Television news can be moving and immediate or oversimplified and commercialized, but rarely is it interactive. On Saturday afternoon, courtesy of an independent media partnership between New York’s Downtown Community Television (DCTV) and production company NextNext Entertainment, several American students spoke to their Baghdad counterparts, over satellite, about the prospect of war.
Jon Alpert, DCTV’s founder, traveled to Iraq on February 19 with a tiny crew. With help from former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, a radical anti-war organizer who was also influential in arranging Dan Rather’s recent interview with Saddam Hussein, Alpert managed to get some leeway in choosing his venue—a privately owned community center—and his student panel, a group of six bright, engaging English speakers, all but one secular. Another concession important to Alpert’s team was permission to follow the students into their homes and schools. The conversation was punctuated with snippets of the students’ lives: Saif, 21, drove a 1966 VW bug while blasting Eminem; Suha, 21, beamed as she showed off the copies of embargoed car parts her father manufactures.
The dialogue itself began with a miraculous moment of connection, as the six U.S. panelists in DCTV’s studio heard their greetings echo, with a seven-second delay, on the monitor in Baghdad. The group picked its way through some stiff chitchat about American pop culture before political questions raised the temperature. Walid, 18, a heavy-metal singer, thanked an American panelist for showing “great support for the Iraqi people” by protesting the war on February 15. “We also demonstrate in our country,” he said, “against the Zionists and their actions on Palestinians.” Some Americans blanched at the comment.
Asked about Iraqi defectors’ and Kurds’ support of the war, Hamsa, 21, a J.Lo look-alike, responded, “Anyone who says that is not Iraqi. I don’t think there is a person in the universe who would say, ‘Bomb my country, come to my house, bomb my family.’”
DCTV’s producers in New York had designed the American panel to be split between pro- and anti-war sentiments, while the Iraqi side was a picture of enforced unanimity. It’s easy to see why the broadcast was sanctioned by Iraq’s Ministry of Information. The oddest moment came when Suha, the fiery girl in a hijab, responded to a question about Saddam’s legitimacy. “How would you like it if I come with an army and force Bush out?” she demanded. The American audience and some of the panelists broke into spontaneous cheers.
With the satellite link costing several thousand dollars an hour—not counting a premium “uplink fee” charged by a Turkish satellite truck in Baghdad—the session quickly drew to a close, with fervent wishes for peace on both sides. As well as showing the human face of the conflict, the program pointed up the difficulties journalists face in Iraq, as they try to balance independence and access. “We’re never going to get a sentence out of them of true dissent,” said Tish Bravo, DCTV’s co-producer on the New York side, of the Iraqi students. “You work with what you get.”
Bravo compared the panel favorably to a similar discussion last week featuring George Mason University students, which was broadcast live on the Al-Jazeera cable network. The group of more than 100 Iraqi students answering questions from Americans were handpicked by Baghdad University, where the conversation also took place. “The kids [on the university’s panel] were really awkward and stiff, and Jon said, ‘We need to find some real kids,’” Bravo said. But as charming and opinionated as the DCTV group of Iraqis were, they too expressed nothing departing from the party line.
Alpert, an Emmy award-winning documentarist, plans to continue covering the developing conflict on the ground, as he has with every American engagement since Vietnam. During Desert Storm, his footage of civilian casualties and property damage was deemed too shocking, leading to the end of his distribution deal with a major network; since then, DCTV documentaries have been shown on HBO and other outlets. Alpert is currently seeking a big U.S. distributor for the satellite chat, as a single one-hour special called Bridge to Baghdad; it is already set to be shown on Japanese public broadcaster NHK and WorldLink TV, a public-interest satellite network.