BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. All over America this week, TV news delivered the latest on Deep Throat, Iraq, and of course Michael Jackson - or rather, all over the Americas, north, central and south. But not everybody from Buenos Aires to Caracas is as thrilled as we are with news from the north, and they're even less thrilled when their news is presented through the prism of U.S.-friendly media conglomerates. And so last week, a group of journalists in Venezuela piloted a continent-wide network that will launch officially next month. Its name - Telesur. Its mission - to deliver Latin American news from a Latin American perspective.
BOB GARFIELD: General director Aram Aharonian told a Mexican newspaper that the project was, (quote) "born from the conviction that we can't leave television, the most powerful medium out there today, in the hands of the enemy." That enemy, he suggests, is free market neo-liberalism, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who three years ago survived a coup attempt actively abetted by wealthy TV owners, shares that belief. In fact, it was Chavez who spearheaded Telesur, appointing his information minister network president and supplying 70 percent of its seed money from his country's oil rich coffers. Argentina and Uruguay are covering the rest, with technical assistance from Brazil. But despite all the government backing, Telesur's founders say it will be editorially independent. Nikolas Kozloff, senior research fellow with the left-leaning Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says the pan-Latin network is a product of its time.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Throughout South America we've seen the rise of center-left regimes that share many commonalities with Hugo Chavez's politics, so I think that that's made possible for the first time, maybe, hemispheric initiatives like this.
BOB GARFIELD: Telesur has been compared quite a bit to Al Jazeera. They have in common funding by a government, in the case of Al Jazeera, the government of Qatar, and of course Al Jazeera's a pan-Arab channel, crossing borders. Do you think it's a good comparison?
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: In terms of the state sponsorship, there are parallels. In terms of the politics as well, I would say there are some commonalities. Al Jazeera has been a thorn in the side of the Bush administration in the Middle East. Similarly, I think that Bush can't be very pleased about the rise of Telesur, which is designed to counter what is widely seen as pro-American media in the hemisphere such as Univision, CNN in Spanish and other networks.
BOB GARFIELD: Al Jazeera has also been a thorn in the side to a lot of governments throughout the Middle East. If Telesur is truly independent, can you see it becoming a kind of Frankenstein's monster that turns on its own creators?
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: It is possible that perhaps Telesur might become a thorn in the side of center-left regimes throughout South America. The director of Telesur, whose name is Aram Aharonian, though Aharonian has supported many of the social programs promoted by Hugo Chavez, he's also expressed reservations about Chavez in some of his reports, so the claim that maybe the reporters at the news station are overly partial to Hugo Chavez, I'm not sure that's actually true, and we'll have to see how that pans out.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's look at that possibility, though, because there are concerns that Telesur will, in effect, become a propaganda blunt instrument for Chavez and for the other center-left regimes throughout Latin America. There are, of course, other government-funded broadcasters around the world, including the BBC, and at least through one degree of separation, NPR. What mechanisms are in place to make sure that there is some degree of independence from the funders?
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: I don't know about the specific mechanisms. I think that the issue of state sponsorship of the media raises concerns. However, the fact that the BBC, for example, gets state money does not necessarily mean that reporters there are compromised ethically, and I've seen some interesting interviews with Aram Aharonian basically posing the question of well, why don't you pose this question to people in the corporate media? You never ask them if they are compromised because they're employed by a corporate media station. And I think it's a well-taken point.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, the funders of this - Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay - are all part of a new center-left movement that you've described, but they are not a monolithic force. Do you think it's inevitable that squabbling will quickly ensue?
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: I wouldn't overplay that possibility. The question for me is not so much whether Telesur is going to be derailed by conflicting politics. The commercial viability is another matter, because state media throughout South America has historically not achieved very high ratings, and it's been associated with a propaganda machine, and so they're going to have to overcome that legacy. I think that maybe Telesur's viability will be decided in Argentina, which is a market of 40 million, as opposed to 25 million in Venezuela, and the Argentines are already very accustomed to their own local TV news stations, so I think they really have their work cut out for them.
BOB GARFIELD: So, not to put any ironies in your mouth or anything, but has it struck you that the success of the anti-free market agenda of Telesur could hinge on the free market?
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: I think many people are fed up with the established media in these countries. If Telesur is able to capitalize on that political discontent and the whole revulsion of the, the economic agenda pushed by Washington and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, the International Monetary Fund, then they'll be able to succeed. But you can show the other side of South America through South American eyes, but if it's not lively, it won't really matter in the end result.
BOB GARFIELD: And in the meantime, though, the revulsion will be televised. Nikolas, thanks very much.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Nikolas Kozloff is a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.