BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. As the war in Iraq continues, the White House has grown increasingly concerned that the news reported back home is only the bad news, filtered by major news organizations to exclude the positive developments on the road to Iraqi democracy. To circumvent the problem, the White House has been developing a government-run news network -- what they call "C-Span Baghdad." The network will feature a constant stream of whatever the U.S. government wants the U.S. public to see -- press conferences, briefings, and in all likelihood, very little coverage of military misfortunes. Joe Hagan broke this story last week in the New York Observer, and he joins us now to discuss it. Joe, welcome to the show.
JOE HAGAN: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about legality for a moment. Some have suggested that this feed might be a violation of the Smith-Mundt Act which prohibits the government from using Voice of America broadcasts that are aired abroad domestically, protecting Americans from American propaganda. It also raises the specter of a sort of state TV. Is this state TV?
JOE HAGAN: It would be state TV if everybody had to watch it. It's a feed that can be picked up with the discretion of whoever is broadcasting. The creators of this have said that they're unhappy with the way the networks have been editing their news conferences and their daily highlights. They're hoping that this will be picked up without all of that editing, with the filter, quote/unquote -- possibly having the local affiliates air this stuff in a more un-cut way. It really would depend, I suppose, if the local affiliates don't make it clear to their viewers that what they're seeing is a government-created press release, and not necessarily something that's been vetted by journalists.
BOB GARFIELD:The government apparently is banking here that the local news stations who pick up this feed will be less discriminating and skeptical than the network news organizations that the White House is so troubled by. But is that a fair assumption? Local news stations weren't all that pliant a few weeks ago when the president gave them interviews with the same intentions -- to avoid the filtration factor.
JOE HAGAN: The different is that local affiliates don't typically have access to a lot of foreign coverage like this. I mean if you give an affiliate in Denver the opportunity to interview Paul Bremer or have access to a feed that is showing you some developments in Baghdad, you might be interested in taking that opportunity, because local affiliates don't typically have people on the ground in Baghdad. They don't have the budgets for it.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. At a minimum it seems that this feed will provide local stations in particular but the American public at large more information on a 24 hour basis about what is going on in Iraq. In general, isn't more information better than less information? More access better than less?
JOE HAGAN: This is a way of controlling access. You can control information if you own the camera through which all of the press conferences are being beamed. As it stands, the CPA will try to hold a press conference, and some people will show up with cameras, and they're sort of picky and choosy about, you know, whether they want those cameras on sometimes. You know, when they're having a press conference that is on the record or off the record. And in a way, this gives them even more control over that kind of thing.
BOB GARFIELD:The CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, has compared C-Span Baghdad to the Centcom briefings from Doha, Qatar during the major part of the war when the press convened there to find out the daily developments in the war. Is that a fair analogy?
JOE HAGAN: I don't think so at all, because the Centcom press conferences were created from a pool of all the different equipment and satellites of the various networks and cable operations. This is operating with a camera owned by the CPA, purchased by taxpayers and completely contained and controlled by the agency that is beaming it.
BOB GARFIELD:Well let me once again jump to defend the administration. All White Houses, all governments, have been dissatisfied with the way the media have covered them, and they all think that the press is unnecessarily skeptical and unnecessarily critical, insufficiently sympathetic to the goals of the administration. Isn't this just a case of the technology having caught up to all administrations' desire to get as unfiltered a message as possible out to the American people?
JOE HAGAN: The stakes and the consequences are so much higher in this situation than they are in, say, during the Clinton administration. We're talking about a radical foreign policy move that the president has made, and there's a lot at stake in making it successful, both politically and obviously with lives of American soldiers on the line. So this is making it even more of a urgent situation for them to make sure that they control the message, that they counterspin what they think is being spun by the mainstream media.
BOB GARFIELD: When a government is in the news-distribution business, isn't that almost by definition, then, propaganda?
JOE HAGAN:There's a lot of question as to whether that's what this is going to be. It really depends on what they end up beaming through it, and it also depends on whether they limit access. If they limit access and they only beam through good news stories; if they put on some sort of feel-good programming while there are helicopters crashing, you could characterize it as propaganda.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Joe. Well thank you very much.
JOE HAGAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe Hagan is a staff writer for the New York Observer. [MUSIC]