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Critical condition
Danny Schechterís world-focused Media Channel is a hit with readers, but funding woes force a Ďtemporary hiatusí

YOU CAN STILL watch a three-year-old streaming video of Walter Cronkite as he extols the virtues of the then-new Media Channel, a nonprofit Web site dedicated to tracking press issues from an international perspective. "I am intrigued by its potential and its global reach," the broadcast-news legend intones, closing with an avuncular "And thatís the way it is."

But the Cronkite clip, sadly, has become emblematic of the Media Channel in a way heíd never intended: as a rerun. Hereís the way it is. With the world on the verge of a war that seemingly no one other than the Bush administration wants, the Media Channel ó one of the few organizations dedicated to tracking what the rest of the world thinks ó has had to suspend most of its operations. To name just one example, the last entry in a section labeled "Media Await War on Iraq" is a February 4 dispatch on a British television stationís winning an interview with Saddam Hussein. Dan Rather? Whoís that?

Executive editor and co-founder Danny Schechter told me that heís confident the Media Channel will lurch back to life "within the next several months" as a new influx of foundation money begins to flow. In a message posted on the organizationís Web site, Schechter wrote, "Weíve had to make some difficult choices to insure our survival. We are sad to report that we are going on a temporary hiatus to cut our costs and give us some time to reorganize with some new sustainability strategies. We expect to return soon with more of the diverse content, hard-hitting features, and useful resources that we are known for." But there are no guarantees ó especially as foundations themselves are squeezed by the long, slow-motion collapse of the stock market.

The purpose of the Media Channel, located on the Web at, is to provide coverage and criticism of the media from around the world. The news comes in from Media Channel affiliates ó more than 1000 of them, up from just 20 at launch in 2000. The Media Channel staff sift, edit, and aggregate. Itís a vision that had long been championed by Schechter, well-known in Boston as the "News Dissector" at the old WBCN Radio in the 1960s and í70s. His New YorkĖbased television company, Globalvision, produces documentaries on issues ranging from human rights around the world to the 2000 presidential-election fiasco in Florida.

"As far as I know, heís doing something that nobody else does," says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvardís Kennedy School. "I think itís especially important that people in general and journalists in particular understand the world from the broadest perspective possible. I hope that he will find a way to right the boat."

Adds Jay Rosen, who chairs the journalism department at New York University: "Anything that is truly independent, meaning outside the media complex, is valuable for that reason alone. The idea of an international site that collects news and views about the media from around the world was a really great idea. The significance of that was not just that it was a good information product, but also that it suggests a kind of global community of critical minds that corresponds to the global reach of media empires. And that was always what I thought was interesting about the Media Channel."

(And now for a few disclosures. Both the Phoenix and my Web site,, are Media Channel affiliates. Schechter also interviewed me for his Florida documentary, Counting on Democracy, which was broadcast on some public television stations ó including WGBH-TV, Channels 2 and 44, in Boston ó when it was released last year.)

Significantly, the Media Channelís hiatus begins just as liberals are beginning to form a coherent critique of conservative media bias, thus turning the tables on an ideological canard that goes back at least to Spiro Agnew. Thanks to remarks by the likes of Al Gore and Bill Clinton regarding the pernicious effects of the Fox News Channel and other conservative media outlets, as well as Eric Altermanís new book, What Liberal Media? (Basic Books), a debate has finally begun over the long-established, little-examined notion that liberals control public discourse in this country.

The Media Channel, with its left-liberal, antiwar perspective, could have made a real contribution to that debate. And perhaps it will. But not right now.

SO WHAT HAPPENED? Schechter says the Media Channelís problems began almost a year ago, when the Ford Foundation delayed delivery of a grant from April until October. Staff members were laid off; bills went unpaid. When the money finally arrived, much of it went to paying off outstanding obligations. As a result, the Media Channel found itself almost out of cash, necessitating Schechterís mid-February announcement. "We decided rather than let money run out, weíd take a hiatus and try to reorganize and get funding proposals together," he says.

At one point, Schechter had hoped for an annual budget of $700,000. But that was cut back to $450,000, which required him to lay off the managing editor, the affiliates manager, and several other staff members.

A confluence of events combined to create the squeeze. ABB, a Swiss electronics company that is a major corporate funder of the site, faces serious financial problems because of asbestos claims filed against its US subsidiary. Another setback was the death of Leonardo Mondadori, an Italian media mogul who was instrumental in getting the Media Channel off the ground. But perhaps the most telling blow involves the Ford Foundation.

Although the Media Channel has received funding from a number of sources, including the Benetton Foundation and financier George Sorosís Open Society Institute, Ford money has been crucial. In the last funding cycle, Schechter says, the Media Channel received $300,000 from Ford. An application for more is pending, and Schechter is optimistic that it, too, will be approved. Ford Foundation spokeswoman Thea Lurie declined to comment on the Media Channelís pending application, citing internal policy. But, clearly, Schechter is competing for money at a time of seriously diminished resources.

Ford, like most foundations, has suffered enormous losses as a result of the stock-market downturn. Lurie says that Fordís portfolio has fallen from $14.5 million in September 2000 to just $9.3 billion in September 2002 ó a decline of nearly 36 percent. Nor is Ford alone. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, last year was the third in a row that foundation assets have fallen. The 131 grantmakers that provided data to the Chronicle reported $19.7 billion in lost assets during 2002.

Don Hazen, executive director of the San FranciscoĖbased Independent Media Institute, which runs the left-leaning Web site (another Media Channel affiliate), has also felt the foundation pinch. "Itís a tough time to be fundraising," Hazen says, "and itís always tough to fundraise for media projects, because the foundation world primarily funds issues, and wishes and hopes that the media system will take care of itself."

Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, the magazine of the lefty media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), says the Media Channel has a difficult challenge because it exists only on the Web. The bimonthly Extra!, he notes, has a paid circulation of about 20,000, which helps support both the magazine and FAIR. "We ask them to send us more money and, bless them, they do," Naureckas says.

In fact, there is a cruel irony at work for Web-based projects such as the Media Channel and AlterNet: they are successful when measured by the number of eyeballs they bring in. Schechter says the Media Channel drew three and a half million hits in January. Hazen says AlterNet attracted a million unique visitors during the same month. (Hits, which include repeat visitors, and unique visitors are not the same thing, so itís probably safe to say the Media Channel and AlterNet have audiences of roughly similar size.) Yet neither has found a way to monetize those eyeballs, to use a quaint phrase from the í90s boom. Of course, neither are for-profit sites such as the liberal-oriented Salon, which staggers on the brink of collapse despite having a reported audience of well over three million readers per month.

It would be one thing if such Web projects were failing to attract readers. Whatís distressing is that their numbers show they are meeting a real need, yet they find it extraordinarily hard to bring in enough money to keep going.

Salon, obviously, is going to have to solve its own problems. But for nonprofits such as the Media Channel and AlterNet, there may be alternatives. The media scholar Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois, is one of a number of activists working on an initiative promoted by the economist Dean Baker that would allow taxpayers to designate $100 to $150 of their tax payments every year ó at no additional cost to themselves ó to go to the nonprofit of their choice.

Such a system, McChesney says, would allow someone such as Schechter to ask his readers to funnel their tax money to the Media Channel. Even better, he argues, such a decentralized system would avoid the problem of having "government commissars" in charge of programming, as is currently the case with PBS and, to a lesser extent (since it receives no direct government funds), NPR.

"Remember," McChesney says, "the market is a vicious censor. Itís not a neutral force."

FORTUNATELY FOR Media Channel fans, Danny Schechterís daily weblog lives. Every morning, Schechter bangs out some 3000 to 4000 words of media commentary based on his broad and eclectic immersion in the international press. This past Tuesday, Schechter cited a report by Robert Fisk in the London Independent that Al Qaeda terrorist Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, supposedly arrested last weekend, is actually still under Taliban protection, and that the person now in US custody is an imposter. (In another variation on the imposter angle, earlier this week someone sent me a story from the Asia Times of last October 30 reporting that Mohammed had been killed in a Karachi shootout the previous month.)

On Monday, Schechter observed that even as the New York Times was reporting that Turkish lawmakers would vote again on whether to allow US troops on their soil, media outlets in Turkey were making it clear that that wasnít going to happen at least until after a crucial parliamentary election on March 9. Schechter also offered some insights into reports that Turkish government officials resent being bullied by the US into assisting with a war that they donít support.

"Iím writing like a banshee here," Schechter told me. Indeed, his weblog and his public profile (heíd been interviewed by Radio Slovenia just before our phone conversation) have helped to keep the Media Channel alive, if not well.

"My feeling is that the Media Channel plays an appreciable, visible role," Schechter says, calling it "a linchpin in linking organizations concerned about media ó students, academics, NGOs, and plain old media consumers." He adds: "Basically weíre trying to argue that media matters."

Schechter has the numbers to prove that hundreds of thousands of readers from around the world agree. Whether he can find enough money to keep serving those readers is another matter altogether.

For information on how to make a tax-deductible donation to the Media Channel, go to Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a] Read his daily Media Log at

Issue Date: March 6 - 13, 2003
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