Cutting through the static – Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman who is a co- host on the independent US news station, Democracy Now!, has published a book, ‘Breaking the Sound Barrier’. A collection of essays that reports on news analyses shunned by corporate mainstream media, an excerpt of the book has been published in the November issue of the ColdCut reader (p11-16) (an online pdf magazine) serving as a reminder of the importance of investigative journalism.

In ‘the art of war and deception’, Amy dissects US government propaganda aided by a compliant media which prevents Americans from comprehending the nature of the Iraqi Occupation. She compared the invasion to the unscripted media outburst of Hurricane Katrina:

… Bodies floated across our TV screens. I remember a young woman reporter interviewing a man whose wife’s hand had just slipped out of his, as she told him to take care of their children. After telling his story, the man waded into the water in shock with his boy. The reporter started to cry. The reports galvanized the country. Could you imagine if for one week we saw those images in Iraq: babies dead on the ground, women with their legs blown off by cluster bombs, soldiers dead and dying. Americans are a compassionate people. They would say no – war is not an answer to conflict in the twenty-first century…

On the wreckage caused by corporations such as Exxon Valdez, she reports its supertanker’s oil spillage into the Alaska Prince William Sound that went on to destroy the environment and the fisherman’s livelihoods. When taken to court, they were able to drag the cases for more than 20 years due to their financial prowess. An activist she interviewed, Ott, denounced the artificial and legal personality of corporations,

… Corporations were historically chartered by states to conduct their business. States could revoke a corporation’s charter if it broke the law or acted beyond its charter.

Corporations’ “free speech” is interpreted to include making campaign contributions and lobbying Congress. People who break laws can be locked up; when a corporation breaks the law – even behaving criminally negligently, causing death – rarely are the consequences greater than a fine, which the corporation can write off on its taxes…

Brilliant investigative journalism does not mirror the language of the powers. As Amy herself said in the introduction,

The media’s job is to be the exception to the rulers, to hold those in power accountable, to challenge, and to ask the hard questions – to be the public watchdog.

===

Cutting through the static

The following six pages feature the introduction and three essays from Amy Goodman’s latest book, Breaking The Sound Barrier

1. Introduction

Beyond the Nine-Minute Sound barrier

My goal as a journalist is to break the sound barrier, to expand the debate, to cut through the static and bring forth voices that are shut out. It is the responsibility of journalists to go where the silence is, to seek out news and people who are ignored, to accurately and clearly report on the issues – issues that the corporate, for-profit media often distort, if they cover them at all.

What is typically presented as news analysis is, for the most part, a small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. While they may appear to differ, they are quibbling over how quickly the bombs should be dropped, not asking whether they should be dropped at all.

Unfortunately, as a result, people are increasingly turning away from the news at a time when news media should be providing a forum for discussion – a forum that is honest and open, that weighs all the options, and that includes those deeply affected by US policy around the globe. I am not talking about a fringe minority or the silent majority, but a silenced majority, silenced by the corporate media. The media’s job is to be
the exception to the rulers, to hold those in power accountable, to challenge, and to ask the hard questions – to be the public watchdog.

The media also need to find stories of hope, to tell stories that resonate with people’s lives in the real world (not the reel world). The media are going through pro- found changes. The Internet undermines traditional business models that have enriched for-profit media companies. Newspapers are folding at an alarming rate, like Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, shuttered after almost 150 years. Others have stopped printing paper editions, moving online, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor. In fact, most papers are still profitable – just not profitable enough for Wall Street. Shareholders demand a re- turn on investments, attaching no value to the crucial role that journalism plays in society.

Increasingly restless, people are look- ing for alternative sources of information in this complex world. They are getting savvier at pursuing the news sources they want, when and how they want it – on websites, through audio and video podcasting, on mobile platforms. They critique, share, excerpt, and repost the content they appreciate, adding their insights, running circles around the old networks while building their own trusted online communities. Many contribute reporting, joining the global ranks of the increasingly important citizen (and non- citizen) journalists. All this was enabled be- cause the Internet has been free and unfettered, driven by “net neutrality,” the rules of the Internet that have kept its content and uses equal – that have made web sources like democracynow.org as readily available as the sites of the major media corporations. These large corporations, however, are try- ing to control the Internet, to restrict the free flow of information, to restore their historical role of for-profit arbiter of what we can and cannot read, watch, or hear. Preserving net neutrality will prevent their digital oligopoly, keeping the Internet a level playing field.

Despite the opportunities this new media environment provides, there is still no replacing the historically crucial role played by the seasoned muckraker in our society. How can journalism be supported sustain- ably? There has been much discussion of “nonprofit” journalism. I! has been practicing nonprofit journalism for 14 years, following the lead of Pacifica Radio, which has been at it for more than 60 years, brought to
you by the audience – not by corporations that profit from war.

Democracy Now! is a national, daily, in- dependent, award-winning news program, pioneering the largest public media collaboration in the United States. We broadcast on Pacifica, NPR, community, and college radio stations; on public access, PBS, and satellite television; and on the Internet at democracynow.org. Democracy Now!’s podcast is one of the most popular on the web. We shepherd our resources carefully, invest in people, develop and use open source technology, and don’t answer to advertisers.

I remember as the bombs were falling on Baghdad in 2003, when we got an e-mail from Radio Skid Row, a Sydney, Australia, community radio station that carries Democracy Now! They received a comment from a listener asking, “How is it that the best coverage of the war is coming from the poorest station in Sydney?” This is what in- dependent media is all about: unembedded, investigative, international journalism.

The columns collected here are stories from both the streets and the suites, bring- ing out voices from all over this increasingly globalized world. Unprecedented changes are affecting everyone, everywhere. I have tried to go beyond the nine-second sound bite to bring you a taste of the whole meal. I see the media as a huge kitchen table that stretches across this globe, one we all sit around to debate and discuss the most critical issues of the day: war and peace, life and death. Anything less than that is a disservice to a democratic society.

2. November 30, 2006,
The art of war and deception

Every great work of art goes through messy phases while it is in transition. A lump of clay can become a sculpture; blobs of paint become
paintings which inspire.”

No, this is not Pablo Picasso speaking, but Major General William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for the Multinational Force– Iraq, comparing the carnage in Iraq to a work of art in another audacious attempt to paint Iraq as anything other than a catastrophe.

The general’s remarks do bring the great artist to mind. Picasso’s epic painting Guernica, named after the city in Spain, captured the brutality of the bombing of that city during another civil war, the Spanish Civil War.

The painting, almost 30 feet wide, is a globally recognized depiction and artistic condemnation of war. Picasso shows the terror on the faces of people, the frightened animals. He shows the dead, the dying, the dismembered. A tapestry reproduction of it adorns the lobby outside of the United Nations Security Council.

In February 2003, before then–US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his major push for war at the United Nations – a speech he would later call a “blot” on his re- cord – a blue curtain was drawn across the tapestry so that the image would not be the backdrop for press statements on the coming war. Immediately, posters and banners of Picasso’s Guernica began appearing at the anti- war demonstrations sweeping the globe.

The attempted control of imagery and propaganda, language and spin has been a high priority of the Bush administration. Yes, the Pentagon forbade photographing the flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers. But the manipulation goes beyond the war.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed.” If Eisenhower worked for the government today, he would have to revise his statement. Recently, the Bush ad- ministration stopped using the words “hunger” or “hungry” when describing the mil- lions of Americans who can’t afford to eat. Instead of suffering from hunger, the Agri- culture Department now says these people are experiencing “very low food security.”

While the Bush administration has had some success in covering up the truth, it seems like reality is finally beginning to out- pace its efforts.

Take, for example, Hurricane Katrina. A side effect of the Bush administration not responding to that disaster in a timely fashion is that when the network reporters went to New Orleans, there were no troops to embed with. What we saw for one of the first times was the network correspondents reporting from the victims’ perspective. Day after day, unspun, unfiltered.

Bodies floated across our TV screens. I remember a young woman reporter inter- viewing a man whose wife’s hand had just slipped out of his, as she told him to take care of their children. After telling his sto- ry, the man waded into the water in shock with his boy. The reporter started to cry. The reports galvanized the country. Could you imagine if for one week we saw those images in Iraq: babies dead on the ground, women with their legs blown off by cluster bombs, soldiers dead and dying. Americans are a compassionate people. They would say no – war is not an answer to conflict in the twenty-first century.

The debate now in vogue is whether Iraq is in a civil war. Sectarian violence on a mass scale is acknowledged all around: Gone are the harangues that the media are not covering the “positive stories” or the “good news” – there simply is no good news in Iraq. The Iraqi Ministry of Health estimated that 150,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion. An October medical journal article estimated the civilian death toll as somewhere near 655,000.

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq has now lasted longer than the US involvement in World War II. Iraqis suffered the most violent day in the entire war while Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving. Iraq, like Spain in the 1930s, is in a civil war. A civil war started by the US invasion and fueled by the US occupation. The shroud over the UN’s Guernica tapestry is gone. Now the only shrouds worth noting are those that wrap the victims of the daily slaughter in Iraq.

3. December 18, 2007
Surviving a Cia ‘Black Site’

The kidnap and torture program of the Bush administration, with its secret CIA “black site” prisons and “torture taxi” flights on private jets, saw a little light of day this week. I spoke to Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah in his first broadcast interview. Bashmilah was a victim of the CIA’s so- called extraordinary rendition program, in which people are grabbed from their homes, out of airports, off the streets, and are whisked away, far from the prying eyes of the US Congress, the press, far from the reach of the courts, to countries where cruelty and torture are routine.

Bashmilah is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and by the New York University School of Law Inter- national Human Rights Clinic in a lawsuit with four other victims of CIA rendition. They are suing not the US government, not the CIA, but a company called Jeppesen Dataplan Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing Corp. A former Jeppesen employee, Sean Belcher, entered an affidavit in support of Bashmilah, reporting that Jeppesen executive Bob Overby bragged, “We do all of the extraordinary rendition flights,” further explaining to staff that he was speaking of “the torture flights,” and that they paid very well.

Through a translator, over the phone from his home in Yemen, Bashmilah de- scribed how his ordeal began on October 21, 2003, when he was arrested in Amman, Jordan:

“It was approximately six days, but what I endured there is worth years. They wanted me to confess to having some connections to some individuals of al-Qaeda. They tried several times to get me to confess, and every time I said no, I would get either a kick, a slap, or a curse. Then they said that if I did not confess, they will bring my wife and rape her in front of me. And out of fear for what would happen to my family, I screamed and I fainted. After I came to, I told them that ‘please, don’t do anything to my family. I would cooperate with you in any way you want.’”

After signing a false confession, he was told he was going to be released. In the process of being led through the Jordanian intelligence facility, he lifted his blindfold.

“I saw another man who had a Western look. He was white and somewhat over- weight and had dark glasses on. I realized then that they were probably handing me over to some other agency, because during the interrogations I had with the Jordanians, one of the threats was that if I did not confess, they will hand me over to American intelligence.”

He was prepared for transit

“…stripped completely naked. They started taking pictures from all directions. And they also started to beat me on my sides and also my feet. And then they put me in a position similar to the position of prostration in Muslim prayer, which is similar to the fetal position. And in that position, one of them inserted his finger in my anus very violently. I was in terrible pain, and I started to scream. When they started taking pictures, I could see that they were people who were masked. They were dressed in black from head to toe, and they were also wearing surgical gloves.”

He says he was put in a diaper, had his eyes and ears covered, a bag was put over his head, and he had additional earphones put on his head to block noise. He was then flown to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was held in solitary confinement for close to six months. He believed he was being held by Americans.

“Some of the interrogators would come to me and interrogate me in the interrogation room, and they would tell me, “You should calm down and be comforted, because we’ll send all this information to Washington.” And they would say that in Washington, they will determine whether my answers are truthful or not.”

Although kept isolated from other prisoners, he managed to overhear some of them speculating that they were being held at Ba- gram Air Base. He went on to say that he was kept awake with blaring music and was held in shackles that were removed only for periodic interrogations.

While Bashmilah was being interrogated and tortured, he was also visited by “psychiatrists.” “[T]he therapy mainly consisted of trying to look at my thoughts and trying to interpret them for me, in addition to some tranquilizers.”

Bashmilah attempted suicide three times, staged a hunger strike that was painfully ended with a feeding tube forced down his nose, and was denied access to a lawyer, to any human rights group, to the International Committee of the Red Cross. In effect, he was disappeared.

On May 5, 2005, he was transferred to a prison in Yemen, where he eventually gained access to his family. Amnesty International got involved. He was released in March 2006 with no charges relating to terrorism.

Mohamed Bashmilah said there were cameras in his cells and interrogation rooms. Perhaps tapes were made of his ordeal. Let’s hope that the CIA doesn’t destroy these, too.

4. March 24, 2009
Lessons of the Exxon Valdez

Twenty years ago, the Exxon Valdez supertanker spilled at least 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound. The consequences of the spill were epic and continue to this day, impacting the environment and the economy. Instead of seeing it as just a pollution story, Riki Ott considers the Exxon Valdez disaster to be a fundamental threat to US democracy.

Ott, a marine toxicologist and commercial salmon “fisherma’am” from Cordova, Alaska, opens her book on the disaster, Not One Drop, with the words of Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”

The massive spill stretched 1,200 miles from the accident site, and covered 3,200 miles of shoreline and an incredible 10,000 square miles overall.

Early on March 24, 1989, Ott, who was on the board of the Cordova District Fishermen United, was airborne, surveying the scene:

“[I]t was a surreal scene. It was just drop- dead gorgeous, March, sunrise, pink mountains glistening with the sunrise. And all of a sudden we come on the scene, where there’s this red deck of this oil tanker that’s three football fields long; flat, calm water, dark blue; and there’s this inky-black stain that’s just stretching with the tide.”

News of the spill went global, and people poured into Valdez, Alaska, to start the cleanup. Sea life was devastated. Ott says up to half a million sea birds died, along with 5,000 sea otters, 300 or so harp seals, and billions of young salmon, fish eggs, and young juvenile fish. The death of the fish eggs created a long-term but delayed impact on the herring and salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound. By 1993, the fisheries had collapsed.

Families lost their livelihoods after taking huge loans to buy boats and expensive fishing permits. While the salmon fishery has improved, the herring have never come back.

This economic disruption is one basis of legal action against Exxon-Mobil, the biggest oil corporation in the world. Complex litigation has dragged on for two decades, and ExxonMobil is winning. There are 22,000 plaintiffs suing ExxonMobil. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 billion in damages, equal to what was, at the time, a year’s worth of Exxon profits. This was cut in half by a US appeals court, then finally lowered to just over $500 million by the Supreme Court. During the 20 years of court battles, 6,000 of the original plaintiffs have died. ExxonMobil, with its billions in annual profits and armies of lawyers, can tie up the Valdez case in the courts for decades, while the injured commercial fishers slowly die off.

The power of ExxonMobil to battle tens of thousands of citizens has pushed Ott to join a growing number of activists who want to put corporations back in their place by stripping them of their legal status as “persons.”

A 19th-century US Supreme Court deci- sion gave corporations the same status as people, with access to the protections of the Bill of Rights. Ironically, this comes from the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection clause,” adopted to protect freed slaves from oppressive state laws after the Civil War. Corporations were historically chartered by states to conduct their business. States could revoke a corporation’s charter if it broke the law or acted beyond its charter.

Corporations’ “free speech” is interpreted to include making campaign contributions and lobbying Congress. People who break laws can be locked up; when a corporation breaks the law – even behaving criminally negligently, causing death – rarely are the consequences greater than a fine, which the corporation can write off on its taxes. As Ott put it, “If ‘three strikes and you’re out’ laws can put a person in prison for life, why not a corporation?” So-called tort reform in US law is eroding an individual’s ability to sue corporations and the ability for courts to assess damages that would actually deter corporate wrongdoing.

Ott and others have drafted a “Twenty- Eighth Amendment” to the Constitution that would strip corporations of their personhood, subjecting them to the same over- sight that existed for the first 100 years of US history.

With the global economic meltdown and welling public outrage over the excesses of executives at AIG as well as over other bailout beneficiaries, now just might be the time to expand public engagement over the imbalance of power between people and corporations that has undermined our democracy.

===
Amy Goodman is the host of the radio/TV program Democracy Now! – http://www.democracynow.org Her previous books, co-authored with David Goodman, are The Exception To The Rulers, Standing Up To The Madness, and Static.

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