Paul Jay, a veteran Canadian documentary filmmaker, news producer, and CEO of Independent World Television (IWT), was in the midst of a globetrotting four-year quest to change the nature of television news when he explained his mission to a Chicago taxi driver.
"I said we’re building a new TV news network," Jay recalls. "No corporate funding, no government funding, no advertising."
And in the straightforward way of a street-wise cabbie, his driver got it instantly.
"Oh," Jay remembers him saying. "You mean the REAL news."
That easily, a name was born. IWT still exists as a parent company, but it’s now doing business as The Real News. And if one of the most interesting developments in the news media since Al Gore invented the internet is not quite on the air yet, it’s already just a mouse-click away on your computer — therealnews.com.
Since its launch this summer, visitors to the website have been able to see things they have never seen and hear analysis they have never heard on American commercial TV: Political scientist Aijaz Ahmad dissecting the internal politics of the Bush administration from New Delhi in a way Bill Kristol never has on Fox News (and wouldn’t want to); Asia Times foreign correspondent Pepe Escobar of Brazil showing the 10-foot high, graffiti-covered concrete walls which now quarantine Baghdad neighborhoods in the name of reconciliation ("This is what we call peace," he says); Shwan Aziz, an Iraqi Kurd, speaking from the ruins of his devastated village after the recent Turkish aerial bombing: "Saddam didn’t do half of what we have seen now. The Baath party bombed our villages, but it warned us before bombardment."
"People are fairly clear that the politicians are talking the way products get sold on TV, but the media reports as if the spin is the real thing," Jay says. "If you’re going to have a democracy, you have to have an infrastructure that can say, ‘No. That’s not true, and here are the facts.’"
The genesis of The Real News came with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Jay was producing Canada’s popular debate show, Counterspin, as he watched the atrocious performance of major media outlets in questioning the rationale for war.
"You can’t have the semblance of a democracy when the organs of the press become vehicles of propaganda for the government," Jay says. "And we saw that happen with the Iraq war."
But a television news operation on even a modest scale is an expensive proposition, so it has been a long process of raising funds and building support for the project. Jay counts among his heroes Mark Twain ("He had the courage to go where the facts led him — there weren’t any taboos — and he did it with skill"), and he signed up perhaps this generation’s Twain, Gore Vidal, along with Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham for his advisory board. Over time, that board came to include many of the leading figures in today’s alternative news media — Jeff Cohen of FAIR, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, John Nichols and Jonathan Schell of The Nation, Mark Karlin of BuzzFlash.com, Laura Flanders of Air America, and author and filmmaker Danny Schechter.
By 2005, his team was ready to put up a website — then IWT.com — with just a description of their plans and goals and a handful of prototype videos.
"It got a huge response. It kind of caught us off-guard," recalls Geraldine Cahill, an Australian who is The Real News’ communications director. "We weren’t in any position to start producing news. But some of the people who became donors then have stayed with us."
And those donors are the key to the plan’s success. While The Real News has received some large donations to bring it to this point, the goal is to be funded entirely by viewers donating as little as $5 or $10 per month — less than the price of their daily newspaper. Jay figures the project can succeed if it can get just a fraction of the four million members who support PBS, and that’s just in the United States. The Real News is already chartered as a nonprofit in the US and Canada, and plans a push soon into the huge market of India.
"If enough people do it we can sustain this," Jay says, "and that’s what will give us courage and independence. We don’t have to worry about quick ratings or the withdrawal of advertising or government funding. We only have one thing to worry about — did we get the facts right?"
For content, The Real News will rely on an initial staff of about 25 in its Toronto studios and a worldwide network of print journalists and independent producers. It has relationships with writers from The Hindu, India’s largest English-language newspaper, The Guardian in the UK, and The Daily Mail in South Africa. It relied on three freelancers for its coverage of the martial law crisis in Pakistan.
"Pakistan has been a great place to flesh out what we’re doing," Cahill says. "It’s not good when the news is bad, but it was a good test for us."
Cahill also wants to develop relationships with the blogging community. The Real News coverage of the Bali conference featured a 10-minute interview with Ben Wikler of Avaaz.com, the new global online grassroots-organizing effort which has made climate change a top priority, and the interview is now linked on the Avaaz website.
"We know the power the blogs have to talk to particular audiences," she says, "and it can be fruitful on both sides."
Jay speaks often about the impact The Real News could have on democracy and empowering ordinary people, and a section of the website called Organize This! includes stories about the Hollywood writers strike and French labor protests over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposals to increase working hours and reduce pension benefits. But he rejects the notion that The Real News will be just a left-wing alternative to Fox.
"Fox is a propaganda organ for the Republican party. We’re not playing partisan politics. We’re going to be against all of them," he says. "We’re about investigative journalism and verifiable facts. But if you do verifiable facts, you’re accused of left-wing journalism. When Sy Hersh broke Abu Ghraib, is that left-wing journalism? No. It’s journalism. We’ll be equal critics if the Democrats are in power, or the Liberals in Canada, and the proof will be in the pudding. People can see what we do and decide."
A top priority now is to open a Washington, DC, bureau to cover the US government and the 2008 presidential campaign. By the spring or summer, the hope is to begin distributing an hour-long daily news show via cable and satellite TV — a concise summary of the continuously updated, 24/7 coverage available on the web.
Ultimately, Jay says he will be able to measure his success by that Chicago taxi driver.
"I’ll get in the cab, and the cab driver’s going to say, ‘I had this politician in the back seat yesterday, and he was telling me such-and-such, and I said, "Uh-uh. That’s not true. I saw it on The Real News."’"
Gregg Gordon is a writer in Columbus, Ohio. Email him at [email protected].