Monday, July 14, 2008

Dispelling the Murkiness of the Corporate Media: The Real News

" ... The participants to the Halifax International Symposium on Media and Disinformation in 2004 ... unanimously declared disinformation to be a crime against humanity and a crime against peace. ... "

by Kim Petersen / July 3rd, 2008

Concomitant to the violence wreaked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere around the world by US/western-backed militarism as well as corporate plunder of the destroyed states is the enabling role played by the corporate media in propagandizing and disinforming the public, paving the way for the war crimes. Is the corporate media also culpable? The participants to the Halifax International Symposium on Media and Disinformation in 2004 thought so. They unanimously declared disinformation to be a crime against humanity and a crime against peace.1

In the United States, the propagandizing and disinforming by the corporate media has been systematically enabled by duopoly politicians with the compliance of the Federal Communications Commission, leading to a media monopoly.2 Professors Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky elaborated in great detail, and with myriad examples, how the monopoly media Propaganda Model functions so effectively.3 The upshot and danger of this is that the diversity of views are dependent upon a handful of media owners to find expression — something unlikely to occur when such views are contrary to the interests of the media owners.

Obviously, there is a dire need for a grassroots media that is unbeholden to corporations and the advertising dollar.

Fortunately, there are a number of independent websites that have proliferated as corporate media credibility further wanes. Lacking, however, has been a source of television news. University of Glasgow media researchers, Greg Philo and Mike Berry, acknowledged “the crucial importance of TV news in informing public opinion and the powerful influence it can have on how we see and understand our world.”4

A promising video-based media entrant, however, has appeared on the news scene. The Real News Network aims to provide “independent and uncompromising journalism.”5 Although nascent, the Real News has already covered the Winter Soldier hearings, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, racism and poverty in the United States, the oil industry grab for Iraqi resources, the US-Israel disinformation blitz about Iran’s nuclear program, and much more. Much of this was ignored or marginalized by the corporate media. On 22 May, for instance, there was a great report with Real News journalist Pepe Escobar and, an expert on the US in South Ixachilan (America), Forrest Hylton cutting through the US corporate media disinformation on the Interpol report over the files found on FARC laptops allegedly implicating Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.6 One would be hard-pressed to find meaningful coverage on this in the corporate media.

The Real News could be the start of what is vitally needed by the news viewing public: news unfettered by corporate interests. Providing insight to the Real News is Geraldine Cahill, a Communications and Volunteer Coordinator at the Real News. She is also a filmmaker and editor, freelancing in documentary production since 2002.

Kim Petersen: I have been following the Real News Network for over a year now, with much interest.7 For the greatest part, it looks really promising. Please give an overview of the development and future plans for the Real News.

Geraldine Cahill: Sure, the Real News came about by the initial business plan was put in place by Paul Jay, the CEO and senior editor here. Paul had been working seven years at a Canadian debate show called Counterspin which played on CBC Newsworld and was very popular for a number of years …

Following that, he had started investigating the writing of a screenplay for a film called 2020 which was basically a look forward at, potentially, the political and social situation in the year 2020 — based on what he could see happening in world politics and in the media, generally.

Then, following the attacks of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq, he saw the capitulation of the corporate media towards government rhetoric and, also, enforcers of the advertising industry on the corporate-led media as well — and saw several journalists with years of experience leaving big newsrooms in frustration and some of them being fired because they wouldn’t tow the company line and decided that he couldn’t just make a film about it … He wanted to start a news network that was free of corporate influence, advertising revenue, and government revenue, so that the newsroom could be freed up to concentrate on telling the story according to the facts and not feel that pressure, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, put on journalists, you know, to alter their stories, or delete certain comments, and whatever it might be.

So, that’s where the idea came from and was in development since 2003 … by 2005 they launched the original website, under the name Independent World Television.

I started working here as a volunteer, actually, not long after that time, and there was a huge response from [the public] to the original website, a very positive response, a much needed voice in the wilderness for many people.

Largely, actually … we just weren’t prepared for the kind of huge explosive support in terms of producing any news content right away … we didn’t produce any content until midway through last year, 2007, and we started the regular production of news stories, and we have been churning along since then — producing somewhere between three to five, sometimes six stories a day about our own content plus partnering with people like the Guardian in the UK, The Hindu in India and places like Alive in Baghdad and more recently, American News Project.

KP: Associated Press.

GC: Associated Press we have a relationship with to use their video content … which we discovered when we started seeing their video content. Obviously, all newsrooms, just about every major news organization around the world that gets AP content sees the same pictures coming in. What we realized was: most users when they use that material will take a five, you know, a five second clip and run that, try to run that, in such a way that changes things to affect what you are seeing.

KP: Sound bite

GC: A sound bite. Exactly, exactly. …

So it is very important to us the way we utilize that AP content. When we first started using that, we sent out that picture while actually calling it Raw News. It is really interesting to see the response just playing out video and sound from all of these countries in the world. People were writing in saying “I’ve never seen this kind of coverage.” It was amazing to hear without journalists not talking over on top of the content…

KP: It was very interesting what you said about not “talking over” because one of the things I really like about the Real News is that when somebody is speaking in a language that’s not English, you don’t have someone talking over what they are saying. So if you could understand Arabic or whatever language it is, you can listen and hear it directly, and there are subtitles for people that don’t understand.

GC: Yes, you know, I think, to some people that is a small thing, but to a lot of people it is a very important that you hear the language from the region that the story is coming. And a lot of emphasis has been placed on getting the stories from the people living and working in the country that the story is coming from. That is a very big focus for us. The more we can do that the better. We still regard ourselves as in development, and we are constantly striving to connect with people that are working in the regions that we are reporting from, so the more relationships we develop, the better really.

KP: You mentioned that the Real News Network runs on a business model. Like any business, it has to break even. There is a BOD. It appears to be a hierarchical model with a chair of the board, CEO, and senior editor. The Real News Network appears to follow a traditional capitalist business model rather than a progressivist, egalitarian model. Is this, in fact, so? And if so, why?

GC: Yes, I agree and obviously disagree on some points there. To some …Yes, there is a board of directors. Yes, it acts in many ways like an editorial committee, so because we are in development we need some structure to make sure that certain things get done. So yes, we do follow a business model in some respect. There needs to be some dominance. It is not a collective, if you like, so I guess that is what you are regarding, a sort of egalitarian model. It is not a collective because just in terms of getting a story out on the day, there is still a need to have a certain level of structure. It is not capitalist in the sense, the word capitalist [pause] you know, [pause] to me, it is such a harsh word. It is a business model but there is not, as I said, the fundamental basis of the structure of the business plan is that there is no government funding; there is no corporate funding; there is no corporate underwriting; and there is no advertising revenue coming in.

What we rely on is donations. And to some degree, the development of the project has relied on some foundations and larger donor funding to get the project to this level. And what we are after now is a crossover of getting away from the reliance on that big donor funding and building the small donor funding, so that we get to a point where the small donor — and by that I mean like $10 or $20 a month, whatever it might be — these people we get to sustain the network. And, what that allows for is; that’s the pressure that we face, pleasing if you like, creating the content that enough people wanna support; I mean, when people ask me how, you know, money influences the newsroom, if you take away all these other pressures, really, the pressure is on us to maintain a certain integrity, to maintain a certain standard of production, so that enough people want to support the network.

If this wasn’t what they were looking for, they would go elsewhere, and there are plenty of places to go online and in print where they can get varying content. That’s the pressure we face: is getting enough people to sustain the network properly. So, to me it is not a capitalist system at all. It might well be a hierarchical structure within the editorial division because that’s the way that stories get put out every day. But, at the same time, there is the invitation for people to submit citizen journalism videos. We have been building to a point where we have a video-sharing community where people can upload their own video, and that will go into the mix. So, as much as there is a hierarchical structure, it is in the newsroom itself to get things out…

KP: As for the donations, does the Real News account publicly for how it spends those donations? And are there preconditions placed on donations?

GC: No, there has never been preconditions placed on donations. That was mainly put in place for large-level donors, that donate significant amounts of money, say $50,000 plus. It was very important to all and to the development committee that no preconditions were on the use of that money because that would also mean that there would be some influence over the newsroom then… That, obviously, allows the newsroom to operate independently. However, having said that, in general, in our messaging and donations page, there are four or five points that we’d like to inject funds in to. People don’t tick off a box and say, I want to donate to the US, the Washington DC bureau. However, we are thinking we could do that, to some degree. But that’d be in general… But we wouldn’t necessarily know, you know, who that person was. It would just be that some money was being channeled into the DC bureau, some money was being channeled into the Canadian bureau, some money was going to climate change … was going to whatever it might, areas that might well be significant news, so that, I don’t believe, compromises the journalists themselves.

KP: On 20 May, I checked the Election ‘08 section of the Real News. It was heavily skewed to the Democrats. Of the 100 video reports I counted there, only one dealt with a candidate outside the political duopoly: that is, the Democrats and Republicans. That was about Ralph Nader announcing his candidacy for US president. Nader is among those who deplore the “two party dictatorship” that manipulates media attention. So I wonder: how does the Real News differ from the corporate media in its overwhelming focus on the political duopoly?

GC: I think you have a good question there. It’s kind of like a … We have spoken to other candidates, but you are right they tend to fall within those two parties, whether it’s Gravel, Ron Paul, or whoever. We have been trying to chase a follow-up interview with Nader, as well. I think it is always gonna be a bit of a balance between, you must investigate the candidates running …

KP: Yeah. But what I’ve pointed out is that 99 percent, 99 out of 100, were Democrats or Republicans versus one …

GC: Yeah, I think we could certainly … what we struggle against is not for this to be an excuse, but we do also have a problem resource-wise to try and get out. We only have one producer running around in the US, trying to get to different places, Matt Palevsky … We certainly will be expanding, and have been expanding interview requests outside that duopoly. What we really wanted to do though is examine the candidate who is most likely to be running for president because of the dominance of the two-party system. You have to understand the policies behind those people. And you don’t often get a level of investigation into, you know: who is McCain? Who are his closest policy advisors? What is the content behind his rhetoric? And the same goes for all the candidates on the other side as well.

Most likely, inevitably, the choice will be between them in terms of the popular voting. A lot of our revenue needs to go into breaking down what their policy positions are and what is likely to happen should either side emerge triumphant. Because the levels of understanding that you get from other sections of the corporate media are so thin and so based on the horse race rather than on the substance; it is important that we get that out with the resources that we have … However, not getting away from your question, I think it is a really good question, and I hope that we can provide some stories from that group as well…

KP: The Real News pivots mainly around four on-air commentators: Canadian Paul Jay…

GC: Canadian-American

KP: American Eric Margolis, Indian Aijaz Ahmed, and Brazilian Pepe Escobar. When reporting news, for example, as an anchor, nationality seems rather unimportant. But how does an individual who does not live in the context and history of certain news — or maybe not even speak the language — grasp the nuances and provide accurate, well-informed commentary outside their national scope? Is it not preferable to have a person from the region in focus?

GC: I absolutely agree totally with you. As I said earlier to you in the interview, it is part of our development plan. It is important to talk to these people. However, having said that, someone like Pepe or Aijaz have been working for years to understand the history and the make-up of certain regions. They certainly wouldn’t speak with authority on an area that they didn’t feel that they knew well. When it came to the Benazir Bhutto assassination around the turn of the year, and certainly leading up to that point, we had two or three different journalists from Pakistan talking very regularly on our programming about the situation in Pakistan. I think Aijaz also spoke on that regard because, obviously, he spent a lot of time in Pakistan as well. And most all of his expertise is in the south Asian region. But we had Munizae Jahangir, and also, in fact, it is very interesting, to say rather chilling, that we had Asma Jahangir in the Toronto studio two weeks before she was taken under house arrest in Pakistan in December. That’s Munizae’s mother. And we also spoke several times to Beena Sarwar who lives in Pakistan as well, so we try and speak to people from the regions.

When it comes to Pepe and Aijaz, it’s a little different. We speak to Phyllis Bennis as well, from the Institute of Policy Studies, about Iraq just because of their ample years of experience, understanding these situations, and, of course, it would be to the areas they speak to. Now that doesn’t speak to the need to connect to people that live in the regions.

And as much as possible, we try and do that, but it is simply not feasible all the time resource-wise to be able to chase them, to get hold of them, and also, technologically, it is difficult sometimes. We are working, largely, digitally here. A lot of the interviews we shoot on Skype video. And if somebody can’t get a broadband connection, we try and talk to them on the phone

You know, we are striving as much as possible to connect to people living and working in their area of expertise. Hopefully over time. So, as I said, we are trying our best.

KP: Margolis says that the “US media is self-censoring itself” because it is selling a product called news; therefore, the media wants to avoid offending people and sell more entertainment than actual news.8

In Manufacturing Consent: A Propaganda Model, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky put forward a model that holds the media is preponderantly selling itself, not to viewers, but to advertisers.3 Speaking of media then, is it then sound to say that it supplies information as decided by the financial political power that created and now controls it regardless of who sits on the editorial Board?

GC: I think that is largely why we are here. I think that very basis of this particular network is because of that. In fact, most of the editors, mid-level editors, senior-level editors are influenced by “I can’t let that story out because I don’t want to offend that advertiser. We get 50 percent of our advertising revenue from that company, we can’t say that they were using illegal methods because …” But absolutely that happens. Sometimes it is just a subtle pressure in the room, you know, and often they don’t speak its name, you know, because the journalists working in these newsrooms, a lot of them are great.

KP: They know without being told what they can report and what they can’t.

GC: Whether it happens directly or indirectly is not the point: stories get through or what stories you are assigned, you only have so much time during the day, what are you gonna get assigned, or how much time am I allowed to spend on this piece? All these things go into the make-up of what is coming out the next day, the next week, whatever it might be. And those things are, of course, influenced by the people above you, the editor-in-chief, you know the people that are talking to the editor-in-chief, financiers, so, you know, that’s why we are here: to try and get away from those things.

The pressure is on the journalists themselves to chase the facts and to tell the story as it is and to try and create an understanding of the level of complexity of the issue involved. So, that’s where the pressure comes in, and that’s where the pressure should be.

KP: Anything you’d like to add?

GC: … I think one of the most exciting things about the network, and which hasn’t yet had a chance to grow as much as I would like it to, we are putting more emphasis on it now with the new site — is the interactivity which is possible with people of the world sending us their stories and engaging with us as participants in the newsroom and participants in the delivery of information out into the community. That is what I see as a very necessary part of the development of the news, is to get people to give us their take on their own community.

That personally is what I am very excited about, engaging with the online community, and spreading this information around, and, you know, that is all I can say about the work that I do myself. But I do think that is very important: to allow people to participate in the generation of the news that they see and to have a vested interest in the stories that we are telling.

Kim Petersen, “Disinformation: A Crime Against Humanity and a Crime Against Peace,” Press Action, 17 February 2005. #
Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983). #
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon Books, 2002 edition). # #
Greg Philo and Mike Berry, “Bad News From Israel,” Glasgow Media Group. #
“Our Mission,” Real News. #
“Colombia: What did Interpol find in the laptops?” Real News, 22 May 2008. #
Disclosure: So enamored with the concept was I that I sent off a CV. #
“Margolis says TV news hiding truth about Iraq civil war,” Real News, 17 August 2007. #
Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Kim.

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