Looking Inside INdTV

Al Gore and ex-Stanford prof Joel Hyatt say their S.F.-based cable news channel for twentysomethings won't be ideological. But do the Democratic moneymen behind the venture know that?

Through a spokesman, Gore declined to be interviewed for this article. But Hyatt and others say there is no doubt that the former vice president will be hands-on as INdTV's chairman. "I've seen him numerous times in recent months, and he's utterly unaffected in terms of having a mind-set of being above the fray," says Orville Schell, the dean of UC Berkeley's journalism school, who sits on the INdTV board. "He has no intention of being a hood ornament."

Schell is the only INdTV director who does not have a financial stake in the venture. ("If I did, I would give it to the school.") He got involved in the project in November 2002 after Hyatt invited him to an all-day brainstorming session at the offices of the Global Business Network in Emeryville. At the gathering, about two dozen luminaries -- including Google co-founder Larry Page and New York media investor Steve Rattner -- tossed around ideas about what a news channel geared to young people should look like. Although Peter Schwartz, a GBN co-founder and close friend of Hyatt, was the moderator, Gore assumed a prominent role.

"He was there, introducing the thing, running around like Oprah Winfrey, challenging people, talking about what it could be," recalls Schell.

CEO Joel Hyatt says there's nothing unusual about the 
cable channel's involving so many Democratic heavy 
hitters: "We went out to our friends."
Paolo Vescia
CEO Joel Hyatt says there's nothing unusual about the cable channel's involving so many Democratic heavy hitters: "We went out to our friends."

By then, Hyatt says, he and Gore were already "about a year" into planning the venture. The idea emerged in the months after Gore's disappointing election defeat when Gore turned to Hyatt, who had played a key fund-raising role during the campaign, to vet an idea involving the delivery of news over the Internet. That brainstorm didn't go anywhere, but it led to "an exchange of ideas" that evolved into the cable concept, Hyatt says.

Schell, who declined to talk about INdTV specifics, says that he was drawn to the venture because it fills a void no one has addressed, and because of Gore and Hyatt's commitment to "hiring several hundred digital correspondents" around the world, including young graduates of his journalism school. "It will be an unabashedly American media outlet using young international correspondents to cover the world in a relatively cosmopolitan fashion," he says.

While naysayers may question Gore's ability to run a cable news operation (notwithstanding a stint as a young journalist at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1970s), Hyatt's entrepreneurial credentials are hard to assail. In a certain sense, Hyatt's role as TV mogul is consistent with his unorthodox career. In 1977, he was a silk-stocking lawyer fresh out of Yale Law School and an associate under former JFK Special Counsel Ted Sorensen at a prestigious New York law firm, when he tossed it all for a storefront in Cleveland. That storefront evolved into Hyatt Legal Services, the country's leading provider of cut-rate legal aid to the masses.

"People thought he was crazy at the time, but Joel has always marched to his own drummer," says Marc Morgenstern, a corporate lawyer in Cleveland who has known Hyatt since kindergarten. Joel Z. Hyatt grew up in Cleveland, the son of Polish immigrants, but not as a Hyatt. He changed his name from Zylberberg in the mid-'70s, not because of anti-Semitism, but in frustration at the way people forever mangled its pronunciation. Of modest means (his father ran an umbrella shop), he took out student loans as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, where he served as class president and graduated magna cum laude in 1972.

His nationwide chain of legal clinics got an early boost from a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for lawyers to advertise. That year Hyatt persuaded the Supreme Court of Ohio to make it the first state to allow advertising on television and radio as well as in print. Amid scorn from the legal establishment, he soon became a household name in the state, thanks to television. Commercials featured the lanky and serious-looking Hyatt speaking directly into the camera, often with law books as a backdrop. His tag line, "I'm Joel Hyatt, and you can depend on it," became so familiar that even children mimicked it.

On the way to becoming wealthy Hyatt was also making a name for himself in politics. In 1976, his wife's father, Howard Metzenbaum, made his third attempt at winning a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio. Hyatt managed the campaign. Metzenbaum, a liberal Democrat, won and went on to serve three terms. (Hyatt and the senator's daughter, Susan, had met on a blind date the summer after Hyatt's first year in law school.)

When Metzenbaum chose not to seek re-election in 1994 it was a foregone conclusion that Hyatt, with his name recognition, wealth, and family connections, would try to succeed him. The attempt was disastrous. The week he announced his candidacy coincided with the premiere of Philadelphia, the popular movie starring Tom Hanks that traced the discriminatory firing of an HIV-infected lawyer. The story drew an uncanny parallel to Hyatt's dismissal in 1987 of an HIV-positive attorney from Hyatt Legal Services' Philadelphia office. (Hyatt calls the firing "the worst mistake" he ever made.) After eking out a primary victory against a little-known opponent, he garnered just 38 percent of the vote in the fall, losing to Republican Congressman Mike DeWine.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.