Military news programs secure a public outlet

Tampa Bay area government access channels air Defense Department programming that also goes to military bases and features anchors in uniform.

Published March 9, 2005

How's this for a niche network - a TV audience of 2.6-million, all dressed in fatigues.

The Pentagon Channel has been a favorite with the troops for years. But these days you don't need a crew cut to watch it. All you need to do is tune in to Pinellas County's Channel 18 at 5:30 p.m. six days a week.

The Pentagon Channel's 24-hour news programming was originally aimed at American troops. But the U.S. Department of Defense recently has enlisted public and government access cable channels to help spread its message, including Channel 18. The county-run cable channel began running two half-hour Pentagon Channel programs, Army Newswatch and Focus on the Force, in January.

"The Pentagon programs are fresh and are new, and they give us a chance to fill that slot while we work on developing new in-house programs," said county communications director Marcia Crawley.

Defense Department satellite feeds also are aired on Hillsborough County government's Channel 22 and Tampa's city government channel CCTV.

Army Newswatch, produced in Washington, D.C., and Focus on the Force, produced in Germany, are part of a roster of 24 such shows produced by the Pentagon and beamed around the world via satellite.

Before it was launched in May, the C-SPAN-style network for the military was originally broadcast on closed-circuit Defense Department television. With an operating budget of $6-million for the 2004-05 fiscal year, the Pentagon Channel reaches 136 American military bases in 177 countries around the world. In operation less than a year, the channel began streaming its programming to its Web site, www.pentagonchannel.mil 24 hours a day, and it is now distributed by 10 companies, including TimeWarner and Knology, to the general public.

Last month, the Defense Department network expanded its reach considerably after EchoStar Communications Corp. agreed to offer the Pentagon Channel to Dish Network's satellite television subscribers for free, bringing the channel's total general viewership to about 11.6-million, Pentagon officials said.

The Pentagon Channel has the look and feel of CNN, except the news anchors are sometimes in uniform. The programs shown on Channel 18 and others on the Pentagon Channel cover everything from the latest changes in benefits for National Guard and Reserve members to updates on American military missions around the world.

"People forget that we have troops in Bosnia, in Africa and Germany, so this is a chance to let people know about what's going with the forces around the world," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

The Pentagon Channel's commercial and fee-free programming is proving a popular choice for cash-strapped local government access channels. Channel 18's estimated annual budget is about $800,000, but only about 60 percent of its programming is produced in-house, county officials said.

Pentagon officials said they do not have a complete list of local government access distributors. But Barber said public education channels in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia have told the department they are carrying the military programming.

Pentagon Channel programs cover a wide range of issues, but you're not likely to see much coverage of controversial military topics such as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal or the secret military tribunals of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. And that, some media analysts say, could be problematic.

"There's nothing wrong with the military bringing this onto the base," said Robert Snyder, director of Rutgers University-Newark's journalism and media Studies program in New Jersey. "But broadcasting Pentagon programs on a public access cable channel is basically going to be the equivalent of a public relations channel intruding into the public sphere. They shouldn't be broadcast and published out into the general world as if they were an independent source of journalism."

In recent months, the Bush administration has come under heavy fire from media critics who complain that the White House has manipulated news.

The criticism grew louder in January after it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Education paid conservative pundit Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the president's "No Child Left Behind" policy. Critics also point to revelations last month about the dubious credentials of White House reporter "Jeff Gannon," whose real name is James Dale Guckert. Until he resigned last month, Guckert worked for Talon News and GOPUSA, conservative Web sites financed by a Texas Republican.

Barber acknowledged that American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan occasionally make for tough topics to report on. But she dismissed the idea that the Pentagon Channel is an outlet for government propaganda.

"We accept the fact that we're at war, and there are some tough stories to tell and we're going to tell them," Barber said. "We know that there are sacrifices people are making out there and people need to know about them."

Crawley, who helps oversee Channel 18's programming, agrees. She added that the military programs are a great way for Tampa Bay area residents with family members in the military to stay up-to-date on the troops. Besides, she said, the two military programs might air only temporarily and could be replaced by new programs the county hopes to produce in coming months.

Researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 771-4307 or rondeaux@sptimes.com