The guardians of the journalistic temple are terrified by the Pentagon’s plans for a 24-hour satellite news and information channel—nicknamed “C-SPAN Baghdad”—that would leapfrog the national networks by allowing local U.S. TV affiliates to broadcast interviews with U.S. authorities, official briefings, military ceremonies, and camel-pull contests (just kidding) directly from Iraq.
According to Mike Allen of the Washington Post, the administration believes U.S. media emphasize “violence and setbacks in occupied Iraq while playing down progress” and that the palliative is a C-SPAN Baghdad feeding happy news about Iraq to U.S. news consumers. Dorrance Smith, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s media maven, views C-SPAN Baghdad as a means to “get our message out without having to create an event and have it be covered by somebody and be seen through their filter,” as he put it to the New York Observer’s Joe Hagan, who broke the C-SPAN Baghdad story.
The program appears to have few fans so far in the U.S. press.
“I’m kind of appalled by it,” Charles Kravetz of the regional cable news outlet NECN told the Boston Globe. “I think it’s very troubling.”
“The Fourth Estate is independent and should remain so. As news providers, we should go there and see for ourselves,” added WBZ-TV news director Peter Brown.
“It’s certainly an attempt to influence the debate,” said ABC News Senior Vice President Paul Slavin to Hagan.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer even uttered the “P” word in an interview with the Observer’s Hagan, asking if C-SPAN Baghdad could be construed as an effort by the government to propagandize Americans about the war. Well, think for yourself, Wolf! When the government starts disseminating its “message” to the United States with minimum filtering—that is, without independent news judgment, without editing, without commentary, and without verification—we’re definitely not talking about journalism. Confirming Blitzer’s worst fears, Hagan said that some U.S. news executives speaking privately (why not on the record?) regard the operation as “the seeds of a propaganda service.”
C-SPAN Baghdad is obviously a propaganda play on the Bush administration’s part, engineered to give a soft-soap shine to news from a controversial part of the world. Yet why don’t I feel threatened by it? The U.S. government already propagandizes the public in a sub-rosa fashion by limiting access to vital information that should be public. It overclassifies documents, denies too many FOIA requests, aggressively deletes previously public information from federal Web sites, restricts access to decision-makers, filibusters at news conferences, punishes whistle-blowers, leaks convenient “scoops” to press corps toadies, demands that all requests for interviews be run through official press offices for vetting, just to begin the list. (For a stupendous investigative report on the Bush administration’s obsessive campaign to bury the public’s business in secrecy, see this cover story from the Dec. 22 issue of U.S. News & World Report.)
As much as it burns me to see taxpayer funds spent on a propaganda channel—why can’t they get the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to pay for it?—I’ll enjoy its launch because I know it’s going crash and burn. Why? For one thing, it will force the government to produce a compelling, coherent, consistent, and persuasive account of their programs, their debacles, and their triumphs. That’s no easy task, as any journalist can tell you. And does anybody believe that the supply of up-tempo briefings from Iraq, puff interviews with Ambassador Bremer, colorful military ceremonies, and folksy conversations with troops will create viewer demand? The real C-SPAN, which isn’t anybody’s flunky, attracts only 22 million Americans a week with three channels running 24-seven. How many viewers, given the choice between the official version of all things Iraq on a local news segment and an episode of Seinfeld, would opt for the propaganda feed?
C-SPAN Baghdad would also have the consequence, unintended I’m sure, of creating a permanent record of the official U.S. position on this, that, and the other in Iraq. Such a record of their own making would make this administration much more accountable than they already are. If the propagandists insisted on putting a happy face on Iraq for U.S. news consumers while thousands of U.S. soldiers die and Iraqis riot, they would lose all credibility. But here they’re caught in a double-bind: If they tell the truth, they start converging upon the independent press’s mission and begin to negate their own raison d’etre.
Still another advantage: Critics love to complain how the press is either 1) cheerleading for the government; 2) covering up its nefarious deeds; or 3) subverting its noble goals. A media outlet broadcasting the official government account would give citizens a vantage point from which to compare and decide whether the press or the government is lying and distorting. (Guess who I’m betting on.)
Back in the early ‘70s when there were only three TV networks and only one national newspaper, a propaganda channel such as C-SPAN Baghdad might have had the desired political effect. (C-SPAN Saigon, anyone?) But in those days, not even Richard Nixon, who tried mightily, could undermine the authority of the less-powerful press. Today, with five separate domestic news networks, PBS and NPR, three national newspapers, hundreds of hours of political talk on television each week (not to mention radio), and zillions of Web sites, attempts by the administration to bend the truth about Iraq to its liking isn’t just Quixotic, it’s stupid. Most modern news consumers are too sophisticated to swallow propagandistic swill, and as Christopher Allbritton writes in his blog, Back to Iraq 3.0, not all regional journalists are pushovers: “[I]t was a local television reporter who made then-Gov. Bush squirm in 2000 when he was asked to name various heads of state.” Journalists pitching softballs to all the president’s men would find themselves professionally ostracized.
Allbritton adds that there’s nothing unprecedented about the packaged pap of C-SPAN Baghdad. Many members of Congress already distribute Q & A sessions to TV stations in their districts, glorified press releases, really, and in many cases it’s their own press secretaries asking the question. President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have done similar end-runs around the national press in taking their messages directly to the regional press. I’ve yet to detect much of a groundswell from their efforts.
The greatest danger to liberty comes not from government’s attempts to manage the news, which are age-old, but from the government’s never-ending quest to abridge the public’s access to information and decision-makers. As long as C-SPAN Baghdad propaganda comes clearly marked as government-subsidized, I say bring it on. It’s guaranteed to be such a disaster that it will cure politicians from launching national propaganda campaigns for a generation.
“Phone call for Joseph Goebbels, collect from Baghdad, Line 1.” I’m collecting your e-mail at pressbox@hotmail. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)