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An interview with Amy Goodman
GEISER: As listeners around the country know, you're facing a struggle in which your own voice is limited. What is happening at WBAI?
GOODMAN: WBAI is the home base of “Democracy Now!,” which is our daily national grassroots news magazine. My unions, both nationally, AFTRA, which is the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, as well as United Electrical, which represents the WBAI staff—AFTRA represents the Pacifica staff—have filed grievances against Pacifica management and WBAI management for harassment and censorship. We are facing a very chilling environment at WBAI since what many call the Christmas Coup 2000, when Pacifica management came in, changed all the locks at the station in the middle of the night, and installed the new general manager. Hours later, a letter was sent to our program director, Bernard White, who I've co-hosted with on “Wake-Up Call” for eight years. Then the long-time producer of “Wake-Up Call,” Sheran Harper, got a letter saying that she and Berbard had both been fired, and that they would be considered trespassers if they came to the station. This caused a tremendous uproar and that was only the beginning. That day we all went down to the station, hundreds of us, the producers tried to go into the station, and the police met us and said, “You'll be arrested if you go inside.” This was a selective lockout through that weekend. From that point on, more and more people were banned. A long-time labor show “Building Bridges,” was canceled. A congressperson was in the midst of an interview and he was taken off the air by the general manager. We don't even know how many people are banned, we only find out when they come to the door—we now have security guards at the door, which we've never had before—and people are turned back. It's a very chilling environment and we never know who's next.
Pacifica is an issue that's been discussed on the House floor because it's a vital voice for freedom of speech in this country. Talk about both the support of the founding principles of Pacifica that's surfaced and the role that Pacifica needs to continue to play.
Pacifica began more than 50 years ago as the only independent media network in this country. Founded by a man named Lew Hill, who was a conscientious objector in World War II, he came out of the detention camps and said, “There has to be a media outlet that's not run by corporations that build a drum beat for war, corporations that profit from militarism and war, but run by journalists and artists.” And that was the original philosophy of Pacifica. The first station, KPFA, went on the air in 1949 and now we're a five station network.
Major Owens, a long-time Congressperson from Brooklyn, New York, went to the House floor, and he harshly criticized what was happening at WBAI. It hampers what we can do as reporters when we feel there's things we can't say. A gag rule has been imposed. Sometimes I'll be doing “Democracy Now!” and the general manager will storm into the room. When we first aired Mumia's commentaries, in 1997, we were pulled from the 12 stations in Pennsylvania, run by Temple University, and they ended our contract with us, even though we were the most popular show on their network. In that letter they said, “It's inappropriate to air the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal.” We feel it's critical to go behind bars and hear what people have to say.
But what's happening at WBAI is the local manifestation of a larger national struggle to restore Pacifica to its original mission. That goes to who is on the board of directors and the kind of direction that is being laid out from the top, looking at the corporate interests they represent, looking at how Pacifica is run. It's supposed to be a democratic institution, so I think it's very important for people to be involved: at the five stations, with their Local advisory boards—Los Angeles, Berkeley, Houston, Washington, and New York—and on the national board. Our national board should reflect the people we cover, the communities we come from. The long-time, proud tradition of Pacifica is airing the voices of union activists and people fighting for racial, economic, and social justice around the world and it's those voices that should also be present on the board of directors of Pacifica.
As many people around the country fight to restore Pacifica to its original mission, and as many people also fight to build the community radio movement, what is the mission of community radio in the context of today's globalized media, and in the corporate-dominated mainstream media environment?
I'm deeply disturbed that National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting in general is going the corporate route, taking more and more corporate underwriting. I think they call them enhanced underwriting credits. You even had NPR News being brought to you by the government of Kuwait. It's mind boggling that this is the direction public broadcasting has gone.
But Pacifica has always been different, and I very much hope it remains that way. But not just Pacifica, community radio stations around this country are part of an independent media movement. The corporate moguls want to gobble them up. They're very valuable real estate, in a sense, but they're much more valuable as public treasures, as a library of the air. These are the public spaces that no matter how much money you have, you can go to a place and there is an archive there, going back in time, and also the voices of today, young people, older people, on all different issues. We must preserve these spaces.
To really forge a democratic society, we need to have unfiltered information. Media comes from the word mediation, but with all the uprising we've seen in the last year—of course the Battle of Seattle, the growth of the independent media movement, the Independent Media Centers—what people have tried to do is reduce that mediation as much as possible so that people on the Internet, people around the world can experience what's happening as unfiltered as possible. But it's very important that we don't view these global uprising against corporate power through a corporate lens: through the lens of the Nuclear Broadcasting Corporation—that's NBC owned by General Electric, or Disney's lens—which is ABC, Time Warner-AOL —that's CNN, or Viacom—that's CBS. Having people go to cover these events and cover their own communities on a daily basis, with their video cameras, with their pens and pencils, with their tape recorders, and then get them on the Net, get them on community radio stations.
You've been very involved in covering the mass mobilizations, the new manifestations of this growing global justice movement. Talk about what your experience has been, both in the historic collaboration you did this summer with Community Access Television covering the political conventions, and the events in Washington, DC and Seattle.
What we did at the Democratic and Republican Conventions was very exciting. A large team of people from Pacifica radio and Free Speech TV, which is an independent TV distribution group in Boulder, Colorado, were able to broadcast “Democracy Now!,” expanded to two hours every day, to a vast audience. So we need to broaden the space for there to be dialogue and debate, we have to use all the different avenues of communication: the Internet, TV, radio. My love is still, always, radio. In 1994, when the Zapatistas first rose up in Mexico, I went down to San Cristobal de Las Casas and I went to the first news conference of Subcomandante Marcos, and the Zapatista leadership. They held it only for the radio reporters and Marcos said at that news conference that was held in the cathedral in San Cristobal, that the reason he did that was because radio is so important. It is still the most intimate medium, the most affordable one, the one that most people have access to. Though I'm excited about the Internet, that's still a select group of people who get to hear that. The intimacy of radio, the simplicity of it, that you can just take a microphone and a little tape recorder, and the privilege and access it gives you to go into someone's home, to come up to someone, but in a very non-intrusive way, talk to them about the most serious and difficult situations, and also be part of celebrations or whatever, and convey that to a larger audience is still just awesome to me.
How would you characterize the fundamental difference between how you go about journalism and how Tom Brokaw does?
First of all, I don't think that the ultimate in journalism is interviewing someone in high office, getting access, and really making a trade off that I don't think is worth it. You have reporters at the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department who basically spew the state line in the hopes that they will get some kind of leak or some kind of special access without being critical. I also think that when you have these news anchors on television, they should be flashing the amount of money they make. People should understand the economic strata they come from. They represent such a minority in this country and they interview their friends, basically. Cozying up to power, often going back and forth from government into something that's not even journalism, but TV. For example, take someone like Pete Williams. He was the spokesperson for the Pentagon in the Persian Gulf War; he was the one who helped to design the censorship of the media, the rules about how the media would cover the war. Then he becomes a chief correspondent for NBC. This is unacceptable.
It's most challenging to go where the silence is and say something, to go to places that are not being covered, but where the U.S.—as a U.S. journalist—is deeply involved, like East Timor. We have to go to places where the U.S. government is supporting military dictatorships and regimes, where U.S. money is pouring in.
The biggest story today is PLAN Colombia: $1.3 billion going to reinforce a human rights-abusing military and its paramilitary death squads that is not about a war on drugs. It's about reinforcing the military, not only there, but in Latin America in general. We have to hear from the people who are suffering as the U.S. says the coca crops must be eradicated by fumigation—it's actually Monsanto Round-Up pesticide that's being used. People are getting sick, animals are getting sick, all sorts of crops are dying. We want to hear from people who are the victims of the paramilitary death squads. We want to hear from people at the bottom who are the victims of U.S. foreign policy. We're not as interested in going into a U.S. Army tank, as we often saw the celebrity journalists doing, in the bombing of Yugoslavia. You might see a Diane Sawyer getting into a tank or a plane—“How does it feel?” Well I want to know how it feels to be a target.
As we move into the Bush administration, what is it that the role of the media should be in the next four years and what is the role of “Democracy Now!” going to be?
We have a tremendous task ahead of us. The oiligarchy has ascended. You have George Bush, failed oilperson, you have vice president Dick Cheney, former CEO of the largest oil services corporation in the world, Halliburton, you have the National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, who has a Chevron oil tanker named after her in Nigeria. Oil is a major story today: whether it's in Colombia, with the U'wa fighting Occidental's drilling, or in Nigeria with Chevron, Shell, and ExxonMobil, whether it's in Burma with Unocal, and all throughout the Middle East.
You have George Bush Sr., who goes around the world, both as the former president of the United States, and as the father of the current president, but also, along with James Baker, the former Secretary of State, for the Carlyle Group, which has now become one of the largest weapons manufacturers, largest telecommunications groups as they buy up companies: this is a private equity group. They're going around making a fortune, building empires—this was actually an expose that was done by the New York Times recently—as world ambassadors. It's unabashed, yet rarely is it talked about in that way. We have to show what are the corporate interests that are driving government policy. Of course, you have a person who's ascended to the presidency—I'm not going to say elected, I continue to call him the President Select—who, as many people held up signs at the inauguration protests, is the “Texacutioner.” This is the man who was governor of Texas, who presided over more executions than any governor in U.S. history. What kind of message does this send the world?
We have to document what's happening in this country—a kind of structural adjustment program like those people are protesting around the world—and we have to look at U.S. foreign policy. We have a big job ahead of us. Z
The video of this interview is available at www. rockymountain.indymedia.org. Nell Geiser is a junior in high school in Boulder, Colorado. She is a journalist at KGNU community radio in Boulder and interned with “Democracy Now!” during the Summer of 2000.