Amy Goodman's 'Empire'
Amy Goodman didn't know if anyone was listening.
It was the morning of September 11, 2001, and the host of the muckraking radio news program Democracy Now! was broadcasting from her studio in a converted firehouse just blocks from the World Trade Center. She was hunched over her microphone, intent on painting an audio portrait of the "horrific scene of explosions and fires," but the truth was she didn't know if anyone could hear her. The phone lines were dead or temporarily blocked, and she had already overshot her slated hourlong broadcast time. More serious, she had recently been banished from her professional home at Pacifica Radio after a hostile internal shake-up, and she was only being aired by twenty or so affiliate stations.
Still, as the neighboring businesses evacuated into the streets, Goodman decided to go on talking. She kept the lines open and the microphones hot, throwing her voice into the radio murk in case any stations chose to pick up the feed. "We are not going to draw any conclusions at this point, just reporting the information of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center buildings, the plane crashing into the Pentagon, a fire at the Pentagon right now," Goodman said in her grainy alto, at the beginning of what would become an eight-hour marathon broadcast that was eventually picked up by KPFA, the one Pacifica station still airing her broadcasts. And then, shortly after 10 am, she announced: "It looks like the south tower of the World Trade Center has collapsed..."
Three and a half years and two wars later, Goodman is still talking into her microphone, reporting on the big and small crises of the day. She is still broadcasting from the firehouse studio, still sending her war-and-peace reports into the media ether, except that these days when the engineer flips the switch on her microphone, she can expect hundreds of thousands of listeners to tune in.
In the years since 9/11, Democracy Now! has shape-shifted from a popular niche radio program broadcast on some twenty-five independent stations to a multimedia institution beamed each day to some 330 community radio and television stations (it has also returned to Pacifica). The skeletal four-person crew has ballooned to twenty-seven full- and part-time staff, including seven radio and TV producers, two outreach organizers and, yes, a professional archivist. And the drafty garret studio has been abandoned for a larger space on the first floor of the firehouse, which will soon be abandoned for yet another, larger firehouse studio. On any given day, the Democracy Now! website logs a solid 50,000 visits. "It's the lifeline for a lot of people," says professor and media critic Robert McChesney. "I think it's probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time."
The story of how Democracy Now! transformed itself from a scrappy daily radio program into an independent media empire (OK, maybe not an empire, maybe more of an emerging nation) is in some ways the larger story of progressive media during the Bush years: extremist President concocts bogus war, quashes dissent, then "embeds" the mainstream media, creating a news crisis that sends the information-starved citizenry fleeing to the indie frontiers for sustenance. But in many ways the story of Democracy Now! is its own twisty narrative, which progressives will be analyzing, emulating and debating as they attempt to build a robust alternative media landscape.
Goodman herself lays the credit--or blame--for the program's success squarely at the well-rested feet of the mainstream newsmakers who, she said, leave "a huge niche" for Democracy Now! "They just mine this small circle of blowhards who know so little about so much. And yet it's just the basic tenets of good journalism that instead of this small circle of pundits, you talk to people who live at the target end of the policy," she says as she sips double espresso in a favorite Chinatown coffee shop. Dressed in her customary black vest and cargo pants, her wispy gray-brown hair hanging to her shoulders, she looks like a journalist in combat mode, as if she's just come off the war-beat in Baghdad. "I think the Bush Administration not finding weapons of mass destruction laid bare more than the Bush Administration," she adds. "It laid bare media that act as a conveyer belt for the lies of the Administration. You know governments are going to lie, but not the media. So I think people started to seek out other forms of information."
Goodman certainly has a point. But the story of Democracy Now! goes beyond the traditional voice-in-the-wilderness thesis. That's certainly part of it, but it's also a story about the unsung slog and labor of "doing" independent media: about organizing and movement-building and an unusual cross-media collaboration that Democracy Now! launched shortly after 9/11.
And, of course, it is a story about Goodman, who, at 48, has come to be seen by many on the left as a kind of human megaphone for the collective progressive unconscious. To these supporters, the slight and intense Goodman--whose shows range from on-the-ground testimonials by Iraq War victims to debates on Social Security between Paul Krugman and Michael Tanner--is one of the lone disciples of a fiercely independent, muckraking brand of journalism practiced by I.F. Stone and George Seldes, Upton Sinclair and Seymour Hersh. "What Amy's doing is trying to recreate a democratic society where you have varied, independent perspectives on the world," says MIT professor and political activist Noam Chomsky.