There's a prescient chapter title in Amy Goodman's most recent book, Breaking the Sound Barrier. The independent journalist and host of Democracy Now declared in June of 2007: “The time is right for a new Pentagon Papers.” The organization that would deliver on her call officially launched that same year. WikiLeaks would soon release information that Americans previously had no access to. Thousands of documents on the decisions about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and internal cables between foreign diplomats and the US State Department. It was the largest release of information since the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers and accomplished what Goodman believes the media's job is: to hold people in power to account and bring forward voices that are not heard.
Today, Goodman believes WikiLeaks delivered the same shock to a failing system that the Pentagon Papers did 40 years ago. While mainstream and corporate-owned outlets are questioning their relevance, Goodman sees an opportunity for the voices that have been shut out. Breaking the Sound Barrier documents some shocking betrayals on the part of the media—what she named the “Craven servility to the [former] Bush administration.” The media developed a liking for war analysis and, in the post 9-11 world, quickly jumped on board a war message. Goodman details the over 393 interviews done on mainstream news channels in the run up to Colin Powell's speech for the war to the UN. Of those, three were done with anti-war analysts even though, as Goodman points out, the call for peace was at its height with millions of people across the world protesting a war in Iraq.
Today, those voices are being spread without the help of television news networks. And while mainstream media is left shaken by the release of WikiLeaks and the growth of social media and citizen journalism, Goodman sees it as evidence that the state of media censorship may be starting to change. She points to the recent revolution in Egypt as a key example.
“Letting people speak for themselves is key to the success of new media,” she says before citing several examples of Egyptians using any tools available to spread their ideas. “Asmaa Mahfouz, the 26-year-old woman who posted video on her Facebook page, who called on people to stand with her in Tahrir Square to protest police brutality.”
Mahfouz's video was posted one week before the popular protests came to a breaking point on January 25. “It's remarkable what young people have done in Egypt,” Goodman says. “Ultimately it's the people at the centre of this revolution and rebellion. They're using whatever tools they can.”
Social media happens to be one of those tools providing a key advantage to citizens: time. “It's amazing what can happen in 18 days,” Goodman says, referencing the time it took for Tunisian citizens to rise up and overthrow now-ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In comparison to the 20 months it took whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to find a newspaper willing to print his Pentagon Papers, the quick responses that social media facilitated demonstrates that advances in communication are a growing tool to help spread stories. But while the power and speed of social networking was revealed through the recent Egyptian revolution, a consistent danger was also demonstrated: on January 27 the Egyptian government effectively turned off the Internet to its citizens.
Many Egyptians, and on-the-scene reporters like Democracy Now's Sharif Abdel Khouddous, were able to get around the shutdown by rigging their own systems, but for many it cut off the instant communication within their own country. Egyptians turned to more traditional methods such as printing pamphlets, and many claim the shutdown is what caused Egyptians to keep coming to Tahrir Square: they were looking for information. But like traditional media, it's the ownership structure that may have proved a strong pressure point contributing to the shutdown. The UK company Vodafone, which was one of the only companies to provide Egypt's Internet service, was instrumental in shutting it down when former president Mubarak sent the order. The same could be witnessed in the US when WikiLeaks continued to release thousands of cable messages from the US State Department. Mastercard, Visa and PayPal all shut down their support for WikiLeaks by ending the ability to donate to the company through their outlets online.
“Absolutely it's a problem,” Goodman explains, seeing how the impact of corporatization has affected citizen access to information. “But, ultimately, at the heart of this revolution is people using any tools they can.”
And the growth of citizen journalism, social media and the WikiLeaks information may be putting pressure on corporate outlets to tell the whole story. As the driving force behind Goodman's journalism reveals, the media's job is to find the voices that are not being heard. Often we are not moved by the shouts of a million protesters, but by the story of one person. As Goodman writes in Breaking the Sound Barrier, “When you hear someone speaking from his or her own experience, it breaks down stereotypes that fuel hate groups that divide society. The media can build bridges between society … “
With the lack of diversity in media and a general failure to represent people, Goodman wonders where the great discussions to find solutions will be found. She compares the media to a worldwide family kitchen table: “Where will innovative thinkers, grassroots activists, human rights leaders and ordinary citizens come together to hash out solutions to today's most pressing problems?” V
Saturday Feb 26
Edmonton Public Library welcomes Amy Goodman
Telus Centre (University of Alberta campus 111 St and 87 Ave), Free