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U.S. Network News for Iraq

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We’ve been watching Iraq with microscopic intensity for the last month; now the Iraqis will be watching U.S. network news, as well as programming produced by Arab journalists in Washington and the Middle East, in a nightly news package funded by the U.S. government:

    “Iraq and the World” … will feature nightly contributions from CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS and Fox News translated into Arabic, and is spearheaded by Norm Pattiz, the Los Angeles-based chairman of the Westwood One radio network. Pattiz said the new project marks “the first time that we have had a horse in the TV race” to compete with coverage from Qatar-based Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite TV channel, and other media sources.

    ….”It might be a pretty huge cultural disconnect for Iraqis to turn on a TV and suddenly see Dan Rather,” said Mamoun Fandy, professor of politics and media at Georgetown University and a widely syndicated columnist in the Arab world. “Ideally, you should be encouraging Iraqis to produce their own nightly news, and if the U.S. is serious about communicating, they wouldn’t rush to put something like this on the air.”

    ….Pattiz is a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, an autonomous federal agency that also operates the Voice of America broadcasting service. He concedes that “Iraq and the World” faces big hurdles.

    But he believes he will succeed, just as he did last year in launching Radio Sawa, a 24-hour U.S. government-sponsored radio station in the region that blends American and Arabic popular music with news broadcasts. The station has become a market phenomenon, reaching an estimated 40% of its target 18- to 39-year-old demographic, and the increasingly popular station is spawning French and British imitators, he said.

    ….In an interview, Pattiz said White House officials asked him last week to get the new commercial-free project operating as soon as possible. He got quick approval from the heads of U.S. news divisions to beam their complete nightly broadcasts uncensored into Iraq via Commando Solo, a fleet of U.S. military cargo planes that fly over the country.

    At first, the broadcasts will be limited to six-hour blocks “because that’s how long the plane can stay up,” Pattiz said. But ground transmitters are expected to be functioning within a matter of days, making 24-hour-a-day broadcasts possible, he added. [LA Times]

Though startling, confusing, disorienting to the shell-shocked Iraqis, I think the administration’s instinct to get American news programming into Iraq ASAP is correct – you must strike when the iron is hot and before attitudes harden once again.

However, I also think this is true:

    “If we want to demonstrate the robustness of democracy, we should also be beaming in the BBC and half a dozen other sources of international news with this effort,” said Marty Kaplan, associate dean at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society. “Let’s show [Iraqis] that democracy involves this kind of glorious noise in which people disagree with each other all the time.”

That makes sense, as does the goal of generating original Iraqi content ASAP, but I also think anyone who actually watches even the limited package going up this week will be able to distinguish somewhat different perspectives between the different networks and it will be clear they are not merely mouthpieces for the government, unlike what the Iraqis have been watching for the last 30 years.

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