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Review :: Media
Amy Goodman on YOur Right KNow: Review of her talk at the Cambridge Forum, 4/4
03 Apr 2009
Click on image for a larger version

cate and amy good cambridge forum april 2 2009 first parish harvard square cambridge.gif
Amy & Cate at First Parish, 4/4/2009

Amy Goodman and Your Right to Know:
full text with live links available at

Democracy Now!’ s Amy Goodman returned to Cambridge last night and delivered a talk at First Parish in Harvard Square replete with her usual bluntness, wry wit, and high-grade inspiration. Following a brief tribute to Pacifica radio (queen of the independent radio franchises and turning sixty this year), Amy launched headlong into an attack on the mainstream media, pleading for news-media that “cover the government , rather being a cover for the government; that’s truly a fourth estate, rather than acting for the state”; and media that most of all “covers the movements that make history.”

The “Mainstream Media” is a favorite bogeyman of everyone from Jon Stewart to Sean Hannity. Of course Stewart is consciously aware of his own membership credentials and still manages at least the pretense of some small subversion from within, whereas Hannity re-creates himself as Jeremiah-in-exile and yet does naught but regurgitate whatever warmed over dog’s breakfast his masters serve him. But Amy has the real credentials for the job: she’s (sometimes literally) in the trenches every day, doing exactly the kind of work she begs the mainstream media to perform.

She’s also an ideal speaker that she has an encyclopedic memory for facts and figures; it’s a rare enough that can combine that with a gift for crystallizing every point with a choice anecdote. Thus, in duscussing “covering the movements that make history,” she retold the story of Martin Luther King’s infamous “Beyond Vietnam” speech (April 4, 1967) —maybe the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, without a doubt the most courageous and the most enduringly relevant, describing how MLK’s inner circle advised him against taking on LBJ—and his war: the President got you the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act—stick to civil rights, you have an ally there in the President; why extend the battle? King’s response: LBJ might be cool with helping out all the black and brown babies here in the US [I’m paraphrasing Amy paraphrasing King]—but until he extends that compassion to all the black and brown babies around the world, I have no choice.

The speech itself is astonishing. King would have gone down as a great man–a Black leader, organizer, and visionary had he stuck the the NAACP script. But his April 4th speech had everything to do with race and yet so far transcended the simple fact of racism that it put him on a whole ‘nother plane. Time Magazine’s response? ”Demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post : King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

That’s missing the story.

That’s being on the wrong side of history .

Of course we don’r hear much about that speech today. About King’s developing notion of uniting poor people everywhere, regardless of race, under one banner. The mainstream rendering of MLK as a peaceful religious leader of oppressed Americans—which tends to leave out his blistering attacks on the military industrial complex and his desire to go way, way beyond the black rights issue, as well as his unique way of elucidating the connections, globally, between racism and poverty and militarism and imperialism and colonialism —between all forms of oppression and exploitation—is paralleled, Amy noted, by the media’s cynical re-telling of Rosa Park’s story. In most accounts, she was, ya know, just a tired, harmless woman who jest wanted to set herself down an’ rest after a hard day’s work. How sweet. How nonsensical. Rosa was a full-time activist, secretary to the NAACP, who’d actually done the same thing before—this was a conscious action, a premeditated act of civil disobedience and a provocation to the state; in Amy’s words, “Rosa Parks was a full-time troublemaker.” But that’s not the story America wants to hear, because, ya know, that puts her into the class of people like, oh, Red Emma Goldman. The mainstream media have done to MLK and Rosa Parks what Christianity has done to Jesus of Nazareth over the centuries, turnng social revolutionaries into gentle doves. Cuz we can’t have the kids gettin’ the wrong idea, you see.

The King story took place in 1967. How have things changed? Well, Amy had a few numbers that tell the tale. Dissident voices, she suggested, tend to either be ignored, treated as curiosities, or scorned. But mostly ignored. That ignorance is illustrated by how many antiwar voices were heard among the roughly 400 interviews broadcast by the big 4 news network programs (on CBS, NBC, PBS, ABC) in the weeks around Colin Powell’s infamous warmongering speech at the UN. That number would be … three. The voices were out there—were we ever—but you’d never know it if you sup your “news” from piss-stained hydrants like The New York Times and CNN .

And look, too, today, Amy said, at today’s coverage of the escalation in Afghanistan; heeding only the mainstream U.S. media, you’d have no idea of the unpopularity of this escalation both here in the states and even more so abroad. The mainstream media reports on this new round of madness as though there’s a unanimous consensus, because both the Democratic and the Republican leadership agree on the policy. Well, as to that consensus: there ain’t one. Just as there wasn’t one in 2002. But you won’t find our voices represented in the mainstream media; just as we were treated as fringe lunatics-—“oh, you silly leftie peaceniks, Iraq is going to be a cakewalk!”— back when GW was leading the country into a war that has left, by conservative estimates, at least a half a million dead, by some respected counts a million—we’re ignored now.

We were, by pretty general consensus today, right about Iraq. (No, I don’t feel good about that. At all. Right didn’t make might; we failed to stop the war). Maybe we’re wrong about Afghanistan—but that isn’t the point. The point is the news media are not reality-based institutions. What this type of “reporting” results in is what Noam Chomsky calls “manipulated consent.”

Another story. You may have heard about Amy’s arrest at the Republican National Convention in 2008—her film crew was beaten and arrested and charged with “suspicion of felony riot”; coming to their aid, Amy wound up in the lock-up herself. A travesty on all counts, maybe not so traumatic personally for a woman who was once badly beaten and nearly killed by Indonesian soldiers while covering an outright massacre in East Timor. More telling was her account of what transpired earlier that day, when she received word that St Paul police and federal agents armed with AK-47s raided the home being rented by members of the Eyewitness Video outfit.

You see, Eyewitness Video covers demonstrations in order to document unconstitutional behavior on the part of security forces, who have an unpleasant habit of making arrests on false charges, and then providing carefully edited video at defendants’ trials. EV supplies unedited coverage to the defendants, resulting in hundreds of innocent verdicts—and sizeable awards for false arrests. Hence the pre-emptive raid. The cops really don’t much care about the ultimate disposition of these cases—their goal is to keep folks like these off the streets for as long as possible, the Constitution be damned. Amy jumped right into the fray and was helpful in getting the crew released, but as she notes, they were unable to do their jobs during those hours. But she wasn’t describing her own heroism—this is routine stuff for her–her point was that

“this wasn’t just a violation of the freedom of the press, it was a violation of your right to know.”

That same evening she wandered around the Convention itself noting the parties being thrown by big-time donors like AT&T. In a skybox, a mainstream media type responded to her recounting of the day’s activities by exclaiming that he didn’t know about or cover anything like that. Her response was, well, of course he didn’t, because he spent the day in the damn skybox.

This is the second time I’ve seen Amy speak. I went, taking daughter Cate with me this time, because far being at all self-aggrandizing, Amy insists that everyone is capable of taking part in those “movements that shape history”—that we can assist in getting get the real story out. Or at least another real story, as real as ones being reported. Wherever and whenever we can. So she discussed the White Rose Society in Germany, the kids who handed out pamphlets telling the truth about the Nazis so that “German people would never be able to say they didn’t know” (and who were beheaded by the Gestapo for their troubles); about Emmett Till’s mother, who insisted the 14 year old lynch mob victim be displayed in an open coffin, so that other might see, vividly, what Jim Crow was really all about; about the Presidential Scholars who during their White House visit handed a Bush a letter pleading with him to end torture; about the librarians who stood up to the Patriot Act. The kind of action that is also the subject of her latest book, NYT bestseller Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times (Hyperion, 2008).

It was a lively talk, and I can’t begin to do justice to the entertaining digressions, endless factoids and insights, and grim jests with which she peppered her talk. But I felt that maybe her most important point occurred when she was talking about Obama. Amy nailed what I believe are the mixed feelings many of us felt about his inaugaration; she was not immune to the sheer wonder of witnessing a black family occupying a house built by slaves (she couldn’t resist talking about torture-promoter Donald Rumsfeld living in an estate once owned by a “slavebreaker” assigned with using torture to break the spirit of, among others, Frederick Douglass). But she’s realist enough to wonder at who really has the President’s ear—the millions who made small contributions to his campaign, who bought and paid for the Convention (to cite just one example of their endless largesse) or the numerically far smaller group who contributed the real big money. Her question—to us, really—is, and I paraphrase: “when the corporate exec whispers in Obama’s ear, can he point to the window and say, `but if I do that, they’ll storm the Bastille?’”

When it comes to the “bailouts,” healthcare, and the wars, my answer, obviously, is: no—they’ll remain engrossed in pop stars, fantasy baseball and facebook applications (that’s artificially-enhanced stars, non-existent baseball teams, and virtual “friends”–but the triumph of the unreal, of the spectacle, is a whole ‘nother matter). But who can blame them? If I got all my news from CNN and The Boston Herald, I’d do my share of tsk-tsking and go back to updating my MySpace page too, all the while assuming that someone, somewhere, up there in there in the rarefied air of the technocratic ether, will make it ok.

So, there are two endings to this piece. The dystopic ending: media reform is a moot issue; with so many entertainment options immediately at hand (iPod laptop cell phone radio TV Blackberry, each promising all manner of mind-numbing delight), why choose, ya know, to get all pissy about stuff? A gram, after all, is better than a damn. The happy ending: there are so many lively, interesting sources of information also immediately available via those same vehicles, and genuinely interactive ones to boot, that reforming the mainstream media isn’t a necessary option, and the citizenry will eventually tend to avail themselves of the opportunity to guzzle from these fountains of truth, inform themselves and turn from inane commentary on Facebook to some meaningful input into what should be an endless national conversation about stuff that matters.

I’m a pessimist, myself. Lately, especially, I find myself wondering: why bother? I suppose that one thing that keeps me motivated is simple shame—I see too many people bothering not to. I saw the reporters and camerapeople from the local indymedia outfits last there, I saw Amy seemingly almost unwilling to stop talking during one night of a seventy-city-in-thirty- day tour.

The least we can is to start listening.

(For local web-based reporting, see; in Boston, see; see, of course, DemocracyNow!, where you can also find Amy’s speaking schedule (she’s in NYC tomorrow April 4; and check out the links at right.. Amy, along with fellow Izzy Stone Award winner Glenn Greenwald, are also on Bill Moyer’s show this weekend–
See also:

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