BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the Iraq Media Network "the most important public diplomacy issue now under way," which is why he wants to block the 100 million dollars slated for its expansion from going to the Pentagon. He believes the development of an Iraqi radio and TV network would fare better in the hands of a civilian agency. He may be right. The Coalition Provisional Authority - or CPA - now running Iraq under the authority of the Defense Department launched the Iraq Media Network late last spring. Soon after, its news director quit, because he felt the network's credibility, and his own, was being undermined by the CPA. Don North is a former senior TV advisor to the Iraq Media Network. He also quit, for health reasons, but he doesn't expect to return to the IMN. Don, welcome to the show.
DON NORTH: Yes, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what were you expecting the IMN to be, and what role did you imagine it would play in the reconstruction of Iraq?
DON NORTH: Well, we were all in agreement that a pre-requisite for any kind of emerging democracy would be a professional and trusted media, and we thought the best way to set this up would be to form a public broadcasting entity of Iraq, sort of a PBS of Iraq. And that was the plan, and it was a good plan. It was written by various people at the State Department, Defense Department, with the help of many Iraqi ex-pat journalists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Ahmed al-Riqabi [ph], the Iraqi news director, quit, and he quit because the plan didn't pan out quite as foreseen.
DON NORTH:Right. It seemed to go off the rails after a few months, Brooke. It became a conduit for information from CPA, from Ambassador Bremer. I have no problem with CPA explaining themselves to the Iraqi people. In fact, I'm an advocate for this. It's very necessary. But not to the detriment of a station that was formed for the Iraqis. Credibility with a radio or TV station is a very fragile commodity, and unfortunately after two or three months, they had destroyed this credibility that I think we started out with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well how did the credibility get destroyed?
DON NORTH:An overburdening of, of news conferences, interviews, statements, admonitions from CPA that did not go through the filter of Iraqi journalists. [LAUGHS] We've heard a lot of talk in the recent weeks from this administration explaining to Americans that Iraqi news is being distorted, coming through the "filter." Well, I have news for them. This filter is called journalism. It's what we do. We prioritize. We edit. We comment. We analyze. And this the Iraqis were not getting any longer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How, for instance, did the IMN cover stories of U.S. troop killings and ambushes and violence and unrest among Iraqi civilians?
DON NORTH:Well this was our call, to put out on the street five or six reporters and crews each day, to find what was happening with electricity, medical supplies, security problems. And yes, confrontations between Americans and Iraqis demonstrating in the street. Then what happened was that we got orders to continually and constantly be covering news conferences and events arranged by CPA. Why [LAUGHS] we, we had no facilities or camera crews, reporters left to go out and do the other stories that were probably in the end more important to our Iraqi listeners.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I have a couple of quotes here from the index on censorship which is an international media watchdog group, and here's a quote: "Rough but perfectly serviceable Iraqi stations are being swallowed up or chased off the air by IMN, which says it merely wants to reclaim equipment that is legally theirs. Iraqi broadcasters outside the IMN loop are scathing about IMN's own broadcast record but appear powerless to stop IMN from having its way." They're, they're gobbling up independent stations and forcing them under its umbrella?
DON NORTH: Well, all the stations certainly under Saddam were under the auspices of the Ministry of Information, and the idea was that IMN would take over these stations and get them up and running, train or re-train the staffs and see that they got new equipment. But what happened was that many of the staff and executives in these stations -- let's take Mosul, for instance, which is one of the larger stations -- they didn't agree with constant prioritizing of CPA news, so they opted out, and in Mosul, with the help of the 101st Airborne, they did become independent of IMN. And you know, I can sympathize with this, but it tends to break down a very needed network and cement, if you will, for Iraq at a very crucial time. IMN needs to be an Iraqi network. The people in Mosul, the Kurds, need to be able to hear what Baghdad is saying, and the central authority should be able to hear what the Kurds are saying. And this has broken down!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As you describe the Mosul situation, it's not entirely clear to me. Do you think that there ought to be Iraqi stations that are independent, not under the CPA umbrella or not?
DON NORTH: Oh, yes, let a hun--a hundred varieties [LAUGHS] of stations, radio, TV, blossom. But I think what CPA was supposed to be doing, and that is forming a PBS of Iraq, should be a priority. I grew up as a kid in western Canada. It was news to me that Canada was a bi-lingual country. I didn't know any French people. But we had this thing called the CBC -- sort of a PBS of Canada. I think probably Canada would have become the 52nd state of the United States had not there been some cement to hold it together, like the CBC. And that's what they need in Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But given what you've seen in Iraq, can the CPA really launch a PBS-style network if its credibility is being impugned, and you say being impugned with good reason.
DON NORTH: Well, I'm not optimistic at the moment. I estimated that we had perhaps a window of opportunity of four months to establish IMN with some credibility to the Iraqis. It may too late, no matter what they do; IMN may be saddled with this bad image of being a voice of America, being a voice of CPA, even if they start to improve.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Don, thank you very much.
DON NORTH: You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don North is an independent TV producer and a former senior TV advisor to the Iraq Media Network.