July 5, 2005
Paul Jay, Creator of Independent World Television, Intends To Challenge Corporate Broadcasters at Their Own Game
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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When we heard of Paul Jay's project to start an international television news network supported by viewer donations, we said to ourselves, "Now here is a guy who is truly BuzzFlashian!" After all, BuzzFlash was started in May of 2000 with sweat equity, and it has been supported ever since by its readers -- 5 million monthly, these days, although in the first month of our online existence, we only had 34 readers a day. When we met Paul Jay, we became convinced he's got the professional expertise and righteous indignation to maybe pull this idea off. After all, we did, on the Internet. So, we have joined his advisory committee, and BuzzFlash is fully supporting his efforts. After all, he's a kindred spirit who cherishes democracy, the free flow of ideas, and social justice. You can find out more about his vision and unfolding plans at the Independent World Television web site: http://www.iwtnews.com/
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BuzzFlash: You're a successful producer of documentaries and also public affairs programming for the CBC in Canada, and you have enjoyed other accomplishments relating to films and television. Why at this point in your life would you undertake this gargantuan project to launch an international television news network?
Paul Jay: In many ways, everything I've been doing has led me here. I've been making long-form documentaries for over twenty years. The last film I did was in Afghanistan, a film called "Return to Kandahar." And that filmmaking experience gave me an opportunity to get a sense of just how serious, even dire, the world situation is. You can't go to a place like Afghanistan, and see the poverty and the destruction that's taken place -- the destruction of so many people's lives -- and not just feel moved, but feel the need to act in some way, to respond to it.
The more I know about the world, the more concerned I am about where it's going. Also, I've been doing a political debate show on Canadian TV for the last ten years called "counterSpin." So I've heard all the political debates.
BuzzFlash: It was on the CBC?
Paul Jay: Yes, on CBC News World. And it's the same thing. At least personally, I've increasingly felt that the only life that makes me happy is a life with meaning. For my life to have meaning, I have to act. It's not enough just to know. I asked myself, where and in what way should I act, beyond making films, beyond doing "counterSpin?"
BuzzFlash: Most of our readers are in America, but we have readers all over the world. My personal perception is that, when I'm in Canada, and I watch the Canadian news, it's a lot more objective -- whatever that may mean -- a lot less toeing the government line than American news. Is that impression correct?
Paul Jay: I think it's a lot more objective than American major television news. But that's not saying much. You don't have to be very objective to be more objective than American television. Everything gets judged within its own historical context. Within the context of Canada, we don't think our news is nearly as good as it should be. We've done analyses of Canadian news coverage of big events, including CBC's coverage, for example, of the coup in Haiti and the removal of Aristide. We looked at the Canadian coverage of Afghanistan, where we have troops. It's true our coverage of Iraq, for some time, was perhaps better than the American, but that was where we didn't have troops. If you go to a country where we have Canadian troops, our coverage is not a heck of a lot better than American coverage. There are a few exceptions, such as in the longer current affairs programs like "Fifth Estate" and the documentaries that are shown. CBC shows documentaries that one would never see on mainstream television.
BuzzFlash: There was one CBC program on Dick Cheney which our readers told us about, which didn't air in the United States. It was what you would call a provocative show, as far as American networks would be concerned.
Paul Jay: Definitely.
BuzzFlash: Is CBC still basically a public broadcasting service?
Paul Jay: Yes, it's a public broadcaster, and state-owned, although a great deal of its revenue, almost 50% now, comes from commercial advertising. But much of our news coverage is not that much better than what you're getting in the U.S. For example, when the Canadian budget came down last year, every single person interviewed spoke about the budget from the point of view of how it might affect investors. We couldn't find anyone giving analysis on how the budget was going to affect the daily lives of people.
BuzzFlash: And your papers are subject to the same media consolidation. In fact, I believe the first media-consolidated group of papers to run the same editorial throughout the country was in Canada.
Paul Jay: Our media consolidation, in many ways, is worse than yours, because we have full-fledged, cross-platform ownership -- companies that own newspapers and television stations. There's no restriction on it at all.
BuzzFlash: You had the Hollinger group. You've got a number of basically conservative ownerships.
Paul Jay: Sixty to 65% of our newspapers are owned by one company that also owns the second largest private television network. Our media consolidation is very serious. Where we get better work is on the CBC. The private networks' news coverage is not much better than the American. The only thing you can say is, it doesn't get as gung-ho patriotic as the U.S. media did right around the Iraq war. But on a day to day basis, it's not much better.
As a Canadian, I'm not just concerned about what the coverage is like in Canada. The problem of democracy in the United States is everybody's problem. For us in Canada, we're acutely aware of just how bad television news has gotten in the U.S. People in Canada are very concerned about people not having a very good understanding of what underlies policies.
The most obvious example is Powell's presentation to the United Nations. It was well known at the time by those that bothered to know, that that presentation was false. But the U.S. media played it up as if it were a legitimate presentation. And so did the Canadian media. By and large, most Canadian media echoed the U.S. media.
Real journalism gets at this kind of stuff. People all around the world are very concerned that U.S. public opinion is so badly informed, that the quality of debate is superficial and so limited. The problem of media and democracy is a problem for everyone in the world, not just within our own countries. We all need to make sure that the U.S. public has a better grasp of the world they live in. This network isn't just about the state of media in Canada or the U.S., it's about the state of politics in the world.
BuzzFlash: Your business model is very similar to the BuzzFlash model in terms of financing, which is what makes it so distinctive. You are looking to support this television network by, in essence, citizen contributors. Then the network has a responsibility to them, and not to corporate shareholders.
We interviewed Bonnie Anderson recently, who was a producer at CNN for many years. In her book, News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News, basically she says there is first an accountability to the shareholders, then an accountability to the political officials because they can get deregulation passed or tax laws that will benefit the parent corporation. A distant third is a network's responsibility to the actual citizens of America or Canada. If you successfully build this base of citizens who donate to support the network, you bypass the shareholders and the profitability issue, and also the kowtowing to the government issue. Your responsibility, as with BuzzFlash, is only to the people who support you, who are the citizens of the world.
Paul Jay: Well, you just gave my answer.
BuzzFlash: What will this look like?
Paul Jay: The current economics of television journalism does two or three things. Number one, the bottom line pressures in the newsrooms mean fewer journalists, less time for investigative reporting, fewer foreign bureaus, and more pressure for sensational items that will give a quick spike to the ratings that are so commercial. And the fact is that television news is, by and large, actually just one small piece of a very big corporate conglomerate. GE makes light bulbs, weapons, nuclear power plants -- and owns NBC. So the conglomerates want their television operations to make money.
Number two, they don't want the television operation to compromise other interests of the corporation. I don't think it's as clear as some internal censor vetting committee, looking at each item to make sure it serves the corporate agenda. But, someone has to decide -- we're hiring this person and not that person, for example. People get to know the corporate culture, and they know how to hire within the limits of the corporate culture. People know that if reporting crosses a certain line, it is not considered acceptable journalism. Something that's happened recently, in both print and television newsrooms, is that the limits within which a story can be investigated or reported depends on how the two political parties are defining the issues. Also, to some extent, when a major newspaper like The New York Times breaks a story, it becomes discussable. But even then, most television news won't pick up on it.
I'll give you an example. There's a fight taking place whether Bolton should be the U.N. Ambassador for the United States. The Democratic Party leadership has defined this controversy mostly over the question of how he abused his people who worked for him. Whether rightly or wrongly, that's the tactic of the Democratic Party. But, certainly for journalists, that isn't the issue. The issue should be, first and foremost, did he, in fact, try to fabricate a case of biological weapons against Cuba? There seems good evidence that that was based totally on lies, and that the reason he abused the people that worked for him is because they wouldn't support the fabrication about biological weapons.
Well, it seems to me the real issue should be the fabrication of evidence about biological weapons. It's certainly secondary how he treated people who worked for him. But because the Democratic Party hasn't made that the primary issue, television journalism doesn't make it an issue. They allow the parties to define the scope of the reportage and the scope of the debate. We want to break out of that.
BuzzFlash: You're setting up an alternative filter for TV news. Again, just as BuzzFlash does on the Internet, you're going to do it on television. Why don't you just highlight for us some of what your content might be?
Paul Jay: The heart of the network is an international news show. This is going to be a prime source of international news gathering, investigation and reporting. We're going to start with a sort of minimalist model, in which we will buy footage from the APs and Reuters of the world. And because we're not-for-profit, we can get a pretty good deal. We're going to get the raw footage, and then we're going to re-cut it the way we choose. But we're not going to be using or relying at all on Reuters' and AP reporting. We're making alliances with some of the best print reporters and radio reporters around the world.
For example, we have an alliance with the Mail and Guardian newspaper in Johannesburg. The editor of that paper is on our advisory committee. When a story breaks in Africa, we'll be able to get raw footage from AP or from Africa sources, but we will already have in place reporters whom we trust and think are courageous and skilled and have a sense of history. We'll be able to get them on the phone or reporting for us on camera. We're building these alliances around the world with the best journalists we can find.
The next stage is to start establishing bureaus where we hire some of these journalists full time. We'll start with two or three bureaus, possibly one in Africa or Latin America, one in the Middle East, and one in the United States. We'll start growing the bureaus later.
One of the things about these bureaus is that Africans should report on Africa, Latin Americans should report on Latin America. We're not going to simply hire Americans and Canadians and send them everywhere. We're going to find people who really know these situations and have proven themselves to be uncompromising and fearless journalists. And there is another side to the establishment of bureaus. Using people who already live in these places is much, much cheaper. One of the reasons American and other news channels and news shows are closing bureaus, is that they always send Americans and Canadians everywhere, and it costs a fortune. You have to pay per diems. You pay danger pay. You pay insurance. And you wind up getting people who don't even -- often don't even know the language of the country they're working in -- never mind the real historical context. First and foremost are issues of quality, and then also is the issue of cost. We have a model which we think will provide better coverage.
We want to reinvent the newsroom. For instance,we don't think one person can go to a complicated situation and come back with the truth, the story. We think it would be great to have a story covered by more than one person. And if they don't agree with each other on what's happening, that's okay. We want to embrace the complexity of things.
The other thing with our news, which we think is critical, is constantly trying to bring context, both current and historical context, to stories. I've always thought watching the news for a lot of people is probably like me watching a cricket game. I don't know the rules. I don't know the players. I have no idea what's going on. And in three minutes, I have to tune away because it just makes no sense to me. Whereas, I watch hockey, I know everything, so I can watch the nuances of hockey. For a lot of people, watching the news is like that -- especially international news, although increasingly even domestic news. People just don't know the backstory. So we're going to always be working at finding ways to bring people into the story.
The other thing is that good news is not just news -- it's about good storytelling. News and current affairs programming requires the skill of being able to tell a story in an engaging way. We're finding that some of the most talented people want to work with us. We do believe that we're going to have our pick of the best people in the world, because most people are working in environments where they feel they have to compromise their journalism. The environment they're working in is just pressured against doing good work. Our news show, we think, will be very challenging, very provocative. When the emperor has no clothes, we're going to say so. It goes back to economic independence. If we don't have to worry about advertising, government, or corporate funding, then if whoever doesn't have clothes, we can say so. We think that kind of audacious spirit will make people want to watch us.
BuzzFlash: You also include citizen participation in your prospectus -- that somehow the audience can participate. How would that work -- citizen journalism?
Paul Jay: We see this network as a marriage of citizen journalism and professional journalism. While we're making alliances with professional journalists around the world, we're also going to be inviting citizen journalists to send us news items, send us documentaries, to start becoming video television journalists. We're going to have them work with the pros. We'll have a professional editorial committee that will vet these stories and will fact-check them. If we get a piece of citizen journalism from Florida, or from the Philippines, we would work with our professional allies in those places and ask them, is this reasonable? Does this meet a certain level of journalistic credibility? We want to use the strength of citizen journalism, which is tremendous access -- people having video cameras everywhere -- but balance it with professional oversight.
There also will be many other shows. There will be the best of world political satire. We're going to do shows on the most interesting developments in the arts, particularly from the angle of socially, politically conscious people. We're going to have shows on the environment. For each one of these, we're going to try to work at how to reframe, how to newly explore these issues.
For example, most of the environment debate that's taking place on television, to a large extent, questions whether there is even a problem or not. We want to switch that debate to what should we do about the problems? The other thing is we want to have a lot of debate between liberals and progressives and conservatives. Something we used to do on counterSpin was, for a show on Venezuela or the Congo, the whole panel and the whole audience were Venezuelans or Congolese. One of the important things we learned from doing counterSpin in Canada is that if you're very fair about the conservatives and their voices, and allowing them to speak, and casting them by looking for the brightest we could find on the right, not only was it a fair debate and did one learn from it, but they also brought their audience with them. A large part of our audience on counterSpin were people that probably would not have identified themselves as progressives. But because viewers saw that the position they believed in was being properly articulated, they found the show very interesting. And the same thing for progressives -- it was good for liberals and progressives to hear the other side. Other times, you might find a progressive person who was very good at speaking to other progressive people, but when it came to debating a conservative, they hadn't done their homework.
BuzzFlash: You've awakened a question in me, To play the devil's advocate, in America, as we've long argued on BuzzFlash, there are many issues related to the journalistic malfeasance on the part of many mainstream broadcasters and newspapers. We would agree with you that much of this is due to corporate culture. It's not going to enhance your career in the United States in a mainstream setting, particularly television, to be overly critical of the status quo. You don't run any risk if you go along with what the Pentagon says or the White House says. In fact, your career may be enhanced. People know that in the back of their minds. It is part of the corporate culture. But beyond that, there are some other trends in American television and print journalism and radio that work against getting information out there to contribute to public policy debates and decision-making.
In America, certainly, we have seen the merger of television news and entertainment to a great degree. In fact, television news is part of the entertainment division now of most of the parent companies. All this was forecast in the very prescient film "Network" in 1976. But if you look at Bill O'Reilly, for instance, here is someone who comes across as a pundit, someone who Fox has given the credibility of being knowledgeable about what he speaks, when really he's just sort of a guy on a barstool with a rant. But people in America like that. Even BuzzFlash readers love to hate him and watch him. He has significant ratings from people who don't like him because there's, I think, an entertainment experience to watching him. Even if you don't agree with him, you become emotional. It becomes sort of addicting. Is there an audience for a network that doesn't cater to the entertainment gladiator factor which we've seen emerge in American news coverage? Or the runaway bride, Michael Jackson coverage?
Paul Jay: Is there an audience for Law and Order and West Wing? I mean, some of the biggest hit shows on network television -- entertainment shows -- have been very smartly written shows. I think there's a very big audience and there's different ways of entertaining people. I don't think we can ignore entertaining people. I don't think just having something worthy is enough. You know, I made a film about professional wrestling. I made a film about Las Vegas.
I can't watch dry documentaries. I can't watch dry interviews. I need to be entertained, too. But I don't need shouting and screaming to be entertained. I need wit. I need humor. I need intelligence. I need good story-telling. I need craft. I need the art of communication. But I think there's much more actually. In fact, the Fox audience is not really that big an audience. Network newscasts still are much, much bigger numbers than anything on Fox. But we take the issue of entertaining people very seriously. Our hosts need to be good communicators. Wit and humor -- political satire -- is going to be an important thread for us. In our documentaries, people had better know how to make good quality documentaries. By good quality, that first and foremost means to me good storytelling. You need to know how to engage your audience. And we think with this network, because it's going to have such creative freedom, we're going to be able to assemble talent that people have never seen before.
BuzzFlash: What is your timeline?
Paul Jay: Well, we just launched the first stage of the more public web site, which has a five-minute version of our video. We've created a fifteen-minute video which people can download, if they like. And the first stage of the web is we're asking people to tell us what they think of what we're doing. We have a survey we'd like people to take.
Over the course of the next year, we're preparing conditions for a mass fund-raising campaign. We also want to develop our own e-mail list of somewhere between three and five hundred thousand people over the next year. We're getting ready for a big world media event where we're going to launch the mass fund-raising campaign. That will be with well-known music groups, celebrities, journalists, in places like Johannesburg, New York, L.A., Toronto, New Delhi, London, perhaps Berlin. And within the same two- or three-week period, we have these concerts/rallies, where we say to the people of the English-speaking world to break the monopoly on information. Tell the world you have a right to know. Build independent world television. And that's where we'll ask half a million people to each give us fifty bucks.
What we're doing now as well is raising seed money from foundations and unions and individuals. And we will be able to give them tax receipts. That seed money will help us pay for this big public fund-raising campaign.
So, essentially, we go public in a small way now, in a big way in about ten months. And then we hope we raise the money within four or five months.Then we hope to be on air as a network in 2007.
In the mean time, we plan to get one show on air sooner -- maybe in six or seven months. It will be a traveling debate show that will tour North America, going city to city, with audiences of forty, fifty, a hundred people in each city, debating the big story of the day and debating whether the media got the big story right or wrong.
BuzzFlash: Would that be on something like Link TV or Free Speech TV on satellite?
Paul Jay: We have an alliance with Link, and our programming is going to be on Link. We started conversations with ComCast and Time-Warner about getting on the Video on Demand channel. The initial conversations are optimistic. We are going to make alliances with big organizations. We need people that, when the time comes, will go watch the shows, and more, let their cable companies know that they want these shows. We think we've put forward a coherent business model to the cable companies. If they keep us off, it will be for very overtly political reasons, and then that's a different fight.
BuzzFlash: If a person goes to your newly launched web site, can they donate to the network at this point?
Paul Jay: Yes. In fact, just after we put the donate button up, people were just reading the documents and some began sending money. I think it may be an indication that people get this.
BuzzFlash: On the news site, it's readily apparent where you can contribute.
Paul Jay: Yes. And it's tax deductible in the U.S.
BuzzFlash: In full disclosure, the editor of BuzzFlash is on your advisory committee. You have quite a notable group of people on it. Once you get up and going in 2007, the implication of what you're saying is that you will indeed be a world network.
Paul Jay: Right.
BuzzFlash: It's not just what relationships you develop in the United States, but you would seek viewing outlets throughout the world.
Paul Jay: Well, to start with, four or five countries that have big English-speaking populations. We're focusing on the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and India, South Africa. Then probably Ireland and maybe a lot of English-speaking people in Europe. We have a fair amount of work done in South Africa. We have some pretty good allies in India, including people involved in the newspapers and the magazine Frontline and between them they have somewhere between fifteen and twenty million English subscribers. But North America and the U.S. are the starting point. North America and India would probably be the two places we focus most on, and then we'll start building in the other areas.
BuzzFlash: As an aside, what the heck is going on with the BBC? They were under enormous government pressure because of the whole Iraq war. It seemed that, in the way that Bush has set up the U.S. press with Rathergate and Korangate and Newsweek, that the BBC sort of got set up with a couple things in relation to the Iraq war. There were threats by the Labor government to sell them off and so forth. It seems that even a public station and as venerable as the BBC, which seems sort of sacrosanct in broadcast media, is vulnerable to government pressure.
Paul Jay: That's why we're not taking any government money. I think in principle, public broadcasters really should be the solution. But the only way for public broadcasters to really play their role is if there were a Constitutional allotment of money that the government of the day can't affect. But in Canada, the leadership of the CBC is all appointed by the Prime Minister's office -- the President, the Chair of the Board. It's a similar situation in the U.K.
BuzzFlash: And here we just saw a chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting appointed by Bush turning it into a Fox News broadcasting network.
Paul Jay: Yes. We don't think people should give up on public broadcasters. We think it's an important fight to fight on. But I don't think we can wait for public broadcasters to play the role they really should. The world situation is so serious right now that we can't wait ten or twenty years, or who knows how long, for public broadcasters to actually start acting more like public broadcasters. In fact, I think the development of IWT could help put positive pressure on public broadcasters in all these countries, because if we start covering stories in a way that truly is public interest journalism, then we'll start putting pressure on these public broadcasters to do more of the same. Right now, the private media is so bad that anything public broadcasters do looks good by comparison. But it really isn't enough. If we're there, I think it can become quite a creative pressure on public broadcasters.
BuzzFlash: I think the media monitoring group here, FAIR, did a study of PBS' News Hour. And in the run up to the Iraq war, there was an astounding number of conservatives who were pro-war, and only a handful of anti-war representatives on the show -- something akin to a ratio of ten to one or so.
Paul Jay: Among the BBC's guests in the lead up to the war, critics of the war were only 2% of the guests.
BuzzFlash: I want the BuzzFlash readers to know what you anticipate doing is not just news, but a full-fledged broadcast schedule. The news is one part of it, but there's so much more going on. But I want to get your response as to just how you would see your network handling the Downing Street memo, as compared to what has happened. As soon as it appeared in the Times of London, we had it up on BuzzFlash. Several readers sent that to us, and it was our headline story all that Sunday. The Washington Post didn't run a story for twelve days on the Downing Street memo. Walter Pincus, one of their writers, wrote a piece, which ran on page 18 of the front section, almost two weeks after it appeared in Britain. And most papers in the United States just didn't cover it. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently ran a piece by their ombudsman that tried to explain why they didn't cover it. He said we didn't know about it until about a few days later, when a reader of BuzzFlash -- and they mentioned BuzzFlash by name -- wrote to him, the ombudsman, and said I'm reading all these stories about the Downing Street Memo on BuzzFlash.com. How come you're not covering it? And so the guy went to BuzzFlash.com. And the ombudsman for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune said, oh, gee, you know, how come we don't know about this?
I don't know quite what to make of that. Then he brought it to their editor, and they ended up writing a very, very strong and critical editorial lacerating Bush on Memorial Day, which was the first, if not the only, major American paper to call him a liar, and saying basically that our soldiers have died for lies, which was an astonishing editorial for an American paper. But even so -- even though this was a paper that went that far -- they simply didn't appear to know about the Downing Street Memo. I find this unfathomable. How would your network prevent something like that happening?
Paul Jay: This is the whole point of why we need this network. Even when things break through on the Internet, the fact is 80-85% of the people still get their news from television. If you can't break through on the TV, it doesn't break through into the popular consciousness. Of course, we would have covered this. We would have been all over it. You know, Robin Cook resigned from the British Cabinet after seeing all the data. I mean, from the very beginning, we know that the British Cabinet and Cabinet members have said that this case -- and this is just the gun -- we've already had the smoking gun.
What we think is, if you don't do it on TV, it doesn't break through. But if we break through with it on television, then it makes it much more difficult for the rest of the television media to simply ignore these stories.
What television is doing, and to some extent the big-media print press -- is they're treating propaganda as news. They're allowing political forces and corporate forces to create a façade of how the world looks. And they're reporting on the façade as if it's real. I liken it to professional wrestling, about which I made a film. Wrestling press can talk about wrestling theater as if it's something real, even though everybody knows it's theater. Well, the same thing's happening here. If you try to step outside that as a journalist, they call you partisan.
This is what I think was a great problem in the political discourse, particularly in the United States -- if you do good journalism, and you allow yourself to come to the conclusions the facts lead you to, you're called partisan. You're called a liberal if those facts lead you to a critique of the White House. We have to break that discourse. We have a right to come to conclusions based on facts, and not have those facts demeaned with these political labels. I won't buy into that and our network won't buy into that. We'll go where the facts lead us. We're not calling ourselves a liberal network, a progressive network.
The current political culture in the United States is character assassination. Shoot the messenger. "Sixty Minutes" had a story on Bush's military record. The issue becomes, was the document forged, not that the fundamental story about Bush was true. The same thing takes place about the issues of the Koran in Guantanamo. The issue is did Newsweek actually get exactly the right source or not -- but, as it comes out later, the substance of the story was true. Character assassination is being used to refute journalism. Not to say there may have been mistakes in the way "Sixty Minutes" handled something or Newsweek handled something. Maybe there were. But the rest of the media is allowing what may have been mistakes to overshadow the substance of the story, which turned out turned out to be true.
BuzzFlash: It's kind of "kill the messenger," and therefore you've killed the message.
Paul Jay: The reason they can do that goes back to the beginning of our conversation. They can put pressure on the corporate ownership, and the corporations themselves have similar geopolitical interests to those of the political powers. We'll be able to do these stories differently because we won't care about any of that. All we're going to care about is a debate over what are the real facts. We're not promising to get some absolute truth. But we can promise the facts are going to be the only thing that drives us. There will be room for real debate on what those facts mean and what they are.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much. Best of luck.
Paul Jay: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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