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An interview with Naomi Klein & Avi Lewis
Naomi Klein is a columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail and author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Avi Lewis is host of a one-hour talk show called “CounterSpin” on CBC-TV.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Give people below the 49th parallel, a sense of what's going on in Canadian media.
NAOMI KLEIN: In many ways the same trends that are happening all over the world, particularly in the U.S., are happening in Canada. Newspapers and television are being rolled into these communication conglomerates. Journalists are waking up and finding out that they're actually “content providers,” as opposed to journalists. This has just happened to me at the Globe and Mail, which has been sold to the largest telecommunications company, Bell Canada. Now we're doing Internet content for an Internet provider.
AVI LEWIS: As well as merging with CTV, the largest private television network, so that the triangle is complete.
NK: In some ways it's easy to say the same things are happening in Canada as in the U.S., but on the other hand, there are a lot more exceptions in Canada in the media. Activist voices are somewhat less marginal, even though our papers are still dominated by business interests. Tokenism is a very real thing in Canada. I'm a token. Avi is also a token. That creates opportunities to get some subversive ideas into the mainstream. That's the biggest difference about Canadian mainstream media vs. U.S. mainstream media.
AL: It's unthinkable in America that our equivalent positions would exist. “CounterSpin” is on CBC-TV Monday through Thursday from 8:00 to 9:00 PM. It is a political debate show framed from the left. My role is to be opinionated and to take part in the debates—like Rush Limbaugh, except with facts. The CBC is a national network. It's our public broadcaster. It's the only all-news network of its kind in Canada. It would be like having a left-driven TV debate show on PBS or CNN and a columnist like Naomi in the New York Times. Obviously, this doesn't happen in America. Naomi's point about the spaces and the potential for progressive spaces in Canadian media is a real one. On the other hand, that's under real threat. Not only has the Globe and Mail, which was Canada's national newspaper for the longest time, formed an alliance with the telephone company and the major private TV network, but the other private TV network has just merged with Conrad Black's paper the National Post. Now we have two battling megalopolies.
Talk about the National Post. It's near or exceeding the circulation of the Globe and Mail.
NK: The National Post is the newspaper embodiment of Barbara Amiel, a neoconservative woman who is to the right of Pinochet.
AL: She was the hardiest defender of Pinochet in the last couple of years. She wrote columns in the Telegraph in Britain, which her husband Conrad Black also owns.
NK: If you look at the appeal of Barbara Amiel, you understand why the National Post has been so successful. It takes very hardcore neoconservative opinions and wraps them in Vanity Fair-style glamour. It's well-written, witty, and sexy. They're using arts and celebrity coverage to wrap around what I consider to be pretty dangerous ideas, not just on the op-ed page but openly opinionated right-wing news. Their slogan is, The News, You Have Our Word On It. The news filtered through their lens.
In your April lecture at the Taos Talking Picture Festival you said there is a “stranglehold” on information in the U.S. You gave an example with the New York Times.
NK: The only article I've ever had published in the New York Times was the day after the protest in Seattle. I had just completed No Logo. I knew that Seattle was about to explode because my inbox was telling me so. Through a friend who had a contact at the New York Times I spoke to the op-ed editor and said, I've written this book about this new movement. There's going to be a huge protest in Seattle. I think you should have an op-ed piece on November 30 talking about the roots of this movement and where it's coming from. She said, We already have an article on that. Thomas Friedman is covering that. We also have a free-lancer, Bill Gates. I said, I think you should have something more from the perspective of the protest. I don't think Bill Gates is going to do that. She said, I really don't think so. I don't think anything is going to happen. It's just a bunch of “sixties nostalgics.” That was the first time I heard that phrase and I've heard it many times since. She said, Why don't you write it on spec and we'll see. Then, of course, Seattle exploded.
AL: She called back right away. And then the window closed. There was a moment when the mass media in the United States felt they were caught with their microphones down. They didn't have an explanation. They hadn't been tracking it. It was self-evident that this was something major. They just blew it. They missed the story. So there was a little window there in early 2000 when they were doing a lot of soul-searching, where did this movement come from, some people got to say structural adjustment programs in the developing world, some people got to point to the roots of the movement as it emerged in Seattle. But then it went back off the radar. Now it's a huge struggle to get anything other than the criminal- ization coverage, which the mass media in America seems to have no end of appetite for. You saw that around the Washington IMF-World Bank protests, where the equation of protest and terrorism was complete. That's just about the only portrayal that the movement gets in the big media now.
What's happening as the target for dissidence has moved from the state to remote and “weightless” corporations?
NK: I don't think the shift has been complete. We had the demonstrations during the Republican and Democratic conventions. But the themes that ran through those demonstrations were about outing the corporate money behind the political parties. We have seen the site of protest change. One of the things that's been really interesting to watch is the emergence of these meta-corporate campaigns, like the Citibank campaign, where the largest financial firm in North America, that has holdings in all kinds of other corporations, is seized on to connect the dots between environmental and labor issues, World Bank, etc. In a way, multinational corporations have become the best popular education tools that we have in this movement. It's really hard to get your head around the global economy. But it's like a little game. We've seen that with media holdings. For instance, one of the best educational tools that media educators have is to follow the synergy, follow a Time Warner movie release through all the different holdings. Now we're seeing that happen with corporations like Citibank.
AL: There's something else in this shifting of the locus of protest from government to corporations. It's also shifting back. There is a widespread understanding that governments are the fixers for corporate agendas. They get it done. As people are starting to see the global economy through the tentacles of corporations and how they reach into our lives, they are also getting re-interested in reclaiming pieces of democracy at a local level and trying to participate in the actual governance of our lives and resurrect the idea that government can actually be some kind of protection for citizens against business interests. Even as the spotlight has shifted to corporations in profound ways, there's a reawakening of interest in electoral reform. There's a big need for it in America. The last election was a wake-up call for lot of people on that. There is also great interest in local democracy, which was what the World Social Forum gathering at Porto Alegre in Brazil in early 2001 was all about.
How would you rate National Public Radio?
AL: I know that public broadcasters, like public schools, and every other part of our public life, have been driven into the arms of sponsors. But I find it pretty disturbing. In Canada, every few years, some technocrat or political appointee who's been put in charge of CBC radio will suggest that the way to really reinvigorate the service is to introduce just a tiny bit of sponsorship. They hold up NPR as an example of how tastefully it can be done. There is genuine outcry and rebellion against that in Canada. They've never succeeded in doing it on radio. On public TV there are straight-out commercials. I have to interrupt my show for commercials three times in the hour and it drives me nuts. They are sometimes as long as two-and-a-half minutes. Just when you're getting a political debate going, you're stopping to sell mutual funds. That was a consequence of ten years of cutbacks and massive downsizing on the public broadcaster. But it's significant that the CBC just got it's first new money in ten years. Now that the economy is sliding again, I'm sure they'll go back to cutting. But there was one little moment where the CBC actually got new money. One of the ways they're using it, or at least their spin, is that they're trying to make at least the national news hour commercial-free. There's tremendous appetite for that. At the same time, there's a little bit of a danger. Once you introduce commercials to support public broadcasting, then a lot of the enemies of public broadcasting insist that public broadcasting be commercial-free because they know that will cripple it financially, and it's a way of bringing the CBC to its knees.
NK: Even though there are mutual funds and SUV commercials in the show, it is really shocking from an American perspective to watch people talk about capitalism on television.
How about imperialism?
AL: Imperialism comes up once every several weeks. Amy Goodman says “imperialism” all the time.
NK: Once one person starts saying imperialism, everyone does it. It's always funny. Avi starts every show with a two-minute rant. Even among American left-wing guests, but particularly among American right-wing guests, there's always this shocked silence at the end where they're coming to grips with what's just been said on television. I think it's because despite the fact that there are commercials, the Administration in charge of the network does believe that there is a public service, particularly in the form of the town hall. If there's a role for a public broadcaster, it is to create debate and hold politicians accountable, to bring politicians face to face with voters and have them grilled. That service has proved more important than pressure from sponsors or the right to get Avi taken off the air.
AL: To be fair, the CBC is very anxious about having a left-wing host of a prime time major public TV debate show.
It's hard to imagine that in the U.S.
NK: It happened because of Howard Stern, Politically Incorrect, and Rush Limbaugh. There was this precedent. It was actually Chris Matthews of Hardball. It was a format that was proven very popular in the U.S. All of it was coming from the right, or at least civil libertarian in the case of Bill Maher. The head of Newsworld was able to be convinced because he was a fan of these shows and saw that they were working and had an energy to have a host with a point of view.
AL: That's just basic open-mindedness. There's no political agenda on the public broadcaster's point of view in Canada. It may be the last place on the planet where anyone believes in neutrality of journalism. The CBC is serious about the myth of neutrality. They've compromised in a debate format that there might be journalists who aren't really giving you both sides of the story. But just having an open mind, if you want to have a host who argues with people, who doesn't pretend to be neutral, because nobody believes that anyway, you just see all the passive-aggressive ways that hosts use to cut off guests that they disagree with. It's so obvious. It's just a basic open-mindedness. It could be from the left or the right.
NK: The thing that's really important about “CounterSpin” from the left perspective is that it makes it seem that when you're up against, say, the negotiator for the Multilateral Agreement on Investment or one of the key people who negotiated NAFTA, it makes people on the left smarter. It makes people do their homework. Ideas come out in that format. When we think about debate, we think about the crossfire, people screaming at each other and not really feeling any kind of political conviction. But when you actually have players, activists, trade negotiators on television, this is people's life work. There's an incredible energy in that.
AL: One of the ways the movement is dismissed is by claiming these activists don't really know what they're talking about anyway. They're just there for the party. One of the things we've done on “CounterSpin” is to push people. The inherent dynamic of a debate among players pushes people on the left to bring facts and examples and specifics. There's an abundance of proof for the things that are being said about capitalism. They need to be brought chapter and verse. It's exhilarating to see people on the left doing that.
Draw a picture of how the program works.
AL: It's live, which is great. I start by introducing the topic. I do a little rant of a couple of minutes in which I tell the audience what we're going to be talking about. Then I introduce a panel of three or four guests, usually balanced to represent both sides of the debate. They're in the studio with me. We try to be a national show within Canada. We have American guests, from New York and Washington mainly because those are the cheapest satellite lines for us. Then we do a panel debate for the first half of the show. Then we have a live audience, sometimes 10 or 15 people, sometimes 40 or 50. I roll up my sleeves and wade Geraldo-style into the crowd and get the audience to engage with the panelists. In the most blissful moments, people forget that they're on TV. There's a bunch of people in a room arguing about stuff that's really important. It's like democracy in action. We've been able to use this format to do some interesting things. We were in Washington for the IMF-World Bank protests. The first night we had a vice president of the World Bank against Njoki Njehu from Fifty Years Is Enough. Bill Greider of the Nation and a guy from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a kind of Clinton apologist, were also on. We had a really intense debate about the effect of World Bank structural adjustment programs.
The U.S. as the global hegemon is a fat target, particularly in Canada. What happens when you go after politicians like Ralph Klein, the right-wing premier of Alberta?
AL: We spent a week in Alberta before the last provincial election. It's like our Texas in a big way. It's where private health care is now happening with state sanction. They've got so much money in Alberta from oil revenues that they've completely screwed up energy deregulation à la California. They've managed to protect people from it by millions and millions of dollars of straight rebates. They're buying people off from their own electricity bills with their own money. It's a kind of Alice in Disneyland. We did four shows. There was Ralph Klein riding to a third majority with massive public support, despite the fact that a majority of Albertans are really scared of private health care. They hate the health care reforms. They're really furious about energy deregulation. Yet this kind of folksy, crypto-fascist premier has managed to ride wave after wave of popular support. It's a fascinating place to try to get at the disconnect between people's deep hatred of certain politics and yet warm embrace of the politicians driving them.
NK: One of the things that is interesting about this process is that the right doesn't like to debate. They like to debate liberals, but not the left. They often express frustration that they have to revisit issues that they feel have already been solved. The first stage is a refusal to participate because they can't believe that they're not setting the terms of the debate. But because the show has been popular, they have had to start coming on and debating.
If there is a model, it's that the left should take debate more seriously. There's a validation to the spectrum that is there when you see the range of opinion. It gives people permission when they see their views on television or read them in the newspapers. They don't feel alone. It doesn't take much to reawaken a sense in people that maybe they're not as freakish as they thought they were. That's what we're doing.
Talk about the print media in Canada. Naomi, you used to be the editor of This Magazine out of Toronto.
NK: This is an interesting flip side to what we're talking about. The fact that there are these windows in the mainstream, even though they are sort of token windows, means that the alternative press in Canada is less vital and less strong. The incentive to support it financially, which is what it needs, isn't there. The alternative press is genuinely much more marginal. That's true of This Magazine. It's also been hurt by the Internet. People who read alternative magazines in general are actively seeking out new information sources all the time. Those people tend to really take to the Internet. It's just one big giant alternative news source.
AL: You don't have to go and buy a subscription.
NK: Or by the time your subscription arrives you feel like you already know half of what's in it because you read it live as it was happening online. That has hurt the alternative press in Canada. There are a lot of left-wing columnists in newspapers, seven people who have regular columns, maybe ten, not counting local papers, who are writing about globalization from a clear left perspective. This means that there's less of a reason for the kinds of sacrifices that are involved in working for the alternative press. The most substantial sacrifice being working for almost no money. By the same token, it's fair to say that the strength of the alternative press—the explosion of indy media centers, the strength of the Nation—is a response to the fact that people are relying heavily on these news sources. The feelings of the absolute urgency of having alternative news sources in the U.S., we don't feel that equivalent in Canada, which is too bad. It also means that we're not creating these really exciting alternatives, where people are working outside the system, creating new ways of working and being part of a much more revolutionary process than we're describing. Maybe it takes both.
AL: More importantly, we're not sustaining those critical outlets that we have. The next part of the story is that corporations merge. The CanWest Global TV network and the National Post are talking quietly about sharing a newsroom. TV newsrooms cannot merge with newspaper newsrooms. They have fundamentally different rhythms, sensibilities, and needs. They're going to do it and when they do, they're going to lay off a ton of people.
Give the average consumer of media a sense of how to cut through the crap.
AL: I've always approached it mathematically, to intuit the biases of any media source and factor them out, and do a tremendous amount of cross-comparing. You'll find kernels of stories that reappear in different forms in different outlets. You develop a sense of how to connect the dots. I need a range of media sources, alternative and mainstream, in order to get any whole story. Sometimes, increasingly, in a media environment like the one we live in, the way that things are covered is the story. You have to keep absorbing vast amounts of crap media because it's so important how stories are being spun in order to counterspin them.
NK: I have two pieces of advice. One is, read the business press like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. These are the publications where capital tells the truth about itself. A combination of reading alternative publications and financial publications gives a very good sense of what's going on.. The other thing is, if you are online, to read European papers when you can.
AL: We always find that a lot of Americans migrate to Canadian newspapers during your elections. The Globe and Mail, for as much as we rail at it and spill coffee on it, is a better source of information about U.S. elections than U.S. papers. You have to keep migrating. You have to graze globally in order to put together a whole picture.
No Logo was published by Murdoch in the UK, Picador in the U.S., one of these paradoxes that exist.
NK: It's been a bit of a surprise. It's a bestseller in Britain. The truth is that No Logo was an extremely difficult book to publish. No one wanted it.
Because of content?
NK: I guess so. Now that the book has been a bestseller and is being translated into different languages, people think that I had my pick of any publisher I wanted and I chose HarperCollins in Britain. In fact, these choices in the U.S. and the UK were made for me. We searched very hard to find publishers who would publish the book and found exactly one in the U.S. and the one in the U.K. Canada was different. There was a bidding war for the Canadian publication. That's because I'm known as a journalist there. But it's not like people were clamoring to publish a book bashing corporations by a completely unknown Canadian author.
How can Americans tune in to “CounterSpin”?
AL: If you have access to a high-speed Internet connection, a couple of the shows we did in Washington around the IMF-World Bank protests and the demonstrations against the hemispheric trade summit in Quebec City are online. You can watch them at www.cbc.ca, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation home page. It's a wonderful online news resource. It's a lot of Canadian news, which may be a curiosity for Americans. It's interesting to see where Canada is at. If you follow links to “CounterSpin,” you can watch some of our shows online. Z
David Barsamian is founder and director of Alternative Radio. His latest books are Confronting Empire, with Eqbal Ahmad, Propaganda and the Pubic Mind, and The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting (all from South End Press).