Goodman speaks up for the left

December 04, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Amy Goodman joined the circle of mourners when Philip Berrigan died on Dec. 6 last year, surrounded by his family and friends at the Jonah House community of West Baltimore.

Goodman's the fiercely independent host of Democracy Now!, the Pacifica radio and television war and peace report that styles itself "the exception to the rulers." She'd known and admired Berrigan since 1998 when she interviewed him in a federal prison where he was doing time for an anti-war assault on a Navy ship.

"We were all here," says Elizabeth McAlister, Berrigan's wife and co-worker in anti-war and anti-nuclear activism and co-founder of Jonah House. Daniel Berrigan, Philip's brother and a Jesuit priest, had administered the last rites of the Catholic church a few days earlier. Now a couple of the mourners came forth to recite Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead.

"Amy was standing right there," McAlister says. "She came up and began singing it in perfect Hebrew."

"I think at a time like that you do what you're used to," Goodman says. "That's what I knew."

She's coming back to Baltimore Saturday to speak on the anniversary of Berrigan's death. Her talk will be part of the monthly "Clarification of Thought" series sponsored by Jonah House and the Catholic Worker Viva House. She'll speak at 7 p.m. at St. Peter Claver Church, Pennsylvania Avenue and Presstman Street.

Berrigan was a parish priest there when he first came to Baltimore, nearly 50 years ago. His funeral was held there last year. Goodman spoke and broadcast from the church.

"When he died, he was surrounded by his nuclear family and a greater resistance community," she says. "That really very much was his family, the people he was arrested with, people he was jailed with. He embraced them all."

Goodman says that for this anniversary she'll talk about independent media in a time of war.

"And how important it is that we have an honest forum for the whole range of voices that make up this society," she says. "That includes people like Phil Berrigan, who could hardly be heard in this country outside of Pacifica Radio. ...

"That's what makes a democracy stronger - that you could hear all the voices," Goodman says. "That voices like his cannot be iced out. Or not just be saved for the history books. ...

"Someone like Phil is the greatest argument for independent media so people can make up their own minds. But they need to hear these unique individuals who take very strong stands. He truly was a man of convictions in every sense of the word."

Democracy Now! has been providing a forum for people like Berrigan and a remarkable range of other voices since Goodman started the program in 1996. She's worked with Pacifica Radio in New York for about 20 years. She started not long after she graduated from Harvard with a degree in anthropology.

She's the closest thing to a media superstar in left-liberal broadcasting - although she doesn't like being put into any category, let alone being called a star.

"I don't label myself, and I think increasingly labels are breaking down," she says. "Especially between conservative and liberal. You have conservatives joining with progressives on issues of privacy, corporate control and ... the whole question of what is happening right now in Iraq."

Goodman, 46, broadcasts from a studio in an old firehouse in Lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero. She sits at what looks like a dining room table. She doesn't wear makeup or jewelry, except for a gold ring that belonged to her father, George, a doctor and an anti-nuclear activist in his time. She reads the news with straightforward, careful clarity and she is scrupulously fair in her interviews or monitoring debates at her table.

She's heard or seen on nearly 200 stations now, up sharply since the start of the war in Iraq. She can be heard in Baltimore on WPFW 89.3 FM, the Pacifica station in Washington, or seen on Baltimore Public Access Television Channel 5 from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and again from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

She won the Robert F. Kennedy Award with Allan Nairn for reporting from East Timor in 1991. She narrowly escaped death when Indonesian soldiers killed 250 people at a demonstration she was covering. Nairn received a fractured skull in a beating while protecting her with his body. She also won the George Polk Award with Jeremy Scahill in 1998 for reporting on Chevron Corp. activities in Nigeria.

Her personal mantra pretty much paraphrases a traditional dictum for reporters: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." She says, "Go where the silence is and say something."

"If we don't stand up," she says, "the press is very much in danger of simply becoming stenographers for those in power."

She calls herself a secular Jew. She grew up on Long Island in a family perhaps more activist than religious. Her mother, Dorrie, 73, who started a local chapter of a nuclear disarmament group, visited Iran last year to learn about one of President Bush's "Axis of Evil" countries.

Her grandmother, Sonia Bock, coming up on her 107th birthday, once organized a sanitarium she had been sent to for a so-called fatal disease when she was about 50. Although a rebbetzin, an orthodox rabbi's wife, she was in fact an original feminist, Goodman says, "though she would not say that."

And Goodman does say Kaddish for her father, who died in 1998.

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