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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.
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.
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.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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