The Rise and Fall of “Counterspin”




O

n
Wednesday May 12, 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s
Newsworld station broadcast the very last episode of “Counterspin,”
an innovative TV debate show that, according to its producer Paul
Jay, was still enjoying very high ratings. The title of the show—“The
State of Democracy”—was fitting for the final episode
of a program that tried to make the airwaves more democratic. The
topic was current—the photos of U.S. torture of Iraqis at Abu
Ghraib, and the implications for democracy. The panelists represented
a wide range of opinion, including two influential apologists for
U.S. crimes—Ruth Wedgewood and Andrew Coyne—and two unapologetic
dissidents—Jonathan Schell and Sherene Razack. The audience
was highly engaged and interested. It went, as the show had from
the beginning, directly to air, live, with all the possibilities
for spontaneity that implies. 


Over
2,000 people signed a petition to try to save the show, and comments
on the show’s website (www.counterspin.tv) are testimony to
the void the show filled. Such a show could not exist in the media
landscape of the United States or the private networks of Canada.
Perhaps that is the real reason “Counterspin” was cancel-
led. Media consolidation in Canada is now at levels similar to the
United States and the Canadian Broadcasting Co. (CBC) is under constant
threat of privatization. 



The
Rise 



P

aul
Jay, the founder and producer of “Counterspin,” was also
the founder of its predecessor program (with co-executive producer
Ron Haggart), “Faceoff,” another debate show on CBC Newsworld.
That show had two hosts: one from the right (Claire Hoy) and the
other from the left (Judy Rebick). Each night there would be two
additional guests debating current topics. The pilot show, produced
in 1992, was on the North American Free Trade agreement. The series
was not picked up until 1994. 


Jay
found an opening for the show when there was a push in the growing
CBC Newsworld station for independent production within the CBC.
From the beginning, it was to be a debate format: “We had to
have a left and a right-wing host. We could call that ‘balance,’
and then we could book any guest we wanted,” Jay said in an
interview in May 2004. Also from the beginning, the idea was not
to influence public opinion in a particular direction, but to create
a space for a serious contention of ideas. But it was also to create
a space for left ideas to be heard, as Jay continues: “There
was little serious left wing opinion anywhere on television. The
CBC would hardly take anything left of the NDP seriously. If the
left itself were stronger, if it was the 1960s when Labour could
get 100,000 people to Parliament Hill, they might not have liked
it but they had to take it seriously. So we wanted to get some of
those ideas on television. There was no hope of getting it on the
private networks. They aren’t doing anything. So the only chance
was the CBC.” 


After
four years of “Faceoff,” the basic concept was used for
a new show, “Counterspin.” For “Counterspin,”
which aired in 1999, Jay discovered that News- world was open to
the idea of a single host, but that it would still have to be a
debate program. The debate format allowed a deeper analysis of questions:
rather than trying to have a host keep up with an “expert”
on all issues, “experts” with plenty of knowledge could
be pitted against each other. 


Avi
Lewis, the host chosen for the job, said that while he never hid
his point of view, he accepted the idea of a fair debate: “I
was cautioned for being sarcastic with members of the (right-wing)
Alliance party, especially during election time…but the idea
was not to influence public opinion. It was to reframe issues to
a point of view kept out of the mainstream. The idea was not to
advance a left agenda, but to take all ideas seriously. It is a
sad comment on the state of politics that because we were truly
balanced, it was seen as skewed to the left.” 


When
Avi Lewis—who with Naomi Klein calls himself an “activist-journalist”
in their latest film

The Take

about social movements in Argentina—left
the show after two years to make documentary films, he was replaced
by Carol Off, a CBC journalist, who does not see herself as an activist,
but “just a reporter.” Says Off, “There is a problem
with the concept of balance. There are two sides to every story,
but they are never equal. If you fairly present both sides, one
side always outweighs the other. If you are concerned with the truth
and fairness, you will end up unbalanced. But it is important, and
it takes discipline, to see all the sides and allow them to present
themselves.” 


Paul
Jay agrees: “We always tried to get the best debaters on both
sides. Actually, we ended up spending much more time trying to ensure
that the right-wing debater was very good. We never tried to get
a bad right-winger on purpose to make the left look good. If, at
the end of some night, the left lost the debate, we could view it
as a good thing: a chance to learn the strengths and weaknesses
of the left. There are a lot of leftists who can give a rousing
talk to a bunch of people who already agree, but wilted when they
were faced with a serious debate. And we learned that we need more
left debater-types.” 


The
formula was a success. Despite virtually no promotion other than
on-air (the “Counterspin” teams asked for ads in campus
and alternative newspapers), ratings were consistently good, proving
that there is a desire to hear a real spectrum of opinion on television. 


Pedro
Sanchez is another producer of “Counterspin.” He joined
the CBC after spending years in alternative radio projects on Latin
America, working as an activist in the Latin America solidarity
movement and supporting anti-racist initiatives in Canada. To Sanchez,
the media landscape has two poles: “You have your mainstream,
corporate media. Then you have your alternative, progressive, community-based
media.” “Counterspin” did not fit neatly into either,
but had elements of both: “On ‘Counterspin’ we always
had the voice of the status quo firmly represented. But we also
put progressive, critical, challenging voices out there.” 


“Counterspin’s”
intermediate position between mainstream and alternative can be
explained in terms of its insulation from corporate ownership, shared
ideology, advertiser funding, dependence on official sources—which
all contribute to homogenizing the content in mainstream media and
prevent challenging viewpoints from being presented. To Avi Lewis,
“Coun- terspin’s” independent production and presence
on public television helped insulate it: “The core concept
of the show was to break through that—the shared ideology,
the corporate perspective, the flak—to create television that
defied that. I’m not saying we succeeded every night. But we
succeeded on a good night. And we defied some of that well-deserved
cynicism that exists on the left, that you can’t counter spin
in the mainstream media.”  


Despite
the insulation, the pressures certainly existed. Avi Lewis describes
an “outright lobbying campaign by the right, led by the

National
Post

(a Canadian cross between the

Washington Post

and
the

New York Post

), to get the show cancelled as inherently
biased.” Exhibiting a total lack of a sense of humor, the

National
Post

didn’t see the irony in attacking “Counter- spin”
for being biased. After doing shows on the conflict between the
U.S./Israel and the Palestinians (including a debate with an all-Jewish
audience between

Tikkun

’s Michael Lerner and

The
Case for Israel

writer Alan Dershowitz), pro-Israel” constituencies
attacked the show for its bias. 



The
Fall? 



T

he
decision not to renew “Counterspin” was made by the head
of CBC News and Current Affairs, Tony Burman, and Heaton Dyer, head
of Newsworld. The reasons for the cancellation remain speculative.
No speculation is needed, however, to know the direction that Canadian
public broadcasting is headed. “During one show’s commercial
break,” Carol Off describes, “there were politicians from
the Liberal Party and the Conservative Alliance. They agreed that
the CBC would have to be privatized. The NDP [Canada’s social
democratic party] politician said, ‘I hope this is being recorded.’
The Liberal and Conservative both said, ‘Sure, record it.’”
 Off describes a nervousness in the CBC, “They can’t
censor us, but they can dismantle the network. The CBC has a lot
of lucrative assets that the private broadcasters want. They don’t
like competing with the taxpayer. They don’t like having to
produce high-quality television to compete.” 


Pedro
Sanchez agrees, “You have companies like Disney with major
control of the media that is involved with arms and prison industries
in the U.S. The media is highly concentrated. We would be deceiving
ourselves if we thought things weren’t headed that way here.
We know that Prime Minister Paul Martin wants much ‘closer’
U.S.-Canada relations: what does that mean? Al Gore recently bought
Newsworld International, and I think that won’t be the only
example of ‘cross-border’ media shopping. There are interests
much more nefarious than Al Gore involved.” 


Paul
Jay believes that the cancellation is the flip side of the autonomy
the show has always enjoyed. “We never got any serious trouble
from the CBC over content. I never had anyone call me and say, ‘Why
did you book that guest?’  But the other side of that
is, unfortunately, that they never really understood what we were
doing. They don’t understand the public dissatisfaction with
current television’s approach to news and current affairs.
We went beyond the boundaries, and they don’t understand the
need to go outside those limits.” 


Paul
Jay continues: “They have actually said that the ‘spirit
of ‘Counterspin’ will live on, by which they mean that
they will keep the form of ‘Counterspin.’ But there is
nothing special about the form of ‘Counterspin’: it is
just four people sitting around a table, with a host and an audience.
 What we did differently was the substance, the execution,
the attempt to find people who could reach under an issue and really
get a hold of it, guests who could challenge the assumptions of
the status quo in principle and not just in detail. We developed
a culture of knowing how to produce these shows over ten years.
By cancelling ‘Counterspin,’ the CBC has lost this culture.”







 





Justin Podur
is an activist living in Toronto. He has written for



Dollars
and Sense, Frontline India, New Politics



, and other publications.