Pentagon avoids ‘news filter’

The Pentagon will begin broadcasting “C-SPAN Baghdad”: soon — a satellite feed from Iraq that will circumvent the “filter” of the national networks and send images chosen by the Defense Department right into America’s living rooms by way of local news affiliates. Why do this? Because:

Administration officials assert that U.S. news organizations have emphasized violence and setbacks in occupied Iraq while playing down progress. The officials say the satellite capability is designed to help local stations interview U.S. authorities in Iraq and offer live coverage of military ceremonies and briefings relevant to their geographic areas.

Avoiding questions from big-time reporters from the major networks is part of of larger strategy begun last month by the Bush Administration which saw Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and others gave interviews to, for example, the local ABC affiliate in Kalamzoo.

In an Oct. 20 article by Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times, Bush is quoted as saying: “‘There’s a sense that people in America aren’t getting the truth,’ [he] said to a reporter for Hearst-Argyle Television, one of five back-to-back White House interviews he granted to regional broadcasters. ‘I’m mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people.'”
White House spokesman Dan Bartlett expanded on his boss’ words with, “We believe local media and regional broadcasters are more interested in letting viewers or readers see or hear what the president has to say. It’s less analytical and more reporting.”
This newest plan is more of the same. The _Post_ quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying, “We want the stations to show not just the shocking picture but the whole picture. Car bombs are news, but there’s a journalistic responsibility to paint a more comprehensive picture.”
Indeed there is, but somehow I’m not comforted that the guy in charge of pointing out the media’s responsibilities in reporting on Iraq, J. Dorrance Smith, was the guy who advised Bush on his Floridan recount strategy in 2000.
What’s most interesting about C-SPAN Baghdad is that it’s a DoD operation, not a State Department one. (Not surprising, considering that sway the Pentagon has with the Bushies.) Some have thought it might be a clever legal hack getting around some pesky United States code forbidding domestic propaganda efforts, specifically “22 USC Sec. 1461-1a”:, the Ban on Domestic Activities by the United States Information Agency. (Thanks Congressional Research Service!)
As the law states:

Except as provided in section 1461 of this title and this section, no funds authorized to be appropriated to the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States.

“Joel Kaplan”:, who teaches advanced reporting and communications law at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, said he felt there was no legal problem with C-SPAN Baghdad. For one, that law applies only to the “USIA”:, not the DoD. Instead, he says, this plan is more like what Congress does when it uses the broadcast facilities outside its chambers to provide local media access to their senators and representatives. However, he notes, often it’s the Congress members’ own press secretaries interviewing them, and the resulting video often gets shown on local affiliates as a video press release without much comment from the local journalists.
It’s not exactly _propaganda_, Kaplan says, although “obviously everything is propaganda depending on your definition.” It’s a technique that counts on journalistic laziness, Kaplan says. And that’s exactly why the Bush administration is doing this. “It’s up to the journalists to decide what is propaganda or not,” he says.
Apparently, the Bush team is betting local journalists won’t make any decision at all.
This is insulting on many levels. It’s insulting to the local journalists because some of them are pretty good — it was a local television reporter who made then-Gov. Bush squirm in 2000 when he was asked to name various heads of state. It’s insulting to the American people, because it’s obvious what the Bush Administration is doing. And by circumventing the journalists on the ground in Iraq, this DoD network insults the very idea of a free and independent press as a watchdog institution and as an agent of the American people.
Now, much of the modern media — particularly broadcast media — can hardly be held blameless. They have often shown themselves to be willing partners in the White House’s ham-handed manipulation of a story. With Bush TV on the air, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

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