Amy Goodman is an American broadcast journalist, investigative reporter and host of Democracy Now! In September 2016, Goodman’s coverage of the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) gained international attention after Democracy Now! published a video report showing private security guards attacking protesters with pepper spray and guard dogs. The video quickly gained millions of views. A few days later, the Obama administration called for the pipeline company to voluntarily halt construction, but they did not. North Dakota issued a warrant for the arrest of Amy Goodman on riot charges, raising widespread concerns about freedom of the press. The charges were ultimately dropped, but outrage generated by the report itself and its aftermath drove further coverage by other major news platforms. Democracy Now!’s coverage and Amy Goodman’s arrest marked a crucial turning point when the struggle at Standing Rock became a national issue. Over recent months, Standing Rock has sparked debate over fossil fuels, water contamination and the ongoing political marginalization of Native Americans. Facing pressure from the growing movement, on December 4th, the Obama Administration refused to grant a final permit necessary for pipeline construction to continue on that path.
CPCJ: Standing Rock is such a clear instance of when your coverage was pivotal in turning the issue from something on the margins of national discourse to something at the center. Are there are other moments in your long and decorated career of reporting that you’d compare this to?
Amy Goodman: To be on the ground in Indonesia-occupied Timor in 1991 when thousands of defenseless Timorese marched remembering a man who had been killed two weeks before. It was one of the great genocides of the late 20th century, and it killed off a third of the population. We went there 17 years into the slaughter just covering this protest march. On November 12, 1991, the Indonesian soldiers came upon the thousands of people that had marched to the cemetery and opened fire. They beat us and fractured my colleague Allan Nairn’s skull. Since journalists were there, they could no longer deny that they had done something. They tried to deny it – they said they hadn’t killed anyone, then they said they’d killed 19 people, then they said they’d killed 50 people. The reports were changing as we flew from East Timor to West Timor to Bali. But when we reported that they had gunned down scores of people, for the first time they couldn’t deny it. They killed more than 270 people on that day. That’s why that kind of eye-witness reporting is so important.
CPCJ: The issue of journalistic repression comes into the Standing Rock story as well. There have been other independent journalists that have been arrested covering this situation, such as the Unicorn Riot team.
AG: Yes, they’ve really targeted a number of journalists, and it’s very important to talk about all of them. They don’t want these images out there.
CPCJ: As we saw in the protests in Ferguson, even being a member of an established commercial outlet like The Washington Post doesn’t necessarily protect you in these moments of social struggle, but the independent progressive media are particularly vulnerable, and sometimes they can’t marshal powerful constituencies of support to pressure authorities. You’ve talked before about the chilling effect that your arrest could have had, particularly for young journalists. Given that we are looking down the barrel of a federal government that looks extremely hostile to both protest and critical media coverage, what do you think is the best approach for young independent journalists to deal with this?
AG: Do the work, get out there, report, open the microphone to people who are not usually heard – which, by the way, is not a fringe minority or even a silent majority but the silenced majority who are silenced by the corporate media, which is why we have to take it back. It’s so important to do that work and elevate those authentic voices. There is nothing that compares. I think that’s why Democracy Now! has grown from nine community radio stations to 1,400. It’s not your know-nothing pundits who know so little about so much at all the networks, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. It’s people on the ground deeply knowledgeable about their own experience in their own communities. That’s what resonates.
CPCJ: Live-streaming has become crucial nowadays. In your case, the first viral video from Democracy Now! at Standing Rock wasn’t live-streamed, but there were certainly some streams that were quite pivotal, for instance, when police raided one of the camps.
AG: What the people there are doing in the media collectives, from Unicorn Riot to Digital Smoke Signals, is very important. We just broadcasted a video of Native American media activists being harassed by snowmobilers and pipeline supporters. It’s very important to see what’s happening.
CPCJ: Do you think that shift, particularly to video has a democratizing effect on media production? Or do you think the shift to video is also more complicated given that it can take a lot of money to produce content with high-end production values?
AG: I think the decentralization of the media is very important and that everyone can access and film is very important. You’re getting a very different perspective, and it’s really challenging the established media, which for so long has been the gatekeepers and kept out so much more information than it has included.
CPCJ: You have talked often about how important it is to cover grassroots social movements given widespread media reluctance to do so. Could you speak a bit about the responsibilities that media organizations like Democracy Now! and social movements have towards each other?
AG: We have a responsibility to be there and to cover what's happening. Democracy Now! shouldn't have the huge niche that we do. Corporate media denigrates movements and activists, but what could be more noble than dedicating your life to making the world a better place? They go for either the people they consider establishment leaders, the know-nothing pundits or the human-on-the-street interview. What they don’t focus on are the people, the organizers, the activists – in fact they are suspicious of them. We think that movements are what make history, and that’s why we continually cover them. It’s our job to cover power, not to cover for power. It’s our job to be the fourth estate, not for the state. And it’s our job to cover the movements that make history.
CPCJ: Given the extremely dark history of the depictions of Native Americans in US popular media in the context of a history of colonization and racial hierarchies, what is important for non-Native journalists to do when covering indigenous issues?
AG: The most revolutionary act you can engage in is to bring out those voices because there’s nothing more powerful than hearing someone speak for themselves whether it is a Standing Rock Sioux child or an Ojibwe grandmother or a Lakota activist or someone from the Red Warrior camp. When you hear someone describe their own experience, it breaks down barriers. You start to say, “Oh my gosh, it sounds like my mother, or my aunt or my brother.” I’m not saying you necessarily agree with them – how often do we even agree with our family members? – but you begin to understand where they’re coming from, and that’s the beginning of peace. I think the media could be the greatest force for peace on Earth, but instead it is all too often wielded as a weapon of war. That’s why we have to take the media back.