Amy Goodman's 'Empire'
It was 1984, and Goodman had just graduated from Harvard with a degree in anthropology. She was living with her parents on Long Island, contemplating graduate school in biochemistry, when she happened to station-surf across WBAI. "I was just completely shocked by this place I stumbled on," she recalls. "It was just raw. It was all the beauty and horror that is New York in all of its myriad accents. And I said, What is this place?"
Not long after, Goodman landed an apprenticeship at the station. She started out making documentaries, then moved to covering local news stories, and two years later she was running the WBAI newsroom."For the first couple of years, Amy was the person I learned everything from," says independent radio producer David Isay, who got his start in 1987 when Goodman encouraged him to produce his first radio piece and who went on to win a MacArthur "genius" award. "She was fired up. We would stay up all night working on stories. She was basically exactly the same as she is now."
Goodman grew up in the cozy middle-class suburb of Bay Shore in a tight-knit, progressive-intellectual family. Her father was an ophthalmologist who helped found the Long Island chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility; her mother was a social worker and teacher of women's literature and history who also founded the local SANE/FREEZE group. "I think [my politics] come originally from my parents' concern about social justice," says Goodman, "and I think also from learning about the Holocaust as I was growing up, with so many family members who died. I took to heart that slogan, 'never again,' for everyone."
While Goodman says she's "generally a shy person," she's made her career, at least in part, on hand-to-hand verbal combat, throwing rhetorical left-hooks at everyone from former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey to Newt Gingrich, of whom she demanded in 1994: "Why haven't you apologized to American women for calling [the First Lady] a bitch?" Her most notorious run-in, however, was with President Clinton, who called in to WBAI on Election Day 2000 as part of a get-out-the-vote push for Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. The President had no doubt been expecting the usual brief and chatty star treatment, but instead he got a thirty-minute grilling about NAFTA, the death penalty and sanctions against Iraq, among other topics. "Now let me...now, wait a minute," he finally spluttered. "You started this, and every question you've asked has been hostile and combative..."
Responded Goodman, "They've been critical questions."
For Democracy Now! fans, this episode ranks among the all-time greats, the indie-news equivalent of the M*A*S*H finale. But for Goodman the most "pivotal" story of her career was the story of East Timor, the small island nation north of Australia that was invaded by the Indonesian military in 1975--with an approving nod from Washington. Few reporters cared, or dared, to go there, but in 1990 Goodman headed over with fellow journalist Allan Nairn because, she said, journalists should cover what it means to be "at the target end" of US foreign policy.
In November 1991, during a second trip, she and Nairn were nearly killed in a massacre of at least 271 Timorese. It was, Goodman said, the most horrifying moment of her life. "To be there as these soldiers opened fire on innocent people and gunned them down, and ultimately understanding there was nothing we could do to stop it, that it was only getting word out that could make a difference..." she says, trailing off.
For Goodman, the Santa Cruz Massacre, as it came to be known, became the signal example of "going where the silence is," and in many ways the last thirteen years of her career can be tied to that moment, when the abstract horror of war became real for her. When she returned home, Goodman linked up with Timorese activists and their allies, and set about trying to tell the story to both mainstream and independent media. Some critics took issue with this activist style of journalism, but it won her praise in other quarters. What happened in East Timor "probably comes as close to genocide as anything in the late twentieth century...but it was impossible to get anyone to hear about it," says Chomsky. "Amy brought it to public attention."