Take Back The Media - An Interview with Amy Goodman

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By Nina Branner

“I think the media can be the greatest force for peace on earth”. The prize-winning American journalist Amy Goodman founded the independent, journalistic medium Democracy Now! in 1996 as an alternative to the established newspapers and TV-stations in the U.S. In November 2017 she told the audience at her lecture in Berlin how American media is used as weapons of war and why independent journalism is more necessary than ever. 

Climate change and war are among the biggest challenges of our time. Challenges which the world’s most powerful nation, the United States, has a great responsibility to take seriously. But it is far from doing that, says the activist journalist Amy Goodman who over the past 20 years has enjoyed cult status among not only American critics of the country’s “establishment” but also with millions of followers all over the world. 

With Democracy Now! Goodman has travelled both the States and the world to give voice to all the people who are affected by America’s politics. And that is not so few. 

When Goodman says “the establishment”, she refers to the political elite whether it bears the face of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And to the mainstream media who, in her opinion, is to a great extent to blame for the fact that American people don’t have access to the information which is necessary to take part in democratic society on an equal footing.  

“I want to take you back to the 5th of February 2003, six weeks before the U.S invaded Iraq”, Goodman begins her one and a half hour long harangue for the enthusiastic audience in the Kreuzberg Festsaal in Berlin.

“The then American foreign minister, Colin Powell, held his famous speech in which he pleaded for an invasion of Iraq and said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A speech that would become a nail in the coffin for so many people and which was a decisive turning point because half of the people were against an invasion and half was for”.

“Four of the big American news stations – NBC, CBS, ABC World News Tonight and PBS News Hour – broadcast 293 interviews with war “experts” in the following weeks and only three of these interviews were with anti-war speakers. These media have an enormous power to affect the public opinion and when they are not being objective and critical, they are no longer mainstream media but extreme media who beat the drum for war”. 

Shortly before it was decided that America was to invade Iraq, Goodman took part in a panel debate. It was moderated by the prominent American journalist Bob Schiefer from CBS who also moderates the presidential debates during elections.

“Bob Schiefer is a journalist who takes pride in moderating discussions for ‘the people’, and he himself had done many of the interviews about war at this time. I asked him why he had not included more different opinions in the debate. He was sincerely surprised and said: ‘I don’t understand your point. The foreign minister just held a speech and then you want me to do interviews with anti-war speakers?’ implying that it was unthinkable to contradict Powell,” says Goodman. 

“As we know now, the American politicians’ assumption that Iraq should have weapons of mass destruction turned out to be an extremely distorted interpretation of a report by the intelligence agency which had been composed five months before the invasion – and in which reservations about an invasion were expressed. In the weeks after Powel’s speech none of the journalists from the big American news channels questioned his claim,” says Goodman.

“The media’s job is to hold those in power accountable for what they say and do. Especially in war times. To dig deep and dig up facts, to not be partial but to be a separate part of the public debate. In America we don’t have state-owned media, but if we did it wouldn’t be any different than it is now”. 

The Indians at Standing Rock

Photo Credits: Democracy Now!

Democracy Now! Is financed solely by donations from listeners and viewers. With a daily news program sent live to over 1,400 TV and radio stations and its own website, Goodman and her colleagues give speaking time to the civilian population from the world’s political hot spots. Goodman has won several prizes, including the “alternative Nobel prize”, the Gandhi Peace prize and The Robert F. Kennedy Prize for “international reporting”.

As a host on Democracy Now! she has reported about  civilian fight for independence in East Timor and the American energy and oil company Chevron Corporation’s influence on Nigerian society. 

One of the events that has made the biggest impression on her is the protest in the American Indian reserve, Standing Rock, in North Dakota, says Goodman. Here, a 1,900 kilometre long pipeline is planned to  transport 470,000 barrels of oil from the North-West of Dakota to the South every day. For more than a year and a half, the natives have defended their right to clean drinking water. 

“It was in the middle of the presidential election where there is generally more media coverage, but we were the only ones reporting from Standing Rock. During the election campaign between Trump and Clinton not a single one of the journalists who moderate the presidential debates asked about the candidates plans when it comes to climate change – and Standing Rock wasn’t mentioned. So we went there and what we saw was both horrifying and enlivening. Enlivening because we saw people who were engaged in a peaceful resistance movement. Women, men, little girls and boys marched up and down the streets of North Dakota with water glasses in their hands and called themselves “water protectors”. We filmed when the guards, who worked for the pipeline, let fierce dogs loose on the American Indians and let them bite their arms and legs, but they didn’t yield. This resistance is fantastic, and it is our responsibility to give these people a microphone in the hand and hear what it is, they are risking themselves for,” Goodman says. 

We have to talk about the climate change

Since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, he has declared the war on the media and often labels journalism “fake news”, whether talking about “corporate media” or independent media like Democracy Now!. Goodman considers that contra productive for Trump himself because he “wouldn’t find a better friend” than the established media if he stopped vilifying them. 

But because he constantly has the media in the crosshairs, also the mainstream media have started to resist and to be more critical – except when it comes to two topics, says Goodman: Climate change and war. 

“A couple of weeks into his presidency Trump dropped the biggest bomb ever in Afghanistan – the MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs), which neither Bush nor Obama had dared to put into use. It took Trump just a few weeks to do it. That night I turned on the TV on MSNBC, the most progressive of the big TV channels. The Pentagon had given them the video material and invited their journalists to cover the war together with the soldiers. But how do you think they are going to cover war when they are invited by the government itself and eat, sleep and live with the American soldiers?”

Also when it comes to climate change, the American media are extremely bad at reporting objectively, says Goodman. 

“Some might say that the media are fair: They do acknowledge that people contribute to climate change – 95 % of the scientists say that. But in the U.S climate change gets discussed on TV way to rarely. We need the meteorologists on TV to talk openly about the connection between all the terrible weather catastrophes that we experience and climate change, global warming. We have to have those who the most people see on television everyday showing that all of these events are connected”.  

Despite some busy days covering the COP 23 climate summit in Bonn, Goodman is in good shape at the lecture in Festsaal Kreuzberg. Since Trump chose to pull America out of the 2015  Paris deal more and more people have stepped forward and are fighting for more sustainable climate politics, she reveals. 

Together with a team of journalists from Democracy Now! she just returned from the Hambacher forest, a big forest area which is to be cleared to give place for Germany’s biggest lignite coal mine - just a few kilometres from where the climate summit was held. Here she interviewed a group of activists who for five years have fought to save the forest. 

“For me journalism knows no limits. It reaches out to the entire world, to voices all over the planet. Journalism is to create a platform for global voices, to allow people to speak for themselves. When you hear people speak from their own experience, it changes you. I’m not saying that you have to agree with the person you’re talking to – how often do you even agree with your own family members? But you begin to understand where people are coming from, and that understanding is the beginning of peace. I think that the media can be the biggest force for peace on earth, but way to often it is used as a war weapon. And that is why we have to take the media back”.