Heard the independent news?

Well okay, maybe you haven't. Independent World Television hasn't hit your screen yet, but it will. Founder Paul Jay promises...

Shereen Dindar
January 8, 2007 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

Paul Jay and his IWT staff hope providing news with greater context, analysis and depth will attract an audience willing to financially support them.

Paul Jay shakes and rocks a vending machine inside CFRB radio headquarters at Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto. His black and grey chin stubble and shaved head tell the story of a man with little time on his hands. It's nearly 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and he's about to go on air to talk about his planned television and web news network. Independent World Television (IWT) is set to launch its online news show, The Real News, in March.

But right now, all Jay cares about is junk food. He hasn't eaten since lunch and his bag of onion-flavoured Sun Chips is stuck above the flap of the vending machine. After a minute of cursing and kicking the machine, he stops, steps back and stares at it, calculating. Then he steps to its left and slams it against another machine. When that doesn't work, he crouches down and sticks his hand up the flap until it can't go any further. He grumbles, "Of course, they don't design these machines so you can steal from them," before putting in more change to get his fix.

Jay, creator and executive producer of counterSpin, the old nightly debate show on CBC, and former chair of Hot Docs , relates to the vending machine much like he does to mainstream media. He's frustrated because it doesn't produce what he wants, so he gives up and tries a new tack. In media terms, that new tack is IWT, which is projected to be viewer funded and not rely on government or advertising money. That's a tall order, but Jay's got an extensive business plan. He also has the backing of a 125-member founding committee made up of well-known intellectuals, media critics and journalists, including Naomi Klein, Stephen Lewis and Lewis Lapham. IWT has already raised $5 million from several foundations, charitable trusts, individuals and unions, including the Canadian Auto Workers Union, the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation . The plan now is to use the network's website to attract 250,000 individual donors to contribute $10 a month. Jay and company estimate they will need $30 million a year to sustain broadcasting in the long-term, but only $4 million for the first year.

Credit: Shereen Dindar
Patrice Mousseau, host of The Nightside on CFRB radio station, talks with Paul Jay about his vision for an independent news station.

IWT, based out of Toronto — but with plans for additional offices in New York, Los Angeles and New Delhi — will rely on its own reporters, as well as interviews with journalists from all over the globe, to provide in-depth and contextualized news. Jay thinks enough people crave this type of journalism to attract an audience. "There are tons of people who have already given up on most TV news," he says. "We want to provide context to people who feel tuned out because they don't know enough about stories."

Jay believes media that are pressured by government or corporate interests don't adequately cover the news. These outlets miss facts, won't cover certain stories they deem too compromising and alienate a large section of the public by refusing to provide historical context. He says the global warming media coverage in the United States is a perfect example of how media bows to government interests. "There is a very organized force coming from the White House, Congress and Senate pressuring broadcasters to have this so-called balanced debate on global warming, meaning those who say there isn't global warming should get the same air time as those who say there is."

For example, Jay says, U.S. nightly news programs failed to adequately cover a climate change report by The New York Times in 2005 (and later reported on CBS 60 Minutes). In the story, Rick Piltz of the federal Climate Change Science Program said Philip Cooney, White House chief of staff for Council on Environmental Quality (and a former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute), inaccurately edited his commentary on global warming, watering down his findings before they went public. Despite the fact that Cooney resigned two days after the Times story broke, Jay believes major nightly news programs were scared to expose the story. "The problem with getting one good piece on 60 Minutes, the fifth estate or PBS is that it doesn't have the weight that nightly news does because it's not repeated. Clearly," he continues, "it's because of the intimidation that goes on in newsrooms that they don't take up debates they are worried about getting smacked on."

But the issue of media independence is more complicated than Jay suggests, says David Folkenflik, media correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. "While there are stories that are missed by the mainstream media who are sometimes cowed, tentative or ambivalent," he says, "I'm not sure that simply by virtue of them having advertisers or government funding they are unable to cover the news." Folkenflik doesn't see newspapers like the Times, the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal pulling their punches to appease advertisers either. He himself has never felt political pressure at NPR, a membership radio station funded by programming fees, corporate sponsorship and foundations.

Yet IWT plans on forgoing funding from corporations and governments, looking instead to viewers to cover its future $30 million in annual operating costs.  However, one of its Internet strategy consultants, Camilo Wilson, admits the goal is optimistic and "probably not going to happen." He thinks IWT will have to rely more on money from foundations to reach its long-term goal. "There are very few organizations in the world that get $30 million a year from memberships," he says. Wilson cites the American Association of Retired People (AARP), which receives $229 million a year from memberships, but says it's had almost half a century to build a reputation. "The only news organizations that have large membership revenues are the Wall Street Journal and Playboy — if you consider Playboy journalism," he says, though he acknowledges PBS's membership success.  

Wilson doesn't categorically rule out the power of the web to attract donors, but warns, "Looking at the Internet as an ATM machine is the wrong way to go about it."  He thinks IWT could attract a sizeable number of donors only once its website is interactive.

Less tentative is Jeff Cohen, U.S. media critic and former IWT cable consultant. "The key to why an independent channel can succeed now and it never could in the last 25 years," he says, "is because people have figured out how to use the Internet for building capital and marketing." Cohen cites the Howard Dean campaign and MoveOn.org as examples of the potential to raise millions of dollars through small donations.

Credit: Paul Alexander
Paul Jay, founder of IWT, says media organizations are not adequately covering the news because they cater to government and corporate interests.

Like Cohen, Jay is confident. He says more than half of the people who watch TV news are critical of it. Therefore, he reasons, "We only need a small fraction of those people to donate money." His plan to reach such a huge audience — and get them to put up cash for his network — seems even more daunting given the fact that IWT hasn't secured deals with large Canadian and U.S. cable companies. But based on his talks with Rogers, Time Warner and Comcast executives, he remains hopeful. "They've all expressed an interest in carrying it on Video on Demand," he says.

Cohen says it's natural that big cable companies haven't negotiated a deal yet. "I would wait until a channel was ready to go before I'd sign anything or make any commitments," he says. He believes IWT will eventually get deals with big cable companies because "it would be a major embarrassment to them if IWT was politically censored while they carry Fox news."

Jay has, however, landed contracts with small cable companies such as America's Link TV and Regional News Network, and Canada's VisionTV, which he says collectively would bring IWT into 34 million homes.

Perhaps the biggest challenge IWT faces is getting past the preconceived notion that it is a liberal, left-wing channel. With only a handful of conservatives on its 125-member founding committee, it is in danger of developing a reputation for being the anti-Fox even before it goes to air — and Jay knows it. "The video on the website is a little bit too one-sided in left advocacy," he says. "It feels like something from OutFoxed," referring to an introductory video that features clips of network news channels like CNN and Fox, with commentary about IWT's vision overtop. Yet Jay is adamant IWT will not spin the news to serve a left-wing agenda. "We're going to use the method of verified journalism — go after facts, go where the evidence leads us — and we don't care where the chips fall," he says.

That vow isn't quite good enough for Cliff Kincaid, a conservative U.S. reporter and media critic. Kincaid says that in order for IWT to be politically unbiased it should reach out to more conservatives like him. "Cable news has become almost a laughing stock, with its never-ending focus on missing-persons cases and other trash," he says. "There are a number of conservatives who are disgusted by what passes as news and information, and the liberals behind this new network would make a mistake if they ignored them." Kincaid also thinks IWT's news coverage may be swayed by the political leanings of its major donors, namely the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. "I've written enough about these foundations to know they have a very strong liberal point of view," he says. "The idea that the only pressures come from corporations or governments misses the point — pressures come from big money."

Yet Sharmini Peries, director of policy and development for IWT, insists foundations that fund the network will not have access to its editorial content. "If there was corruption at the Ford Foundation, we'd report on it," she says. "We make it very clear to our funders that we are a media network, not an NGO."

There is much speculation as to whether IWT will succeed, or even launch, and Jay seems to recognize this. For all his optimism and drive, he maintains a sense of reality. "If IWT doesn't get into a position of sustainability," he says, "there is no point in producing content and six months from now running out of money." That means it could be a while before IWT sees the light of a TV screen. While The Real News is now scheduled to go for March — having been pushed back from its original fall 2006 launch date — the projected hour-long TV version won't debut until at least early 2008.

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