman more often offers a clear-eyed take on the world we live in and the concessions people constantly make or are forced to make, some to stay alive, others to stay in power.
Her book serves as a potent reminder that change, in so many places and on so many levels, is still desperately wanting. — Molly Templeton