Pentagon Plans Iraq Channel

Satellite Link Allows White House to Bypass TV Networks

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2003; Page A17

In an escalation of White House efforts to circumvent what President Bush calls the news media "filter," the Pentagon plans to launch a 24-hour satellite channel from Baghdad to make it easier for U.S. television stations to air government-authorized news about Iraq.

The satellite link, dubbed "C-SPAN Baghdad" within the administration, is to go on the air in a week or two. It begins at a time when guerrilla violence in Iraq is increasing and the White House is revising and accelerating plans to transfer governing authority to Iraqis.

Administration officials assert that U.S. news organizations have emphasized violence and setbacks in occupied Iraq while playing down progress. The officials say the satellite capability is designed to help local stations interview U.S. authorities in Iraq and offer live coverage of military ceremonies and briefings relevant to their geographic areas.

The channel is the most aggressive yet of several administration efforts to bypass national news organizations, including a succession of interviews for local television stations with Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others.

One Republican strategist expressed skepticism about the project, saying it appeared to be an effort "to improve public opinion back home" before Bush's reelection campaign gets fully underway.

The officials said the channel will offer uncut coverage of government briefings and other events, and they plan to notify U.S. stations when an enlisted person, general, official or business from their area is participating. The project, they said, would have the effect of cutting the broadcast networks out of news transactions between the administration and affiliate stations.

"We want the stations to show not just the shocking picture but the whole picture," said a senior administration official who refused to be named. "Car bombs are news, but there's a journalistic responsibility to paint a more comprehensive picture."

White House communications director Dan Bartlett said a shortage of reliable satellite conduits from Iraq "often makes it difficult for people to follow briefings and the progress that's being made."

"The better technology will make it easier for reporters from news organizations, big or small, to cover the story as it unfolds," Bartlett said. "News organizations will still make the decision whether to use it or not. That's not control. It's access many reporters currently don't get because they are back in the United States."

The project is being headed by J. Dorrance Smith, who was assistant to the president for media affairs in George H.W. Bush's administration and advised the younger Bush on his Florida recount strategy in 2000. Smith was a longtime executive for ABC News, producing Olympics and political convention coverage and serving as executive producer of "This Week With David Brinkley" and "Nightline."

Smith has been working in Iraq since September as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by L. Paul Bremer. Officials said Smith's mission is to promote what the administration considers to be a more realistic picture of events.

The new channel was first reported by the New York Observer, which quoted Smith as saying that removing the network intermediaries would help prevent news conferences and other events from "getting chopped up in New York."

The administration officials said they will make the satellite coordinates of the transmissions widely available so that stations, government offices and conservative interest groups can pick up the coverage at will. The events also could be picked up by cable and broadcast networks.

Dave Busiek, news director of KCCI, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines, said local TV journalists will be "cautious about this new approach, particularly if there's a widespread feeling that the government is trying to go around the networks."

"Part of the argument is that those of us in local TV ask softball questions and aren't skilled enough to separate the real news from the pure spin," he said. "It's pretty insulting. That being said, if I could have a live interview with Ambassador Bremer, for instance, in my 6 o'clock newscast, that's a tempting possibility and I have no doubt it would be valuable for our viewers."

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said several local stations have aired stories about the bleak conditions being endured by military families, and she said administration officials might find themselves answering tough questions.

But many stations with large military bases in their areas cannot afford to send a reporter to Baghdad, she said, and would have "tremendous interest" in interviews with local people in the armed services.

The channel is starting amid changes in the administration's communications team. Tucker A. Eskew, director of the White House Office of Global Communications, told officials yesterday he will leave on Dec. 7. He plans to open a consulting firm and serve as a senior adviser to Bush's campaign.

Margaret Tutwiler, who was Bush's ambassador to Morocco, is awaiting Senate confirmation as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs; she is expected to start work this month. Sources said she plans to focus on the Middle East, beginning with an assessment of the audience the United States will try to reach and ways to measure the impact of programs.

2003 The Washington Post Company