The host of "Democracy Now!" turns up the volume in Burlington
Early in the evening of Friday, September 19, as the trees whipped to and fro in the fringe winds of Hurricane Isabel, Hurricane Amy -- a.k.a. Amy Goodman -- blew into Burlington. For her appearance at the University of Vermont, the journalist and host of "Democracy Now!" brought along a scouring critique of the national political climate, filling the sails of Vermont media activists and fans of the radio program. She drew a full house at UVM's Billings Theater and got a standing ovation even before her talk, "Amy Goodman vs. the Mainstream Media," began. The event, hosted by the American Friends Service Committee, was a fundraiser for WGDR Plainfield and the upcoming "Another World Is Possible" conference at Goddard College.
"Democracy Now!" is an independent, nonprofit organization whose news program reaches more than 160 stations nationwide. Goodman's reach in Vermont, however, is decidedly abbreviated -- confined to the airwaves of WGDR, community-access TV stations and a handful of unlicensed low-power FM stations. But over the past year, a number of listeners have been trying to get her show on Vermont Public Radio.
Goodman can usually be found in the garret of a 19th-century firehouse incongruously nestled among tall, boxy buildings in New York City's Chinatown. There she puts out her program with co-host Juan Gonzales -- president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a New York News columnist -- and a cadre of producers whose credentials range from Fox News to Z Magazine. The show features news and voices the mainstream media typically overlook or ignore.
In the past week alone, for example, Goodman interviewed reporter Craig Unger, who broke the story that some 140 Saudis, including 24 members of the bin Laden family, were flown out of the country in the days after September 11, 2001, when all other flights were grounded; invited Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting senior analyst Steve Randall to debunk the characterization of former General Wesley Clark as an "antiwar warrior"; and hosted a debate among activists, farmers, U.S. and Third World WTO representatives on the collapse of the Cancun talks.
The last item Goodman broadcast before coming to Vermont revealed that JetBlue -- which flies between JFK and Burlington airports -- provided five million passenger itineraries to a defense contractor in September 2002 for a database project. In the wake of a three-way on-air discussion between Wired.com contributing writer Ryan Singel (who broke the story), JetBlue Airways spokesperson Garreth Edmondson-Jones and http://www. dontspyon.us founder Bill Scannell (who has launched an anti-JetBlue campaign), Goodman joked that she'd be driving to Vermont.
None of this makes for easy listening. But as WGDR General Manager Amanda Gustafson observes, the controversy attracts listeners, most of whom would rather hear what's going on even if it does raise their blood pressure. "Over and over and over again we hear from people how much they like [Democracy Now!']," Gustafson says. "They hear news on that program that they don't hear anywhere else."
The show is unapologetically pro-human rights, pro-civil liberties and anti-war -- though not anti-soldier; a recent guest was the first homeless veteran of the Iraq conflict. It has earned Goodman a solid following among liberals and progressives. And "Democracy Now!" outreach coordinator Denis Moynihan notes that the show also has received appreciative feedback from self-described conservatives and Republicans. Michael Powell, reporter for the typically reserved Washington Post, observed, "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."
Liz Blum, with the Strafford, Vermont-based Upper Valley Peace and Justice Group, is coordinating a petition effort to bring that edge to VPR. She says the group has gathered more than 2000 signatures. David Goodman -- Amy's Waterbury-dwelling brother and a contributing writer for Mother Jones -- says that many VPR listeners have independently requested the program during fundraising drives, albeit in a scattered fashion. It's not clear whether lobbying the station -- however coordinated the effort may be -- will have any effect; VPR doesn't want the show.
Members of the Community Advisory Board (CAB), who serve as the station's programming focus group, generally concur that the show is an "advocacy-type program." As Mimi Clark, secretary and former chair of the CAB explains, VPR "strives for journalistic neutrality. It doesn't want to come across as advocating one side over another. It just tries to present all sides."
VPR has heard criticisms of its news coverage -- particularly during the build-up to the Iraq invasion -- from listeners who were both hawks and doves. "The station feels that if they get comments from both sides, then they're doing a pretty good job of presenting all sides. If everybody's complaining, then that's a good sign," says Clark.
VPR President and General Manager Mark Vogelzang -- who is also on the Board of Directors of National Public Radio -- has the final say in programming decisions at the station. He expresses a firm disinterest in airing the show. Noting that 180,000 listeners count on the station to "provide them with the programming they've come to expect," Vogelzang describes VPR's criteria for evaluating potential programs: "Does it meet the broad mission of service to the community? Is it a program that has the kind of quality and accuracy and fills the role of a program that would match "All Things Considered," "Morning Edition" or "Performance Today"? We try to hold up that standard for every program that we carry -- and I'm not sure that [we found that] in our hard look at Democracy Now!'"
David Goodman, who has been a guest on NPR's "Fresh Air" and "Talk of the Nation," disagrees with VPR's appraisal of his sister's show. Noting that VPR hosts frequently editorialize ("Weekend Edition" host Scott Simon, for example, aired his support for the Iraq war on NPR and in the Wall Street Journal), Goodman explains, "We don't say that Scott Simon should be pulled off the air because he supports the Iraq war, we just note that he comes to his job with a strong viewpoint. Why is his acceptable and that of Amy Goodman is not acceptable? There's a simple answer: Scott Simon, when he speaks in favor of the war, is echoing the government line. When you speak out in any way that disagrees with the government, that's called advocacy."
Amy Goodman notes that dozens of NPR affiliates already carry the show. "When Democracy Now!' comes to an NPR station, what we have found across the country is that in terms of fundraising, it beats Morning Edition' and All Things Considered' hands down and it brings in audiences that they don't traditionally reach."
Denis Moynihan of "Democracy Now!" points to the show's many professional accolades, among them the George Polk Award -- one of America's most coveted and respected journalism honors -- and the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Silver Baton. "Those awards don't go to advocacy journalists,'" he says. "They go to the real journalists."
You get a sense of what real journalism means to Amy Goodman when she delivers her speech. In a low-pitched but bitingly clear voice, she speaks urgently of the new Federal Communications Commission rules ("unprecedented in giving the few media moguls unbridled power"), of George W. Bush's "28-page gap" in the September 11th investigative report, and of the sanitized coverage of the war in Iraq. And she returns repeatedly to the galling unwillingness of the mainstream media to criticize or question the powers that be.
"You've got a government and an establishment that does very well protecting itself," Goodman says. "We've got a fourth estate -- a media -- that's supposed to be there as a watchdog for civil society. And we [the media] have a responsibility to go to where the silence is, and to investigate these stories."
Goodman has seen little from the mainstream media to make her think they have the public interest at heart. But she also has anecdotes that suggest the media do play -- and can continue to play -- a vital role in society. Goodman cut her journalistic teeth on Pacifica Radio (which launched "Democracy Now!" in 1996) at WBAI in New York. In 1970, Pacifica's station KPFT was blown up by the Ku Klux Klan.
"When the Exalted Cyclops went on trial, he said it was his proudest act," Goodman relates. "Why? Because he understood how dangerous Pacifica Radio is. Dangerous because it is a forum for people to speak for themselves, and when you hear someone speaking about their own experience, it breaks down racism and bigotry, caricatures and stereotypes."
Despite having witnessed and experienced some of humanity's most disheartening episodes (she once survived a massacre in East Timor in which 250 Timorese were killed around her by Indonesian soldiers wielding U.S.-furnished weaponry), Goodman is somehow not bitter. She was present in East Timor as the country achieved independence in 2002, and this gives her hope.
"As we move into election year in this country, it really is a global election. People all over the world deeply care about who will lead, or mislead, this country," she says. "And it's up to us to decide what we want to present to the world; the sword or the shield."
As Goodman wrapped up her talk in Burlington, her voice frayed at the edges -- she'd been speaking for more than two hours. A clutch of listeners kept her corralled at the podium another half hour before the events' organizers finally shooed them away. Even without the broadcasting range of VPR, Goodman clearly is reaching a lot people -- now.