Robert Parry: Current TV could have played a critical role taking on the Bush presidency, instead it followed a confused “youth” strategy.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
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Current TV, as most people have probably heard by now, is being sold to Al Jazeera, which has been looking for a home on American cable TV for years. Current TV was founded primarily (although not on his own) by Al Gore, who was a major shareholder. And Al Gore’s been mostly in the news explaining why Current TV was sold.
And to give us his take on what all of this means, the significance of these events, is Robert Parry. Robert joins us now from D.C. He’s an investigative journalist that broke many of the Iran–Contra stories in the 1980s. His latest publication is America’s Stolen Narrative. And he’s the director and principal writer at ConsortiumNews.com.
Thanks for joining us, Bob.
ROBERT PARRY, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thanks, Paul.
JAY: So what’s your take on the significance of this sale?
PARRY: Well, it’s kind of another sad case where an effort at a progressive media entity has not worked out the way some had hoped. When Current was being first talked about, back in the—maybe a decade ago, there was a lot of hope that it would be an effort to provide a progressive voice on news and to take on some of the challenges that were then very serious in the country—the invasion and occupation of Iraq, George W. Bush’s assault on the Constitution, issues like torture. So there were a number of important issues that really needed to be confronted.
Instead, Current TV decided to go and be a sort of a voice for the 18 to 35 demographic group, providing sort of a MTV with a conscience approach. They base themseleves in San Francisco, as far as you can get from the Washington battle lines in the continental U.S., and ended up not having much impact at all. It went through a number of years of being fairly unwatched; then it went—and finally—and it wasn’t until 2011 when it decided to do what it should have done back in 2004 and 2005 when it was getting off the ground, and that was to be more of a political news oriented news outlet. By then it was too late.
JAY: And that’s when Keith Olbermann was asked to join, after Keith left MSNBC. But then Olbermann leaves The Current not too long after that.
PARRY: Right. It was sort of a mess all around. But at that point in 2004 and 2005, when Current was being set up, there was a tremendous need—and it would have been very hard to take on the Bush administration on these issues the way they needed to be taken on. And the decision by Al Gore, who, ironically, on an individual basis, had spoken up—he had spoken up against the Iraq War, he had spoken up against the violations of the Constitution. But when it came to putting together this business entity, he either chose to or went along with advisers who wanted to go with this sort of softer, less ideological, less political approach.
JAY: Yeah. I was out there during that time. I was—when we were getting Real News off the ground, we were doing some fundraising in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and we were talking to some of the same funders that Al Gore either knew or were involved with him, or some of the advisers, and essentially it had started with this vision of being this independent news organization, and then they decided it wasn’t going to be profitable enough, they weren’t going to get a big enough return on their money, and perhaps, too, what you suggest in your article, they didn’t want to take on the Bush administration, although I think that also had an economic angle. You know, at the time, public opinion after 9/11 was mostly with Bush, and they didn’t want to fight that and they didn’t want to piss off the cable channels that were carrying them. And I was arguing at the time that, you know, this is the problem with a for-profit news model, that, you know, eventually this is what’s going to happen to it. And, of course, as you said, it wasn’t very long afterwards they gave up the whole news mandate completely and became just sort of youth-culture oriented.
PARRY: Right. And the ironic thing was that MSNBC, which in the period of that 2003—the Iraq War timeframe was trying to out-Fox Fox—if you remember, MSNBC got rid of Phil Donahue, who had a lot or a few antiwar voices on his show. They wanted to be even more super patriotic than Fox. They ran these propaganda videos showing American troops liberating Iraq. They avoided the ugly pictures of civilian casualties and children being harmed. They did all the same stuff, with the idea of playing to what they thought was what the American audience wanted.
But it turned out that MSNBC could not get into that market, that Fox had already cornered the conservative, super patriot market. So then with Keith Olbermann arriving and beginning to be more critical of the Bush war in Iraq and showing that it could be done—as much as Olbermann may be a difficult personality in many ways, he had the courage and the talent to devise a program which took on not just the Bush administration but Fox News and other parts of this what at that time was considered the emerging Republican majority, the permanent Republican majority, if you recall the thinking at the time.
So MSNBC saw that they could make some money in this approach, and over time they added more and more sort of liberal-oriented programming in the evening. And it worked out for them, and they developed a fairly strong following and marginalized CNN with its sort of phony-balance approach to the news and was more of a competitor to Fox. So that’s what happened. So it turned out that the business model that might have worked was the one that MSNBC eventually followed.
But Current had sort of already forsaken that and gone with this youth-oriented thing, which never attracted much of an audience. And by the time they switched over, after Olbermann leaves MSNBC, they hire him at Current in 2011, by then it was too late to really—by then people were watching MSNBC if they wanted that kind of news [crosstalk]
JAY: You wrote a piece about this on Consortium—Consortium News—I should say the whole thing, ConsortiumNews.com, so you get a full plug. You wrote a piece, and it was kind of an assessment of Gore himself, that this isn’t the first time Gore didn’t stand up at a critical moment.
PARRY: Well, that’s true. I mean, I must say Gore obviously has stood up at different times, and I’ve been to situations where he’s given speeches. He did come out against the Iraq War fairly—before it started and was one of the few voices doing that in the sort of mainstream, if you will.
But at other key junctures he hasn’t shown the kind of fight that was probably needed. The situation, obviously, during the disputed election in 2000, when he actually won the election in 2000 and did pursue through the courts an effort to get a reasonable recount in Florida, which we now know that if all the legally cast votes in Florida had been counted, he would have narrowly won that state and carried, therefore, the White House, too. However, he didn’t. He chose to work within the system. And when that system turned out to be corrupt, when the Supreme Court of the United States, with five Republican partisans coming up with some made-up reasons decided to hand the election to George W. Bush, Gore had not rallied the public, and he therefore had no choice but to hand over the presidency to Bush, which then had its own horrendous consequences for the American people and the world.
So there are different times he has tried to sort of maintain his, quote, credibility within the mainstream, and that has led to him not being tough enough and aggressive enough in pursuing what really was the—what would have been in not only the democratic choice of the public, which did vote for Gore by a narrow margin, but also for what was ultimately the good of the country, which would have been not to have Bush as president.
JAY: Right. Now, you go back to the business model we were talking about at MSNBC, I mean, their model on the whole, really, is to be sort of the Fox version, but for the Democratic Party. They’re almost uncritical of the Obama administration. I think there’s moments midway through the administration where they were sort of critical of some of Obama’s policies. You could see a bit on Rachel Maddow and maybe one of the couple of the other shows. But as soon as you get anywhere within smelling distance of an election, they go straight partisan.
PARRY: Well, I think their foreign policy has been their weak point. On domestic material they have done some good coverage. Ed Schultz, for instance, covered rather tightly the issues in Wisconsin around the labor fights. But when it comes to foreign policy, they really do—they don’t challenge the conventional wisdom. And I think it’s not just the Democratic position but often the Republican position. They don’t really want to be seen, for instance, as being critical of the intervention in Libya. There was very much a rallying around that. Similarly, they pretty much follow not just the Democratic line, but the general mainstream position on Syria. There’s not much critical reporting or critical thinking that goes on when it comes to those kinds of very tough, difficult foreign-policy issues.
JAY: I’m seeing now even on domestic issues, like, I found, like, sort of partway, midway through the term, Obama’s first term, they get critical of certain Obama policies on economic stuff, bailing out the banks and not Main Street and such, but, you know, in the leadup to this last election, they became full, 100 percent Obama supporters. I personally don’t watch it all the time, but whenever I did, I did not hear much of a critique. And it’s continuing now. Like, if you look at their coverage of the fiscal cliff issue, they’re buying into the whole thing about the fiscal cliff being this horrible thing that’s going to happen, and we have to make a deal, these terrible Republicans for blocking the deal and then praising the deal that is reached, which any progressive economist I’m talking to is trashing.
PARRY: Well, I think that’s a fair criticism. I do think they tend—they can be critical of Obama on certain narrow kinds of points, for instance, his performance in the first debate—they pretty much trashed that. But overall, overall I think they were—.
JAY: I think that was easy. Even he had to trash that eventually.
PARRY: But I do think that most of their focus was on the Republicans—and therefore implicitly, I guess, more supportive of Obama. But some of the work, I think, has been good. I think some of what Reverend Sharpton has done, for instance, on the issue of efforts to suppress the vote was quite important.
But that said, I think—you know, the point I was making in the article was that Current TV failed to even do that. They didn’t want to engage in the kind of political battles that would have been incurred if they had sort of pointed out why Bush’s war in Iraq was bad, why some of his approaches on the Constitution were threatening. Even if they had just covered what Al Gore was saying in his speeches would have been an improvement over what Current ended up doing, which was to have kind of a nice—the shows I did watch on Current were mostly things done by sort of youngish producers who looked at environmental issues. It had a conscience to it, but it had no edge to it.
JAY: Well, I think that’s the problem, in the sense that it was a for-profit model from the beginning, and it helped drive most of their decisions, and in the end they cash out, they do get their venture capitalist payback in the end.
PARRY: Well, I think they probably got a sweetheart deal from Al Jazeera. I’m not sure that what Al Jazeera’s paying for is entirely worth what they’re getting. But Al Jazeera desperately wants to have some foothold in the American media world, which I think it deserves. It’s a serious although also flawed and limited operation, but one that has a voice that Americans probably should hear. And so I guess they felt that was very important, and they were willing to pay money to get it. But it is ironic that after not having a very good business model at Current and ultimately failing and having very few viewers, that Current was able to find a way to make some money at the end of the day.
JAY: In the end, it was a real estate investment. Thanks very much for joining us, Bob.
PARRY: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And as for our assessment of Al Jazeera America, of course, we’ll wait till it’s on. As for current English Al Jazeera, we have done some pieces fairly critical about some of their coverage, though I agree with Bob, other coverage has been very good. And we will post some of our Al Jazeera pieces below. Thanks very much for joining us, Bob.
PARRY: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.