'Access of Evil'

Depending on your own brand of politics, you either view Amy Goodman as a crusader, a kook, a nuisance, a threat, or a hero. But one thing is almost irrefutable: she has courage. In nearly 10 years as the controversial host of the liberal Pacifica Radio network's "Democracy Now!" program, Goodman has witnessed (and narrowly escaped) a massacre in East Timor, been threatened by Nigeria's "kill 'n' go" military police while trespassing on Chevron's oil fields and reported for several straight days from ground zero after the September 11 attacks.

Now, with her new book "Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media that Love Them" (Hyperion), she is going toe-to-toe with the Bush administration and mainstream media. She has written the book, she tells NEWSWEEK, because, "the media has reached an all-time low. The lies take lives. 'Exception to the rulers' should be the motto of every news organization." She describes what she calls the "disinformation two-step," in which an administration "leaks" information to reporters, after which those officials refer to the published accounts to bolster their assertions. Sound dubious? If the reaction she and her co-author--her brother, David Goodman--have gotten on their 70-city book tour is any indication, they're not the only ones who feel this way: More than 1,000 people came out to hear her speak in New York City and in California at Fresno, Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. More than 2,000 people came out to her book signing in Los Angeles, which doubled as Pacifica's 55th birthday party and fundraiser.

As Big Media goes ever more corporate, says Goodman, the public hungers for independent outlets. Her program may be proof of that: "Democracy Now!" has grown astronomically in a short period. Two years ago it was on several dozen community radio stations. Today, it can be heard and seen on more than 225 Pacifica Radio stations and affiliates, including a few National Public Radio stations and public access television. Goodman spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about what she sees as the corruption of mainstream media. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Thank you for talking to someone in the mainstream media.

Amy Goodman: [Laughs] I do it all the time. I'm going on Fox tomorrow [April 23].

You're in St. Louis right now. How is your book tour going?

The response is so strong. It is astounding, the hunger for independent voices [in the media] right now. That small group of pundits that we see in network after network who know so little about so much now have been fully exposed. With not finding the weapons of mass destruction, you have these pundits wringing their hands [saying] "How did we get it so wrong?" Well, why not invite into the studio someone who did get it right, who questioned the credibility [of the intelligence about Iraq] more than a year ago? More importantly, why weren't they invited in more than a year ago? We're not talking about this shocking revelation that no one could have predicted. Many people outside of and inside the establishment were saying it wasn't true. They were just marginalized by the press.

I do recall reading in mainstream media dissenting voices along the road to war.

I am sure you will find examples. But the question is, "What is the drumbeat coverage? What is the headline coverage? Who's being interviewed on the front pages of the newspapers of the day?" Or, is there a reference on an inner page in an inside story that says, 'there is some dissenting opinion, however; some weapons inspectors are questioning whether they are really there...' in the 28th paragraph? One can always find that, but what sinks into the consciousness are the headline stories. If you have a media that is mainly there as a megaphone for those in power--the president, the vice president, the secretary of State--constantly hammering away at weapons of mass destruction with the occasional--and I mean occasional--question, that is what sinks into people's consciousness. And that's why it's so shocking when things aren't found later.

This is the 'disinformation two-step' you mention in your book?

Yeah. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watch group in New York, did this study in the week leading up to [Secretary of State] Colin Powell giving his address in the U.N. [in Feb. 2003], his push for war, and the week afterwards. They looked at the four major nightly newscasts--CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer--and of the 393 interviews done around war, three were with anti-war representatives. Three of almost 400! This is a media beating the drum for war. This at a time of the week leading up to the largest mass global protest in history, [on] Feb. 15 [last year]. This at a time when at least half the people in this country were saying 'no' to the invasion, were saying "at least give more time to diplomacy and inspections." You have a media completely out of step with mainstream America, a media that has its own point of view, that is pushing it forward and what they're doing is simply acting as spokespeople for the administration--and that's unforgivable.

I know a lot of reporters, and every last one of them would quit before letting some outside source dictate the news to them.

I'm not sure what you mean by "outside interests dictate." The question is, why would you have that case where on four major nightly newscasts--with all of the questions that people had in this country, tremendous skepticism and all of the evidence that suggested otherwise-[only] three of almost 400 interviews with anti-war representatives? Outright censorship, where someone says, "You will not do this because we don't want to have this view,"--that rarely occurs. It is much more an atmosphere of self-censorship. What are the stories that you propose that will most [get] you ahead and what are sort of looked at askance? I don't think it's obvious.

In your book, you fault the media for asking softball questions in return for access to those in power.

Right. We call it the 'access of evil': Trading truth for access.

Have you ever felt or heard that your outspokenness has cost you access to anyone?

Journalists being outspoken--that's not very rare in this country. I can tell you what most journalists think because they're on television. If you're saying the fact that I am critical of the administration costs me access versus those reporters that grandstand for the administration and they get the leaks, I have to question their role as journalists. That's what we see on television on a regular basis now....You can either give validity to a dissenting point of view or you can shunt it aside. Unfortunately the media, which I do believe should be a sanctuary for dissent, should be a forum for the full diversity of views, just beats the drums for war. That's a serious abdication of our responsibility.

At what point does the line blur, or should it be blurred, between this vision of journalism and advocacy or activism?

In terms of advocacy, establishment media are the model, advocating for war day after day. I think the issue is being fair and accurate. I think it's fine to know a journalist's point of view, but they have to be fair and accurate and bring you the full diversity of opinion.

The president was getting some pretty tough questions at his most recent press conference.

I think what matters is last year, on the eve of the war, [at] the president's news conference, he hardly got any tough questions. I think how the press works is it reflects the establishment consensus. Let's not forget [Democratic senators] John Kerry, John Edwards--they voted for war. The Democrats joined with the Republicans in voting for war, so the establishment media followed suit. They closed ranks, hardly providing any forum for dissenting views. This year is different. This year is an election year and the Democrats are trying to distinguish themselves from the Republicans. Yes, they are criticizing Bush [about] the invasion. And the media reflects the Democratic-Republican spectrum. Very often it's so narrow as to be almost nonexistent and the media presents an almost monolithic view. Then there are times like now, that there's an opening, and so you do see more debate reflected.

In your opinion, why is it there are so many right-wing radio hosts, but something like Air America really has to struggle to get off the ground. Is there not a market for it?

I think that the airwaves largely reflect the views of their owners. You have, for example, Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations. The Bush-connected networks have benefited enormously from the change of laws [facilitating] media consolidations.