Skip to main content

Remember Stephen Marshall? In 1996, the charismatic young journalist from Toronto charmed broadcast executives around the world with an underground news video-magazine that was supposed to revolutionize television by making the kids pay attention.

His technique with the camera wasn't nearly as impressive as his bright club-boy clothes and dexterity at pulling everyone into his spinning vortex of self-promotion. Nevertheless, the critics raved about Channel Zero, the CBC aired a three-part series on The National, and CNN hired Marshall as a consultant.

"In two years, we're going to have a global network," Marshall breathlessly boasted.

Before anyone had time to adjust the set and see the picture clearly, Marshall blew through $2-million in private investment and burned out in a cloud of drugs, hyperverbosity and hype.

After cleaning up his lifestyle and lying low for several years, Marshall has now resurfaced in California with a new collective of underground journalists who operate the Internet-based Guerrilla News Network. Last year, Marshall directed Eminem's controversial White America music video and last week GNN won the runner-up award at the Sundance Online Film Festival for the seven-minute antiwar video S-11 Redux.

Although much humbler these days, Marshall is no less ambitious. With his funky scratch-video editing technique, conspiratorial theories and anti-establishment ethos, he plans to politicize rave culture and infiltrate the mainstream.

"Our goal is to mainstream dissent," says Marshall, speaking last week from the West Coast Bunker, a two-storey, four-bedroom house on a quiet, residential street in Berkeley, Calif., where he lives with one of his three GNN partners and produces the hip-hop news videos that attract approximately 10,000 hits a day to the Web site ( ).

As the full-time creative director of GNN, Marshall uses techno beats, video loops, jump cuts, multiple screens, talking-head interviews, news clips and lots of computer-generatedimages and Flash animation to edit MTV-style minidocumentaries. In them, he explores issues such as how much the Bush administration really knew in advance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks ( Aftermath) and investigates the CIA's involvement in drug smuggling ( Crack the CIA, winner of last year's Sundance Online Film Festival audience award).

"We're trying to tailor our news videos by using the language of the music video to tell them something they don't already know," says Marshall, who still argues that the mainstream TV news networks have failed to attract younger audiences because they haven't learned to speak to their split-second attention spans.

"The music video is the news broadcast for Generation Y -- that and The Daily Show. But instead of giving them more Britney Spears or gangsters and guns, we're using their language and colours and music to give them something with a bit more substance."

Eventually, Marshall says he wants to create "a whole guerrilla army of producers who can start putting together videos on a daily basis." The longer-range goal is to diversify into longer documentaries and move off-line with current-affair magazine shows for licensed broadcast outlets.

Other than the polished production values, GNN seems awfully similar to Channel Zero. The difference, Marshall says, is that he's more realistic these days. "Having a team, as opposed to it just being me, and not smoking pot every day, has led to a more grounded approach."

Marshall, 34, says he's learned from his mistakes. "I lost $1.5-million to people who really trusted me. I don't want to do that again. Channel Zero wasn't created to go the distance. I'm sure most people realized that. I had this vision, and it received a great critical response. But the truth was, I couldn't even afford to ship the video tapes we were supposed to be making."

In retrospect, it's somewhat mind-boggling that anyone even bought into the concept. Channel Zero was conceived in 1995 when Marshall, the son of a wealthy Montreal steel magnate, was travelling in the Arizona desert. There, he was introduced to a group of channellers, who allegedly connected him to a group of people from another planet. According to George Campbell Emerson, who wrote a scathing profile of Marshall in Toronto Life magazine, these "healers" predicted that he would soon "manifest" a global TV network.

Armed with an astonishing belief in his own untested ability, Marshall used some footage of a Camel cigarette-sponsored Land Rover rally through the rain forests of Belize, intercut with the musings of a crack-addicted shoeshine man, to sell his vision.

Several investors gave him $100,000 to fund a video trot around the world. The trip resulted in Planet Street, a three-hour video, released in 1996 and distributed in HMV and Tower Record stores, featuring interviews with Bangkok prostitutes, Parisian gigolos and Slovenian Nazis.

"A mind-blowing trip, one neither CNN nor 60 Minutes would ever take," gushed The Toronto Star's Antonia Zerbisias. There were more raves to follow in Wired magazine, The Utne Reader, The Village Voice and The Globe and Mail. Marshall used the clippings to attract other investors. Holiday Phelan, the heiress to the Cara foods fortune and a childhood friend, gave him $1.5-million.

In 1997, Marshall wowed the assembly of journalists, producers and broadcast executives at the News World Conference in Berlin.

"I think he's the most exciting young man I've heard in a decade," Bruce Gyngell, managing director of Yorkshire Tyne Tees, stood up and exclaimed after Marshall's speech. Gyngell hired Marshall as a consultant. So did the BBC and CNN. Then the CBC offered Marshall his own three-part series on The National.

The infiltration of Canada's national public broadcaster was quite a coup for a crusading anticorporate underground journalist. This was the first time an outsider had been hired to produce original material for the news program. But the three-part series was widely criticized for its impartiality and overriding sense of paranoia.

"Everything he sold me and [former Globe TV critic]John Haslett Cuff and the others was a big, fat lie," Zerbisias moaned in the Toronto Life article, which painted Marshall as a wild party-boy propagandist with fascist tendencies.

The article, Marshall says, "was like a spanking." Marshall says he deserved it. "I was very naive. But when you see 65-year-old men in positions of power, flying you around in jets and having seemingly earnest discussions, it's easy to get carried away."

Having burned his bridges in Toronto, Marshall hightailed it to New York, where he began DJ-ing in a SoHo bar.

Two years ago, Marshall and his friend, MTV producer Josh Shore, were still pitching the Channel Zero model to several U.S. networks, without any luck. They were toying with the idea of taking their concept to the Web when Shore received a call, out of the blue, from Peter Gabriel.

The rock star had heard about their idea through someone at Witness, his New York-based non-profit organization. "I love what you're doing," Gabriel said. "Let me know how I can help."

In the meantime, Shore had met Aroun Rashid Deen, a journalist from Sierra Leone. Deen was one of the first reporters to expose the atrocities committed by the armed rebels from the Revolutionary United Front.

Marshall and Shore collaborated with Deen on A Diamond Life, a seven-minute video, produced in conjunction with Witness and featuring instrumental music donated by Gabriel, which graphically described RUF's campaign of terror and the diamond-industry ties that sustained it.

And thus, the Guerrilla News Network was born.

GNN is bankrolled by Ian Inaba, the owner of a Web-development company called Switch Technologies. Anthony Lappe, a freelance writer and producer for MuchMusic USA, is the fourth member of the network.

The strategy, Marshall says, is to keep GNN low-key. "It's the antithesis of Channel Zero." GNN plans to continue building its audience and content on-line, until market demand allows it to invade cable.

GNN appears to be finding its niche. A DVD compilation of their first 10 news videos has been a hot seller. "Well over 500," Marshall estimates. "But I have to be careful with what I say. We don't actually pay all our taxes."

The GNN news videos have been broadcast at various film festivals and on MuchMusic. The company was recently taken on as a client by NS Bienstock, the leading news talent agency in New York, which represents Dan Rather. And last week, they were the darlings at Sundance.

Ayme Rita Mueller, executive director of the on-line festival, which solicited GNN's submissions last year, says S-11 Redux has been "very, very popular. From an Internet-content quality standpoint, their videos are far superior to the most of the stuff you find on-line."

Marshall is hoping that the trip to Sundance will lead to some lucrative connections. At last year's festival, they met executives from Interscope Records, which opened the door for the Eminem video.

Directed by Marshall, with graphics designed by phong.com (a young team led by Anson Vogt, who lurk in a wired-up shack called the Bat Cave, somewhere in the boondocks outside Chilliwack, B.C.), the video was too controversial for heavy rotation on MTV. But the GNN visuals got lots of exposure when they were projected on JumboTron screens across the United States during Eminem's recent concert tour. The images paint a dreary picture of a nation populated by cloned, Ritalin-addicted children who idolize the rapper, much to his own amusement. The animation segments are intercut with scenes of police brutality, U.S. Senate hearings and news headlines reporting rising teen drug use and school violence.

Marshall doesn't think there's any contradiction in his aspirations to be both a businessman and a revolutionary. "You had better be a businessman, or it's not going to be much of a revolution. In this time, if you really do want to be revolutionary, you have to have a self-sustaining economic model to bring the energy back in. You can't just be putting out, you need returns."

His next project will likely leave just as many fans scratching their head. Marshall plans to adapt Letters to a Young Contrarian, a book by pro-war celebrity journalist Christopher Hitchens, into a documentary feature film.

"Hitchens is pro-war, but more importantly, he's a contrarian. He reminds us of the value of intellectual debate. He advocates the value of that discussion. And he creates a stink wherever he goes."

The same could be said of Marshall. Back in Canada, his new projects are being greeted with an indifference verging on disgust.

"I'm somewhat familiar with GNN, but not much really," says Jesse Hirsch, a former Channel Zero staffer and Internet-based activist committed to the free sharing of software.

"I noticed it early on just because [Marshall]was involved and I wondered if it was Channel Zero resurrected. I haven't really paid much attention to it though, as I guess I prefer a news source with a bit more credibility."

But there might be hope for him yet. Marshall does have his admirers -- quite credible ones, in fact. Mark Achbar, director of Manufacturing Consent, the seminal Canadian documentary about Noam Chomsky that questioned corporate orthodoxy, first met Marshall five years ago and still considers him a friend.

"I don't know anyone using this particular film vocabulary," Achbar says.

"It's a whole new lexicon of video aesthetics. And it's an extremely effective one," says Achbar, noting that he has in fact borrowed some of Marshall's techniques for The Corporation, a new film he's currently producing and co-directing. "Stephen says he found a lot of inspiration in my work a long time ago. Now I find a lot of inspiration in his."

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct