Photography by Kristiina Wilson
The 19th-Century English playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword.” If you were to ask renowned investigative journalist and newsreader Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! to re-write that phrase, one could imagine her saying something along the lines of, “The camera can save more people than any M16 could ever kill.” Her quest to give voice to the people and stories others won’t, and to always go where the silence is, is equally inspiring and heroic. As she continues a daily battle to right the wrongs of a hegemonic media industry owned by powerful men and biased corporations, her story is an important one that speaks volumes about the power of independence and the refusal to be gagged. It is a story of how a childhood where fairness and accountability were instilled led to a career and a life philosophy where these values matter beyond all else. Think Lab Editor Sasha Grujicic speaks to Goodman about her upbringing, her experiences in East Timor, and why she won’t stop trying to change the way we experience the news stories of tomorrow.
SASHA GRUJICIC—Amy, it is a real pleasure to have this time with you and on behalf of many I want to thank you for your tireless work, dedication, and sacrifice for what you believe is just. Was there a pivotal moment in your life that led you to choose this path?
AMY GOODMAN—I would not say it was one moment. It was my upbringing; it’s the inspiration of my parents who were very civic-minded, community, peace activists. My father was involved in Physicians for Social Responsibility. He was very famous among Long Island railroad riders because there was a poster made that said, “Your doctor is worried,” and it was a picture of a doctor in a white coat and a stethoscope, and in the stethoscope was a nuclear mushroom, and the doctor was my father. He looked very much like Peter Sellers. And my mother founded a chapter of SANE/Freeze in Long Island. They just deeply cared about what was happening in the world, and they were also very curious; they were adventurers, and they raised my brothers and me to question everything and to really be committed to making the community a better place.
SG—How did that actually affect your upbringing then? Going to school and having this challenging mindset as you sit in class and as you speak with your peers who probably didn’t have that same home life?
AG—My dad headed a task force when I was in junior high school to integrate the [public] schools of our community, it was de facto segregation, so instead they would be grade determined instead of neighborhood determined – first-graders would be in one school, fifth-graders would be in another. I would go with him at night when he would go into the auditoriums and cafeterias of the various schools and there would be a thousand screaming parents, and teachers… either for or against. And I saw as he really very judiciously steered our community towards a more equitable education. He was very determined to bring a sense of fairness to the community, and I was very inspired by that.
I was involved in my junior high school and high school newspapers – that was my big extra-curricular activity as it was for my brothers. And in high school I saw that when we wrote editorials and held the principal accountable, it had an effect. If we did the research and we showed a wrong that needed to be righted, it would be dealt with. And after high school, I saw journalism as just going to a larger stage, and holding those in power on a larger stage accountable.
SG—Were you challenged by the teachers and the principal to stop this? Or was it just accepted?
AG—No, I saw it as our job to hold them accountable. In high school I was very interested in setting up evaluations of teachers and holding them accountable for our education. As we were held accountable by our grades, that they should be graded too. That was my grounding. And public education was very important. It brings the whole community together and I’ve always been very committed to that.
SG— In growing up and getting your education through those means, was there a particular book maybe that you read that had an impact, and if so, what kind of effect did that have on you?
AG—I don’t think anything was one thing. It was just navigating through life with the guidance of teachers, friends and parents. My grandparents also had a big effect on my upbringing; we were a close family. And I think the backdrop of the Holocaust when I was growing up, because my grandparents all came from Russia and Poland, [helped me] to be deeply concerned about what was happening to people, just as I was so appreciative when others helped my family members, grandparents, great aunts, and uncles. I was always very moved why someone would put themselves at risk to help someone else. And I saw that the stakes were very high. It’s not just an intellectual commitment to equality, it is that prejudice and bigotry can lead to absolutely terrible, devastating things. And that idea of “never again” should apply to everyone.
SG—That’s really interesting. It reminds me of Postman’s Park in London. It’s a really small park in the middle of the financial district, ironically enough, and on the wall are a bunch of plaques from the early 1900s and they’re dedicated to people who sacrificed their lives to save others. It’s probably one of the most powerful displays of that kind of courage that you describe. It sounds to me that this strong sense of empathy was ingrained in you growing up. Is that something you try to instill in the way you cover the news today?
AG—Very much so. I think the media can be the greatest force for peace on earth, because it is a forum for people to speak for themselves, and when you hear someone speaking from their own experience, it breaks down barriers – bigotry, stereotypes, caricatures – that fuel hate groups. That’s why we have to keep the media open. Instead, the media so often is wielded as a weapon of war, especially in times of war you see the media circling the wagons, for example, around the White House, when it has to really be very much the opposite. That’s the time of the most serious questioning, and the time the media has to provide a forum for everyone to speak on all sides, not just amplifying the words of those in power, because so often they don’t represent the majority point of view.
I really do believe that those who are concerned about war and peace, those who are concerned about inequality, those who are concerned about climate change, are not a fringe minority, not even a silent majority, but the silenced majority – silenced by the corporate media, which is why we have to take the media back.
SG—It’s a really stark visual you paint, and this is the impetus behind Democracy Now! with this notion of going where the silence is. How do you decide on the agenda? How do you deliver a balanced message in the face of such dominant media?
AG—We have to build our own media. Democracy Now! began as the only daily election show in public broadcasting in 1996, that was the second election of Clinton, and part of our mission was to build independent media all over the country. When we talk about war we’ve got to be independent, not brought to you by weapons manufacturers like Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. When we talk about climate change it’s critical that we are not influenced or brought to the listeners, viewers, readers, by the oil, the gas, the coal, the nuclear companies. When we take on the issue of healthcare, such a critical issue in this country, we’re not brought to you by the insurance companies, by the drug companies, but brought to our audience by listeners and viewers.
When we started Democracy Now! we didn’t have the money to use satellites the way the networks do. We started in radio in 1996, on a few community radio stations, and then the week of September 11, 2001 we started broadcasting on one public access station in New York – TV station as well as the radio stations – and then the show just took off and public access stations around the country started saying “Can we run the show?” and now we’re on over 1,100 stations around the world, and we’re translated into Spanish as well. I think this is just a testament to the fact that there’s a hunger for independent voices that gets filtered out in the corporate media. You get this small circle of pundits on all of the networks that sort of rotate around, that know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. It’s our job to dig deep, to drill into a story, to get closest to a story with the people who are most directly affected, and that is why I see Democracy Now! as news with a heart.
We originally came out of Pacifica Radio before we went on television. The history of Pacifica is very important. It started in 1949, founded by a group of people led by a man named Lew Hill who was a war resister. When he came out of the detention camps after World War Two he said there’s got to be a media outlet that’s not run by corporations. And so Pacifica was born. The first Pacifica station was KPFA in Berkeley, not run by corporations… It was George Gerbner, the former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who said, “Not run by corporations who have nothing to tell and everything to sell that are raising our children today.”
And so the first station was KPFA, in 1949, then KPFK in Los Angeles in 1959, WBAI in 1960, WPFW in Washington in 1977, and KPFT in Houston 1970 – the only radio station in the country to be blown up. It went on the air in the spring of 1970 and within a few weeks the Ku Klux Klan strapped dynamite to the base of its transmitter and blew it to smithereens. And when they got back on their feet and went back on the air it was right in the middle of Arlo Guthrie singing Alice’s Restaurant that it was blown up again. And I don’t know if it was the Grand Dragon or the Exalted Cyclops because I often confuse those titles… but he understood how dangerous Pacifica is. Dangerous because it allows people to speak for themselves – and there’s nothing more powerful than that.
SG—You talk a lot about the risk, and also, in your past you’ve done a lot of work that’s put you at risk, most notably with your story about what happened in East Timor. Can you talk to me a little bit about what that experience did for you and how it affects you right now?
AG—East Timor is a story of horror but also of hope. In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor by land, by air, and by sea. Indonesia is the fourth largest military in the world. It was armed, trained, and financed by the United States. It was December 7, 1975, and the day before Henry Kissinger and President Ford, at the time, met with Suharto, the long-reigning dictator in Jakarta, and gave the go-ahead for the invasion. Ninety per cent of the weapons used were from the United States. So we’re intimately connected to this invasion which happened in ’75 and for the next quarter of a century the Indonesian military slaughtered the people of Timor – one of the great genocides of the late 20th Century.
I went there with my colleague, a great journalist named Allan Nairn in 1990 and 1991, and in 1991 for the first time word was going to get out about the human rights abuses. The Indonesians closed East Timor to the outside world, and they killed over a third of the population. We got there in late October, went to the main Catholic church in Dili, the capital of Timor, which is about 300 miles from Australia, and we learned that the Indonesian military had shot into the church the night before and killed a young man named Sebastião Gomes. The next day his funeral was held and a thousand people turned out for the funeral and marched through the streets. Nothing like that was seen in East Timor before. And we learned that this human rights delegation was going to be coming from the United Nations to investigate the human rights situation, which is why we were there to see what would happen if people spoke out and spoke to the UN representatives. For two weeks we went around the country. We then learned that the UN delegation was not going to come.
On November 12, 1991, two weeks later, the people decided to hold a commemoration procession for Sebastião Gomes, and after church in the morning they marched from there to the cemetery, retracing the steps of the funeral procession. And when we got to the cemetery the Indonesian military was marching up. There were thousands of people and they couldn’t escape because there were walls on either side of the road and we were asking the people, “Why are you risking your life just coming out?” This was a land where there was no freedom of assembly, no freedom of press, no freedom of speech, and yet they were there with their hands up in the V sign shouting “Viva East Timor! Viva independence! Viva Sebastião!” Most people didn’t know Sebastião himself, but they knew that a sanctity of the church had been violated, and the church was the only place people were allowed to gather.
Allan suggested we walked to the front of the crowd because although we knew they’d committed many massacres in the past they’d never done it in front of western journalists. So we walked to the front and I put my microphone up – we’d usually hidden our equipment but now we wanted to show exactly who we were – I put my headphones on, Allan put the camera above his head. Soldiers marched up 10 to 12 abreast and then marched down the road and swept around the corner. They swept past us, and without any warning, without any hesitation or provocation, they opened fire on the crowd gunning people down from right to left. They grabbed my microphone, shaking it in my face, as if to say, “This is what we don’t want,” and they beat me to the ground. Allan took a photograph of them opening fire and then threw himself on top of me to protect me, and they took their US M16s like baseball bats and battered them against his skull until they fractured it.
We were lying on the ground, Allan was covered in blood, and they were killing everyone around us. They put the guns to our head in firing squad fashion and they were shouting two things: “Politik! Politik!” to say we were being political to watch this, but that’s our job as journalists, to go to where the silence is. And they were shouting “Australia!” asking if we were Australian, and we knew how dangerous that was because 17 years before, when Indonesia first invaded Timor, there were five Australian-based journalists covering the invasion and they lined them up against a house and executed them all. We shouted back “No, we’re from America, America!” And eventually they took the guns from our heads, we believe because we were from the same country their weapons were from, they would have to pay a price for killing us that they would never have to pay for killing the Timorese, and they moved on.
We were able to get into a Red Cross jeep that had pulled up, then dozens of Timorese jumped on top of the jeep and we drove like that as a human mass to the hospital. And when we got there the doctors and nurses started to cry, not because we were in worse shape than the Timorese, but because of what we represented to the people of Timor as Americans, and not just to the people of Timor, but to people all over the world. We represent two things: the sword and the shield. The sword, because all too often the US uses that sword – whether we’re talking about drone strikes or attacking Afghanistan and Iraq – but the shield as well. The government is the sword and the shield is the people, and I think they saw the shield bloody that day and it just deepened their despair.
We went off into hiding at the Bishop’s residence, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and thousands of Timorese were there taking refuge. We decided to get on a plane, the only plane out, because we clearly couldn’t stop the killing. They had killed more than 250 Timorese who had gathered at the cemetery, and we heard gunshots all over Dili, so we knew the only way to stop this was if we could get out and report to the world what had happened – it would have to be outside pressure, it wasn’t going to come from within. So we raced to the airport, got on the last plane, made our way from East Timor to West Timor, which was a part of Indonesia, to Bali and then we flew to Guam. There, they operated on Allan, and even as he was being operated on he repeated the story over and over, because scores of news organizations from around the world were calling into the hospital to talk to us. And then we were able to fly to the United States, hold the news conference at the National Press Club to say that US weapons were used; to talk about the connection with the US.
Indonesia could never have carried out this devastating occupation if it wasn’t completely supported by the United States, and that was a horrific moment for the Timorese, for Americans, for all of us, this massacre, because unfortunately it was done in the name of the people of the United States without them even knowing it. It made it very clear to me how important it was as journalists to be where the silence is, to go to where the silence is, to understand the effect of US foreign policy.
SG—That reminds me of stories that you hear a lot of military people experience, and as we both know there are very pronounced post-traumatic stress issues as a result of that. How do you handle events like that in your life?
AG—That was horrific for everyone. The bravest are the Timorese, because they can’t leave, we could leave. It was personally horrifying and devastating to have experienced and witnessed this, and to know that this wasn’t one of the larger massacres. But we have a special privilege as American journalists that protects us, not always, but certainly more than people think at, as Allan Nairn always said, “the target end of the gun.” And this is why the embedding process in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is so problematic. When you’re at the trigger end of the gun, you’re sleeping with the troops, you’re eating with the troops, your life is in their hands, you get a certain perspective. It is absolutely critical for journalists to be at the target end to understand. I really do think if Americans knew, they would stop this. Americans are a compassionate people, and it’s up to the media, it’s up to us to use our privilege as journalists to reflect back what is happening in other parts of the world.
In the cold sterile halls, whether we’re talking at the US Senate or Congress, or in the White House the decisions that are made there have an enormous effect on people all over the world. I was interviewing someone on the radio from Guyana, this was years ago, we were then moving into a segment on the US election, so I ended the interview and said thank you. I was bringing in other guests and she said, “No, I want to be a part of that discussion.”And I said, “Why? This is about the US election.” And she said, “Because I believe everyone in the world should get to vote for President of the United States.” And it’s a very profound point that she was making, because our policy affects so many people around the world.
SG—It’s very true, and thank you for sharing that story, I know it’s not a very easy one to share. Changing topics slightly, a little while ago you made a satirical comment in a talk you were giving about how when covering global warming on Democracy Now! you should do something to the effect of dedicating the first half of the coverage to the climate debate, as if it was really a debate, and the second half of the coverage to whether the world was flat. Why do you think we find it so hard to connect to global warming as an issue?
AG—First of all, our media’s so dominated by the very corporations that profit from their activities that lead to climate change: the oil companies, the gas companies, the coal companies. In the United States, the whole movement around climate change is so far behind the rest of the world. Every year we go to cover the World Climate Change Summit and it’s not that much gets accomplished there, in fact just the opposite, but the thousands of people that come from around the world, the networking that goes on there, is so important. People are on the front lines of climate change, especially island nations that’ll be submerged, places like the Maldives, and the increasing desertification of Africa. Now, we in the US also experience it from Superstorm Sandy to the devastating fires of Colorado and California, the torrential rains, the dustbowl conditions of the Mid-West, but it’s not talked about in terms of global warming. You have on our television screens the words flashing: “Severe Weather,” “Extreme Weather,” and weather reports every few minutes on the networks. And if they only interspersed those with another two words: climate change, global warming, global disruption, we would understand there’s something we can do about it. And on Democracy Now! we give voice to people all over the world who are doing something about it, who are organizing. These are extremely important movements.
SG—A lot of cultural critics talk about how the media oftentimes desensitizes us to devastating events and the more we see them the more we normalize them in our lives. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how we move past this effect into action and actually doing something about it.
AG—I think people get numbed when they feel like there’s nothing they can do about it, like a terrific storm, or tornado. When there’s a sense of powerlessness, you get numbed. But when there’s a sense you can do something about it, I think people move to action, and the media demobilizes because it doesn’t connect the dots of these issues. And also the media denigrates activists. It turns to that small circle of pundits on television who know so little about so much. There are experts in communities all over this country, activists, people who are working on issues, they tend not to be the ones who are interviewed. And when you hear about organizations and what people are doing I think you tend to mobilize. That’s why independent media is so important. I think the best media is local media that links up with media all over, and gives voice to local voices on global issues, because we’re all dealing with the same thing, and not only in this country but all over the world. And that’s why I think the media can save the planet, and also why it’s so important to keep the Internet open and free. It’s been developed with public funds, and now corporations would certainly like to privatize it, and we have to fight against that because we have to be able to communicate with each other, and that’s a critical part of fighting for media independence.
SG—Do you see a role for the arts here and in the work that you do?
AG—Absolutely. I think all forms of expression are important in both enriching us and connecting us. I just came from Park City, Utah, from the Sundance Film Festival, and we’ve gone there every year for years because there you have creative artists, filmmakers, cinematographers, spending years focusing on a particular project. I just think it’s so important to cover this, and to bring out their voices and their vision. Art connects us in a very primal way, and I always say Democracy Now! is news with a heart, and part of that heart is the bringing together of culture and politics. We have music breaks in Democracy Now! and they have become so popular, giving voice to independent artists and musicians. I think it’s a natural way for us all to connect and for people to express their individuality.
SG—You have had the great privilege of interviewing and speaking with a number of amazing intellectuals. Do you draw a lot of inspiration from these people in the way you lead your life every day?
AG—I am just incredibly inspired by the people I cover. Whether it’s the people of East Timor for decades believing they would be free, when it was hard to see what the pathway to that freedom would be. And yet in the end, on May 20th, 2002, they actually celebrated their freedom and became an independent nation. But they always held out hope, and that always amazed me. People in Haiti, they’d go to the polls, and they would be gunned down during the coup years when President Aristide was forced out, and the killings were so intense. Still people would always believe that they would be free again, and I was incredibly inspired by that. Going to Nigeria with Jeremy Scahill and talking to people about their communities. And their connection to us was through US oil companies like Chevron and Shell, who would go into these communities, devastating them, yet they believed that they would someday be able to determine their own future.
And I am always inspired by that when people face such adversity. I think of someone in the United States, well she’s dead now, but Martina Correia, the sister of Troy Davis. She lived in Savannah, Georgia and she fought for her brother’s life for years. He was on death row for more than half his life and then he was executed, and she just committed her life to fighting against the death penalty, to her dying breath – she died a few weeks after Troy was executed, she was battling breast cancer. But her tremendous strength, even at his funeral in a wheelchair, saying, “We will change the policies of this country,” that kind of determination and dedication, whatever your political beliefs, is always inspirational.
SG—Finally, what do you feel is putting you, your work, and your vision of the future at the greatest risk today?
AG—I think consolidation of the media, who controls the media, is an issue we all have to take on. Decentralization of the media is very important because it brings out the beauty, the diversity of voices all over the country and around the world. All of the issues that people deal with: war and peace, the environment, inequalities – these challenge all of us, but there’s hope because when we work together, when we ensure that people’s voices are heard, I really do think that we can fight for a more equal, a more fair, just world. We just have to pay attention and we have to work together. It can’t be done alone.
SG—Just as your father had hoped.
SG—Well I want to thank you so much for your time today. It was inspired, so thank you Amy.
AG—And thank you for doing this.