On Tuesday, June 7, a long, contentious Presidential primary season in the United States will essentially come to an end. Regardless of your political leanings, your choice of candidate, and your visions for the future of “democracy” in the United States, one thing should be crystal clear: the mainstream media has performed what might only be called journalistic nonfeasance. Their coverage has been an unending parade of ethical disasters portending the months ahead.
Citizens of the United States are generally misinformed, under-informed, or simply ignorant. This is part of our cultural heritage. Richard Hofstadter (1962) famously wrote about this in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. While Hofstadter is writing broadly about the role of the public intellectual in our national discourse, politics, business, and educational systems, his larger point is that people in the United States tend to take some level of pride in being misinformed.
My contention is the mainstream media plays and thrives on this narrative. When you pop on mainstream media today (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS) there is little serious conversation occurring. I’ve grown frustrated and exhausted with the whole charade. Talking heads providing entertainment rather than real engaged and informative conversation. Personally, I’ve stopped watching altogether, turning to alternative news sources and podcasts – NPR (although even NPR is starting to become highly corporatized; despite this they still offer more in-depth coverage than mainstream media), the daily BBC World Service Podcast, and increasingly, Democracy Now!
Several weeks back I was fortunate to attend a talk here in Houston hosted by Amy Goodman, one of the co-founders and journalists who works on Democracy Now! While I had heard of this show, I never paid much attention. The talk was invigorating. I was in a room filled with other progressives who clearly knew much more than me about the impact this show has. As I do at most of these talks, I picked up the book and was fortunate to shake Amy’s hand and gather her signature.
The book, Democracy Now! Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America should be required reading in this year of Presidential politics. One of Goodman’s (2016) central arguments is the need for a strong independent media – to go where there is media silence. Mainstream media, Goodman contends, “is static: that veil of distortion, lies, misrepresentations, and half-truths that obscure reality.” She argues for “a media that is the fourth estate, not for the state” (p. 10).
The book discusses in greater depth than most media some of the key events shaping our world today – both from historical and contemporary perspectives. Here are a few examples.
Race and Racism
Throughout the book, Goodman (2016) traces the ongoing fight for racial justice in the United States. She examines the rise of movements such as #blacklivesmatter or Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri through the prisms of ongoing economic inequality, materialism, war, and police brutality. She discusses the removal of the Confederate Flag from the statehouse in South Carolina following the 2015 murder of black parishioners by a white supremacist.
To historicize these movements, Goodman harkens back to the Civil Rights Movement, for one, reminding readers that at the time of his death Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting for economic issues in Memphis; had become a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War; and saw these issues as intricately interconnected.
She talks throughout the book about the importance of movements being change agents. Further, in what I can only describe as a necessary and important contribution of the book to our national discourse, Goodman (2016) implicitly argues that movements cannot be disconnected. The fight for racial justice is necessarily entangled with movements for economic equality, fighting climate change, eradicating the prison-industrial complex and its corollary partner – police brutality, and working toward peace by eradicating unnecessary, unending war. This is an argument for solidarity among communities.
Goodman (2016) masterfully crafts a narrative about our war-obsessed nation. She dissects what happened in the months after 9/11, particularly the start of blanket NSA surveillance. In these stories we hear the early victims of the burgeoning security state – former NSA employees who were harassed, abused, fired, or jailed for pointing out the unconstitutionality of warantless wiretapping. We also read more detailed accounts of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
There is also a very well-written discussion of the paradox of President Obama. Elected on a platform of ending war, Goodman (2016) traces in great detail the expansion of drone wars under the current President; discusses the sometimes contradictory nature of policies, such as fighting for nuclear disarmament while expanding nuclear weapon funding; and unpacks President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, in which Obama makes the case for more war, not less war, to lead to a more stable world. There is also the murky issues surrounding regime change, the Arab Spring, weapons sales, and other issues that are often swept under the rug in the mainstream media. Many of these conversations are important to read about as they also involve Secretary Clinton – the soon-to-be Democratic Presidential nominee.
Finally, near the end of the book Goodman (2016) discusses the role torture has played in the “war on terror.” Particularly troubling is her chapter “Disabling the Enablers,” where she discusses the role the American Psychological Association played in designing and implementing torture under the Bush administration. Prior to reading this book, I knew nothing about this.
Other important moments
There are chapters in this text dealing with the ongoing fight to abolish the death penalty; the Occupy Wall Street movement; Climate activists; and LGBTQ rights. While she covers some well-known moments in these chapters, the more powerful stories are those Goodman (2016) reports on regarding the un-reported or under-reported. Those moments of silence. In most cases, Goodman and her team from Democracy Now! were there to capture these moments, report the story, and raise the important questions.
We need to be more informed as citizens. We need to ask deeper questions. We need not assume that the mainstream media will do their jobs – they are not. Reading books such as this, seeking out alternative sources of information, and looking beyond flashy “Breaking News” headlines is desperately needed in this year of democracy, and beyond.
Goodman, A. (2016). Democracy now! Twenty years covering the movements changing America. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Hofstadter, R. (1962). Anti-intellectualism in American life. New York, NY: Vintage Books.