A Grassroots Newscast Gives a Voice to Struggles

Hours after Amy Goodman, the host of the grass-roots newscast “Democracy Now!,” was arrested in Minnesota in 2008 while trying to cover protesters at the Republican National Convention, she was sitting in a network news studio above the convention floor, when a producer said: “I don’t get it. Why wasn’t I arrested?”

Ms. Goodman asked him, “Were you out on the streets?” No, he said, he had been in the studio the whole time. “I’m not being arrested here either,” she said she told him. “You’ve got to get out there.”

For Ms. Goodman, that exchange expresses both a shortcoming of the network newscasts that many Americans consume and a strength of “Democracy Now!,” the 15-year-old public radio and television program. The newscast distinguishes itself by documenting social movements, struggles for justice and the effects of American foreign policy, along with the rest of the day’s developments.

Operated as a nonprofit organization and distributed on a patchwork of stations, channels and Web sites, “Democracy Now!” is proudly independent, in that way appealing to hundreds of thousands of people who are skeptical of the news organizations that are owned by major media companies. The program “escapes the suffocating sameness that pervades broadcast news,” said John Knefel, a comedian and freelance writer who started listening about four years ago and now tries never to miss an episode.

Though it has long had a loyal audience, “Democracy Now!” has gained more attention recently for methodical coverage of two news events — the execution of the Georgia inmate Troy Davis and the occupation of Wall Street and other symbolic sites across the country. Ms. Goodman broadcast live from Georgia for six hours on Sept. 21, the evening of the execution, and “Democracy Now!” reporters were fanned out in Manhattan from the first day of the protests against corporate greed.

“At the time, we had no idea if the protest would even last the night, but we recognized it as potentially an important story,” said Mike Burke, a senior news producer for the program. He noted that “it took NPR more than a week to air its first story on the movement.”

Distribution for “Democracy Now!” — which is live each weekday at 8 a.m. Eastern — comes from public, community and college radio stations; public access television stations and some PBS affiliates; the noncommercial satellite networks Free Speech TV and Link TV; and from the program’s Web site, DemocracyNow.org, which streams each hourlong newscast in full.

The producers say the program is broadcast on more than 950 stations. But because the distribution is cobbled together and because the program has no commercials, no Nielsen ratings are available.

The media, Ms. Goodman said in an interview last week, can be “the greatest force for peace on earth” for “it is how we come to understand each other.” But she asserted that the views of a majority of Americans had been “silenced by the corporate media.”

“Which is why we have to take it back,” she said, echoing the sentiments of many of her fans.

Friends and former colleagues describe Ms. Goodman as ferocious and persistent, traits that have not changed since the program’s inception in 1996 on five Pacifica Radio stations.

“On the radio, she sounded at times like a giant, at others a giant slayer,” said Jeremy Scahill, now an investigative reporter for The Nation magazine, who practically begged Ms. Goodman to let him volunteer for the program in 1997. She agreed and initially paid him $40 a day from her own pocket. On Facebook he lists the program as his college education.

“What drove us was telling stories we felt were being ignored, misreported or underreported by corporate media outlets,” Mr. Scahill said.

The program slowly gained more stations and, amid a dispute with Pacifica, which was later resolved, it established itself as a nonprofit news organization in 2001. The week of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the program began to be simulcast on television. Since then, Ms. Goodman said, “the growth has just been phenomenal.”

While many media outlets were faulted for playing down antiwar protests after the attacks, “Democracy Now!” covered such events extensively.

Some fans as well as critics describe “Democracy Now!” as progressive, but Ms. Goodman rejects that label and prefers to call it a global newscast that has “people speaking for themselves.” She criticized networks in the United States that have brought on professional pundits, rather than actual protesters, to discuss the Occupy protests.

Last week, no United States television network covered the filing of a lawsuit in Canada by four men who said they had been tortured during the Bush administration and who are seeking Mr. Bush’s arrest and prosecution. But one of the men, Murat Kurnaz, a former prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, was interviewed at length by Ms. Goodman and her co-host, Juan Gonzalez.

The nonprofit nature of the program means that the producers “never have to worry about how an advertiser might feel,” avoiding potential self-censorship, Mr. Burke said. But it also sharply limits the size of the staff. The program relies on volunteers to transcribe segments and, occasionally, to translate foreign-language interviews.

Ms. Goodman regularly helps raise money for stations that broadcast the program. The Internet has given the program a global audience and the ability to reach that audience for more than an hour a day. On the evening of Sept. 21, the live stream about the execution of Mr. Davis was viewed more than 800,000 times.

The live stream attested to “the hunger for this kind of information,” Ms. Goodman said. “Yet there was no network that was there to cover this moment throughout the night.”

Except, in a sense, “Democracy Now!” was able to be that network, at least for a night.