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February 28, 2005

Independent media essential to democracy, says Amy Goodman

By Jennifer McNulty

In a scathing indictment of U.S. media, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman discussed the importance of independent, corporate-free media and the role it plays in democracy before a spellbound capacity crowd last week.

Photo of Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman was honored by College Ten for her “outstanding commitment to preserving the integrity of journalism.”
Photo: Matt Fitt

“The media is absolutely essential to the functioning of a democracy,” said Goodman. “It’s not our job to cozy up to power. We’re supposed to be the check and balance on government.”

Calling on U.S. media outlets to provide honest coverage of the war in Iraq, including footage of Iraqi civilian casualties, Goodman said she is confident that Americans would oppose the war if they saw the images that are being broadcast and published by overseas media companies.

“I don’t like the whole reality-TV craze, but I think we need some reality TV when it comes to war,” said Goodman, coauthor of the best-selling book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media Who Love Them.

President Bush’s executive order forbidding the publication of photographs of flag-draped coffins of U.S. military casualties is a reminder that administration officials “know the power of the image,” said Goodman. “But it is not the job of the media to sanitize war.”

Goodman’s lecture was presented by the UCSC Alumni Association and College Ten as part of the UCSC Distinguished Visiting Professor Series.

Several hundred people filled the Colleges Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room for the event, during which Goodman was presented with College Ten’s first Ruben Salazar Journalism Award for her “outstanding commitment to preserving the integrity of journalism.”

Salazar, a pioneering Latino journalist, was killed by a sheriff’s tear-gas projectile during an anti-Vietnam War protest in East Los Angeles in 1970. An in-progress documentary about Salazar by UCSC undergraduates Leilani Montes and Victoria Fong, which was screened as part of the event, received high praise from Goodman, who told the filmmakers, “What a future you have ahead of you.”

Goodman began her career in community radio in 1985 and helped launch Democracy Now! in 1996. The program has helped make Pacifica Radio the largest community media collaboration in the country and built its global audience.

Independent media is important because it presents diverse points of view and gives voice to the powerless, said Goodman. By contrast, she said, corporate-backed media in this country “silenced the majority” during the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“Most people opposed this invasion, and not just those in the peace movement,” said Goodman, referring to opposition at the “highest levels” of the country. “But you wouldn’t know it from watching television.”

Goodman singled out the New York Times, which she said sets the agenda for corporate-owned media nationwide, for failing to report critically on the claims of the Bush administration before the war. The paper’s impact is evident in the majority of Americans who still believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “Americans aren’t stupid, but if they watch television or read the papers, this is what they were told,” she said.

The media’s failure to present diverse voices contributes to the vilification of entire populations, which Goodman said was evident in the abuses that took place in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison. “Young people growing up in this country don’t hear different voices, which makes it so much easier to vilify them,” she said. “Whole populations are demonized, which is why it’s absolutely critical that we hear them talking.”

Even as she called for better coverage, Goodman detailed the unprecedented dangers facing journalists. On April 8, 2003, U.S. military forces in Baghdad killed three journalists and injured several others during three separate attacks that appeared to target reporters, said Goodman. Military officials claimed the attacks were in response to enemy fire, and CNN commentator Wesley Clark said the journalists had been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But overseas media responded very differently, with hundreds of journalists in Spain memorializing their fallen colleague by turning their backs on the prime minister in Parliament and “refusing to take down the words of the powerful.” Later, gathering outside the U.S. Embassy, they laid down their pens, cameras, and video cameras, entered the intersection to stop traffic, and pointed to the embassy building, yelling, “Murderer!”

Calling the media the “most powerful institution on Earth,” Goodman said, “We have to protect all journalists, and journalists have to be allowed to do their jobs.”

Goodman knows from personal experience the dangers facing journalists who choose to cover wars and high-stakes conflicts. In 1991, while in the Indonesian province of Timor to report on an investigation of human rights abuses by the Indonesian military, she was eyewitness to the massacre of 270 people by soldiers using arms supplied by the United States. Barely escaping, Goodman continued to follow events in the region, and she covered the independence of East Timor in 2002.

“This nation of survivors had prevailed,” she said, recalling the celebration on May 20, 2002. “They had resisted and won, but at an unbelievably high price.”

Because the United States is a major weapons producer, Americans have a daily responsibility to shape their country’s foreign policy, said Goodman.

“We are the most powerful country on Earth, and I believe we represent two things: the sword and the shield,” she said. “The shield is the American people. People around the world rely on us to turn those guns away from them. Every hour of every day, whether a journalist or a student, a professor or a librarian… employed or unemployed, we have a decision to make every hour of every day, and that’s whether to represent the sword or the shield.”

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