Behind the Scenes at “Democracy Now!”
Sonali Kolhatkar interviews Amy Goodman and David Goodman on “Uprising”, KPFK.
Produced by Thatcher Collins.
Monday, April 19th, 2004
KPFK studios, Los Angeles, CA.
SONALI: We want to talk a little bit about the context of the book itself, and your journey to where you are right now. In the book you describe your approach to journalism which is very different, the mainstream's approach. Can you describe, Amy, in your own work, your background, your academic work and activist work, what was it that laid the ground work for your current approach at Democracy Now, maybe even when you were in college?
AMY: Well, like you Sonali, it probably is just a character flaw. It's believing that we have to hold people in power accountable. Whether, we were the high school editors of our school paper, as David and I were, my brother and co-author, co-conspirator in this book, "The Exception to the Rulers." At the time it was holding the principle accountable. And watching my dad when I was growing up, taking on the issue of integrating out community, leading a task force in our community to integrate the schools, so that we didn't have neighborhood schools, but that we all learned together just according to grade. And then seeing how important journalism is, in this country, how important it is to a democratic society.
That's really the main theme of this book. There's a reason why journalism is the one profession that's enshrined in the constitution, protected by the constitution because it's an essential check and balance on those in power in this country. And we certainly need that; unfortunately the media has not served as that in these last years.
SONALI: Didn't you used to edit a feminist newspaper on campus [Harvard]?
AMY: Yes. Well, we revived a feminist newspaper called "Seventh Sister."
SONALI: Can you tell us a little about that and some of your work? You also did a thesis on Depo Provera.
AMY: O my God, you've been doing some work here. What did you just call Washington and ask for the whole file to be opened? [laughter]
SONALI: Yeah, we just asked Clinton. [On election day, 2000, Amy interviewed then President Bill Clinton who called in to campaign for Al Gore – Clinton called Amy “Hostile, combative and even disrespectful”].
AMY: O my goodness. Well, there was this feminist newspaper that had gone defunct. And this group of women and I had to ask, why did it go defunct?
We needed it then more than ever. Well, my big piece in the paper was sexual harassment on campus, especially by professors of students and junior faculty and women professors. As for my thesis, I did it on a contraceptive drug, called Depo Provera. It was a medical anthropology thesis. And it is injected into women every three months. It had been used in 86 countries around the world. Women who didn't know that right here in this country it was not approved because it caused cancer in beagles and monkeys. I couldn't afford to go to other places to investigate it, but I did go down to Atlanta, Georgia, to the largest charity hospital there, Grady Hospital where 10,000 women, black women had been injected with this drug. It was called "the shot." They didn't know it wasn't approved. In fact it was the beginning of Byllye Avery's black women's health project [blackwomenshealth.org] because so many women were getting sick.
Eventually, it was approved in the United States. That was beyond my thesis, at the point I did it wasn't approved. But the women who took it didn't know that, and we thought it was absolutely critical that they did.
My main point then at that time was--I did it as a college thesis, but I thought what good is it to do it for a few white male professors, they not the ones getting injected. So a colleague [Krystyna Von Henneberg] and I turned it into a series of articles, an issue of Multinational Monitor "The Case Against Depo Provera." [February/March 1985]
SONALI: So in the book, [it] lays out, David and you lay out the various stages of how your role in Democracy Now today is informed in terms of your work in Nigeria, and East Timor, and all of the various life-risking work you have done. I want to talk a little bit about what we are seeing this year happen, particularly, in this past year, it's a very, very decisive year, it's a year that could change history. We're already seeing history being made with the 9/11 commissions, with all of the sort of insider information that's coming out. And while the Bush Administration is just making all these vast sweeping changes, you have these former insiders who are speaking out, whistleblowers like Joseph Wilson, Paul O'Neil, Kevin Philips, but they are coming at it from an interesting perspective, right?
They are not necessarily criticizing the system as a whole. How do you approach the balance between these sorts of elite insiders that are dissidents, versus grassroots activists who might have been saying all of this for a long time?
AMY: Well, what's so interesting this year, is that even those people who were an essential part of the establishment were locked out. We have several chapters in this book that deal with the elite record-setting agenda-settings papers in this country, like the New York Times. One of those chapters is called "the lies of our times." Even these people who were deeply inside the establishment--the kind that, you know, they quote on background, or whatever--were iced out. Because there was such a lock-step marching with the administration that it was almost as if no dissent could be heard. And that's why Pacifica radio is so important, I mean, we're doing this "Exception to the Rulers" media tour celebrating independent media in the 55th anniversary of Pacifica Radio. And it is so important because well, yes, we also broadcast the voices of the dissidents inside the establishment as well as the peace activists. And I think, in fact, one of the earliest very controversial shows on Pacifica Radio was an FBI agent speaking out [Jack Levine, WBAI 1962]--and great threats if they dare to air this. I think it was at WBAI at the time. So you have those guys that are inside the establishment, and then you have the peace activists which are conventionally locked out--they're locked out then, they're locked out now.
We have to hold the corporate media accountable. You know, I'm not going to call it the mainstream media anymore, I call it the extremist media. I mean, you look at the week leading it up to February 5th, when General Colin Powell [Secretary of State] gave his speech at the UN [security council] for war, and the week afterwards, that 2 week period, right before the mass global protest. FAIR [http://www.fair.org/reports/iraq-sources.html] did this study of the four major nightly news casts, NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. 393 interviews done around war, *three* of almost 400 were of anti-war representatives. That's it! That is not a media that is serving a democratic society, it is simply beating the drums for war. And yet, still, more than half the people in this country were opposed to that invasion at that time. That's amazing.
SONALI: I want your thoughts David on the same issue as a journalist yourself. How does one balance the issue of giving platform to the insiders, the insider dissidents, and at the same time balancing that with a critique of the entire establishment, which they don't necessarily critique?
DAVID: Well, one of the ways that we do that in "The Exception to the Rulers" our new book is to provide a diversity of voices. I mean the problem comes in when as in when the mainstream media turns only to one source, and those are the insiders who are given license to speak. In our book, we turn to a variety of voices: the grassroots struggles for to protect human rights, civil rights at home. So you're hearing people in the street, and the anti-war movement. So, in fact, you get the whole picture.
There's nothing very radical about it, and it's always funny to me, that this is considered, that anyone would call this "alternative" journalism.
Well, if the alternative is to simply: give all sides of the story; then we're all for it. But really, this is pretty conservative stuff in that sense. In the last year, since the gulf war , we've heard a lot of journalists, kind of baring their souls, and talking about how they got it wrong, how they were played by the government, by embedding themselves in the military. The only problem is, it's too little too late. . .
SONALI: You talk about the stark choice between the "the sword" and "the shield." What does that mean? Should journalists have to fall one way or another?
AMY: I think that goes beyond journalism. I think it goes to the choice we all have to make. We start and end the book in the same place and that's in Timor, a country that has known so much pain for so many years that was occupied by Indonesia -- one of the worst genocides of the 20th Century. Indonesia, yes, but it was supported by the US government, supplying the weapons and the financing and the arming and the training. But it starts at the site of the massacre in 1991, with those US M16s being shot at defenseless Timorese. It ends though with the people of East Timor celebrating their freedom, that was May 20th 2002. The people had known so much pain, their victory came at such a incredibly high price. But because of their own grassroots movement, their belief that resistance will win; because of people in solidarity with them around the world; people who wouldn't have known about Timor if it weren't for independent media, because the corporate media, slavishly followed the establishment line for years in this country [US] as well as other countries. But it was that grassroots activism around the world that ultimately meant that the people of East Timor saw their freedom, and I think that is a note of hope, as there are many when it comes to grassroots movements.
SONALI: But in terms of just journalism, however--I think David raised this earlier--presenting a balanced viewpoint where all viewpoints can be heard is important. But should Pacifica present a balanced viewpoint in your opinion or should Pacifica present the views of the most marginalized?
AMY: Well--. First of all, I think that what a lot of people call "marginalized" are the mainstream in this country. I don't even know quite how to frame it. I think that what Pacifica's has been doing for a long time is not giving voice just to the fringe minority or the silent majority, but the *silenced* majority, silenced by the corporate media. On April 15th at three o'clock, 1949, Lew Hill went on the air, and welcomed people to the airwaves of KPFA. That was the beginning of Pacifica Radio 55 years ago.
April 15th, last week, on the 55th anniversary, we went over to the Prison Radio Project [prisonradio.org] in San Francisco, and with the help of Noelle Hanrahan got a phone call from Mumia Abu Jamal on death row in Pennsylvania [http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/04/16/1536225]. I think that's our job, I think our job is to go to where the silence is.
Our job is to hear from people who are not usually heard. Whether it is someone on death row, or someone in the general prison population, in the largest prison population on earth, two million people in this country. Or whether it's a dissident within [the] national security council. I think that we, the media, should be a sanctuary of dissent.
SONALI: Speaking of Mumia Abu Jamal, wasn't it airing his commentaries that got Democracy Now kicked off Pennsylvania radio stations?
AMY: That's right, every public radio station in Pennsylvania, twelve of them, on February of '97, when we started to air the commentaries of Mumia Abu Jamal, ended their contract with us that day, saying it was "inappropriate" to air his voice.
SONALI: But you have interviewed him very recently as listeners heard on Democracy Now, speaking of those sorts of pressures, you felt before the Pacifica crisis [savepacifica.net], and during the Pacifica crisis, Democracy Now must have to deal with enormous amounts of pressure, from Uprising we know, in terms of what to cover, how to cover it. Can you tell our listeners what kinds of pressure Democracy Now faces, political pressure from groups lobbying to have their issue on the air, individuals, publicists, PR people?
AMY: [pause] We just try to sort of steer a clear course every day, and figure out like you do, what we should cover each day. There's plenty of pressure out there, and really, that's as it should be, because a lot of people want a lot of people to get information. It is very important, we have a huge responsibility, an awesome responsibility. Because the networks are abrogating their responsibility, there is everyone else that has to be heard, and it's getting as close as we can to the story. Finding the people who are right there at the center of it, following the basic principles of good journalism instead of this small group of pundits who know so little about so much, that are commenting on everything that are now wringing their hands "how did we get it so wrong a year ago in not inviting in anyone who was questioning a year ago?" I'm beginning to think that these network folks that we see every day, and it seems like every single network that, they actually all sit in one room and change the logo throughout the day:
NBC, ABC, CBS. Yet we have a huge responsibility and as I'm sure you feel the pressure too, it's to get out as many voices as possible. People describing their own experiences.
SONALI: And Democracy Now today has probably the biggest responsibility of any institution in the independent media. As you have described it, the largest [independent] media collaboration in the United States.
I want to talk a little bit about a common critique on the left, if you will, that people say, that the people on the left don't unite around issues, there is too much infighting and acrimony. How do people in independent media, how do journalists in independent media, or how do you--cover controversies that may surround powerful figures, say on the left versus powerful figures on the right? Should we give a different standard to people who are on the left versus people on the right?
AMY: [pause] No, I don't there should be different standards. [pause] I think that we need to bring all the same principles we bring to any issue to everyone.
SONALI: For example, on Uprising one time very recently [November 13, 2003], we had a show on Michael Moore and on some of the things he said about Mumia Abu Jamal in his book, about his issue of his endorsement, if you will, of Wesley Clark. We faced a lot of wrath from some listeners who [were] very upset that we had dared point a flaw in someone who is really considered a leader, if you will--
AMY: No, I think that is very important, we also asked Michael Moore, about his focusing on Mumia Abu Jamal [January 23rd, 2004], and why he knew that, you know, in the book the comments he made about him, what made him so sure.
He ultimately said he was going to take that out of the paperback edition of his book. And I think that everyone has to be questioned.
SONALI: We only have a few minutes left. I want to just also ask you in the last chapter of the book, you talk about Indymedia [indymedia.org] as being one of the major institutions that have come out of what happened in Seattle [November 30, 1999 protests against the WTO]. This difference between corporate media and independent media. To me, the difference isn't necessarily the content, right?. Because you can have a left-leaning, if you will, for-profit venture, like for example Air America Radio [airamericaradio.com], which has just come on line, which has a content that's more liberal but it's still a for-profit venture. So, where does the real difference between independent and corporate media come? Does it come perhaps from structure? Indymedia is a collectively run structure, but Pacifica isn't.
AMY: I think on the issue of Air America, first of all, I think, the more channels, the more diversity of opinion, the better. It can only help everyone. Whereas, seeing the largest media consolidation in the history of this country. In the case of Air America, they are proud partisans, they are very clearly pro-Democratic party. They want a counter to the, you know, the pro-Bush Clear-Channel-ing of America, and they state their position "ABB: Anything But Bush." And one person after another makes that very clear. And I think as long as there is a clear statement of position, it's fine--we know where they're coming from. And they're very clear, it's basically, Air Democratic Party. And they are countering a force in this country in the corporate media which is Air Republican Party, you know, Clear Channel owns over 1200 stations, a very crony-connected Bush-crony-connected, communications giant. But let's point out that the reason they came to grow so big is because the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was endorsed by Clinton and Gore. I think that we at Pacifica are not beholden to either of these parties, we are about independence, and that's very important.
SONALI: Okay, I've been dying to ask this question: What does a day at Democracy Now look like after the show is over? How do you sit down with your producers and come up with story ideas? What's the process? Is Amy Goodman the executive producer?--because you don't list [in the on-air credits] yourself as a producer. What does it look like behind the scenes?
AMY: We all work on it together throughout the day. And it is a day that rolls into night, rolls into day, rolls into night. It is hard to distinguish between everything. We are inundated with calls, with email, reading newspapers around the world, online, getting information from people every which way, making lots and lots of calls, watching television because we have two roles in the independent media. One is to get as close to the story as we can, and get the people who can tell that story best, and the other is to dissect the story that has been presented by the corporate media, because that's the way most people understand it, if we're doing a story that they are even doing at all. And that's very important, because you have to deconstruct in order to build up, and let people hear the voices closest to that story. So we have two major roles.
SONALI: Is it possible to run Democracy Now as a collective?
AMY: [pause] We work every single day in that way, just back and forth, what works, what doesn't work, talking about the different stories we have to do, fighting it out, what's going to get in there, what's not going to get in there. And if doesn't get in that day, how can we get it in the next day.
SONALI: Okay, and finally, do you ever sleep?
[Sonali and Amy laughing]
DAVID: No, but Amy can try to answer that.
SONALI: Amy Goodman, David Goodman, their new book, "The Exception to theRulers: exposing oily politicians, war profiteers, and the media that love them." And you can hear all about that at the event this Wednesday. We'll tell you about that in just a moment. You're listening to Uprising, we'll be right back.
This interview aired on Tuesday April 20th at 8 am Pacific Standard Time.
Transcribed by Thatcher Collins.
Uprising airs daily on KPFK Los Angeles, from 8-9 am on weekdays, Pacific Standard Time. The show also streams live on www.kpfk.org. Uprising is co-produced by Thatcher Collins and Sonali Kolhatkar. Engineers are Mark Maxwell and Madeleine Schwab.