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Military channel reports for duty

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

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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."

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