REVIEW: Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman Reflects on 20 Years of Speaking Truth to Power

Democracy Now! : Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America By Amy Goodman, with David Goodman and Denis Moynihan Simon & Schuster   384 pp.

By Jim Swearingen

In the film, Deadline, U.S.A., big city newspaper editor Humphrey Bogart snarls at a menacing local hood—whose misdeeds are about to make the front page—“That’s the press, baby! The press! And there’s nothing you can do to stop it!”

That gritty era of a righteous Fourth Estate daring to keep government and power-brokers honest has past. Now corporate media leviathans, whose interests closely parallel those of the power elite, often seem too lethargic to snoop aggressively on corruption and injustice.

Enter Amy Goodman and the investigative team of the independent radio and television show — and now, brand new book, Democracy Now! — to bring back some good, old-fashioned muckraking news stories that probe the excesses of the powerful and chronicle the perennial struggle of citizen activism for a decent quality of life.

Democracy Now!, the book — which Goodman wrote with her brother, the journalist David Goodman, and longtime collaborator Dennis Moynihan — covers 10 major news stories including the War on Terror, the Obama administration’s deportation of undocumented immigrants, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and the government’s domestic surveillance program. What sets Democracy Now! apart from the big media coverage of these stories is Goodman’s focus on abuses of power by decision-makers and the grassroots organizing to combat them.

That is the approach Goodman has long taken on the Democracy Now! broadcast, which began in 1995 as a daily one-hour radio show covering the 1996 Presidential election. Ever since Bill Clinton won his second term, the program has continued covering a wide array of issues and stories that the major news networks scarcely mention. Goodman’s work makes one long for a more righteous era of broadcast news before major media outlets collaborated in ridiculing a fledgling Wall Street protest movement and raising a xenophobic misogynist to the brink of the Republican presidential nomination.

In the book Democracy Now!, Goodman and her co-authors illustrate in chapter after chapter that the oppressed walk among us and that radicalism is not rooted in protests or boycotts, but in the injustices that spark those populist responses. Though that theme runs through the entire book, each of the chapters stands alone as an in-depth report on a major issue that popular news shows only cover in slapdash fashion, if at all. The book is also full of Goodman and company’s harrowing adventures in pursuit of the news, and fascinating new details on some well-worn news stories. Where much of cable news seems to happen in a briefing room or outside a network van, the Democracy Now! crew hotfoots it to the epicenters of crises and conflicts all over the globe. Goodman makes journalism exciting and glamorous again. 

After reading Democracy Now!, the reader can easily come away thinking of Big Media as an entity like the Big Banks or Big Pharma—a behemoth with little concern for income inequality or the health care needs of the poor, the elderly, or the middle class except as a means to gaining viewer market share. With Big Media under the control of corporate bean counters, and beholden to corporate advertising, programming and editorial decisions are made with an eye to ratings and sponsors.

The little guy just isn’t sexy—or profitable—anymore.   “Speaking truth to power” has, unfortunately, become an advertising cliché, an edgy tag line co-opted by corporate media outlets to stir viewers’ emotions as they carefully tailor their programming and coiffe their pundits according to viewer ratings. Democracy Now! reanimates that misappropriated line with new urgency. Goodman tracks the ebbs and flows of popular political movements deliberately overlooked by the news empires.

But for Democracy Now! stories such as the execution of protestors in East Timor by government troops representing a U.S.-backed regime, or the deliberate assassination of Iraqi civilians by American ground forces during a tactical strike, or the atrocious conditions in for-profit, pre-deportation detention centers, all might go unreported in the U.S. 

Goodman makes a persuasive case that the real radicals in our society are not protestors — or hard-driving journalists like her and her team — but large portions of the so-called political mainstream.  What is radical, as Democracy Now! makes clear, is advocating the jailing of whistleblowers on U.S. government surveillance, the extraction of fossil fuels in the face of catastrophic climate change, the rash of violence toward gay and transgendered Americans, and the waging of “necessary” wars that kill more civilians than armed aggressors — to mention just a few of the examples Goodman cites.

Democracy Now! is also, inevitably, a form of media criticism.  The founders established the right of a free press as a check on corruption and abuse of power. But as Goodman asserts, the press has morphed into a subdivision of the corporate entertainment industry. Thus, the demand for hard news that challenges the assertions of those in power has waned significantly.  Goodman argues that once the news industry became complicit in corporate and government abuses of power, there was no free press left to tell those important stories. She takes several prominent mainstream news personalities to task for their flimsy journalism and for giving cover to the interests of the powerful against grassroots citizen activism.

While Goodman, at times, becomes part of her own storyline—as when she grabs the microphone at a convention of the American Psychological Association to call out its collaboration with the Defense Department’s torture program—she consistently does so to further the aims of her reporting. The APA stunt actually prevents her broadcast team from being thrown out of the convention when the membership protests their own leadership’s actions, both toward Guantanamo prisoners enduring enhanced interrogations and toward Democracy Now!’s endeavoring to cover the cover-up.

Goodman is no stranger to the instruments of power being used to quell free speech and stifle democratic action. On more than a few occasions police officers and security guards have detained her and members of her team or ripped out communication cables to prevent them from broadcasting.  She has been arrested, detained, threatened, held at gunpoint, and physically assaulted while attempting to get scoops for her audience.  

Goodman goes through all of this not out of bravado, but out of an unswerving commitment to pursuing the truth.  “Journalists are supposed to be the check and balance on power, not win popularity contests,” she insists.  “We need to hear these silenced voices. That is the power of independent media: to give voice to the voiceless; to those who have been shut out of the debate.”

Democracy Now! presents the voices of people prevented from earning livable wages, fired for organizing for labor rights, incarcerated unjustly, bombed illegally, discriminated against, foreclosed on, spied upon, disenfranchised and deported. They call us to the better angels of our democracy. Amy Goodman asserts that the problems of little people do amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world after all. And there’s nothing you can do to stop her!

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.