The Show That Challenges Presidents
For 12 years a radio and television news programme, Democracy Now, has survived and even flourished on a cobbled-together broadcast network that reaches all of the United States and out into the world. It has almost no paid resources, yet daily defies the corporate and government agendas, and has sometimes forced mainstream media into picking up its stories, if not its attitudes.
By Thomas Boothe and Danielle Follett
A small group of activists in the rural northeastern corner of Tennessee in the United States persuaded their local public radio station, WETS, to start broadcasting the progressive news-hour Democracy Now two years ago. This pocket of Appalachia would seem to be unwelcoming territory for such an endeavour, since the economically depressed farming and mining region votes overwhelmingly Republican – by as much as 75% in the last presidential election – and is, according to Joseph Fitsanakis, organiser of Democracy Now Tri-Cities (DNTC), “the kind of place where 30 years ago you couldn’t really do anything politically unless you were a Klan member” (1).
And there was an immediate response; some donors to the mostly listener-supported radio station, which is a partnership between East Tennessee State University and the listeners, warned that continued donations would depend on Democracy Now being taken off the air. It could have been much worse; Fitsanakis points out that in this part of the country, political activism has sometimes been met with personal attacks including bullets through windows and dog poisonings. “People that got involved in organising mining, the unionists, have a lot of that kind of story to tell you” (2).
One of DNTC’s main objectives is to have a network of vocal supporters in place in case a campaign is launched against the programme. But Democracy Now seems to have a good chance of surviving on its own merits. Despite the early objectors, overall reaction has been, according to WETS director Wayne Winkler, “most gratifying… The positive response has far outweighed the negative.” Although there has been some backlash against the programme, “we lost track of the numbers of people calling in to say they became first-time contributors because of Democracy Now”. It is now one of the most successful fundraisers for the station.
Thanks to such grassroots organisations, the broadcast reach of Democracy Now’s “War and Peace Report” has been expanding in the US at a remarkable rate: an average of two radio or television stations now add the show to their line-up each week. Its informal network combines university, listener-supported National Public Radio ( NPR) and low power radio stations; with satellite and public-access cable television stations; as well as the internet, where it is offered in video, audio and text format. When the show began broadcasting out of New York 12 years ago, it was aired on about 30 stations; today that is approaching 700. Some of the programme is translated into Spanish and aired on 150 stations, mostly in Latin America.
This rapid growth is a testament to a widespread desire for the critical journalism and extended, banter-free discussion that characterises its broadcasts. Like mainstream morning or evening news programmes, the show can be relied upon for a summary of the day’s events. But unlike them, Democracy Now takes a critical stance toward its subjects, interrogating the policies and statements of those in power, regardless of party affiliation. Amy Goodman, the executive producer and primary host, is fond of quoting a comment by reporter I F Stone to a group of journalism students: “If you’re going to remember two words, remember these: governments lie.”
The heterogeneity and financial autonomy of the outlets offers the world a model of broad-based and independent media networking. Bill Moyers, perhaps the only critical journalist on US broadcast television, recently praised the programme’s “network that is not an institution” (3). But contrary to many recent independent media endeavours, it is not merely internet-based. Robert McChesney, media scholar and founder of the reform organisation Free Press, argues: “What really distinguishes Democracy Now … has been the success of their enterprise in the last 10 years, going from being a programme on a few community stations in the US to having now an enormous audience on a network they’ve cobbled together.”
Still, Democracy Now remains at the margins of media because its coverage is routinely dismissed as partisan, despite being the sole focus of a not-for-profit organisation that is not affiliated with any political party or organisation and that receives no financing from advertisers, corporations or the government (4). Before moving to rural Tennessee, Fitsanakis worked with a group in Nashville trying to bring the programme to the airwaves there. “We organised a huge petition drive, we got 3,000 to 4,000 signatures… and the station just basically told us that ‘we don’t care how many signatures you get, this is too partisan for our area, end of story’.”
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The accusation of partisanship is best understood in the context of the ongoing consolidation of US media into the hands of a few large corporations, which spend millions lobbying the five members of the Federal Communications Commission, upon whom they rely for friendly regulatory policies. This process intensified in the 1990s with measures enacted under President Bill Clinton. According to Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, “the government did not so much deregulate the market as re-regulate it”, allowing “big media companies [to] expand and consolidate ownership across outlets” (5). The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had especially dramatic effects on radio, allowing a single media company to own eight or more radio stations in a community (6).
Given the resulting streamlining of editorial stances and nationwide reductions in news-gathering staff, large media corporations have a stake in maintaining the illusion of the neutrality of their coverage. This illusion is reinforced when an independent news source is stigmatised as partisan. McChesney says: “Democracy Now is as much or more committed to factual accuracy than the commercial news media. So much of our political journalism has been so warped to suit the agendas of those in power, and so uncritical of those agendas. What Democracy Now does is that it regards everyone in power with tremendous scepticism, not just Republicans and not just Democrats.”
Goodman has credited the professional failings caused by the corporate media climate for her programme’s success. The mainstream media “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… you talk to people who live at the target end of policy” (7). This dereliction of duty, she believes, has created “a hunger out there for an alternative. It’s almost explosive.”
Working with modest resources, Democracy Now does not maintain a staff of story-breaking investigative journalists or cultivate inside sources (8). While many among its staff of 25 are experienced journalists, the demands of producing a daily news broadcast prevent them from full-time reporting. The show’s effectiveness lies in its choice of guests and its ability to contextualise events to reflect a different set of priorities. The pool of information theoretically available to everyone allows the producers to choose subjects and approaches that do not get aired elsewhere. According to Klinenberg, “because there’s so much information online, I think their editing function really does matter. They select a different set of stories than typical news organisations select.”
The 10 to 15 minutes of headline briefs are the long day’s work of a single producer and a laptop. Democracy Now uses wire services, but also scours international (mostly English-language) online news sources, blogs and reports from NGOs. Of the 15 or so daily headlines, three or four will not be found on mainstream broadcast sources. Widely covered headlines are often presented in a different way. When President Gerald Ford died in 2006, the US press eulogised him as the man who, after Watergate, “healed a nation”. Democracy Now was alone in pointing out his role in the massacres in East Timor: “Ford gave Indonesian dictator General Suharto explicit approval to launch the invasion.”
Interviews are conducted without trivial banter, and unlike most news programmes, guests are invited to speak at length. Interviewees range from investigative reporters to non-celebrities at the target end of policy, to public officials, activists, politically engaged artists and representatives of NGOs, who are rarely, if ever, invited onto mainstream shows, including Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Ralph Nader, Robert Fisk, Edward Said, Arundhati Roy, and Cuban National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcón. While it is the intention to bring marginalised voices to the airwaves, the aim is not to establish a leftwing echo-chamber. Representatives of the government agency or corporation under discussion are invited, although they often decline. Recent participants have included former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and the president of a trade association for private mercenary companies.
One uninvited guest was then-President Bill Clinton, who called into the show on election day in 2000 as part of an effort to encourage radio listeners to vote for Democratic candidate Al Gore. Goodman seized the opportunity and asked: “You are calling radio stations to tell people to get out and vote. What do you say to people who feel that the two parties are bought by corporations and that… their vote doesn’t make a difference?” From there, he was quizzed for 30 minutes on issues such as sanctions on Iraq and Democratic Party members’ support for the death penalty. An exasperated Clinton finally lashed out at Goodman for asking “hostile and combative” questions. “They’ve been critical,” she replied.
Goodman says that the following day a staffer from the White House Press Office called and berated her for violating the ground rules. “What ground rules?” she asked. It had been an impromptu call and no rules had been discussed. Goodman’s transgression was to stray to topics beyond getting the voters out – and to keep Clinton on the phone too long. She told the staffer: “President Clinton is the most powerful person in the world, he can hang up if he wants to.” She adds: “I don’t treat those in power as royalty. They are employees of the people of this country” (9).
Democracy Now opts out of the role usually taken by the media during presidential elections. Campaigns count on mainstream outlets to treat their tactical decisions as breaking news. When, during the current race for the Democratic Party nomination, the Hillary Clinton campaign was faced with falling poll numbers, the decision to have the candidate go aggressive in a debate left the mainstream press abuzz. Pieces slightly varying the theme “Clinton comes out swinging” appeared and she was given ample airtime to explain her new persona. Democracy Now didn’t cover it.
During the 2004 race between George Bush and John Kerry, although the show provided its audience with regular updates about poll results, its energies were devoted to larger, systemic problems. Then, as now, it refused to spend time helping candidates shape their images, focusing instead on the ostracism of third party candidates, police crackdowns on election-related protests, and the danger (and ultimately the reality) of widespread disenfranchisement. Treatment of campaign issues was compensatory: most often Democracy Now discussed what was not being addressed by press and politicians, rather than what was. On 14 October 2004 a story was headlined “Million worker march to address labour issues ignored by both major candidates”.
By late 2001 many mainstream news sources were preparing public opinion to accept an attack on Iraq. When, citing federal officials, these outlets began to weave in information suggesting that “Bin Laden’s evil pal Saddam” (10) was behind postal anthrax attacks on press and politicians, Democracy Now called attention to the fact that “Bush administration officials and the media have persistently tried to link Iraq either to the September 11 attacks or to the anthrax attacks” and that the FBI was following leads in other directions.
Closer to the time of the invasion, when the British press reported that the US government was tapping the phones of Security Council members at UN headquarters, Democracy Now was almost alone in reporting this news in the US. It was also unique in its in-depth coverage of domestic anti-war activities. Audiences of mainstream news programmes were not told about the occupation of Senator Hillary Clinton’s office following her vote in favour of the Iraq War Resolution, nor were they privy to dozens of stories similar to “Man arrested in shopping mall for wearing a ‘Give Peace a Chance’ T-shirt: over 150 respond by showing up in similar shirts” (Democracy Now, 6 March 2003).
Democracy Now’s scrutiny of the official line and use of wider sources gave listeners a more lucid narrative of what was brewing in Iraq and the US. Such a critical approach would perhaps seem a journalistic obligation, but at the time in the US it was a minority position. During the war’s first three weeks the six major US television news programmes did not have a single at-length interview with an American opposed to the invasion, and with few foreigners or Iraqis (11). Democracy Now conducted 30.
It has had occasional success in influencing corporate news coverage. In March 2004, while the mainstream press was dismissing the coup in Haiti as a popular uprising against a corrupt dictator, it pursued the matter further. In an exclusive interview with exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it discovered that the US military had forced his resignation at gunpoint and kidnapped him. The extensive coverage obliged mainstream sources to come back to the situation with new questions. Goodman said: “I call this trickle-up journalism.”
When Democracy Now interviewed BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast in February 2007 and aired part of his exposé on vulture funds, showing the role of the White House in allowing debt relief funding to be used to pay the exploitative private creditors of developing countries, two members of Congress brought the issue to President Bush the next day, pressuring him to address issue at June’s G8 summit. Palast later said: “Until they heard the Democracy Now report – a lot of members of Congress listen to this programme – they had no idea that the money was being sucked up.”
A huge amount of space to occupy
Because Democracy Now reaches its audience through such a heterogeneous network, it is difficult to ascertain the size of the audience, let alone their political beliefs. “But it’s not the stereotypical version of the left – latte-drinking San Franciscans or Bostonians,” McChesney says. “There are people from diverse branches of society and absolutely from middle America as well.”
One reason for Democracy Now’s vigour in Republican-controlled northeastern Tennessee may be that many on the left and right share an anger over the corporate and government control of news sources. “The corporate media leaves a huge amount of space to occupy,” says Goodman. Elements within the Republican camp are disillusioned with the Bush government’s lies, scandals, military failures and profligate spending, and this sentiment often extends to the media. According to Fitsanakis, a few Republican voters have joined DNTC because of their concerns over the increasing curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of speech, a recurring topic on the show. Three conservative voters have written to DNTC to support the programme, saying that although they have trouble digesting elements of the show, “they are so frustrated with the current government that it’s the only programme that they can find that has a semi-reasonable, critical approach to the administration.”
Goodman argues that the media overplay the differences between right and left. “I think a lot of concerns are shared,” she said. “Conservatives are concerned about corporate control and privacy issues, just like progressives. Military families are enraged over what has happened to their sons and daughters, while the children of the powerful do not go off to war.” In an area like his, where the internet is not a major source of news, said Fitsanakis, people “turn on the radio and hear a programme that talks about those concerns that they have”.
Some core supporters regularly volunteer time to help the show, which inherits from its parent network, Pacifica Radio, an operational structure that counts on volunteer labour. When it was created in 1996 by Amy Goodman and the Pacifica Radio Network to cover midterm elections, it quickly became a flagship news programme. But in 1999 there began a two-year internal power struggle at Pacifica during which Democracy Now was at risk. Although parties hostile to the show were ultimately forced out, Goodman and her colleagues decided in 2002 to incorporate as an independent not-for-profit organisation to safeguard their autonomy. The two organisations maintain close ties and Democracy Now is still broadcast over Pacifica’s network.
A coast to coast broadcast network would be impossible without regular contributions of money and man-hours from its audience. Democracy Now’s transition to video was made possible by unpaid workers and, for many years, the transcripts of the broadcasts on the show’s website were assembled by volunteers from around the world. The organisation draws on a database of 8,000 volunteers, with 1,700 in New York City, who are contacted to work for a few hours or a day, often handling administrative tasks. Those outside New York help in outreach, coordinating events such as Goodman’s regular speaking engagements. Supporters promote the show as well, distributing flyers and bumper stickers. A West Coast group raised money to put up a Democracy Now billboard: “The corporate media got it wrong on Iraq. Support the show that got it right.”
Other volunteers work to ensure that the programme reaches as wide an audience as possible. In Japan, a group offers a website with translations of news, while in Phoenix and Buffalo, groups frustrated with unresponsive management at their public radio stations have raised money and temporarily bought air time for the show on commercial AM stations. In Baltimore, a volunteer with access to satellite television videotapes the show every day, then bicycles it to the local public access station for broadcasting. In Massachusetts, where a group failed to convince the local public radio station to broadcast the programme, octogenarian Frances Crowe set up a pirate radio transmitter in her backyard. “Volunteers will always be with Democracy Now,” said the organisation’s general manager Karen Ranucci. “Now we’re at a point where we could still produce a show without volunteers, but we would never have gotten this far without them.”
In Tennessee, DNTC takes its activism a step further by trying to build on local support to mobilise the community. “The way it works,” said Fitsanakis, “is we just figure that the people who listen to Democracy Now must be the kind of people we want to approach to begin with. Since the programme is being heard all across the area, with a potential listenership of a million people, some of whom are isolated, physically, in mountains and all kinds of weird terrain, why not use it to bring them together?” In its first six months, DNTC recruited 150 members and organised several events: they rallied hundreds of demonstrators in eight anti-war protests on the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and coordinated Earth Day events. A protest outside a local munitions factory that manufactures depleted uranium shells was an attempt to connect with miners’ union activists. But this last action had, according to Fitsanakis, limited success. “There were a few unionists that joined us in picketing, but when it came to our folks, they were a little timid, a little shy about having to face the police… but there’s potential there.”
Original text in English
Danielle Follett teaches at Paris-VIII university and Thomas Boothe is a photographer and film director;
they would like to thank David Ramm for his help in researching this article
(1) On this part of Appalachia, see Serge Halimi, “The United States: Bush’s record”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, October 2004.
(2) The region has a rich history of labour activism, located not far from Matewan and Blair Mountain, West Virginia, the site of a 1921 battle between 15,000 armed miners and the National Guard that ended with the Air Force dropping shells on its own citizens. These labour movements have been collapsing since the 1950s, although there are still towns whose governments are controlled entirely by a single company. On August 13 2007, a gunman fired a bullet through the window of the radio station that broadcasts Democracy Now in Houston, narrowly missing a late-night DJ. In the 1970s the transmitter of this station was blown up twice by the Ku Klux Klan.
(3) http://www.democracynow.org/article …
(4) The revenue comes from the direct donations of its supporters, not-for-profit foundations, modest broadcast fees from stations, and the sales of videos and paraphernalia such as coffee mugs and T-shirts.
(5) Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2007.
(6) The Federal Communications Commission is trying to fast-track legislation that would lift the ban on a single company owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city: a similar attempt was thwarted by popular mobilisation in 2003. The FCC has also recently opened a rare window to receive applications from local not-for-profit organisations to be granted one of hundreds of new full-power FM radio frequencies, in rural areas, that it is making available for non-commercial and educational programming.
(7) Quoted by Lizzy Ratner, “Amy Goodman’s Empire”, The Nation, May 6, 2005.
(8) Senior hosts on the government-subsidised NPR news programmes are paid about five times more than Goodman, while her counterparts on commercial television stations earn on average more than 100 times her salary.
(9) Interview with Anthony Violanti, Buffalo News, New York, May 9, 2004.
(10) Jeff Stein, Washington Post, October 21, 2001.
(11) See “Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent” by the American media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.