Jakub Dymek: How do you understand the independence of media and how do you understand your mission as an independent journalist
Amy Goodman: I think it’s critical that we have an independent media that’s not run by corporations. In the United States you have hundreds of channels, and they’re owned by a handful of corporations. This is not acceptable. There’s a reason why our profession – journalism – is the only one explicitly protected by the US constitution: we’re supposed to be the check and balance on power. And yet so often the media simply acts as a stenographer to those in power. My brother David Goodman, who is also a journalist, co-wrote a book with me called Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back. We called it that – Static – because even in this high-tech age, with high definition television and digital radio, all we get is static. This static is a veil of distortion and lies, misrepresentations and half-truths that obscure reality. What we need is for the media to give us static in the sense of its dictionary definition: criticism, opposition, unwanted inference. We need a media that covers power, not covers for power. We need a media that is the fourth estate, not for the state. And we need a media that covers the movements that create static and make history. We are very much a part of this in the media democracy movement.
Democracy Now! started eighteen years ago on a few dozen community radio stations. We were the only daily election show in public broadcasting in the United States but we weren’t interested in going from state to state to ask, Who’s ahead? Who’s behind? What are the percentages? These questions are so meaningless. While the corporate media was asking them, most of the people in the United States didn’t vote, although they’re certainly free to. I never thought that this was because they were apathetic. I thought maybe it was because they didn’t feel that there’s much of a choice between the Democrats and the Republicans. This is an effect of the power of the corporations shaping both of these parties. I wanted to go from state to state and look at what people were involved with, what they thought was important. We were giving voice to the grass roots. The show was supposed to finish with the election, because it was an election show. But after the election, there was more interest in it than before. And so it started to grow.
Then came September 11th, 2001, that horrific week when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States were attacked and almost three thousand people were incinerated in a moment. That week, coincidentally, a TV station in New York, where we broadcasted, had asked if they could broadcast the radio show. Now, radio is the heart of what we do, so I said sure, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the radio broadcast. As long as there’s no static. So we began broadcasting at one TV station. Then the show just took off. TV stations all over the country were asking if they could broadcast our show. We had to figure out how to get it to them – this was still the time of video cassettes. I didn’t want to mail them the videocassette; I thought, it’s breaking news, this will get there a week late, so we’ll send it overnight. Soon the FedEx guys were coming for garbage bags filled with our video cassettes because all these stations wanted them. Then when it was running on the TV station in a town, the radio station would want the show. That was 2001. Now it’s 2013 and we are broadcasting on over 1200 public radio and television stations around the United States, around the world, and our headlines are translated into Spanish. We’re also very excited about going on Polish External Radio [Polskie Radio dla Zagranicy], very soon, where we’ll be broadcast every single day. This amazing growth is a tribute to the hunger for independent voices. We don’t bring you the typical pundits that you get on all the networks. The networks have all the resources in the world but they have the same small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, who explain the world to us and get it so wrong. We go to the communities in the United States and around the world to hear people who are experts in their own lives and communities, to hear the scientists, the activists, the government officials, all debating and discussing the most important issues of the day.
Jakub Dymek: And what of this very widespread opinion – expressed by plenty of those pundits – that in the age of social media, so-called traditional media are no longer needed, that citizen journalism can actually replace traditional journalism. At the same time, those platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are themselves corporate-owned, which raises concerns.
The corporate media needs to be challenged, whether it’s the New York Times or Twitter. On Twitter you’re often not getting the actual voices of people, and when you do it’s in the equivalent of a sound bite. I think sound bites are great and you can be so creative with them, but they are very constrained. Above all, I like to hear the actual sound of peoples’ voices, the myriad accents, the emotions, all of which are absent from the written word. Twitter and Facebook have tremendous power, even against a corporate background. It’s very good that the corporate media is challenged to open up. But I have reservations. Not the least of these is that there’s still a digital divide between those who have access to the digital media and those who don’t. In the United States most people still get their information from television. As I was saying, we started in radio, we then moved also to television. But we were always on the internet, in the first place because we didn’t have the money of corporate radio and television media to send our broadcast, so we would send it through the internet. Before all of the networks, we totally relied on it.
When the US invaded Iraq, our colleague Jeremy Scahill – a producer at Democracy Now! who wrote Blackwater and Dirty Wars, the latter which has now been made into a film – went there to report for Democracy Now! He would go into internet cafes when Saddam Hussein had erected a firewall to prevent video from getting out. The networks’ big untold story, by the way, is that they were paying Saddam Hussein millions of dollars to use his satellites at this time. Of course, we couldn’t do that. So he’d divide the video with a program and send it out in a hundred fifty e-mails., then we’d piece it back together in New York and broadcast this beautiful video. When the revolution started in Egypt, Sharif Abdel Kouddous – an Egyptian-American reporter who has been our senior reporter at Democracy Now! for eight years – flew home to cover it on the streets of Cairo. When Mubarak took the internet down – with the help of corporations, of course, because he didn’t know how to flip the switch himself – Sharif figured out a way around the internet blockade. And so he became one of the top Tweeters in the world from the Egyptian revolution. And then, when the internet went back on and the thugs broke the satellites, the networks didn’t know what to do because they project through satellites. You saw all these network anchors looking a little like old Democracy Now! through Skype. What were we doing at Democracy Now? While Sharif was in the streets and the square, Hany Massoud – who is also Egyptian-American and a video producer for Democracy Now! – was filming all his interviews and then racing home through Cairo in the middle of the night to piece together these video broadcasts. These days we use satellite, but we know how to use the internet. We’ve perfected a way to send broadcast-quality video through the internet. Hany would send these twenty-five minute reports home that didn’t show just the face of the host, like the corporate anchors on Skype. They showed the faces, the voices of the people of Tahrir. It was truly amazing. Come hell or high water, in any way we can, we will get out the voices of the people, in the United States and around the world.
The latest book written by my colleague Denis Moynihan and I is called The Silenced Majority. The reason we called it that is because we really do think that those who are opposed to war, who are deeply concerned about climate change, about the fate of the planet, who are gravely concerned about the growing inequality between rich and poor in the United States and around the world – those who are concerned about these issues are not a fringe majority. They are not even a silent majority. They are the silenced majority, silenced by the corporate media. That is why we have to take it back.
Jakub Dymek: Empowering people instead of empowering the mainstream message, as I take your meaning: how does this apply in the context of the COP, the climate summit, which is basically a platform for corporations and governments to exchange views between themselves alone.
Here we are in Poland, in “Coaland,” where eighty to ninety percent of your energy comes from coal. There was something unprecedented this year: the International Coal and Climate Summit alongside the COP19. And for the first time there were official corporate sponsorships. The delegates’ bags had “Lotos” on them. Not to say there wasn’t tremendous corporate involvement before. That involvement is extremely serious and has to be challenged. But the reason we come to these COPs – we went to Copenhagen, we went went to Cancún, we went to Durban and Doha, to the People’s Summit in Bolivia, and now we’re here in Poland, next year in Peru, and then to Paris in 2015 when there’s supposed to be a binding agreement hammered out – is not because so much gets accomplished within the summit. It’s because of the thousands of people who come here from all over the world, who are deeply affected by climate change and just as deeply committed to challenging those who would destroy the planet. This is our commons. Whether we’re in Poland, or the United States, in Russia, Venezuela, or South Africa, we have to figure out a way, in a globalized world, that we can live globally peacefully.
Often the people who are put out of the summit are the most interesting to speak with. Just before I joined you today I was inside the national stadium, where hundreds of people walked out of the plenary. They were wearing t-shirts that said “Polluters Talk, We Walk” on the front and “We Will Return” on the back. They’re not leaving for good but they’re sick and tired of there being those who get heard and those who don’t. One of our guests on Democracy Now! this week was Clémence Hutin. We broadcast from inside the summit and she couldn’t come into the stadium to talk to us because she had been thrown out a few days before along with two other young students. Why? On the opening day of the plenary, Yeb Saño, the chief climate negotiator from the Philippines gave an emotional address. Of course, you can imagine the horror that’s taking place as the background of this summit, the worst typhoon to make landfall in world history, in the Philippines. We interviewed Jeb Saño last year in Doha when Bopha hit and over a thousand people were killed. Now we don’t even know the numbers: four, five, ten thousand. In his address, Yeb Saño announced that he would begin a hunger fast here, for the whole summit. Actually, he didn’t use the word “hunger.” He said a “fast” because he he didn’t want to insult the people of Philippines who are in fact starving right now because they can’t get aid. People were so affected by the speech that when he got off the platform and started walking out of the plenary, these young people, who are part of the Young NGOs, known as the YOUNGOs, got up and escorted him out of the hall. They unfurled a banner that they were going to use later, which said “2012, 1000+, Bopha. 2013, 10,000+ ? Haiyan. How Many More Must Die?” For this, they were officially banned. Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC, said at first that they would be banned for five years. Then she compromised and said it would only be for one. These are people who came from all over the world, and she was saying no, they couldn’t be a part of this. So outside the summit, we talked to Clémence before she headed back to her home in Paris, and she said, I don’t understand. We informed security. They gave us permission. We walked with Yeb Saño. We held a sign remembering the dead. We’re not allowed to hold these banners for people, for civil society, when there are corporate banners all over this summit? Is this a message, that civil society is not welcome and corporations are? These are invaluable voices.
And that’s why we need a media that is independent. So that when we cover war, it’s not brought to us by the weapons manufacturers. So that when we cover climate change, it’s not brought to us by the oil, the gas, the coal, the nuclear companies. So that when we cover health care, it’s not brought to us by the drug companies and the insurance industry.
Kevin Nelson: Do you think that there’s something particular about Poland hosting the conference that brings out this great corporate influence? Is this something that’s been in the ascendency for years through the COP conferences or is there something unique about Poland that causes the corporate logos to be plastered all over the place?
You’re going to have to tell me that, since you are living here in Poland. But I can say that within the European community, Poland has always been an obstacle to any kind of consensus around caps on carbon emissions. It is fierce in its reliance on coal. Although when I say that, I don’t mean the Polish people. I’m also very careful to make that distinction in the United States. When the US goes to war in Iraq, it doesn’t mean that the majority of people want to go to war in Iraq. And I know that the surveys show that in Poland more and more people want increasing reliance on renewable energy. Could you imagine if the media reflected that all the time? The media can say that people aren’t interested in these issues, but if they don’t present the options, how can we begin to debate and discuss them?
In the United States, people turn on television and radio to watch the weather report all the time. We have extreme weather in the United States. We have forest fires. We have droughts. We have thousand-year floods. On these weather reports, you have what’s called the lower third on television, which is the words on the bottom of the screen, and they say “Severe Weather” or “Extreme Weather.” What about another two words? “Climate Change.” “Global Warming.” It’s not just about whether you’re going to put on a raincoat. That’s one thing you can do, but we can do something more. This is not just a natural phenomenon. It’s fueled by human beings. When they talk about the Earth being round in the corporate media, they don’t have to have a debate including a representative of the Flat Earth Society who says no, it’s actually flat. But when it comes to climate change, you have the scientist who says that there’s human-induced climate change, who represents more than ninety-five percent of scientific opinion, and then they find some “expert” from an oil funded or a fossil fuel funded think tank like the Heartland Institute. These people are not so bold as to say climate just doesn’t exist; they’ll say, rather, that the science is out. But the science isn’t out! The science is in. The debates in the rest of the world are about what we do about it. How do you make that transition to renewables? What kind of renewables do you use? How can people change their lifestyles? There is good, honest, open debate. But in the United States, the debate is about whether whether this is even an issue.
The reason this can be so easily obscured is because these are disparate weather events. You have forest fires. You have floods. You have extreme heat. You have extreme cold. People don’t naturally make the connection. When we talk about typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it’s called the Philippines, we also talk about climate change. Not just about the emergency aid that they must get. It’s about the aid overall. The reason I was late to this interview is that I had to race over to a news conference which was being held by Todd Stern, who is the head of the US climate change delegation and has been for years, to ask him a question. He’s. We got a hold of a confidential memo that has been published by the Hindu Newspaper in India and the Guardian in Britain, a confidential memo that was sent from John Kerry, the Secretary of State, to the US climate negotiators, around the issue of loss and damage. That is a UN term for what the historically biggest emitters owe to the countries most affected by, most vulnerable to climate change. In this memo, Kerry said that the issue of loss and damage should be framed as blame and liability. They were very concerned that this would become one of the biggest issues of the summit. So I asked Todd Stern about the memo and whether he felt that the United States owes reparations. You know that the United States is the historically largest emitter of greenhouse gases. And he said no, he would not discuss reparations. But it’s just critical to raise the question. We’re not there to comfort those in power. We’re there to hold them accountable.
Jakub Dymek: One of the key words of the conference is vulnerability, not only in the context of the Philippines and physical vulnerability to climate change, but also in Poland and other developing countries, which are experiencing a certain type of political and economical vulnerability. There is a pressure to commit and conform exerted on certain political parties and circles in the government imposed by industry.
I think that the media should play a key role here. It is the great leveler. These corporations have tremendous will and tremendous power over government. The media has to expose that. Not that corporations shouldn’t be represented or shouldn’t be heard in the media. But corporations aren’t people. This is heresy in the United States, where corporations are considered legally to be people. Democracy works by the consent of the real people. Because corporations are so powerful, our role in the media is to challenge those in power and to expose when there are backroom deals made. For example, a report just came out around the attack on Syria, looking at the people who are turned to for comment, the “experts,” on whether the US should strike. This isn’t about your opinion, about whether you’re for or against striking Syria. It’s about who is shaping the opinion. Among those who were interviewed repeatedly was Stephen Hadley, a former George W. Bush administration official, who was identified in that way. These “experts” are always referred to as elder statesmen, like Henry Kissinger. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be interviewed. But they should be honestly interviewed. You see, Stephen Hadley gets tens of thousands of dollars from the weapons manufacturer Raytheon, which makes the missiles that would be used in the strike on Syria. Hadley was very much for it. If the American people knew that this so-called expert would make money if the US attacks Syria, then they would hear what he has to say and weigh it. That’s fine. He can be heard like anyone else. But if you don’t know it, you think he simply doesn’t have a vested interest, that he just feels this is the way to go. We need to have people honestly described. We need experts who are the true experts, who explain what their financial or other interests might be. That’s why we need an independent media. And I think that when people taste it, when they feel the authenticity, when they hear it, when they watch it – there’s no going back. That’s why Democracy Now! has grown so much. A very simple reason for it is that we don’t have the know-nothing pundits on. We show a great diversity of views, experience and people. You’re interested to hear what they have to say. Not that you agree with them. It’s just fascinating to hear people speaking from their own experience.
Kevin Nelson: This question ties very much into what you’re saying about the role of the independent media. Clearly you consider Democracy Now! to be offering a corrective to the corporate media. I’m wondering if you consider that as having a particular slant, for example a leftist slant because that’s lacking the the corporate media, as representing issues because they’re underrepresented in the other media? Or do you simply view it as this is the truth that needs to be portrayed, and that’s your journalistic motivation?
First of all, I think there are many truths. And I think that labels are breaking down. It’s not about left or right, conservative or liberal. As independent journalists, we have two responsibilities. One is to deconstruct the story that most people have heard, when they’ve heard a story described. In most cases, though, that story probably hasn’t even been told, and it’s our job to go to where the silence is. In either case, our job is to cover stories with the understanding that people may have heard it a different way. We don’t know the answer when we go in to investigate; we have open minds, like any investigative journalist, and we go to explore the truth. I think the mainstream – so-called mainstream media, which I see as the extreme media – are the ones with an agenda. We have to decode the way they describe a story and we have to bring out the voices of people who will tell us what that story is. That might you might have many different versions, which is fine.
Jakub Dymek: One last question about the summit and COP. These negotiations which are, again, between experts and ministries of environmental affairs, between corporations and politicians are also tied to agreements made prior to them, namely those made on the EU level, those between China and America, and between the US and the rest of the world. So to state that this conference is the only and the foremost platform to discuss issues is to neglect the decisions that were made first. Do you feel that the summit should be portrayed as existing in a political framework previously set, organized and discussed, on a level above us, above citizens, and above even individual national agendas?
The summit’s been going on for nineteen years. I think the fact that people are gathered around this unifying issue of climate change here at the conference is very important. There are these very powerful entities that want to affect it, which are there to prevent any kind of regulation – like the coal companies of Poland – or, failing that, to get in on a very lucrative bonanza: if there’s going to be renewable energy, we better get to the center of it, so instead of decentralized windmills there are massive wind farms which General Electric can be a part of, can corner the market on. But whatever the motives are behind them, these conferences also represent a tremendous opportunity. And that’s the risk these corporations take. They have access to the inside but thousands of people come from all over the world and they start networking. There is tremendous power in that, a power these corporations don’t know how to deal with. You never know when the magic moment will come when it comes to social change. But if you’re involved in laying the groundwork, in being a part of these movements, then when it does, you will help to make history. You will determine the future. That’s what’s so exciting about covering movements.
Previously this interview appeared in Polish translation on PKrytyka polityczna’s Opinion Daily, and can be read here. Photo by Tony Webster, cc, flickr.com
The conversation took place during United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP19) held in Warsaw, Poland between November 11-22nd 2013.