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Peace Correspondent: 'Democracy Now!' Host Amy Goodman Is Making Her Voice Heard on Iraq
Published on Monday, March 10, 2003 by the Washington Post
Peace Correspondent
'Democracy Now!' Host Amy Goodman Is Making Her Voice Heard on Iraq
by Michael Powell
 

NEW YORK -- And now for the news:

"President Bush last night claimed a war in Iraq would set the stage for peace in the Middle East, but he did not set any deadline or detail any specific steps." . . .

"The Financial Times describes the Bush administration's financial analysis as 'a piece of fiction.' " . . .

"In Australia, 43 legal experts warn that an attack on Iraq is a violation of international law." . . .

"And the United States asks aid groups in Baghdad for civilian satellite coordinates in Iraq" -- pregnant pause here -- "Is it to bomb them or save them?"

"This is 'Democracy Now!' " says the anchor. "The war and peace report." Cue the lilting Bob Marley reggae guitar licks.

This is not the news as Brit Hume construes it or Dan Rather intones it. In a "Showdown: Iraq," Blix-is-nixed, pack-my-trench-coat-honey testosterone media age, Amy Goodman and her radio show, "Democracy Now!," beam in as if from some alternative left galaxy.

Broadcasting on the Pacifica Radio network from a book-strewn loft in an old firehouse a half-dozen blocks from Ground Zero, Goodman is a daily polestar for those who crave the antiwar perspective that mainstream networks and newspapers often consign to the margins.

"War coverage should be more than a parade of retired generals and retired government flacks posing as reporters," Goodman says after the show. "Why not invite on some voices that are not Pentagon-approved?"

Her 9 a.m. magazine show mixes investigative scoops (a recent report detailed how the Bush administration quashed an FBI investigation into Saudi Arabian funding of terrorist organizations), reports from foreign correspondents, and very few generals. She and her co-host, New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, speak, unabashedly, to those who oppose a war with Iraq, a roomier club than one might imagine from watching cable television news channels.

A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that six in 10 Americans harbor doubts about using force in Iraq, while 40 percent are opposed to any invasion.

The audience for "Democracy Now!" is small but growing, and the show is influential among antiwar activists. More than 120 stations carry it, including WPFW-FM (89.3) in Washington and some public radio affiliates. And in the last two years, it's begun broadcasting on Web TV (via www.democracynow.org) and public access television channels around the world .

And starting today the formerly 60-minute show expands by an hour to accommodate more reporting on the war.

Its politics can veer toward communion for the progressive choir. But in this age of corporate media conglomeration, when National Public Radio sounds as safe as a glass of warm milk, "Democracy Now!" retains a jagged and intriguing edge.

Goodman is the show's center, a slight 45-year-old in a pullover vest, jeans and sneakers. Her unruly brown hair is streaked with gray. She can break out a playful smile, and punctuate an interview by opening a hatch in her office floor and sliding down a fire pole to the floor below.

More often, though, her intensity burns through.

In two decades of reporting for Pacifica, she's been beaten bloody by Indonesian soldiers as she charted East Timor's battle for independence. And she's wandered the deltas of southern Nigeria charting the environmental and human rights degradations of the Nigerian army and Chevron Oil Corp.

For such work, she's received some of mainstream journalism's highest honors: The Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the George Polk Award and the Overseas Press Club Award (an honor she declined at the podium on awards night -- more on that later).

But the awards seem beside the point. Her Edward R. Murrow comes always with a twist of Emma Goldman.

Goodman leans forward in her chair, trying to explain what's so very clear to her. "I feel this is a very urgent time, for this nation and the world," she says. "The clock is ticking towards war. We can't do enough, we absolutely can't."

She begins broadcasting at 7 a.m. every morning, and works until near midnight, talking to sources, reading documents and talking up funders. (Although the show raises $2.5 million annually for the Pacifica network, it, more than any other program, runs on a shoestring budget: $800,000.) Each Friday, she heads to the airport, hopping planes to such places as Seattle and Albuquerque, Boston and Cleveland and Ithaca, N.Y., to talk about the coming war with Iraq.

Her eye sockets look a bit hollowed out. It's hard to leave phone messages for her because her voice mail keeps filling up.

"She doesn't say 'no' very well," says Michael Ratner, a friend and an attorney with and president of with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Sleep? Her friend, Elizabeth Benjamin, head of the Legal Aid Society's Health Law Unit, chuckles.

"I wish she got more of it. Amy has so much passion to right the wrongs of the world."

The Amy & Bill Show

Three years ago, President Clinton placed an Election Day call to "Democracy Now!" For Clinton it was supposed to be two minutes of get-out-the-vote happy talk with a progressive radio show and then: Gotta go.

Except Goodman began by asking: "You are calling radio stations telling people to vote. What do you say to people who feel the two parties are bought by corporations and that at this point their vote doesn't make a difference?"

"There is not a shred of evidence to support that," Clinton rejoined.

And they were off and running, Amy and Bill, debating American politics, the health effects of sanctions against Iraq, and whether Clinton would pardon native American activist Leonard Peltier. Why, she asked, did he fly back to Arkansas in 1992 during the presidential campaign to execute a mentally impaired man?

Goodman is the reporter who sinks her teeth in and never lets go, and he was the president who never gives up hope of winning you over. "You have asked questions in a hostile, combative and even disrespectful tone," he scolded Goodman at one point.

Then he kept on talking.

In this insider media age when oh-so-serious reporters measure status by access to the powerful, Goodman is the journalist as uninvited guest. You might think of the impolite question; she asks it. She torments Democrats no less than Republicans.

When former senator Bob Kerrey called a news conference to defend himself against charges he committed a war crime while a soldier in Vietnam, Goodman asked if perhaps a war crimes tribunal should be set up to examine the guilt of the war's architects, such as Henry Kissinger.

Kerrey's halting demurral made a few television broadcasts. But Goodman's question displeased some establishment media worthies. That Sunday, NPR reporter Mara Liason went on "Fox Special Report With Brit Hume" and complained that Goodman was not really a journalist and that no one would have asked such a question in Washington.

Last year Goodman sneaked into the World Economic Forum, a hermetically sealed gathering of the powerful (and a few well-behaved journalist guests) in Manhattan. She found Nicholas Platt, a former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and asked him if American support of Indonesia was worth it, given that its military killed tens of thousands in East Timor.

Platt squinted at her and inquired (on the air): "What ax are you grinding right here?"

"I survived a massacre in East Timor," Goodman responded.

Growing Up Amy

Goodman grew up a movement child, the daughter of radical parents in Bayshore, N.Y., across from Fire Island. Her father, a physician, was featured in a poster for nuclear disarmament, the image of a mushroom cloud in his stethoscope. (Going further back, she is descended from prominent Hasidic rabbis, although she counts herself a secular Jew.)

After graduating from Harvard in 1984, Goodman came to New York City. She fiddled with the radio dial and found WBAI, the New York affiliate of the cacophonously left-wing Pacifica, a network founded in the 1940s by pacifist Lew Hill. She heard vegans and pagans, performance artists and beatniks, jazz musicians and black nationalists.

"It was New York, in all of its beauty and all of its ugliness," she recalls. "And it wasn't trying to sell a thing. I was riveted."

She took a video documentary class, began volunteering at the station and a few years later became the station's news director. She's never left.

In 1991, she traveled to East Timor with journalist Allan Nairn. They fell in step one day with a Timorese memorial procession. As the procession passed a row of Indonesian troops, the soldiers brought rifles to shoulders and began firing, killing 250 men, women and children. Nairn and Goodman huddled on the ground as the soldiers began beating them with rifle butts.

"Allan put his body over mine," she recalls. "I thought we would die."

Photos show them afterward, bruised and bleeding from head to foot. The Indonesians expelled them. But Goodman and Nairn made a documentary that drew attention to this distant island, and not incidentally explored the American complicity in backing the Indonesian occupation.

As she accepted a prize for that work, Goodman was asked to explain her approach. She replied: "Go where the silence is and say something."

She has lived that advice, traveling to Yugoslavia, Haiti, Cuba, Israel's occupied territories and Mexico, often recording reports in the face of danger. In 1996, she started "Democracy Now!" as a daily newsmagazine.

The shows are of varying quality. The politics can sometimes seem predictable and the overseas telephone lines can sound as if sanded with gravel. And sometimes the guests are a bit . . . dated.

So on a recent day Ramsey Clark, the 75-year-old former U.S. attorney general and patron saint of very lost causes (former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the North Korean government, to name two) wandered in to talk up his campaign to impeach Bush (www.VoteToImpeach.org).

But on its best days, Goodman's show has the quality of a good reporter peering under unexpected rocks.

Goodman talks with a reporter for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel about his investigation into complicity of American and European companies in selling biological and chemical weapons supplies to the Iraqis in the 1980s. Another recent guest details an investigative report in British papers that found the United States was tapping the phones and reading the e-mails of United Nations Security Council members during the debate over Iraq.

Last Thursday she interviewed two veteran war correspondents, Chris Hedges of the New York Times and Robert Fisk of the Independent in London, about the Pentagon's censorship of reporters.

"The press in the first Gulf War was completely managed," said Hedges, who covered that event. "The coverage was absolutely shameful."

Fisk and Hedges often worked outside the Pentagon-approved press pools in that first war and suffered arrests and beatings for their trouble -- from allied troops. "I was arrested by the Marines after I was betrayed by a CBS reporter who said I was not in the pool."

None of these stories and views have gotten much air time on the commercial or publicly funded airwaves.

"There's such an hunger out there for an alternative," Goodman says. "It's almost explosive."

Radio Amy

Two hundred thousand people jam the frigid streets of New York City in early February, protesting the planned war on Iraq. Vast puppet heads bob in the air, along with placards reading: "Somewhere in Texas, a village has lost its idiot." And throughout the crowd, demonstrators tune radios to WBAI and Amy Goodman -- who is broadcasting live from the march.

Later, you find Goodman, sitting outside in a director's chair on First Avenue, a pathetic foot-heater kicking out little in the way of warmth. A techie fixes a webcast video camera on her. It's another of those alt-media celebrity moments: the anchor without leg warmers or makeup, but with politics and passion.

Actors Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, and entertainer Harry Belafonte and Archbishop Desmond Tutu stop by to chat. The broadcasts of their interviews draw cheers far up the parade route.

The cold this day is wind-driven and cuts to the bone. And yet Goodman sounds invigorated. Her life and passions are one -- she works the vast majority of her waking hours. She is single and has no children.

Even her friends aren't always sure what drives her, not exactly.

"A lot of us have parents who were political, but we're not willing to accept a life that has very little room for pure enjoyment," says Ratner, the Center for Constitutional Rights president. "Amy will come to our annual baseball game up in the country each summer, but a couple of hours later, she's gone.

"I would love for her to reserve some part of her life for herself."

Ask Goodman about this and she shrugs. She talks of drawing inspiration from a century-old grandmother who, when sick, organized her sanitorium. But quickly she turns the conversation to the war for oil and empire in Iraq.

She's not so much disapproving as disinterested in the career arcs of her generational peers.

Two years ago, a new board took over Pacifica and was accused of trying to pasteurize the network's political edge. Goodman walked away and broadcast on the Web for eight months. (That board has since been overthrown and she has returned.) Four years ago, she was invited to the Overseas Press Club's awards dinner, where her Nigeria documentary would be honored. She could not afford the $125 ticket, so she and a colleague sat on chairs in the back. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke was the club's keynote speaker that night, but the club's board, including its chairman, Tom Brokaw, set the ground rules: Holbrooke would not appear if he had to answer questions.

Then Holbrooke gave a speech and noted that American bombers had just hit a Serbian television station. Goodman took the podium and declined her award.

"He'd just told a roomful of journalists that we've bombed a television station and yet no one said a word," Goodman recalls. "I said: 'Thank you, Mr. Brokaw, but no thank you.' "

Goodman manages to recount this without sounding terribly self-righteous. She respects a number of mainstream reporters -- or, in her lexicon, corporate media -- and she likes nothing better than when they pick up her stories, with or without credit.

The interview at an end, she slides down the fire pole, and you swallow hard and follow her. She walks you to the door. Upstairs, her braided and spike-haired producers prepare for the next day's broadcast, downloading, cutting, fiddling with soundboards like so many caffeinated maestros.

It's dark. She's eager to get back upstairs and rejoin them.

"There are so many deeply patriotic voices out there raising questions about this war, and they aren't being heard." She says goodbye, and reminds you: "Steal our stories -- please."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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