On the road with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman

As the widely syndicated U.S. radio show marks 20 years, its tireless host chats with OpenCanada’s Krista Hessey on the impact of U.S. foreign policy, the role of the media and the continued growth of her news program. 

By: /
July 12, 2016
Amy Goodman speaks with The Globe and Mail's David Walmsley at a talk in Toronto. Chris Young/CJF

The sun had just begun to bleed over the Toronto skyline. It was barely 6 a.m. Amy Goodman — the venerable, leftist American radio host of Democracy Now! — was in CBC’s studios on Front Street, preparing for the day’s broadcast that would eventually reach her show’s millions of listeners around the world. 

Toronto was the seventieth stop on a 100-city speaking tour across North America in celebration of Democracy Now!’s twentieth anniversary. While Goodman usually gave a talk in the evening in each respective city, each morning she would continue to host the program from a broadcast centre on the road.

In the studio that Friday in May, Goodman was reading over the morning’s headlines: Idle No More’s occupation of the government’s Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology for Canada turning away the Komagata Maru ship more than 100 years ago, a debate over the assisted dying bill and Trudeau’s physical altercation in the House of Commons, aptly coined Elbowgate.

Trudeau’s apologies the previous day for both Komagata Maru and then Elbowgate sparked some confusion in the control room. “When was the first apology?” Goodman asked from the stage, which normally hosts CBC flagship show, The National. “Then he apologized again?” 

Despite a minor cross-border tech issue, the broadcast went off without a hitch. After all, Goodman and her team have been doing this awhile.

It was in December 1995 when Goodman received a call from a colleague at the Pacifica Radio network in New York, offering her a job hosting a daily radio show covering the upcoming U.S. elections.

At the time she was in an underground safe house in Haiti interviewing members of political parties during the presidential elections there. Political violence had consumed the island since 1991 when a U.S.-backed coup ousted democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and left thousands of Haitians dead, as Goodman recalls in her most recent book, Democracy Now! Twenty Years of Covering the Movements Changing America. 

It was the juxtaposition between these two elections — with Haitians risking their safety to take part in the political system and a voter turnout waning in the U.S., at the cost of democracy — that served as a catalyst of Goodman’s curiosity. “If they weren’t voting [in the U.S.], what were they doing?” she wondered.

She accepted the position and returned to the United States shortly thereafter, thinking the job would be temporary. “We’ll spend nine months [covering the U.S. election] and the day after we’ll pack up,” she recalled to a full house hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation the night before Democracy Now!’s Toronto broadcast.

Goodman never packed up, of course. There was a “hunger for independent voices” after the election, she said. That hunger that has yet to cease, and now, two decades later, Goodman and the Democracy Now! team continue to champion the efforts of grassroots organizations in their fight for justice. 

Democracy Now! first went to air in February 1996 on nine community radio stations in the United States. Today, it is online and broadcast on over 1,400 public television and radio stations around the world. Democracy Now! Twenty Years of Covering the Movements Changing America, which Goodman co-authored with her brother David and producer Denis Moynihan, chronicles the years she has spent reporting on countless social movements. From the Battle of Seattle in 1999 to the 2014 riots in Ferguson and COP21 in Paris in 2015, Goodman revives memorable interviews as well as personal stories, interwoven with commentary on the current political landscape of the U.S.

Following the show’s broadcast from Toronto earlier this year, OpenCanada’s Krista Hessey sat down with Goodman to discuss the state of foreign coverage, Saudi Arabia’s press impunity, and the future of independent media. 

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Exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is interviewed by Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman while en route to Jamaica on a jet, March 15, 2004. REUTERS/KatherineKean/Democracy Now GAC/SV

How did you get started as a foreign correspondent?

The issues that I cover, in a sense, are a seamless web; from international affairs to critical issues at home, whether we're talking about immigrant rights, or the growing inequality in our country and in the world. There is always a global component. I think it is a false dichotomy to look at what's going on outside the country and what's going on inside the country. We live in a globalized world and I see all of these issues as related. I've always been extremely interested in and curious about the world. As U.S. journalists, we have a special responsibility to cover our country and our country's foreign policy because it has such an influence on the world. 

In your 20 years with Democracy Now!, have you witnessed an evolution of international coverage?

A lot of conventional news outlets shut down their international bureaus and you know, there is nothing more detrimental to the world than not understanding the role we play in the world. Whether I'm covering East Timor or Haiti, Iraq or Afghanistan, we have an enormous influence. We live in a globalized world yet we are so insulated when it comes to getting information ourselves, about the United States and its effect on the world. We have a special responsibility, especially when the U.S. is involved in wars abroad, to show what's happening.

I was once doing a show where I was interviewing a woman from Guyana and at the end of that segment I was ushering in the people for the segment to talk about the U.S. election. So I said, thank you very much for your time and that the segment was done, and she wouldn't get up. I asked, "Why aren't you getting up? These other guest have to sit down to discuss the election," and she said, "Yes, I will be one of those guests." I said," Okay, we didn't work that out. But you're from Guyana, why do you want to comment on the U.S. election?" She said, "Because I believe everyone in the world should get to vote for the president of the United States." It's such an interesting and important challenge because the U.S. has this effect. 

How has Democracy Now! responded to this devolution of international coverage and growing isolationism in the world?

Everything is interconnected. Climate change — that's the perfect example of why we need global coverage. We have to understand the effect of our fossil fuel economy [and how] our dependence on fossil fuels is in no way limited to our borders. Climate change knows no borders. That's why we need a media that knows no borders as well. We need a media that covers our effect far and wide and talks about what's happening on the planet. It's all a seamless web and we have to see the interconnections. To just look at what happens in this country is to deny those connections and it is to deny reality. 

In your book you write about the time when you survived a massacre in East Timor. You write that you believe it was because you were from the country where their guns were made that your life was spared. The attack on you and Allan Nairn brought mass attention to the U.S.-backed invasion and people eventually pressured their governments to stop supplying arms. In Canada, the $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia has received backlash due to the country’s grave human rights records. What responsibility does the Canadian media have with this story?

I can't comment on how the Canadian media covers Saudi Arabia, but I can comment on how the U.S. media covers Saudi Arabia and I suspect it is the same. So often you have our media covering government allies as friends. We have to be separate from the state. Our role is to be the fourth estate, not the for-the-state. We have to cover power, not cover for power. And Saudi Arabia is the perfect example. There is very little critical coverage of Saudi Arabia because our governments are so closely aligned with the regime. If you ask most people in the United States where the majority of the attackers on 9/1l were from I don't think they would say Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 people were from Saudi Arabia. The U.S., like Canada, is making some of the biggest weapons deals in history with the Saudi regime. This is a regime that has been deeply implicated and supportive of Al Qaeda and overall terrorism in the world. Yet, the corporate media hardly talks about this. It is a weapons boondoggle, it is a bonanza for the weapons manufacturers, but it is a catastrophe for peace in the world. And we need a media that is honest.

"We have to be separate from the state. Our role is to be the fourth estate, not the for-the-state. We have to cover power, not cover for power."

Do you expect to witness non-profit, independent media becoming more popular in the future and why is it necessary now more than ever?

To have an independent, non-profit media is crucial to covering the world. When we cover war and peace we are not brought to you by weapons manufacturers. When we cover health care, we're not brought to you by the insurance industry or drug companies. When we cover climate change, we are not brought to you by the oil, the gas, the coal, the nuclear companies. We're brought to you by the listeners, the viewers, the readers who are deeply committed to an independent media. 

Do you see the audience growing?

It is astounding how fast it is growing. Both online and stations picking us up around the world, we began 20 years ago on nine community radio stations, we're now broadcasting on over 1,400 television and radio stations. A station a week is picking us up. And of course online, it is millions of people. We're a very content-rich website, also we transcribe every interview, every show that we do. We also translate our headlines in Spanish because the Spanish-language media is also the victim of media consolidation. It is really important we get out independent information.

What worries you the most about the coverage you are witnessing right now in the U.S. or globally?

It is the way the establishment media aligns itself with the establishment. Shores up the establishment. Almost sort of circles the wagons around the establishment and the government. That's not our role. It is absolutely essential we are apart from the parties; that we hold those in power accountable. There is a reason why in the United States that our profession of journalism is the only one explicitly protected by the U.S. constitution – because we are supposed to be the check and balance on power. My brother and I wrote a book called Static and the reason we called it that is because even in this high-tech, digital age, with HD television, digital radio, still all we get is static. That veil of distortion and lies and misrepresentations and half-truths that obscure reality when what we need the media to give us is the dictionary definition of static: criticism, opposition, unwanted interference. Ultimately, we need a media that covers the movements that creates static and makes history. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.