NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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Last month a new television network, Telesur, launched its first broadcast in Latin America. Four countries--Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay--team up to create Telesur. The network hopes to reach all of Latin America to provide an alternative source of news and information to networks such as CNN.
John Dinges is an associate professor at the School of Journalism at Columbia University, and, before that, a longtime colleague of ours here at National Public Radio. He recently went to Venezuela to report on the state of journalism there and he joins us now.
Good to talk to you again, John.
Professor JOHN DINGES (School of Journalism, Columbia University): It's good to be here.
CONAN: What's the purpose of this new television network?
Prof. DINGES: Well, I talked to--when I was in Venezuela, recently, I talked to the guy who's the--kind of the news director. He said it's obviously government-financed and he said it's not intended to be propaganda. It is intended to be a kind of CNN originating from Latin America for Latin Americans. The idea is to give Latin Americans their own voice. He said--he says, `I don't have anything against CNN. CNN does a good job. There's a Spanish network...'
Prof. DINGES: `...of CNN.' He said, `But the news decisions are made up in North America, and we'd like to have a network that makes decisions down here in South America.' Clearly, this is not objective news. Cuba's participation in it bothers me a lot, as a journalist. I don't expect this to be objective in the sense that we expect organizations to be objective in this country. That--Latin America, that's not really the case. But the question is whether or not it's going to be a contribution, whether they're going to bring things to the air that you can't find elsewhere, and I think we should give them a chance. I think there's a lot of things that they're talking about putting on the air that you don't find normally in Latin American television, and I wish I'd had a chance to see some of this. It's only been launched for about a week.
CONAN: How do most people in Latin America and, I believe, Brazil off of this very minute, because, obviously, they speak a different language there.
Prof. DINGES: They are going to be included in this.
CONAN: They're going to be included?
Prof. DINGES: Yeah, in fact, they're talking about simultaneous translation into Portuguese.
CONAN: Into Portuguese? Well, how do most people in Latin America now get their news, their television news? Is it CNN?
Prof. DINGES: I would say most people get it from local stations. Local stations spend a lot of time doing news. They have a fair amount of international coverage. And since cable has fairly good penetration, not anywhere near the penetration you have in this country, they have CNN en Espanol, they have the Spanish network, so they have a variety of sources of news that are not US.
CONAN: Are there continental radio services that people would tune into or...
Prof. DINGES: No.
CONAN: It's all local?
Prof. DINGES: No NPR in Latin America.
CONAN: Is there a sense that...
Prof. DINGES: There is the VOA, of course.
CONAN: Yeah. Do people in Latin America think that the news they get from CNN International is biased?
Prof. DINGES: I don't believe so. And in--of course, you're talking--you have to say, `Who are we talking to?' Certainly, there are people who are very anti-Yankee, people that are kind of still stuck in the '60s and '70s. Maybe I'm speaking too biased there, but there--most people feel that CNN en Espanol and CNN gives a fairly straight version of the news. They object to its--what they see as overpatriotic view of the US role in the Middle East, for example. They see it--they don't see any coverage or very little coverage of the things that stick in their craw, all of the US interventions in Latin America, that sort of thing.
So it's what is on CNN. I don't believe you'll find many people saying, `Oh, that's terrible. Those are lies.' What is--what they don't find is what this new network is intended to provide. And there you're talking probably about maybe 30 or 40 percent of the people whose political orientation would lead them to want this kind of coverage. But that's enough to sustain a television network. Certainly, FOX News has done it in this country.
CONAN: Well, in addition to their regular news content, there's also, of course, advertising, and some of that is controversial. Let's listen to an example of this ad from Telesur.
(Soundbite of Telesur ad)
Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)
CONAN: What's that song about?
Prof. DINGES: It's about five centuries of colonial and imperialist rule. They don't use the word `colonialism' or `imperialism' but that's what they're talking about. It's a very poetic passage. We can't see the video. The video includes the faces of Latin American leftist heroes--Che Guevara's face is there on a banner. And Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Socialist in Chile who was overthrown by a US-supported coup, is there. The guerrilla leader in Colombia who's actually the current guerrilla leader of the FARC, a group that most people consider to be clearly in the category of terrorist--not only that, they are involved in narcotics trafficking.
CONAN: And it's...
Prof. DINGES: That guy's face shows up there, too.
CONAN: A group that is supported by at least some elements in the Venezuelan government, and, obviously, in opposition to the Colombian government, the rivals of Mr. President Hugo Chavez, one of the sponsors of this network.
Prof. DINGES: Yeah, I did a little research on that. There's a really good story that just came out by the--in the Miami Herald and--about the connections between the FARC and all of the other Latin America countries. The FARC--you know, these are neighboring countries. A lot of FARC's narcotics trafficking attempts to go through Venezuela and, in recent weeks, there have been some arrests of FARC activists or FARC narcotraffickers in Venezuela and they've captured some cocaine. Chavez has spoken favorably about leftist rebel movements, and he apparently has said some things that would lead you to believe that he's favorable toward the FARC. However, there's no real evidence of any direct contact, any personal--in other words, is there any real support going on? Is he giving them safe harbor in Venezuela? I think the jury's out on that. That's a pretty inflammatory charge, and we're talking about two countries that are--have difficult relations anyway.
CONAN: And obviously, these sorts of things goes on. Cuba has difficult relations with some of its neighbors, particularly the one to the north. How--some members in Congress are not exactly happy about this new development.
Prof. DINGES: Well, that's really a kind of funny development because it's the pot calling the kettle black. Congressmen in the House have passed--I think it's just a resolution--saying that we should set up--as a reaction to Telesur, we should set up a kind of TV Marti, a US-sponsored television network to, I guess, drown out the voices of the leftists who are on Telesur. So I actually wrote a little column about this and said, `Gee, you know, when you look to governments, you're not--for sponsorship of television networks, you're not going to get objective journalism.' Where they are paying the journalists, the journalists are toeing the government line. And that's a criticism you would make of TV Marti as well as Telesur. And what we have to watch for is to see whether this is interesting at all--whether it achieves an audience is going to depend on whether it's pure propaganda or whether there is some high-quality programming of any kind that goes on there.
For example, one of the strong points that they claim--and, of course, we haven't seen any of this yet--is in documentary film. The head of Telesur, a man named Aronion(ph), told me that there were--I think there's 180 documentaries created in Latin America and only 20 of them got on the air. And he says, `We're going to greatly expand that. We're going to be a venue to put Latin American-produced documentaries on the air.' I don't think anybody can complain about that. That's really great. It's very difficult in Latin America to see Latin American documentaries outside of a particular country.
CONAN: It would be interesting--and, again, as far as I know, you can't watch it in this country--but to see the coverage, for example, of the political crisis going on now in Brazil. Obviously, the leftist president there, Lula da Silva, is having some difficulty with allegations of vote-rigging and bribery. And I guess there's some important testimony expected later today.
Prof. DINGES: Yeah, actually, I asked the director about that. I said, `Well, what are you'--I was more interested in Cuba. I said, `Well, what are you going to do when Cuba arrests another group of journalists who they, of course, say are paid for by the United States, etc.? Are you going to be able to cover that objectively?' And he said, you know, `We'll talk about the news that arises.' He says, `There's no reason why we wouldn't cover something like that.' How are they covering--they're trying to actually get Lula to buy into this operation. Would they be covering those scandals of the Labor Party? I kind of doubt it. This sort of stuff, objectivity or--only goes so far when you're looking to who's paying the bills.
CONAN: Yeah. And obviously, this is just starting out, but is it--is the intention to remain government-funded or is the intention to make it a commercial success?
Prof. DINGES: It's interesting. There's--apparently, from what he told me, the start-up funding of this thing is only $2 1/2 million, which is a pittance. He said that they expect that by--maybe by now it would have gone up to 10 million with pledges from some of the countries, but that's really not enough to keep a viable network going with correspondents in various countries. The spokes--but he did not say that it was going to be financed by advertising. And although it will be possible to have advertising, I think it's intended at this point still to be government-paid-for, government-subsidized.
CONAN: John Dinges, thanks very much for coming in to talk with us today.
Prof. DINGES: You're welcome.
CONAN: We're talking about Telesur, which is now on the air in South America. John Dinges is an associate professor at the School of Journalism at Columbia University.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.