How a prospective biochemist became a muckraker and champion of media reform
by Lizzy Ratner
Amy Goodman didn’t know if anyone was listening.
It was the morning of September 11, 2001, and the host of the muckraking radio news program Democracy Now! was broadcasting from her studio in a converted firehouse just blocks from the World Trade Center. She was hunched over her microphone, intent on painting an audio portrait of the “horrific scene of explosions and fires,” but the truth was she didn’t know if anyone could hear her. The phone lines were dead or temporarily blocked, and she had already overshot her slated hourlong broadcast time. More serious, she had recently been banished from her professional home at Pacifica Radio after a hostile internal shake-up, and she was only being aired by twenty or so affiliate stations.
Still, as the neighboring businesses evacuated into the streets, Goodman decided to go on talking. She kept the lines open and the microphones hot, throwing her voice into the radio murk in case any stations chose to pick up the feed. “We are not going to draw any conclusions at this point, just reporting the information of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center buildings, the plane crashing into the Pentagon, a fire at the Pentagon right now,” Goodman said in her grainy alto, at the beginning of what would become an eight-hour marathon broadcast that was eventually picked up by KPFA, the one Pacifica station still airing her broadcasts. And then, shortly after 10 am, she announced: “It looks like the south tower of the World Trade Center has collapsed…”
Three and a half years and two wars later, Goodman is still talking into her microphone, reporting on the big and small crises of the day. She is still broadcasting from the firehouse studio, still sending her war-and-peace reports into the media ether, except that these days when the engineer flips the switch on her microphone, she can expect hundreds of thousands of listeners to tune in.
In the years since 9/11, Democracy Now! has shape-shifted from a popular niche radio program broadcast on some twenty-five independent stations to a multimedia institution beamed each day to some 330 community radio and television stations (it has also returned to Pacifica). The skeletal four-person crew has ballooned to twenty-seven full- and part-time staff, including seven radio and TV producers, two outreach organizers and, yes, a professional archivist. And the drafty garret studio has been abandoned for a larger space on the first floor of the firehouse, which will soon be abandoned for yet another, larger firehouse studio. On any given day, the Democracy Now! website logs a solid 50,000 visits. “It’s the lifeline for a lot of people,” says professor and media critic Robert McChesney. “I think it’s probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time.”
The story of how Democracy Now! transformed itself from a scrappy daily radio program into an independent media empire (OK, maybe not an empire, maybe more of an emerging nation) is in some ways the larger story of progressive media during the Bush years: extremist President concocts bogus war, quashes dissent, then “embeds” the mainstream media, creating a news crisis that sends the information-starved citizenry fleeing to the indie frontiers for sustenance. But in many ways the story of Democracy Now! is its own twisty narrative, which progressives will be analyzing, emulating and debating as they attempt to build a robust alternative media landscape.
Goodman herself lays the credit–or blame–for the program’s success squarely at the well-rested feet of the mainstream newsmakers who, she said, leave “a huge niche” for Democracy Now! “They just mine this small circle of blowhards who know so little about so much. And yet it’s just the basic tenets of good journalism that instead of this small circle of pundits, you talk to people who live at the target end of the policy,” she says as she sips double espresso in a favorite Chinatown coffee shop. Dressed in her customary black vest and cargo pants, her wispy gray-brown hair hanging to her shoulders, she looks like a journalist in combat mode, as if she’s just come off the war-beat in Baghdad. “I think the Bush Administration not finding weapons of mass destruction laid bare more than the Bush Administration,” she adds. “It laid bare media that act as a conveyer belt for the lies of the Administration. You know governments are going to lie, but not the media. So I think people started to seek out other forms of information.”
Goodman certainly has a point. But the story of Democracy Now! goes beyond the traditional voice-in-the-wilderness thesis. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s also a story about the unsung slog and labor of “doing” independent media: about organizing and movement-building and an unusual cross-media collaboration that Democracy Now! launched shortly after 9/11.
And, of course, it is a story about Goodman, who, at 48, has come to be seen by many on the left as a kind of human megaphone for the collective progressive unconscious. To these supporters, the slight and intense Goodman–whose shows range from on-the-ground testimonials by Iraq War victims to debates on Social Security between Paul Krugman and Michael Tanner–is one of the lone disciples of a fiercely independent, muckraking brand of journalism practiced by I.F. Stone and George Seldes, Upton Sinclair and Seymour Hersh. “What Amy’s doing is trying to recreate a democratic society where you have varied, independent perspectives on the world,” says MIT professor and political activist Noam Chomsky.
But Goodman also has her critics–people who have clashed with her strongly held opinions or had the misfortune of being on the opposing side of a debate. Others find her brand of journalism too “ideological,” too “reflexively left.” “Before she went to Democracy Now! she did some very good pieces for NPR,” says John Dinges, a former editorial director of National Public Radio and a professor at Columbia Journalism School. “But at some point she became more of an advocate than we were comfortable with.”
The reality, of course, is that Goodman’s brand of reporting is unflaggingly political. She covers a hurricane in Florida the same way she covers an election in Iraq, which is to say, with an eye to unearthing the forgotten victims or hidden handshake behind the story. And, as she herself has said, “I don’t really think of it as, there’s politics and then there’s your life.” But while some critics see this approach as advocacy, Goodman would call it just a matter of “going where the silence is.”
“That is the responsibility of a journalist: giving a voice to those who have been forgotten, forsaken, and beaten down by the powerful,” she wrote in The Exception to the Rulers, the book she co-authored with her younger brother, David Goodman, published last year. “It is the best reason I know to carry our pens, cameras, and microphones into our communities and into the world.”
This strain of journalism is not for the weak-willed or faint of heart, and Goodman, perhaps not surprisingly, is neither. After twenty years in the progressive trenches, she is one of those quirky combinations of tough and compassionate, fearless and sensitive, headstrong and kindhearted. When confronting her opponents, for instance, Goodman can be relentless, even withering, but her friends sing paeans to her compassion and loyalty. In the same spirit, she doesn’t flinch at the idea of flying off to a war zone, but the prospect of breaking that news to her mother makes her pulse race.
Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, a colleague of Goodman’s, sums up this paradox with his own idiosyncratic anecdote. “Amy’s not the easiest person to work with; number one, she never sleeps. She’s essentially always working and basically tires everybody out who tries to keep up with her,” says Gonzalez, who is also a part-time co-host of Democracy Now! “But Amy can also be very thoughtful to her staff. She’s always bringing in cupcakes for birthdays or taking photos to, you know, preserve the moment.” He chuckles. “Whenever she’s at my place, she spends more time with my daughter than with the adults.”
On a blustery afternoon in early March, Goodman sits huddled in the tin-can compartment of a Long Island Rail Road train, en route to Long Beach to visit her 108-year-old grandmother. The idea is to have a chance to talk away from the whir and distraction of the studio, but even as the train barrels through tunnels and low-reception zones, Goodman’s cell phone keeps buzzing with updates from her producers. “It’s going to be a very interesting show tomorrow,” she says, brown eyes twinkling, after a debriefing on one segment: a debate on the Democratic Party’s decision to recruit antichoice candidates to run for Senate.
As Goodman is quick to point out, she is not herself a big fan of being on the other side of the microphone, at least when the subject is her own life. She is strenuously private, and personal questions tend to elicit a polite, pained expression: a suble tightening of the muscles around her lips and eyes. But she does enjoy telling a good story, of which she’s collected quite a few over the years. And so, as the train rumbles past the bulky two-family homes of Queens and Long Island, she slowly begins unraveling the strands of her career, beginning with her accidental discovery of Pacifica Radio.
It was 1984, and Goodman had just graduated from Harvard with a degree in anthropology. She was living with her parents on Long Island, contemplating graduate school in biochemistry, when she happened to station-surf across WBAI. “I was just completely shocked by this place I stumbled on,” she recalls. “It was just raw. It was all the beauty and horror that is New York in all of its myriad accents. And I said, What is this place?”
Not long after, Goodman landed an apprenticeship at the station. She started out making documentaries, then moved to covering local news stories, and two years later she was running the WBAI newsroom.”For the first couple of years, Amy was the person I learned everything from,” says independent radio producer David Isay, who got his start in 1987 when Goodman encouraged him to produce his first radio piece and who went on to win a MacArthur “genius” award. “She was fired up. We would stay up all night working on stories. She was basically exactly the same as she is now.”
Goodman grew up in the cozy middle-class suburb of Bay Shore in a tight-knit, progressive-intellectual family. Her father was an ophthalmologist who helped found the Long Island chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility; her mother was a social worker and teacher of women’s literature and history who also founded the local SANE/FREEZE group. “I think [my politics] come originally from my parents’ concern about social justice,” says Goodman, “and I think also from learning about the Holocaust as I was growing up, with so many family members who died. I took to heart that slogan, ‘never again,’ for everyone.”
While Goodman says she’s “generally a shy person,” she’s made her career, at least in part, on hand-to-hand verbal combat, throwing rhetorical left-hooks at everyone from former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey to Newt Gingrich, of whom she demanded in 1994: “Why haven’t you apologized to American women for calling [the First Lady] a bitch?” Her most notorious run-in, however, was with President Clinton, who called in to WBAI on Election Day 2000 as part of a get-out-the-vote push for Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. The President had no doubt been expecting the usual brief and chatty star treatment, but instead he got a thirty-minute grilling about NAFTA, the death penalty and sanctions against Iraq, among other topics. “Now let me…now, wait a minute,” he finally spluttered. “You started this, and every question you’ve asked has been hostile and combative…”
Responded Goodman, “They’ve been critical questions.”
For Democracy Now! fans, this episode ranks among the all-time greats, the indie-news equivalent of the M*A*S*H finale. But for Goodman the most “pivotal” story of her career was the story of East Timor, the small island nation north of Australia that was invaded by the Indonesian military in 1975–with an approving nod from Washington. Few reporters cared, or dared, to go there, but in 1990 Goodman headed over with fellow journalist Allan Nairn because, she said, journalists should cover what it means to be “at the target end” of US foreign policy.
In November 1991, during a second trip, she and Nairn were nearly killed in a massacre of at least 271 Timorese. It was, Goodman said, the most horrifying moment of her life. “To be there as these soldiers opened fire on innocent people and gunned them down, and ultimately understanding there was nothing we could do to stop it, that it was only getting word out that could make a difference…” she says, trailing off.
For Goodman, the Santa Cruz Massacre, as it came to be known, became the signal example of “going where the silence is,” and in many ways the last thirteen years of her career can be tied to that moment, when the abstract horror of war became real for her. When she returned home, Goodman linked up with Timorese activists and their allies, and set about trying to tell the story to both mainstream and independent media. Some critics took issue with this activist style of journalism, but it won her praise in other quarters. What happened in East Timor “probably comes as close to genocide as anything in the late twentieth century…but it was impossible to get anyone to hear about it,” says Chomsky. “Amy brought it to public attention.”
In early February 1996 Democracy Now! went live for the first time over the airwaves of Pacifica, the country’s largest progressive radio network. But a more significant marker for the purposes of this story might be early September 2001, when Democracy Now! made its first leap beyond radio into the multimedia world of television and beyond.
It was a few days before 9/11, and Goodman had just been forced from the studios of WBAI, the local Pacifica station, during what is commonly known as “the Pacifica crisis”–a period of several months of fierce debates over the mission and management of the network. In the scramble to keep broadcasting on affiliate stations, she had landed at the firehouse, a small limestone castle of a building owned and operated by Downtown Community Television. The independent media collective also rented space to Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a cable access channel, and in early September a MNN producer had the notion of switching on the TV cameras and videotaping Goodman’s radio broadcast. The idea was to air the show on MNN once or twice a week.
Then came 9/11: All of a sudden Democracy Now! was the closest national broadcast to Ground Zero. “About two days after September 11, I was sleeping at the firehouse and Anthony Riddle, then the head of MNN, called,” recalls Goodman. “‘We’ll go live with the show today,’ he said. ‘The camera will go on; we’ll flick the switch.’ And then it just started.”
The news that Democracy Now! was going live on TV and needed volunteers traveled quickly through New York’s lefty grapevine, and before long a group of refugees from the topsy-turvy post- 9/11 world began appearing at the bright red doors of the firehouse. I was one of those refugees, a stray who showed up during the confusion of mid-September and ended up staying for nearly a year. It didn’t seem to matter that I had no radio or television experience (heck, I didn’t even own a TV); such was the nature of the times–or the desperation–that on my first day in the studio I was plunked behind one of the cameras and told to shoot. Eventually I began helping produce the program.
Those early weeks of Democracy Now! TV were a surreal, and occasionally comical, brew of trial, error and improvisation, served up daily against the backdrop of the steroidal news cycle (War! Anthrax! Patriot Act!). While the radio portion of the show remained strong–Goodman was adamant about that–the television component was very much a spit-and-glue kind of operation. The set, for instance, was little more than a black table backed by a wall of newspaper clippings meant to convey “serious news program” while also reducing the glare from the lights. The show’s billboard, which was intended to identify the program for the audience, was written in masking tape against the control room window. And when a guest couldn’t come in to the studio but had to call in to the program, as was often the case (this was still primarily a radio show), the crew simply trained its cameras on the telephone–for five minutes at a time. “It looked like a televised radio show,” says Goodman, with a good deal of generosity.
Still, for all the kinks and knots, Democracy Now!’s early TV adventures hinted at a larger possibility: a collaborative, independent news program that used all the available public forms of media distribution to break through the static of the mainstream noise machine. “What Democracy Now! understood was this need for a multi-platform strategy–and by that I mean distributing your program on television, cable, analogue radio, satellite radio, Internet, MP3s, etc.,” says Dan Coughlin, executive director of Pacifica and Goodman’s first Democracy Now! producer. “At a time when the old media are dying, this is something that most independent progressive media are going to have to move toward.”
For Democracy Now! this strategy has consisted largely of building alliances, knitting a motley jumble of independent broadcasters and public-access stations into a smooth, cross-media collaboration. The first of these alliances–with the progressive cable network Free Speech TV and the public access collective Deep Dish TV–grew quite naturally out of previous projects; both organizations had worked with Democracy Now! to produce a daily telecast during the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2000, and both had been looking to air a daily news program ever since. When Goodman reached out to them in September 2001, they readily agreed to distribute the show.
But Democracy Now! has also done its share of wooing stations, and it’s done this in a rather unconventional way: by hiring organizers who work with local activists to lobby their public broadcasters to air Democracy Now! This tactic reflects perhaps as much about Democracy Now!’s movement-style credo as it does about the rocky public-access terrain, but it also seems to be savvy strategy. Since hiring its first organizer two years ago, Democracy Now! has recruited more than 200 radio and television stations.
Still, despite the focus on cultivating new stations, Democracy Now!’s most significant relationship remains that with Pacifica–though this, too, has changed over the years. In January 2002, following the court-ordered settlement of the Pacifica crisis, Democracy Now! returned to its old slot in the network’s schedule. Then in June 2002 Goodman reached an agreement with Pacifica to turn Democracy Now! into a separate nonprofit organization that would continue to broadcast on the network but would also be free to build up its TV program. The deal generated some grumbling at the time from those who felt that Democracy Now! was abandoning Pacifica, but Goodman and Coughlin maintain that the move has been “tremendously successful” for both the network and the program: Pacifica continues to provide the show with $500,000 in operating support, while Democracy Now! continues to raise some $2 million for the network through quarterly fund drives. (Democracy Now! raises the rest of its $1.8 million budget through contributions from its TV broadcasters, Link TV and Free Speech TV, as well as through foundation grants, individual donations and sales from its online store. It does not accept commercial or corporate sponsorship.)
Meanwhile, as all this was unfolding, the television program was making its slow journey out of the technical Stone Age into modernity. In January 2002 Goodman hired a director to begin whipping the program into visual shape, and eventually she added three TV producers. The resulting changes have been gradual but unmistakable, as five-minute phone shots have given way to in-studio guests, Reuters video feeds and, yes, a TelePrompTer. “It’s been a process, because I’m all about the packaging, and they are all about the content,” says the program’s director, Uri Gal-Ed. “From the beginning there were elements in place, but we basically created a TV show from scratch.”
Shortly before 9 o’clock on the soggy evening of March 28, Amy Goodman strides onstage at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan amid an explosion of whoops and applause. She is the last in a line of speakers for an event billed as both a fundraiser for WBAI and the launch of the paperback leg of her book tour, and Goodman has sold out the several-hundred-seat house.
“AAAMY!” hollers a fan from the nosebleed seats.
Goodman’s indie-media star status had been building since well before 9/11, but it’s begun to approach critical velocity during the past year, as she’s traveled the country to promote Exception to the Rulers. Goodman has dubbed this second leg the “Un-Embed: the Media Tour,” but in many ways it has been less of a book tour than a “free the media” organizing drive. Each event has been an occasion for Goodman to exhort her audience to “be the media,” as well as to raise money for community broadcasters. To date the events have raised more than $1 million.
To skeptics, this tour is perhaps little more than the standard self-promoting book junket–fronted by an author who happens to have the stamina of the Grateful Dead. But in many ways this effort–particularly Goodman’s call to “take back the public airwaves”–is what has set Democracy Now! apart from its sibling media outlets, giving it the texture of a movement as well as a radio and television show. Because what Democracy Now! has recognized, perhaps better than most progressive news outlets, is that without the strength of a grassroots movement it’s tricky–perhaps impossible–to create a robust, independent media; and without an independent media there is little chance for free, unfettered reporting. And, of course, without unfettered reporting, well, there’s not much hope for democracy.
“I see the media as a huge kitchen table that stretches across this country, that we all sit around and debate and discuss the most important issues of the day: life and death, war and peace,” Goodman says, winding toward the end of her speech at the Ethical Culture Society. “Anything less than that is a disservice to a democratic society.
“Democracy now!” she adds, punching the air lightly with her fist. And then, with a sudden, self-conscious smile, she steps back from the microphone.
Lizzy Ratner is a reporter for the New York Observer
© 2005 The Nation