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Iraq news feed draws criticism

Local broadcasters slam Pentagon plan

News executives of most Boston television stations are decidedly unenthusiastic about a Bush administration plan to transmit news footage from Iraq for local TV outlets in an attempt to supplement media coverage from that war-torn country.

The satellite link, dubbed "C-SPAN Baghdad," is designed to put a more positive spin on events and circumvent the major networks by making it possible for press conferences, interviews with troops and dignitaries, and even footage from the field to be transmitted from Iraq for use by regional and local media outlets, according to news accounts.

"I'm kind of appalled by it. I think it's very troubling," said Charles Kravetz, vice president of news at the regional cable news outlet NECN. "I think the government has no business being in the news business."

"We have no interest in this," said WBZ-TV (Channel 4) news director Peter Brown. "The Fourth Estate is independent and should remain so. As news providers, we should go there and see for ourselves."

In Globe interviews, government officials downplayed the suggestion that this is an attempt to manage the news. Dorrance Smith, a former ABC newsman now working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said the satellite link, which has functioned for the past several weeks, is "an expansion of our ability to communicate. . . . Basically, this provides us with the ability to feed back briefing materials and the substance of what is happening in Baghdad to the Pentagon . . . on a real-time basis. It's for one or for all as opposed to the very few media who are here in Baghdad."

Department of Defense spokesman Bryan Whitman stressed the project's function to provide live briefings back to the Pentagon, but said he "wouldn't want to rule out anything in the future."

The enhanced communications system comes amid White House concern that coverage of Iraq had focused disproportionately on the casualty count while giving short shrift to efforts to rebuild the country. Kravetz acknowledged the reconstruction of Iraq has not generated the same media interest that the ongoing violence has, but considers that to be a legitimate news judgment.

"I think the administration looks at this and feels there's some sort of agenda on the part of the media here," he added. "I don't."

WHDH-TV (Channel 7) news director Ed Kosowski characterized the new Iraq feed as "part of a very concerted effort on the part of the Bush administration to get its message out unfiltered." In recent months, the White House has increasingly used local television as a vehicle for countering negative images and stories coming out of Iraq.

Last month, WHDH aired interviews with key officials who had been made available to a select group of television stations via satellite hookup. In mid-October, the Hearst-Argyle owned Boston station, WCVB-TV (Channel 5), broadcast an interview with President Bush that he granted to regional television groups.

But news directors at those stations rejected the idea of picking up Pentagon material right from Iraq. WCVB-TV news director Coleen Marren said the station is well served by the reporting resources of CNN and ABC and expressed concern at what she called "a government-sponsored television station."

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