A conversation with Carolyn Fisk, Bob Smiddie and Bob Sheak
By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
Democracy Now! is the non-profit, independent, public affairs news program of acclaimed journalist Amy Goodman, who often co-hosts the show with fellow award-winning journalists Juan González and Nermeen Shaikh). According to the show’s website, Democracy Now! “provides our audience with access to people and perspectives rarely heard in the US corporate media, including independent and international journalists, ordinary people from around the world who are directly affected by US foreign policy, grassroots leaders and peace activists, artists, academics and independent analysts. In addition the War and Peace Report hosts real debates – debates between people who substantially disagree, such as between the Whitehouse or the Pentagon spokespeople on the one hand, and grassroots activists on the other.”
Democracy Now! airs on over 500 radio and television stations in North American. However, WOUB — Ohio University’s public radio station — is not among them. For several years the station has denied repeated requests from area residents to air the show. Now a new local group is determined to overcome WOUB’s longstanding resistance. Athens Free Press is comprised of community members from Athens and Meigs County, OU students and faculty members, and other allies from around the region. Three of its members sat down with me at Donkey Coffee on August 21 to discuss their effort.
How did each of you find out about Democracy Now!, and how did you come to be part of this group?
Bob Smiddie: I’m kind of a news junkie. I used to watch the regular news in the afternoon – CBS or NBC, ABC — those three major ones. I’d sort of go from one to the other, and that’s how I got my news. Those three networks are the major stations for people to get their news, at least us older folks, and they tend to have the exact same stuff, you know?
I had never heard of Democracy Now! or acclaimed journalist Amy Goodman until my family got the satellite dish last winter or early spring. When I started watching Amy Goodman, I noticed she was talking about things that either were not on network news at all, or she’d talk about some aspect that was very different from what was on the networks.
I remember on Martin Luther King Day all of the networks were doing the exact same thing. The main thing was of course the “I Have a Dream” speech. But when Martin Luther King was killed, he was in Memphis for the sanitation workers’ strike. So Amy Goodman had about four or five leaders of that strike in her studio to talk with. About two or three of them were older guys, and then there were at least a couple who were somewhat younger. Back then they had been the young guys who were the most radical, who were almost like the Black Panthers. During the strike there had been a debate about whether a major march would be nonviolent, and those two guys had been in a meeting with Dr King about how the march was going to be done. And there was discussion about what they were marching for. It wasn’t just civil rights, it was also about economic issues. So this show was just a very different way of celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday, and I was very impressed with it.
And so then you started contacting other folks about trying to get the show aired on a local station?
Bob Sheak: I got involved after Carolyn called me. Back in September or October of 2004 a group of us had started a letter-writing campaign against Bush, and to some extent for Kerry, and we wrote a lot of letters to the newspapers in those two months. So I was on Carolyn’s radar screen.
Throughout my careet as a sociologist, going back to 1971 and even before that, I’ve been interested in the problems of concentrated power, through both Democratic and Republican administrations. The media are among the institutions that are dominated by large corporations. The Internet gives you some alternative, perhaps, at least for the time being, and so I get most of my news from AlterNet, Anti-War.com, Common Dreams, ZNet – a whole bunch of websites that bring together articles from all sorts of sources, not only American.
I had read both of Amy’s books, but I didn’t pay any attention to Democracy Now! until Carolyn encouraged me to watch. I began taking very careful look at the show, and I’m pretty impressed. To the extent that I listen to PBS, I see a marked difference between Democracy Now! and PBS programs.
Take The Diane Rehm Show, which a lot of people rave about – and I think Rehm deserves some credit. On Fridays, Diane Rehm has a review of the week, and today they started out talking about the court decision on José Padilla [AKA: Abdullah al-Muhajir, a US citizen convicted on August 16 of aiding overseas terrorists]. It was such a superficial discussion. And also Jim Lehrer, last night had a whole segment on Padilla, talking about the legal aspects of it and what the judge was going to do — was he going to give him life, and all the rest of it. Meanwhile, Amy Goodman interviewed a psychiatrist, forensic psychiatrist named Dr. Angela Hegarty, who has interviewed Padilla for 22 hours — the only psychiatrist who had that kind of access. Hegarty says that three and half years of isolation coercive interrogation, using all sorts of manipulative psychological techniques, have destroyed this guy. So all of the evidence that’s related to the court’s decision should be deemed invalid.
Your group is called Athens Free Press. Are you a local chapter of the national media reform organization Free Press, founded by media critic and author Robert McChesney?
Carolyn Fisk: No, there’s no official link. We just thought we should probably have a name that kind of connects us with one of the bigger organizations. We’re also not all from the City of Athens or even just Athens County. It’s just a name for now.
So once you all got together, you approached WOUB. What was the station’s response?
CF: Well, first I emailed WOUB Radio Director Tim Myers early in the winter. He responded, and I had a phone conversation with him. He just said “We wont air it” because he said some people compare it to Fox News, but on the left. Well, I know that Democrary Now! is investigative journalism, and Fox doesn’t do investigative journalism.
After that, the issue died down for a while. Then in April I ran into Bob Stewart, and he said, “You’ve got to get this back on the front burner.” He said I needed to look at the School of Journalism’s website.” A bunch of students had just come back from the National Media Reform Conference and were interested in media reform and alternative media.
BSh: Since then we’ve met twice with WOUB representatives, three key people: Carolyn Bailey Lewis [Director and General Manager], Mark Brewer [Chief Content Officer] and Tim Myers. At the first meeting, we presented our case and they gave us some responses. About a month later we met again with them to hear more of their responses. The bottom line is that they are adamantly opposed to including Democracy Now! in either their radio or television programming.
They have a lot of reasons for this, but I think the principal reason is an ideological one. They say, “We only air programming that meets three standards: fairness, objectivity and balance.” And they say – rather assertively, without any real documentation – that Democracl Now! doesn’t meet any of those standards, therefore: “We’re not going to include it.”
I take it you three don’t share WOUB’s perspective.
CF: I don’t understand it. I think the way they must do it is that each program has to be fair, balanced and objective, rather than the mix of all their news programs. Well, all that does is make things boring.
BSm: I don’t even accept that business about “fair and balanced.” I don’t think Amy Goodman is afraid of having anybody on the show to provide balance.
BSh: If you look at who Amy’s had on over the last few years, she’s had people from Bill Clinton to Noam Chomsky. All sorts of interesting people- not only people who represent an independent voice outside of the corporate dominated society – but some who are embedded in it as well. Some of her guests are difficult to classify. Christopher Hitchens, for example, is left on some issues and right on others. And not only Americans. She had a debate about the Venezuelan radio station, RCTV, that lost its license. [Leftist Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez refused to continue the license because the radio station had supported the undemocratic coup against him. And she had two people: one representing RCTV and another academic from up in New England, I forget the university – just presenting the RCTV case. So there is some give and take.
BSm: One of the things that came up over and over and over again at that second meeting with WOUB was this “left and right” kind of talking, which I think is simply a rock to hide behind. I’ve never accepted this argument about left and right, from them or from anybody else. What I want to know is: Does Amy Goodman do truth? Does she do the very best that she can to find out what the truth of the situation is? Whatever it is that she is looking at- and I think she does. And I think she goes a lot further than the regular media.
BSh: The way I see it, Amy Goodman is one of those independent voices that helps to air programs and points of view that are contrary to the corporate dominated institutional apparatus of our society. She gets no funding from corporations, no funding from the government. To use an old cliche, she speaks truth to power- a truth that represents not the whole society, but which reflects the interest of the majority of the people.
She’s clearly a progressive, and people define her justifiably, I think, as on the left. But that’s where most of the people are. There was a June 2007 report by Campaign for America’s Future in Media Matters, and they reviewed a lot of major authoritative polling data and found that the majority of Americans are progressive across a wide range of controversial issues, and they are growing more progressive all the time.
I understand hundreds of stations around the country carry Democracy Now!, including some National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service stations. Have you been in touch with any of these stations?
BSm: I’m from Tennessee. One of the stations that carries Democracy Now! is in East Tennessee- which is a total, total shock to me. East Tennessee is incredibly conservative, and the station there is very pleased with the response they’ve been getting. They say it’s been very positive.
BSh: That station is WETS FM. It’s an NPR affiliate. They have listeners in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and west North Carolina. They started airing Democrary Now! in July 2005. It’s on prime time, 6-7:00 PM, after All Things Considered. Democracy Now! became the most profitable one hour slot in the station’s schedule during the summer pledge drive.
There are also four stations that carry the radio version of Democracy Now! and five stations that carry the television version in Ohio. One of them is in the Miami area, the Miami Valley Communications Television in Centerville. They wrote us, “Democracy Now!, hands down, garners more positive feedback and more interest than any other non-locally produced programming we offer.”
And WOUB hasn’t been persuaded by these stations’ experiences with the show?
CF: Not yet. And we’re still deciding on our next steps. But Democracy Now! belongs on WOUB; it’s a public station. The public deserves to have information that is not readily available on any other news program.
BSh: Bob Stewart, one of the key people in our group, who teaches in the School of Journalism, made a beautiful summary statement for our first meeting with WOUB. He said, “Democracy Now! offers high quality sophisticated and independent analysis of important issues reflecting WOUB’s publicly stated commitment to public service for listeners and viewers.”
In the keynote speech at this year’s National Conference on Media Reform, Bill Moyers [a recipient of nearly every television journalism award, including more than 30 Emmys; President of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy and host of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS] said “the opening rundown of news on Amy’s daily show is like nothing else on any television, corporate or public.” Moyers told the audience, “In moments of revelry, I imagine all of you returning home to organize a campaign to persuade your local public television station to start airing Democracy Now! I can’t think of a single act more likely to remind people of what public broadcasting should be, or that this media reform conference really means business. We’ve got to get alternative content out there to people, or this country is going to die of too many lies.”
And this is also something the College of Communications should get behind. There is a severe lack of diversity in terms of the role models that journalism students have a chance to emulate. Amy Goodman is a strong woman who has won all sorts of awards for her broadcasting and investigative research, who hosts a program – provocative, interesting and in-depth program, covering stories that are often not covered in the same way, or well, by public radio or commercial media. What a great role model for students, especially for female students!
CF: A lot of people don’t have the Internet. A lot of people make decisions on Election Day that are counter to their wellbeing, and that’s because they don’t have the information to make wise decisions.
It’s the media’s job to see that the information is there in some form, or that there’s a debate, not an official debate, but that public issues of great importance are debated in the public sphere. That’s the whole purpose of media; it’s not to make money for advertisers; it’s not there to put on weather, crime, traffic and nothing else.
We, the public, own the airwaves. The major corporations, the big media pay nothing. They pay nothing for the use of the airwaves, and the people own the airwaves.
This is a steep battle, but I think it’s worth it.
In the meantime, people can find Democracy Now! on the Web at http://democracynow.org. When it comes to other folks who already enjoy the show and newcomers who find they do as well, are you looking for more people like this to join your group?
CF: Absolutely. There will be a lot of students on board when they come back. Athens Free Press is a mix of community and university. The best way for people to get in touch is to email Bob Smiddie or me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.