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A Day in the life of Democracy Now!
Anna Lappé

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 transcripts online.

6:05 a.m.

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.

7:32 a.m.

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.

7:44 a.m.

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 ready.”

“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.

7:53 a.m.

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 for everyone.

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.

7:59 a.m.

“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.

8:13 a.m.

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 their property.”

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 innovation.

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.”

8:27 a.m.

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 with streaming images from the ground.

8:29 a.m.

Amy introduces her next guest, Michael Massing, who has written a critique about the media’s role in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

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.”

8:33 a.m.

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 minutes.

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 job.”

8:59 a.m.

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.”

4:50 p.m.

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 to try.” 

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