Military channel reports for duty

The Pentagon Channel, now one year old, supplies info to troops - and, critics say, propaganda.

The anchors and reporters wear uniforms instead of neckties and suits, and the commercials promote the military, not laundry soap and cutlery sets. But otherwise, the Pentagon Channel - which is on the cusp of its first anniversary - looks and sounds a lot like CNN and C-SPAN.

To the people who run the Department of Defense television network, that's exactly the point. To critics, that's exactly the problem. When the government creates a cable channel that reminds viewers of a news network, down to the live Pentagon briefings and interviews with Washington big shots, is it a form of propaganda or just a savvy way to communicate with the troops?

"We provide news and information and focus on the morale of our military as well," says Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, who oversees the Pentagon Channel.

"We don't shy away from the tough stuff," she says, "but we embrace the stories that are uplifting and important for our morale."

For example, segments called "Why I Serve" spotlight members of the military and their stories, and a monthly show features military members and their families at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base near San Diego. "The American Veteran," meanwhile, highlights benefits and services for - you guessed it - veterans. Other shows spotlight individual branches of the military.

Not everything is happy news, however. In its daily news roundup, the Pentagon Channel's reporters and anchors cover fatal attacks and events such as the recent court-martial of an Army sergeant accused of carrying out an attack against fellow soldiers in Kuwait before the Iraq war. But the spin is invariably pro-military.

The on-air staffers "aren't reporters," says Ralph J. Begleiter, professor of communication at the University of Delaware. "That's a hugely important distinction. They're not journalists. They're salesmen."

Pentagon Channel senior producer Scott Howe, a veteran of military journalism, puts it another way. "We are an advocate of the Department of Defense and its voice," he says. "We obviously don't air speculation out in the civilian media that questions what the department is doing or its motives."

Military-sponsored news reports are hardly anything new. The government even operates an institution called the Defense Information School - motto: "strength through truth" - to train its troops to publish newspapers and produce news shows.

What makes the Pentagon Channel different is that the public is getting a look at it through cable systems, ostensibly so reservists and military families can watch it more easily.

The channel, which was launched last May, is broadcast at many military bases and on public cable in major cities. It also streams live on the Internet. There are no numbers on how many civilians may watch.

Most other Pentagon news services have limited, military-only audiences. The Stars & Stripes, the military's overseas daily newspaper, is available in the US via the Internet. (Once produced by service members, its staff is now mostly civilians.)

The Pentagon Channel "raises enormous questions," says Professor Begleiter, who is fighting the military over access to photos of flag-draped caskets of dead soldiers returning from abroad. "It's like any other government organization that puts out press releases or video releases or CD-ROMs or movies."

Ms. Barber bristles at the idea that the Pentagon Channel is offering government propaganda. To her, the network is simply offering a form of corporate communication. "You would never tell a CEO that they can't talk directly to their employees. That's just what we're doing with the Pentagon Channel."

The difference, critics say, is that the Pentagon is funded by taxpayer money - $6 million to start up the channel - and not stockholders.

Matthew T. Felling, media director at the watchdog group Center for Media and Public Affairs, wonders whether it's worth it.

"If the question is whether it's wiser for $6 million to [better arm] the troops or get them critical information, that's a tough call," he says. "But that's not the need that the Pentagon Channel is addressing. It isn't getting raw information to them. It's providing reassurance programming."

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