Live from Baghdad, fair, balanced and direct, it’s Bush TV.
The Coalition Provisional Authority running Iraq, created by the Bush administration, dissatisfied with the American television news decisions on covering the conflict, is about to create its own broadcast operation, with the capacity to bypass the networks, live from Iraq, 24 hours a day.
“We’ve had to rely on events covered by the networks and their interpretation, and their feed back to the United States,” said Dorrance Smith, the former ABC News producer and an advisor to President Bush and his father, now senior media adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority.
“That’s about to change,” said Mr. Smith, “because we’re about to have total 24-hour connectivity.”
Asked if he would call the new operation an American Al-Jazeera, a broadcast operation institution untethered by commercial considerations, Mr. Smith said it was more like a “C-SPAN Baghdad.”
When the Bush White House bypassed the television networks in September 2003 by taking the President’s story on Iraq directly to local news affiliates, it sent a blunt message to the television networks: they didn’t want the New York anchors-Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather-determining their headlines.
That plan seemed to work. But in the past few weeks, particularly with the significant growth in casualties in Iraq and the decrease of public support for Bush administration’s war policy, the White House, aware that the fate of the Bush administration is tied to the progress of the war, took charge of molding public perception. The White House understood the story belonged to whoever owned the cameras, microphones and satellite. So it has made the decision to create its own de facto news operation, without the middlemen of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and even Fox.
Mr. Smith was straightforward about the issue of control being important to the C.P.A.
“It’s real time to the United States,” he said, referring to the capacity to broadcast immediately, at will, “as opposed to being covered by a network and having them decide whether they want to carry it live. And that’s a critical distinction in a wartime situation. And it’s not just external in terms of a mass audience.”
He compared it to the Centcom broadcasts during the military operations last spring. “They were watched in every government agency as they were happening, and that’s because they have the connectivity. That will soon be true in Baghdad, but it hasn’t been true until this point.
“It’s C-Span Baghdad. The satellite coordinates will be for one and all and won’t be dependent on somebody deciding whether they’re going to put it on live.”
Mr. Smith said the C.P.A. would create a broadcast link from Baghdad, giving it the ability to broadcast news conferences out of the Republican Palace in Baghdad without the need for network intermediaries, so it could be transmitted without getting “chopped up in New York.”
That way, said Mr. Smith, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the C.P.A. administrator, and his press officers can take their stories directly to local television affiliates and news operations and the Washington press corps or directly to a private conference transmission of their choosing, control the story themselves and “get our message out without having to create an event and have it be covered by somebody and be seen through their filter.”
The new project, which Mr. Smith said would roll out in “the next couple of weeks,” has no official name, but it will precede the next C.P.A. media project in December, a press filing center similar to those in the White House or the Pentagon, complete with a credential system that would dole out access.
“It’s not different from the capacity that exists in the Pentagon or the White House or the State Department or anyplace,” said Mr. Smith. “It’s just the technology didn’t exist for the civilian side in Baghdad. It’s really not that radical, but it’s just a capability that’s now built into the civilian authority.”
And with that, the Baghdad enclave will become a mini–White House in terms of capacities and facilities. “We live in an interconnected world,” said Mr. Smith, “and when you watch the evening news, people aren’t looking at the source, they’re looking at the information, and we have to be capable of broadcasting from Baghdad as you would from any other origination point.
“It’s a capacity that has not existed in Baghdad,” Mr. Smith said. “Basically it’s taking the capacity that existed at CentCom, that for whatever reason, did not translate to the civilian authority in Baghdad.”
Mr. Smith, onetime producer of ABC News’ This Week with David Brinkley and Nightline , is a childhood friend of the Bush family, who left ABC in 1989 to become media advisor to President George H. W. Bush, then returned for a second stint with ABC News from 1995 to 1999. He said he sympathized with the press’ wartime reporting mission, but thought the C.P.A. TV operation could do it better.
“I recognize what their obligations and responsibilities are, and they’re going to cover the military side and the war side,” he said, “but as it recedes, do they focus on the peace side or do they not focus on anything at all? We’ll be in a better situation to do it ourselves and help paint a different picture than the one being portrayed.”
The toughest chess game on earth-between the beleaguered, bullet-riddled press offices of the C.P.A., and the frustrated, battle-weary media corps who drill the administrator’s office for details of the conflict-just got tougher. After the administration’s complaints in September that the press was painting a disastrous picture of Iraq during the nation-building efforts, reporters came under increasing pressure from the White House to find the so-called “good news” in Iraq, or lose access.
The pressure came not only from the White House and the C.P.A., but also, according to some TV executives, from network executives, who were beginning to feel the pressure to themselves-or at least trying to anticipate the administration.
If anyone could be given credit for seeing the writing on the wall-that the C.P.A. would soon subvert the networks by setting up their own operation, protecting its cameras and broadcasts with tightly controlled access-it would be Dorrance Smith’s former employer, ABC News.
Last October, ABC News president David Westin announced an ambitious, expensive project called “Iraq: Where Things Stand,” a joint effort with Time magazine to get outside of Baghdad and survey the country’s progress since the invasion. In a memo to ABC News executives, leaked to USA Today on Oct. 15, Mr. Westin appeared to agree with the administration on at least one count. He was unhappy with the media’s coverage of Iraq. “We often seem to be captive to the individual dramatic incident,” he wrote, just one week before the Bush administration made its own criticisms known.
“ABC News is now going to address this conspicuous lacking in the reporting to date,” Mr. Westin wrote. He then announced the network would roll out a series of reports on the state of Iraq, an audit of the hearts, minds, well-being of regular Iraqis.
The propinquity of the Bush complaint and the ABC News response seemed close to some observers. But Mr. Westin said he came up with the idea a month before, in August, after the terrorist attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. But ABC News-and its anchor, Mr. Jennings, in particular-have been widely attacked by conservative media critics as a bastion of anti-Bush bias. Was ABC News righting the ship, or just finally getting the real picture? And how exactly was Mr. Westin’s criticism of media coverage in Iraq different from the administration’s?
“I don’t see them as related at all,” Mr. Westin told The Observer . “My concern is not the validity or even the value of the reporting, but that it didn’t go far enough. It was valid, but it was not complete. There was another part of this story that also needed to be told.”
In order to balance the news, fairly?
“It’s not even balanced in the sense that one doesn’t know whether it’s good news or bad news,” he said. “It just needed to be complete. And it might point in exactly the same direction as the bombs going off.”
As it happens, that’s exactly the direction it turned, by terrible circumstance. When the ABC News– Time magazine series aired-on World News Tonight , Nightline , Good Morning America and This Week , starting on Nov. 2 and ending on Nov. 7-it provided a perfect illustration of the challenge that the government faces, and, incidentally, that Mr. Westin faces, too. A number of “individual dramatic” incidents-the downing of the Chinook helicopter on Nov. 2, and the subsequent loss of another helicopter with six soldiers five days later-managed to make irrelevant the story the Bush administration wanted told, of progress in Iraq.
Mr. Westin’s conclusion about the “Iraq: Where Things Stand” series was that the Iraq story was “complicated.” Did the ABC report corroborate the White House’s view of Iraq’s improvement?
“They’ve been right that the schools are better, absolutely,” Mr. Westin said. “And they’ve said that repeatedly. I think if you look back at their statements, they have not been comprehensive at looking at all the various elements that we’ve gone through.”
Back in New York, where, as former ABC News producer Dorrance Smith said, the news was “chopped up,” ABC News editors engaged the complicated issues of balance at close range:
David Wright, an ABC News correspondent, contested the idea that he had been seeking good news in Iraq, described turning in footage of an Iraqi he called “the happiest man in Iraq.” The Iraqi, he said, felt his life had improved considerably since the U.S. invasion. “I had to fight to get him in because they said he’s the exception,” he recalled. “If anything, it was, ‘Don’t spend so much time on this one guy because life’s going so well for him.'”
Bob Woodruff, another ABC News correspondent who worked on the project, was also adamant that he was given no explicit instructions by Mr. Westin to seek out positive stories. But he conceded that the initiative might have a deflecting effect.
“The White House is not going to bitch about us not taking the initiative to do the story anymore,” he said, “but we’re still going to do it, which tells you the motivation.”
Mr. Westin said that the series would continue in February and March.
“We haven’t seen any of it,” said one White House official. “That’s what they should be doing. It’s tough to praise someone for what they’re supposed to be doing,” the official said. “It’s just amusing that journalists have to resort to making a commitment from the top of a news organization to quote-unquote ‘tell the real story.’ It’s almost dripping with irony, and so much so a lot of people wouldn’t even notice.”
Responded Mr. Westin: “I guess what I would say to you is, a: I’m not surprised, and, b: Fortunately it’s not why we did it. I would be disappointed if it was the reason we did it.”
But in the days since, as reporters in Baghdad were implored by Mr. Bremer to visit a new school or an upgraded fire house, a missile or grenade assault would make a casualty of the field trip.
And the C.P.A. had-in what is called the Green Zone-created a replica of the institution that had spawned it, the White House, with institutionalized press antagonism. “They’re living in a Washington bubble,” said ABC News’ Mr. Wright of the C.P.A. Inside the high-walled compound, Mr. Wright and others said, officials employ no Iraqi food-service workers for fear of poisoning, buy their office supplies and furniture from the United States and use a cell-phone system based in Westchester County, N.Y.
“Inside the green zone it’s a totally artificial world, sheltered from Iraq,” said Mr. Wright. “So the fact that they spend so much of their time there-and you hear stories that they send their laundry to Kuwait-it’s like you’re in a different country.
One producer described a C.P.A. press office as staffed by political true believers, “neocons and evangelists,” the military full of passionate officials trying to achieve victory, “apoplectic” at the press for under-reporting the “good news’ in Iraq.
“The terrorists have a brilliant strategy by choosing novel media targets,” said the producer, referring to the Red Cross and U.N. bombings last summer. “They’re fighting the war using U.S. media. Is U.S. media being unpatriotic and causing the U.S. to back off and withdraw? It’s complex and extremely interesting.”
“I know it’s a political situation, and I know there’s an election coming up, but it’s not our job to do P.R. for them,” said Mr. Wright.
As for Dorrance Smith, he said he had success with CNBC’s Chris Matthews and CNN vice president and chief news executive Eason Jordan selling “the real story of Iraq.” Mr. Jordan “came over and met with Ambassador Bremer and was going to take a second look at the way they’re doing the story. It required a second look,” he said. He also said that he had spent most of his time in Baghdad so far trying to convince networks and cable news outlets to change their approach toward the coverage.
“The net effect of this self-scrutiny,” he said, “is they’ve changed their approach to how they’re doing the story.” Then he added, “I’d like to see more.”