September 8, 2008

i for i-ntimidated

Quico says: One of the few rays of hope I found on my recent trip to Caracas was the rise of Canal i, the most promising of the new batch of all-news channels proliferating on Venezuela's airways. With "equilibrio en la información" as a slogan, Canal i set out to do something shockingly novel (for Venezuela): broadcast news and opinions that aren't wildly partisan. It seemed to good too be true, and it was: last week, Canal i's management pulled the plug on its flagship evening talk show and fired its Broadcasting Director for trying to air a sensitive piece on the Antonini case. The National Journalists' Guild is crying censorship.

There were, to be sure, reasons to be doubtful from the start. Run by PSUV executive committee-member Mari Pili Hernández and funded by the oil-shipping bolibourgeois magnate Wilmer Ruperti, nobody could mistake Canal i for a truly independent channel. Nonetheless, Ruperti had made it clear that he saw the channel basically as a commercial venture, and his business strategy relied on tapping into the badly underserved sick-of-polarization market.

He figured there were advertising bolivars to be made in that space. After all, hardcore chavistas already had a wide and widening set of media choices (from VTV and Vive to ANTV, RNV, and others,) and die-hard antichavistas still had Globovision, alongside as much print media as they could stomach. It was the broad center that was hurting for a source of news, so Ruperti, cunningly enough, thought he'd spotted a gap in the market.

It was, to be sure, one tough balancing act. Canal i couldn't afford to out-and-out alienate a government that Ruperti depends on for most of his cash-flow, but it also couldn't hope to attract an audience if it morphed into a VTV clone. For a while, the channel seemed to pull it off, with newscasts that were broadly sympathetic but not slavishly subservient to the government and opinion shows that made a serious attempt to give both sides of the political divide their say.

The station's flagship program was called Contrapeso - Counterweight - a prime time talk show jointly hosted by one of the more moderate pro-government media figures, Vladimir Villegas, and one of the less polarizing opposition talking heads, Idania Chirinos. Five nights a week, since January, Contrapeso did something that's become shockingly rare in Venezuela: bring together guests with opposing points of view for a heated but insult-free confrontation.

Bizarrely, it seemed to work - largely, I think, because Chirinos and Villegas had real chemistry on the set. They appeared to actually like one another, and had worked out a way to disagree on almost everything but without vitriol. Contrapeso became a kind of oasis in the Caracas media scene, a place where something like a democratic public sphere seemed to be constructed day in and day out.

Here's a taste:

It's no surprise that the government would find this kind of TV alarming. Of course, it couldn't last. Last week, the channel announced it was "restructuring" Villegas and Chirinos off the air. What specifically prompted this decision is not at all clear, though speculation is rife that the decision was made in Miraflores. Certainly, it escaped no one that the decision came soon after Villegas ever-so-gingerly criticized Chávez's recent package of 26 decree-laws and, heresy of heresies, called for a public debate about them. Significantly, Villegas isn't denying that retaliation is at play here, and instead has started to talk himself into the rhetorical corner that all "moderate chavistas" seem to end up in sooner or later.

All of which is more sad than surprising. Every night that Contrapeso stayed on the air was a minor miracle, an aberration that everyone could see could not last indefinitely. A government built on polarization, devoted to a sharp division of society into Good Guys and Bad Guys, couldn't be expected to tolerate a space where the two sides talked to each other respectfully for hours on end. The real wonder, for my money, is that Ruperti ever thought the show had a future.

[Hat tip: Eva.]