Thursday, February 21, 2008

Amy Goodman and the “Sacred Responsibility” of Listening

The cover story of this month’s issue of The Progressive is an interview by Elizabeth DiNovella of award-winning journalist Amy Goodman.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Amy on a number of occasions over the years, and have always been impressed and inspired by her professionalism, dedication, and passion.

Here’s how DiNovella describes Amy Goodman in the introduction to her interview:

Amy Goodman is one of the leading journalists of our time. She is executive producer and host of Democracy Now!, a daily, independent radio and television news program broadcast on 650 stations around the world.

“I’ve always been surprised that people say it’s a hopeful program because we deal with such difficult subjects,” she says. “But I think it’s hopeful because of the people we interview. They are both the analysts and those that are doing something about it, wherever they might be.”

Many people, including myself, have relied upon Amy Goodman’s reporting on the Bush Administration. She’s the left hook to the rightwing Administration’s assault on our civil liberties. She doesn’t flinch from tough topics like torture, and she interviews people other media neglect, such as Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni national who was a victim of the CIA rendition program. She scrums with the likes of Lou Dobbs. And her coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq goes beyond retired generals and Beltway pundits. Unlike other news programs, anti-war voices get their say on Democracy Now!

She has a missionary zeal and calls journalism “a sacred responsibility.” Goodman started out as a volunteer at WBAI, the Pacifica radio station in New York City. She went on to become WBAI’s news director. She launched Democracy Now! as a radio show on the Pacifica network in 1996 and eventually it evolved into a television program.

She’s done her share of international reporting, too. In 1991, Indonesian soldiers beat her bloody and fractured the skull of Allan Nairn in East Timor as they followed a memorial procession. She and Nairn survived the Santa Cruz massacre, though 270 Timorese were killed. Goodman and Nairn were thrown out of the country and produced Massacre: The Story of East Timor, a documentary about the Indonesian and American involvement in the Southeast Asian nation. They won numerous awards for their reporting, including the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for International Reporting, the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, the Armstrong Award, the Radio/Television News Directors Award, as well as awards from the Associated Press, United Press International, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She returned to East Timor for live coverage in 2002 when the nation gained its independence.

In 1998, she and then-Democracy Now! producer Jeremy Scahill traveled to Nigeria and documented the collusion between Chevron Oil company and the Nigerian Navy’s killing of two local environmental activists and other human rights abuses. Drilling and Killing won George Polk and Project Censored awards.

Reporting runs in the family. With her brother David, she has co-authored two books, Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back and The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them. She somehow finds the time to write a weekly syndicated newspaper column.

Below are excerpts from DiNovella’s interview with Amy Goodman, followed by some reflections of mine inspired by Goodman’s contention that journalism is a “sacred responsibility.”

As you’ll see, I take this to mean that it is the core of journalism, i.e., the listening to others - especially those dismissed and ignored by the mainstream - and the inclusion of their voices and experiences in the important discussions and deliberations of the day, that is a sacred endeavor. It’s an endeavor I feel blessed to be engaged in within the context of the Roman Catholic Church through my work with
CPCSM and The Progressive Catholic Voice.


Elizabeth DiNovella: Talking to people who are the target of U.S. foreign policy is a hallmark of your show. How did that happen?

Amy Goodman: We have a special responsibility as American journalists. We live in the most powerful country on Earth. Yet there is probably a level of ignorance about our effect in the rest of the world because the media doesn’t bring it to us. It’s much more difficult for people at the target end to forget, to be oblivious, because they are right there living it every day. We have a responsibility here to understand what it feels like, because we are the ones who are creating that situation, whether we like it or not.

We’re constantly hearing from the small circle of pundits in Washington who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us, and getting it so wrong. Every network is the same. Unfortunately, sometimes public broadcasting sounds the same way.

The United States has the potential to have tremendous power for good. Right now, it just doesn’t have that position. But there are many, many people who make up a pro-democracy movement in this country, just like in other countries, people who really do deeply care. If we want to be safer here, we have to extend those voices to the rest of the world. That’s going to increase our national security.

Elizabeth DiNovella: The FCC just relaxed media ownership limits. What’s your response to that?

Amy Goodman: We’ve got hundreds of channels with fewer and fewer owners and it’s a very big problem. There’s the illusion of diversity but what matters is who owns these channels. That’s why regulations are so important.

The media is the place where we have a discussion with each other. We can’t know everyone individually. We do it through the media. When the kitchen table that we all sit around is controlled by a very few, they are deciding who comes to the table, and that can determine the decisions that are made, when we go to war and when we don’t.

Elizabeth DiNovella: What do you think was the mainstream media’s biggest failing regarding the Iraq War?

Amy Goodman: Simply that it beat the drums for war. As Noam Chomsky says, the media manufactures consent, and they did it for war. There were so many people all over the globe who were protesting the war. In February 2003, millions of people marched, yet the Bush Administration went forward, enabled by the Democrats.

The media act as a megaphone for those in power, the Democrats and the Republicans. When the spectrum of debate between them is very small, that’s as far as the media will go. In the lead up to the invasion, the Democrats joined with Republicans in authorizing war. The media overwhelmingly presented that point of view, that pro-war position, even though most people in this country were opposed to the war.

And now the latest news we find is that the Democratic leaders like House Speaker Pelosi, Jay Rockefeller, and former Senator Bob Graham were briefed for years on waterboarding, on torture. Where was the protest?

On Democracy Now!, we’ve just spoken to Henri Alleg, the French journalist who was in Algeria, now in his eighties, who describes waterboarding as if it were yesterday. Because when you yourself are tortured, you never forget. He described what it meant to feel like he was suffocating, not “simulated drowning” but actually drowning.

Elizabeth DiNovella: Why did you become a journalist? What inspired you?

Amy Goodman: I saw it as a way to deal with issues of social justice. Even from when I was a little kid, I was inspired by my younger brother David, whom I write the books with. David had Dave’s Press when we were younger, and there were these little signs in our house up to his room that said Dave’s Press. He had this old Xerox machine, and you’d have to put all your weight on it to burn an image onto the paper. It was sort of a glorified family calendar. He would say things like, “Mom spanked Amy.” My mother would say, “You’re not airing any dirty laundry.” And then he would cry censorship. But he really cried, because he was a kid. And he had letters to the editor. My grandfather would write in and disagree with him on war. “I love you very much but I have to disagree with you.” David would write back, “Dear Grandpa, thank you so much for being my first subscriber, but you are being stupid about the war.” And then my great-uncle would write in. That’s where we would debate the political issues of the day.

In junior high school and high school, I was on our school newspapers, and they were holding the principal accountable. Then I just went on to a bigger stage.

But it’s important to hold people in power accountable, whether it’s parents or principals or what’s happening in the world.

Elizabeth DiNovella: You and David have a new book coming out in April, Standing Up to the Madness. What’s it about?

Amy Goodman: The idea of how people make a difference. People make up movements in every continent. Every action we engage in really does matter, whether it’s kids trying to put on a school play and being told they can’t talk about war. It’s about dissident soldiers and officers who say no. Even when the trend is going the other way, what it means to find that strength inside and say, “I cannot live with this.” This determines what direction we go in and defines history.

Elizabeth DiNovella: Do you ever get discouraged by your work?

Amy Goodman: The more difficult the issue, the more amazing people are in dealing with it. That’s where I find the hope. Even in places like East Timor, people had hope that in this terrible slaughter for a quarter of a century, they would see the end of it. They would be independent, a new nation would be born. It’s just astounding.

But in the midst of it, it was hard to believe. And yet the people whose families were being killed, they were the ones who were saying there was hope. You find that in some of the most difficult situations, whether it’s in another country or right here.

There are a lot of hopeful people who think that things can be better. We need to broadcast those voices. The most hopeless, cynical voices are those we hear or watch on television. And that can be very depressing. It generates apathy.

Elizabeth DiNovella: Your critics say you are too much of an advocate. How do you respond?

Amy Goodman: I don’t really know what that means. I care deeply about what I cover. And I think we have a tremendous responsibility as journalists to expose what’s going on in the world. When you see suffering, you care. We never want to take that out of our work.

Advocating for more voices to be heard? I plead guilty. Opening up the airwaves, joining people around the world in a global discussion about what should happen? I plead guilty.

As for advocacy journalism, I think the corporate journalists are the best model of that. We know their points of view. We know how important they felt it was to invade Iraq. We knew what it felt like to be in a tank or helicopter and to ask the pilot or the soldier to show how the gun was shot or how the helicopter flew. We learned all that from them. We learned who they thought was important to interview, and who was silenced, and that was the majority of people.

Those who are for peace are not a fringe minority. They are not a silent majority, but a silenced majority, silenced by the corporate media.

To read Elizabeth DiNovella’s interview with Amy Goodman in its entirety, click here.


Reading about Goodman advocating for more voices to be heard in the media brought a smile to my face. Hey, that’s what I’m all about within the Roman Catholic Church!, I thought to myself. I advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics and their families. I work for their voices to be heard, their experiences respected. And, yes, I really do believe that such an endeavor is a sacred responsibility.

I mean, think about it: there is something empowering and liberating, and thus something sacred about the inclusion of all. There is something universal (dare I say, catholic!) about the recognition, acknowledgment, and celebration of God present and active in the lives and relationships of all. Thus the need to hear from all when formulating statements, doctrines, and teachings that seek to be life-giving, that seek to continue Jesus’ ministry of bringing good news and setting captives free.

Yet such a ministry requires reaching out, interacting with, and listening to others. Listening, after all, is a life-giving act. Religious educator and author Maria Harris also reminds us that: “Genuine wisdom involves learning from the wisdoms of . . . forgotten or overlooked people”.

Like LGBT persons, women within the Catholic community are also often “forgotten” and “overlooked”. Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, has written eloquently of “the value of being listened to” when marginalized as a woman within an institution like the Roman Catholic Church.

“No set of rules,” she writes, “no prescriptions from on high, ever carried me through the dark or gave me courage for the heights. It was the people who took time to listen to me who gave me something more important than the rules to live by. They gave me back a sense of myself, of my own convictions, of the law of God within my heart.”

Sadly, with regards to some issues, such listening is simply not considered necessary by elements within the Church. I’m mindful, for instance, of the November 2006 “pastoral guidelines” for those ministering to “persons with a homosexual inclination” - guidelines that were drawn up without a single gay person being consulted, without a single gay person being listened to.

Accordingly, I consider Goodman’s critique of “the small circle of pundits in Washington who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us, and getting it so wrong,” applicable to the members of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, often when Goodman talks about the shortcomings and potential of the United States media, I am reminded of the current state of the Church. In recent years, both seem to have been hijacked by reactionary elements.

Of course, a non-inclusive mentality has always being present in the Church. Perhaps one way of understanding such a mentality is as the shadow side of any religion that develops an institutional dimension. Don’t get me wrong: we need institutions, i.e., organizing principles and structures. Yet all too often we can allow such principles and structures to become rigid and exclusionary. This non-inclusive mentality is the shadow side, the temptation, if you will, of any religious community.

One unfortunate result of this type of mentality in Roman Catholicism has been the development of a “country club” notion of church. (For more on this, see Chris McGillion’s comments
here.) Another has been the development of the notion of a priestly caste that alone channels and represents the boundless reality of the sacred. There’s something, well, primitive and cultic about such a notion. And I believe it’s ultimately anti-Christian.

Indeed, the Christian tradition contains that wonderfully inclusive image of a priestly people – as opposed to a priestly caste. And then there’s that powerful and beautiful image of the example of Jesus’ life and death rending asunder the temple veil – that great curtain that was believed to separate the people from God’s holy presence. I remember that even as a child growing up in Australia, I was drawn to this story and all that it implied in terms of the breaking down of boundaries and the equal access of all to the sacred.

Oh, and then there’s Jesus’ instruction: Call no one “Father,” as we have only one Father and that is God the Creator. And again, even as a child I wondered how the Roman Catholic hierarchy managed to wriggle around that one!

I guess it does so in the same way that it ignores no less than three ecumenical councils that have condemned usury. Interestingly, not one church council has condemned gay marriage in civil society! Yet today the Vatican owns its own bank and is constantly meddling in civil politics to prevent a simple guy like me from marrying the man I love. Go figure.

For more on the Church’s changing perspective (and teaching) on usury, as compared to same-sex relations, click here.

Image 1: Photographer unknown.
Images 2 and 3: Michael Bayly.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the Amy Goodman story. I watch her every night at ten o'clock; 'Democracy Now' is the only place I trust for the many crucial issues that face us and others throughout the world every day. The difference between Amy and all the other news commentators is the difference between night and day. I've never met her in person but I feel intimately connected to her because she cares deeply about people and is so clearly a woman of integrity, courage, and action.
Just reading about her new quarters and the plans to start a journalism school, etc. give me hope for the future. This is the way it starts: one woman believing deeply in her principles and commiting herself to giving all she can to the cause of justice...others join, the ranks deepen....and as they say "hope springs eternal.

Geometricus said...

Mr. Bayley,

I was directed to your blog by Ray from MN over at Stella Borealis. I had a few minutes to peruse your thoughtful and incisive blog and there is much to praise here, especially your advocacy for the poor and marginalized. Though you may call me part of the vast right-wing conspiracy because I hold to traditional views about sexuality and the Church, I think it such advocacy is way overdue, especially when it comes to those of low ecomonic status or racial minorities.

We need folks like Amy Goodman to report on these disturbing things us right-wingers don't want to hear, because they tell us a lot about our blind spots and help us reflect on what we could do to win the world for Christ by reflecting his justice and righteousness in the midst of a very unjust, violent and uncaring world.

I am American Indian, a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe of Nebraska, and I will be forever grateful for the healthy left-ward shift of academia and media elites in the 1950's and 1960's, because I recognize the advantages they gave me and my parents as compared to my grandparents. My dad was the first college graduate ever in his family, and I am the first of his many kids to graduate, and I recognize the role affirmative action had in making that easier for me. At times I have resented the insinuation (from within myself!) that I couldn't have done it without the leftys pulling for me, but I am now a healthy distance (in age) from that time so it doesn't bother me as much, and I now see that it was the kindness of individuals which helped the most, not "movements" in society.

Yet the pendulum cannot continue to swing ever leftward, and indeed we know it has not. I think listening is crucial, but their comes a time when my elders should expect ME to listen to THEM (in fact in our assemblies we apologize to our elders before we speak in front of them for having the temerity to say anything they have to listen to).

Though it could be interesting or even important to listen to homosexuals, I don't consider the Church documents about homosexuals any less legitimate than Church prohibitions against divorce and remarriage, which Jesus pronounces on in the Gospels before listening to anyone. We who believe in revelation are attempting to leave all of our previous ideas about life behind to follow this radically Good news called the Gospel.

Though the succesors to the apostles are imperfect and occasionally annoyingly so, they are all we have because of the "exclusive" policies and actions of Jesus Christ himself, who will sit on his throne at the end of time and seperate sheep, excluding a whole bunch from his kingdom. I don't pretend to know who those black sheep will be ahead of time, but you are kind of sounding increasingly sure that you do.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Geometricus,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

I resonate with your insistence that we are "to leave all of our previous ideas about life behind to follow this radically Good news called the Gospel."

As a gay man, I've left behind previous ideas about homosexuality - ideas that say that homosexuality is inherently wrong and that it can never be expressed physically in ways that are acceptable to God, in ways that are life-affirming and, yes, life-giving.

Such limited ideas were (and are) supported by some within the church, which is strange, as nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus condemn homosexuality.

Accordingly, I find it difficult to equate the church's flawed teaching on homosexuality with its evolving understanding and teaching on divorce which can be traced back to the historical Jesus.

I try not to label anyone as part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Nor do I attempt to presuppose who are the "black sheep" (by which I think you mean "goats," as in the Gospel story of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats) and thus who is unworthy of the Kingdom of God.

If you think otherwise, I'd be grateful to you if you could alert me to where on my blog I pass such judgment.