Congressional leaders are all atwitter over Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' new satellite television station, Telesur, which has begun broadcasting four hours a day, financed by its host country and also Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba.
Telesur hopes to be accepted regionally, and promises news through Latino eyes, produced by professional journalists from the region.
Telesur is likened to Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel headquartered in Qatar and extremely popular throughout the Middle East. Al Jazeera saw two Iraq wars through Arab eyes, and the Pentagon and other U.S. leaders didn't like what Arabs saw.
They may not like everything that Latinos see on Telesur, either.
These broadcasters are two small voices in a world dominated by American voices, sounds and pictures, a pattern accelerated by satellite transmission.
Telesur, Al Jazeera and other non-Western broadcasters are trying to combat what media researchers call the "North-South flow" of news and images.
Cut to its basics, the theory says that news of "South" or developing nations is covered by Western or "North" media on the terms and standards of the "North" and then transmitted back to the "South," where it becomes the major news source for the locals.
So if a story breaks in, say, Venezuela, it is covered by the Associated Press, Reuters and CNN. Words and pictures flow to New York, London and Atlanta, and those stories are then beamed back into Latin America.
News values of the "North" rely heavily on conflict, drama, tragedy and violence. Television needs pictures with impact for the guy with the remote control.
Critics say this presents a skewed image of developing nations, both to the Western world and also to the developing world itself.
In the '70s and '80s, developing nations worked within the United Nations and with international agencies to modify this practice by putting out more "positive" news. But the movement gradually died, in large part because audiences in the developing world also want action, drama, violence and conflict.
But the goal of developing homegrown news more sympathetic to non-American values and policies remains, and is particularly strong where we have thrown our weight around, either militarily, economically or politically. The Middle East is an obvious place, and so is South America.
Chavez is no choirboy, and he has more than altruistic motives here — he hopes to emerge as a larger figure on the Latin scene. But if he tries to use Telesur to promote his own image, audiences will turn it off, as they do government channels in Arab nations.
If, on the other hand, he models it after Al Jazeera with professional standards and a genuine attempt to be even-handed while looking at the news with eyes that are not gringo, he may make a real impact on South American viewing habits.
The U.S. House reacted by author-izing broadcasts into Venezuela to ensure "accurate news" is received there, but that's not likely to be any more successful than our Arabic stations in Iraq. The Senate hasn't acted.
Americans are accustomed to corporate media. But millions of people do not believe that corporate media conglomerates are independent voices. Given the choice, many will choose a government broadcaster they can un-elect over a global media conglomerate they cannot un-elect. They might prefer, to be blunt, Hugo Chavez to Rupert Murdoch.
Ecuadorian journalist Gustavo Perez-Ramirez expresses his "great hope" that Telesur can present a genuine alternative to "the great corporations," and become "an essential alternative capable of representing fundamental principles of an authentic media: truth, justice, respect and solidarity." Other journalists in the region may agree.
South American leaders have long been concerned about accuracy in U.S. media reports on the region. Now Congress is worried about Telesur's accuracy. Accuracy is often in the eye of the viewer, and if Telesur stomps on a few sacred American toes, then Congress would find itself in the same position as Latino politicians have been in many times. That might not be all bad.
It is simply wrong to believe that only Americans can practice honest journalism and that only corporate-owned media can serve the people. If Telesur turns out to be only a propaganda organ it will fail to penetrate beyond Venezuela, but if it proves to be more than that, it will give the region a new, Latin voice.
In either event, Congress has better ways to spend money than to try to set up another failed U.S. government competitor to indigenous media.
Floyd J. McKay is a journalism professor at Western Washington University.
© 2005 The Seattle Times Company