At Democracy Now! Amy Goodman goes “where the silence is.”
With 20 years of hindsight, to many the U.S. war in Afghanistan looks tragically ill-conceived. But in the wake of 9/11, critics of the invasion, when they were heard at all, were regarded as naïve, even un-American. Amy Goodman ’84, host of the independent TV and radio news hour Democracy Now!, was one of the earliest journalists to focus on the human toll of the war. In January 2002, the show hosted a dialogue between Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American woman whose family members had recently been killed by U.S. bombing, and Rita Lasar, an anti-war activist who lost her brother in the 9/11 attacks. President George W. Bush invoked her brother’s heroism—he had stayed in the World Trade Center to help his quadriplegic friend—in a speech given after the attacks. “Rita Lasar realized at that moment her brother would be used to justify an attack on Afghanistan,” Goodman recalls. “And she said, ‘Not in my name. Not in my brother’s name.’” The interview was one of the most memorable—and prophetic—moments in Democracy Now’s history, and it reflects what Goodman sees as media’s highest purpose. “It’s that kind of dialogue that will save the world,” she insists.
In 2021, the idea of a live daily news show might seem old-fashioned. But Democracy Now!, a scrappy, donor-supported media organization that Goodman has led for 25 years, continues to feel current—even with its dated graphic design and retro funk-rock theme music, unchanged since the nineties. Goodman’s vision has remained the same: “I see the media as a huge kitchen table that stretches across the globe, that we all sit around and debate and discuss the most important issues of the day,” she says. “War and peace, life and death. Anything less than that is a disservice to a democratic society.”
Photograph by Reed Brody
Democracy Now’s growth has been fueled by her instinct for under-covered stories of national importance. In 2016, she reported from the Dakota Access oil pipeline protests in North Dakota, helping put them on the national agenda. “There are a lot of people who work in the mainstream media who are listening and watching Democracy Now!,” says journalist Maria Hinojosa, who hosts the radio program Latino USA. “And then they take those stories and make them into national stories.” The show has often been called a progressive news program, but Goodman shies away from ideological labels, preferring to call it “corporate-free” and “people-sponsored.” “Hearing people speak for themselves,” she says, “there’s just nothing more powerful.” Her journalistic precept, which she champions at every interview and public speech, is “to go to where the silence is.”
Goodman’s rejection of corporate advertising and neutral, “both-sides” journalism, and her disinterest in personality-driven media, have—somewhat ironically—won her a loyal following. Millions of viewers tune into the show from 1,500 TV and radio stations around the world, as well as on YouTube and Democracy Now’s website, which had 46.3 million visits last year. “It’s funny because she’s so popular with young people, but she’s like the epitome of an old-school journalist,” says David Isay, founder of the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, who got his start working with Goodman. “The average age in her audience is probably 21.”
“She’s not interested in being a celebrity. It’s not about getting rich, it’s not about her Twitter following,” Isay continues (Goodman doesn’t have a Twitter account). “It’s just about uncovering the truth.”
Goodman’s on-screen persona can appear intimidating, but off air, she is all warmth and idealism. She lives in Manhattan with her puppy, Zazou, named after France’s World War II-era anti-Nazi youth culture. “She is a French anti-fascist freedom-fighting biting Zuchon,” Goodman explains. She is also vegan and has been vegetarian since she was a teenager in the mid-seventies. “I deeply feel the connection to all life on the planet,” she says. “And I feel a deep responsibility, every day on the show and in my life, to show those interconnections.”
Goodman’s sense of obligation to a different community than is typically considered in American media is evident in Democracy Now’s focus on atrocities that the United States has inflicted around the world. “Our global perspective is very unusual in the U.S. media,” Goodman says. “I think our country is an amalgam of people from all over the world and they are very interested in the rest of the world.” In 1991, she and her colleague Allan Nairn were beaten by Indonesian soldiers (Nairn sustained a fractured skull) while reporting on Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. Her work helped bring international attention to the genocide taking place there, which was aided, she always stresses, by weapons supplied by the United States to the Indonesian military.
She links her interest in global politics, in part, to her family history: her grandparents fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. “The whole mantra of ‘never again’—I took that to mean for any population, anywhere in the world.” Goodman’s father, an ophthalmologist, was also a community activist: he led a task force to desegregate the schools of Bay Shore, Long Island, where Goodman grew up. “There would be a thousand screaming parents not happy with changing where their kids were going to school,” she remembers. “I saw how he judiciously navigated a path to a more just community. And in the end our schools were integrated.” Goodman’s younger brother, David Goodman ’82, also a journalist, has collaborated with her on projects like their 2004 book The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them.
At Harvard, Goodman was always protesting. She matriculated in 1975, during the height of anti-apartheid activism on campus, when students were pressuring the University to divest from companies that did business in South Africa. “My mother would call and say, ‘Where are you?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, I‘m coming home from the library.’ And she would say, ‘Well how come I see a picture of you shutting down the admin building?’” Goodman remembers. After a while, though, she realized activism was distracting from her education. Being at Harvard “seemed like a very expensive way to protest,” she jokes. She left the College in the middle of her anthropology studies for Maine, where she took classes at the College of the Atlantic, a school that offered degrees solely in human ecology. “Every course took a very synergistic approach to looking at human beings and their natural environment,” she recalls. While there, she co-founded a whole-grain bakery collective and restaurant. “I was deeply interested in food and politics,” she says. “My dream was that we would provide whole-grain, macrobiotic bread to the schools of Bar Harbor, Maine.”
The business, named Sunflour, became a victim of its own success. “We were baking thousands of loaves of bread a week....We made thousands of pounds of granola and whole-wheat cookies and peanut-butter cookies,” delivering them to coastal stores, Goodman says. All this work made it difficult for Goodman to create the education center that she hoped would accompany the bakery (“The point of the restaurant, I felt, was maybe we would make Salvadoran food one night and have discussions about Salvadoran politics”). After that five-year hiatus, she returned to finish her degree at Harvard and delve into her thesis, which investigated the use of the contraceptive Depo-Provera, then unapproved in the United States because of safety concerns but marketed and sold to women around the world.
After Harvard, Goodman moved back to Long Island, where she turned her thesis into a series of stories in the Multinational Monitor magazine founded by Ralph Nader. While there, she remembers turning on the radio and discovering WBAI, the local station that would eventually host Democracy Now! “I heard all the myriad accents, the beauty of New York, the politics of New York and the globe,” she says. “I didn’t grow up on this, but I was deeply moved by it.” Until then, she had worked in print journalism: she wrote for her high-school newspaper and helped found the feminist newspaper Seventh Sister at Harvard. But in audio, she now discovered, “You don’t have to say, like you would in print, ‘The woman choked back tears.’ You hear it in her voice. You hear the accent, you hear the pain, you hear the beauty of the way someone expresses themselves. That’s what I loved about radio.”
Pursuing her interest in nutrition and public health, Goodman was taking a biochemistry course at Hunter College when she decided to sit in on a radio-documentary class taught by a WBAI producer. “I asked if he would take me to the station,” she says, “and in a sense I never really left.” He invited her to be an apprentice on a new show called Investigations. “I would just carry around a tape recorder” at news conferences and speeches and lectures, she remembers, “and sometimes we’d play it on the radio.” She soon joined WBAI’s staff, working on the evening news and later co-hosting the station’s morning show Wakeup Call.
At WBAI, which was part of the progressive radio network Pacifica, Goodman reported from around the world. In 1995, she covered Haiti’s national elections: “People who were running for office could be gunned down,” she says. “People who went to the polls could be gunned down. It was in the middle of a coup, sadly, that was backed by the United States.” She was in a safe house in Haiti when she got the call from Pacifica asking if she wanted to host Democracy Now!, a new show that would cover the 1996 U.S. presidential election (between incumbent Bill Clinton, Republican Bob Dole, and Reform Party nominee Ross Perot). “I thought, wow, most people don’t vote in the United States,” Goodman says. “I didn’t think it was apathy. I was interested in why they weren’t voting.” If Americans understood the impact of U.S. policy around the world, she says, “I didn’t think they would let this happen.”
Democracy Now! debuted in February 1996 on nine stations across the country and was only meant to air for nine months. But “people were more interested in the show even after the election than before,” Goodman says. “On television, so often you get the pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong.”
From the day she became host, her interviewing style has been unshrinking. On Election Day 2000, when President Clinton unexpectedly called WBAI to share a get-out-the-vote message, Goodman and colleague Gonzalo Aburto kept him on for half an hour, with questions like “What do you say to people who feel that the two parties are bought by corporations and at this point feel that their vote doesn’t make a difference?” Clinton called her “hostile and combative.” Goodman reflected on that experience earlier this year, on Democracy Now’s twenty-fifth anniversary special. “The White House would later call me and say they were thinking of banning me,” she said with an amused air. “And I said, ‘But he called me. I didn’t call him.’”
Though the pandemic has confined her to New York, Goodman says, “It has never changed the global scope of the show.” But she knows that there’s no substitute for traveling to the story. Democracy Now!, which now employs about 40 staff members, has reported from Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S.-Mexico border, and refugee camps during Europe’s 2015 migration crisis. In 1998, Goodman uncovered the role of American oil company Chevron in killing two Nigerian protesters; in 2008, she and her colleagues were arrested while covering an anti-war protest outside the Republican National Convention (the charges were quickly dropped). She faced arrest for a second time in 2016, on a riot charge, after Democracy Now! reported from the Dakota Access protests and recorded a viral video of activists being attacked by dogs and pepper spray. That, too, was later dismissed, but only after she returned from North Dakota and broadcast from the courthouse where she planned to turn herself in and fight the charge. “I knew it was absolutely critical to challenge this,” she recalls, “because a message was being sent to all journalists: Do not go to North Dakota.”
Her reporting is threatening to authority, Goodman believes, because seeing and hearing injustices inflicted on other people is transformative. It doesn’t merely create a record of the day’s news—it also allows people to speak to each other. “When you hear a Palestinian child or an Israeli grandmother, or an Afghan aunt or an uncle in Iraq, you say, ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds like my baby, my aunt, my brother, my uncle,’” she says. “And I’m not saying you’ll agree with them. But it makes it much less likely that you’ll want to destroy them. That’s why I think the media can be the greatest force for peace on Earth.”