A Day in the life of Democracy Now!
I first heard about Amy my freshman year of college. We were packed
into a stuffed hall listening to journalist Allan Nairn speak. It
was 1991. Nairn had just come back from East Timor where he and colleague
Amy Goodman had been covering the Indonesian occupation. He described
their witnessing the slaughter of 270 East Timorese; how they themselves
were beaten badly by Indonesian soldiers, Nairn suffering, among
other injuries, a fractured skull. I was profoundly moved. It was
the first time I’d met someone who had put his life on the
line to get a story told.
Pacifica Radio’s Democracy
Now! began in 1996 as a daily election show led by Amy Goodman, by
then a long-time journalist. Just after September 11, 2001, and within
blocks of Ground Zero, DN! began broadcasting on radio and television
every weekday. Today, DN! is simulcast on more than 100 radio stations
in the United States and overseas, and you can hear it on roughly
25 National Public Radio affiliates, watch it on Free Speech TV and
100 public access television stations, and access audio, video, and
It’s six o’clock in the morning and I’m not at
Democracy Now! My alarm clock is still an hour from sounding, but
Mike Burke, one of their producers is there, doing last-minute prep
and compiling the day’s headline news.
The converted firehouse that DN! and Downtown Community Television
Center call home is bursting at the seams. DN!’s main office
is stuffed with desks and monitors, videotapes and posters. Waiting
for the show to start, I sit next to a stack of books, with a couple
of Tariq Ali’s Bush in Babylon teetering on top. Behind
me, a poster reads: “US Out of Humboldt County.” Taped
on the file cabinet next to me is a list of 100 cities and their
college radio stations.
The production team is testing camera
angles and mics. Eight computers and 12 monitors pack a small room
with a window onto the studio. John Kerry’s voice booms out
from the B-roll.
A guest paces nervously. He asks
me where he should put his coat; I tell him I’m as lost as
he is. He glances nervously at the monitors and to the empty seat
across a round, wooden table where he will soon be sitting.
Amy Goodman arrives, her arms spilling over with notes. She gives
a warm hello before she rushes into the studio.
The clock ticks toward 8 a.m.
Someone shouts: “I’m
not getting channel 7! I’m not getting channel 7!” From
inside the studio, someone calls out: “Wait, Amy’s not
“I’m ready, I’m
ready,” she insists.
“She’s not ready. She’s
still wearing her coat,” comes the voice from the other room.
Amy takes off her coat, adjusts her headset.
The guest is now sitting next to
me. He won’t be on until the end of the show. He’s still
nervous. I try to reassure him, but I’m nervous, too, nervous
Amy practices her lines: “On
January 16, Nicholas Yarris walked out of a state prison in Pennsylvania
after spending two decades on death row. DNA had proven his innocence.
He joins us in our studio today.”
I realize I’m standing next
to Nicholas Yarris. He’s listening to Amy, too, and smiles
on the introduction.
“Roll numeric, let’s go. Roll music,” Uri Gal-Ed,
the Television Director, commands. And the show begins.
Amy reads today’s headlines:
Iraq, civil unions, Kerry and Edwards, Bush and the National Guard,
Haiti, the proposed Comcast bid on Disney.
Thirteen minutes go by in a flash. I hadn’t realized I’d
spent all of them on the edge of my seat. The show airs live, that
means live cuts and every mistake matters. Uri shouts continuously, “Take
5! Take 7!” as he edits between camera angles, choosing shots
from a bank of monitors.
They cut to their first guest, Hannah
Sassaman, program director at Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based
advocacy group for low-power radio stations. She’s speaking
to Amy from a cell phone on the courthouse steps of the Third Circuit
Court of Appeals as she heads into oral arguments for a case brought
by several organizations calling for a stay on the media ownership
rules passed by the FCC in June 2003.
Later when I talk with Amy, she stresses
the importance of this story: “We have to cover every stage
of the struggle for keeping media independent. The FCC is creating
rules that amount to a takeover of our media, where basically 2,
3, 4 moguls will control everything. It is essential to cover because
the airwaves are ours, they are public’s — they are not
When I ask Amy and others at DN!
what makes now such a ripe moment for alternative media — and
how DN! has been able to grow with relatively little resources — the
unanimous answer is: collaboration, frustration, and technological
Ana Nogueira, one of DN!’s
two television producers, put it this way: “DN! is successful
because it’s the largest public media collaboration project
in the country. It relies on Independent Media Centers from all around
the world, it relies on small radio and public television stations,
it relies on Free Speech TV, it relies on people who like our mission
and want to donate technology services or web support.”
The support for DN! and other alternative
media has also emerged because people are fed up. As Amy puts it,
people are “tired of a media that they don’t identity
with — a media that they don’t believe in.”
It’s the first break of the hour. Ana rolls B-roll from Iraq
while music plays. During these breaks and throughout the show, they
use some of their own footage and a lot that is sent in by supporters
around the world. As recently as a few years ago, they all remind
me, access to this high-quality footage was next to impossible. And
for on-site reporting, the costs of satellite transmission were prohibitively
high. Now all that has changed.
As one of the best examples, everyone
points to the reporting of DN!’s Jeremy Scahill and Jacquie
Soohen from Iraq in the lead-up to the invasion. Saddam Hussein was
controlling all information coming in and going out of the country.
Only small emails could be sent and satellite transmission was impossibly
expensive. But with help from Indymedia coders, Jeremy and Jacquie
used an enhanced version of Split, a software that dices video into
small, emailable bits and compiles it back together on the other
end. And so for the year leading up to the invasion, Jacquie and
Jeremy produced www.IraqJournal.org with streaming images from the
Amy introduces her next guest, Michael Massing, who has written
a critique about the media’s role in the lead-up to the invasion
The speed of cuts and the complexity
of the programming is dizzying. Ana later tells me this is one of
their biggest challenges: communication during the show to ensure
seamless transitions and perfect cuts. Broadcast networks spend hundreds
of thousands of dollars on the programs that create these “run-down
systems.” A price tag DN! can’t afford. So, in another
collaborative effort, they’re creating their own. “Open
Flows, a collective, radical technology company, is building it with
us,” Ana explained. “Once it’s done, we’re
going to make it available as open source to any community group
that needs it.”
Cut to a press conference with White House spokesman Scott McClellan
responding to questions about President Bush’s service in the
National Guard: “The president fulfilled his duties,” McClellan
is saying. The press conference is broadcast uninterrupted for several
McClellan again: “The President
recalls serving both when he was in Texas and when he was in Alabama.” And
a minute later: “These documents clearly show that the President
fulfilled his duties.” And again: “And I think that the
facts are very clear from these documents. These documents — the
payroll records and the point summaries — verify that he was
paid for serving and that he met his requirements.”
I can’t imagine seeing a clip
this long on anything but C-SPAN (and how many people watch C-SPAN?).
It makes all the difference to hear McClellan repeat himself over
and over again, but this simply wouldn’t fit in the soundbite-driven
news of mainstream media.
After the show, Amy suggests a more
precise term. “I wouldn’t call it ‘mainstream media,’ she
said. “It should be called ‘corporate media.’ It
is a minority elite. A small number of pundits who know so little
about so much and comment on everything.”
And we’ve learned a lot about
the state of this “corporate media” in their coverage
of the war, Amy argues. “In the runup to the war, the media
got it all wrong,” she said. “They were simply the megaphones
of those in power. But now, we’ve got the media basically doing
press for the White House. And now that we know they got it wrong — and they know
it — they’re still bringing on the same people, asking
how did we get it wrong? What about letting someone who didn’t get
it wrong speak?
“The whole philosophy of journalism
is to hold those in power accountable to the public, to be the guardian
for the public interest, and to broadcast those whose voices we would
otherwise not hear. We go to where the silence is. That’s our
The show ends with Amy’s moving conversation with Nicholas
Yarris. As the cameras stop rolling, Amy reaches over and shakes
his hand. He looks much more relaxed.
With the taping done, the team immediately
switches gears: Transcriptions need to be made and put up on the
web, fallout from the show (including a call from a New York
Times reporter who wants to rebut Massing) need to be handled,
and tomorrow’s show needs to be planned.
Much of what makes the show run,
I hear again and again, are the volunteers. Certain tasks, like show
transcriptions, are handled completely by them. “We have transcribers
across the country,” Ana tells me. One of their transcribers,
the guy who “does Tuesdays,” even emailed from an Internet
café in Paris where he was on vacation. He was waiting for
his transmission to do his weekly transcription.
In addition to transcription
volunteers, dozens of other people are involved in the day-to-day
operations: “We have one or two volunteers in every day to
help with the flood of administrative details… We also
seek and use highly skilled volunteers, from video techs, database
experts, GIS professionals, set designers, and directors. We call
on volunteers to help set up a temporary studio and at events like
a recent one in Berkeley with 3,500 people,” Denis explains.
As Amy puts it: “DN! and IMCs
are built on almost nothing except the goodwill, curiosity, passion
of people who are tired of seeing their friends and neighbors through
a corporate lens and particularly tired — and afraid — that
that image is being sent around the world.”
By now, tomorrow’s show is set. Amy, Ana and Elizabeth (Press,
the other television producer), and Mike, Jeremy, and Sharif (Abdel
Kouddous, another producer) are sitting in the studio. Ana and Elizabeth
are finding footage for tomorrow’s show. Mike and Jeremy are
on the phones trying to find the best people to interview.
The big-screen TVs are broadcasting
CNN. We watch the sixth repeat of the Jackson-Timberlake top-tearing
Superbowl fiasco and listen as a guest from the Family Research Council
laments the loss of family values. We all look at each other perplexed
when CNN quotes Bush saying the media solution is to: “Turn
the ‘off’ button on.”
As I sit in the
studio surrounded by everyone hard at work to deliver news unfiltered
by corporate bias, I think of Mike’s words: “My biggest
hope is that DN! encourages and inspires independent media makers
to develop their own shows. If every town had their own DN!, this
country would be a very different place.”
“Our mission is to make dissent
commonplace in America,” Amy stressed. “Dissent is what
makes this nation healthy — it comes out of the finest tradition
that built this country — and we have to fight for it.”
Spending a day in the DN! world, it’s easy to forget about
the media most Americans turn to. To give myself a healthy dose,
I return home and channel-surf FOX News, ABC, CBS, and NBC. It only
takes an hour or so to begin feeling disheartened. Even though DN!
is growing, it still only reaches a fraction of the American public.
Meanwhile most people are watching maggot-eating identical twins
on Fear Factor or hearing the nightly news declare tonight’s
breaking story: “the ending you didn’t see on
Sex and the City.” But as I feel myself descending into despair,
I remember what Amy said when I asked her how she keeps her head
up in a time of — as Orwell would have put it — universal
deceit: “We don’t have a choice,” she’d answered. “We
either make the world a better place or we don’t. I prefer