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Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 16:26 GMT
The US media at war
Nick Higham
By media correspondent Nick Higham

America's "war against terrorism" has proved a problem for America's media.

No conflict since World War II has so engaged the American people, whose horror at the destruction of the Twin Towers and loathing of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden have been assiduously stoked by President Bush's morale-boosting speeches.

That makes it difficult for news organisations committed in theory to objective, dispassionate reporting.

Osama Bin Laden on Al Jazeera TV
US TV: Not sure how to use Al Jazeera exclusives
In a situation reminiscent of that in Britain during the Falklands war in 1982, the US TV networks have found themselves pitted against what one editor calls the Patriotism Police.

It is a term for the conservative lobbyists who leap into action when, for instance, news programmes appear to give equal weight to statements from the Pentagon and to Taleban claims of civilian casualties.

Pressure

The president of ABC News was forced to apologise after telling journalism students that, as head of an objective news organisation, he had "no opinion" on whether the Pentagon was a legitimate terrorist target.

The pressure is having its effect.

When the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera broadcast pictures said to be of Osama bin Laden's sons, the US news channels thought twice before running them.

CNN used only a few seconds. Fox News - generally seen as the most conservative of cable news channels - showed nothing.

A Fox spokeswoman was quoted as saying: "Unlike others, we are not here to do PR work for the Taleban."

Liberal opinion has also been critical - for rather different reasons.

An article in the New York Times wheaped praise on the BBC and ITN world news programmes shown on US cable channels and PBS.

'Pandering'

The British programmes' wider range of stories and "blunter" approach were compared favourably with those of their US counterparts.

"After two months, American television's cautious approach has turned into knee-jerk pandering to the public, reflecting a mood of patriotism rather than informing viewers of the complex, sometimes harsh realities they need to know," wrote the paper's TV critic.

Statue of Liberty
The US is concerned about its image abroad
If the problem at home is a public unhappy with critical or dissenting voices, the US also has difficulties in much of the Muslim world, where Washington's point of view is often ignored or distorted.

The State Department has drafted in Charlotte Beers, a former head of two major advertising agencies, Ogilvy and Mather and J Walter Thomson, and known as the Queen of Madison Avenue.

Struggle

Her brief - to mount a propaganda war by arming friendly journalists and opinion formers and US embassies with the facts and arguments they need to project not only hard information but also American values like freedom, tolerance and diversity.

It may prove an uphill struggle.

The State Department's public affairs division has been steadily run down over the past seven or eight years - reflecting American government neglect of its image abroad for which the country is arguably now paying.

One propaganda initiative for which Ms Beers is not responsible, however - at least not yet - is Radio Free Afghanistan.

The House of Representatives voted 405-2 in favour of a bill to establish a station beaming news and entertainment in local Afghan languages, but the State Department is unenthusiastic about a station which would compete with its own Voice of America broadcasts in Pashto.

This column also appears in the BBC magazine Ariel

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