Iraq TV: No Propaganda

Apr 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

A new U.S. government-backed television service in Iraq will air American news programming with Arabic-language captioning. But it is not meant to improperly influence anyone or spread any false information, according to Norm Pattiz, chairman of radio distributor Westwood One and chairman of the government-backed Broadcasting Board of Governors. Rather, Mr. Pattiz said, it will offer unfettered news coverage in the region, which will be a first for many viewers accustomed to state-controlled broadcasts.
“What we are going to do is not propaganda,” Mr. Pattiz said. “Our mission is to provide accurate, reliable and credible information. We are an example of the free press.”
Mr. Pattiz spoke out late last week after CNN refused to provide any of its content for the service, which will include unedited repeats of ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, NBC Nightly News and Fox News Special Report With Brit Hume.
In a statement, a CNN spokesman said: “We didn’t think that as an independent, global news organization it was appropriate to participate in a United States government video transmission.”
CNN was not the only news organization to raise questions. “I don’t think it is a simple issue,” said CBS News President Andrew Heyward, noting that he was “skeptical” on first hearing that the project would be funded by the government and operated by the Middle East Committee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a semi-autonomous communications agency of the State Department. A start-up fund of $3 million was scheduled for a vote Friday in Congress.
The committee launched last year in the Middle East, under the direction of Radio Sawa News Director Moaufac Harb and consultant Bill Headline, a former CBS News and CNN executive.
What convinced CBS’s Mr. Heyward that “this is a good thing to do … a patriotic thing to do” were conversations with “some of the most traditional-minded colleagues” at CBS News and with Mr. Pattiz.
Mr. Heyward and other news executives were assured by Mr. Pattiz that the newscasts would not be edited and that they would be accurately captioned for broadcast, some 12 hours after airing in the United States. Only about 10 percent of Iraqis are believed to have TV sets or access to TV. Few have seen any newscast not produced by the regime of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In addition to the 31/2 hours of American newscasts each night, the Iraqi channel is expected to present some 21/2 hours of news using the resources of Radio Sawa, an Arab-language music and news channel. Mr. Pattiz assured the news organizations that the programming he is packaging will not be “intermingled” with radio and TV programming being broadcast under the U.S. Air Force “psy ops” plan dubbed Commando Solo as it flies over Iraq for six hours at a time.
The debate over the new TV services arose Friday, the same day CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, got some dark secrets off his chest in a New York Times op-ed piece about “awful things that could not be reported” during the 12 years CNN operated a bureau in Baghdad. He described a plot to kill CNN staffers, which was foiled, and recounted examples of staffers and other Iraqis who were kidnapped, tortured and worse. “At last, these stories can be told freely,” he wrote.
The apparent fall of the Iraqi government last week had most major news organizations rethinking the deployment of news personnel. While the Pentagon said it is still tracking some 500 embedded journalists, at least one network news executive said several factors are driving a shift away from relying heavily on embedded reporters. First, the story is evolving from the military action to creation of a new government for Iraq. And second, it is suddenly easier for journalists to get the gas and other supplies they need to move about independently.
There were indications the Pentagon would prefer reporters to remain embedded, for their own safety and to keep lines of communication clear. In any case, major news organizations were busy late last week moving reporters into Baghdad, now that Iraqi control has disappeared. Nightline’s Ted Koppel left the 3rd Infantry, whose progress through the desert he had so engrossingly chronicled. Embedded reporters who leave, in most cases, will be able to return to their units later if they wish.
CBS’s Dan Rather was among those expected in Baghdad this week. His group traveled in a caravan of cars to the capital and had several scary incidents along the way in which it appeared they might be subject to attack or harassment.
The CBS contingent includes correspondent Lara Logan, who was in the journalist-packed Palestine Hotel and lost two acquaintances when a U.S. tank fired on it and killed two foreign journalists. It also includes a number of formerly embedded journalists.
The cost of the war continues to rise. Late last week General Electric told analysts that the combination of the expense of covering the war and lost ad revenue totaled about $65 million in the first quarter for GE-owned NBC. The network reported a first-quarter profit of $343 million on revenue of $1.47 billion, GE said. Advertising revenue was another resource flowing for the networks in the second week of the war, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres’ CMR. An analysis of ad revenue among the TV media in the second week of the war showed that “Television posted a significant increase in ad revenues-$71.2 million-reducing the two-week cumulative loss to only $5.8 million.”
Cable news channels took the biggest hit in revenue loss, a 44 percent drop for the week and $2.2 million on March 26 alone. Network TV’s biggest revenue day added up to $9.9 million on Sunday, March 30, up 20 percent week-to-week. Spot TV showed the biggest gain, $29.8 million, for the war’s second week.