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Follow-Up: Your Comments on Military Video on United Flights

by Jack Penning

Posted on May 11, 2006 at 11:15 AM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:46 PM

On May 8th, NewsChannel 8 reported on the inflight entertainment you see on United Airlines flights from Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to PDX. United says it's added a 13-minute segment called "Today's Military." It looks a lot like a news program, profiling ten members of the US Military, all over the world... including Oregon National Guardsman Andrew Canfield. Some say its "passed-off" as a news program, even though its origins are quite different than the orgins of a news segment.

"Today's Military" was shot, produced, written, and edited by the Department of Defense. Agents there admit it's a recruiting video, meant to encourage young men and women to enlist. Yet, at no point in the inflight program, is that fact ever noted. There are no graphics on the screen, no credits, no voiceover to tell viewers what they're really watching. The Department of Defense isn't mentioned once. Not once, is any branch of the military tied to the video's production. Some passengers say it's intentionally meant to deceive. Others appreciate that the video is telling "good news" stories about our armed forces.

The Department of Defense paid United $36,000 for the video to run on westbound flights, from April 17th to May 17th. Part of the agreement specified the DoD wouldn't be indentified. In the agreement, United says the video will reach about 3-million travelers.

Media ethics experts say, at best, it's deceiving not to identity the video's producer. Ethics experts say its important that people know they're being advertised to, and in this case, they do not. Moreover, they say, airline passengers are a captive audience, who can't just change the channel.

United says it often sells video spots. It says it averages between 7 and 15 minutes of paid video programming per 2-hour segment.

After the story ran, viewers filled my e-mail inbox with their opinions... on both sides of the debate. Here's a collection of some of the comments I read:

"I totally support United Airlines, and the DoD in running the 'commercial' on flights, if it had been a private business, it would have been hailed as a brilliant new way of advertising."

"I think it's very deceptive. I don't think they should have them. Or if they do, they should say this is from the military... or this is an Army recruiting thing... or whatever their slant is."

"You are too young to remember something called RKO Pathe News that was run in theatres during W.W.2. Some of it may have been propaganda, but such features helped to generate a degree of unity and a sense of purpose for a nation that was engaged in a struggle that threatened the existence of free nations."

"What our government's up to... trying to do all this stuff covertly... it does not make me happy."

"Of course, as you so pompously proclaim, you don't broadcast the American Forces' side of this conflict. But you have no trouble broadcasting anything Al Jazeera puts out."

That last e-mail refers to the following paragraph from my original blog on this topic:

"KGW has received a number of similar 'video new releases' from the Department of Defense and other government agencies. It is our station policy, and our Belo corporate policy, to never run these handouts."

It is a fact KGW has done more reporting on "the American Forces' side of this conflict" than any other television station in Oregon. We've had two crews imbedded with Oregon National Guard forces in Iraq. We've produced three documentaries on the work of Oregon National Guard soldiers in the War on Terror. It isn't that we don't report the military's side of the conflict... because we do. The key here is that KGW prefers to do independent reporting, using our own crews and equipment, instead of relying on the military to do our job for us.

As for broadcasting what "Al Jazeera puts out," occasionally, KGW will use video originally obtained by Al Jazeera (clearly marked by graphics on screen), in the same way we use video obtained by NBC (our network). At no point has any story, written or edited by Al Jazeera, appeared on KGW.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in. I really appreciate hearing from all of you... on both sides of the issue. It's clear the story sparked a healthy debate. And I continue to learn from your insights.