May 11, 2007

The Military’s Iraq Channel on You Tube

Next to names like “EclectivAsylumArt” and “drewtoothpaste,” one of the top “channels” on You Tube these days is something called MNFIRAQ. The Web acronym stands for Multi-National Force Iraq.

Translated into more familiar terminology, the producer is the U.S. Army.

The pictures at MNFIRAQ are not what one normally thinks of as standard You Tube fare. They are scenes of firefights and U.S. troops aiding Iraqis hurt in a bombing and the destruction of bomb-making facilities.

What they represent is a new attempt by the Army to get its story and pictures, told the way it wants, about the war in Iraq, and the Pentagon has turned to the video outlet made famous for students sharing homemade videos and reruns of commercial TV as a new way of bypassing the mainstream media.

And it is having some success.

The channel is only two months old, but www.youtube.com/MNFIRAQ, a collection of videos shot and edited by Army personnel in Iraq has grown a following. With more than 3,400 subscribers, the channel is the 13th-most subscribed in this month.

The videos on the channel – there are currently 25 of them with new ones being added every few days – vary in their content. Some are clearly focused on showing U.S. attempts to reach out and help the citizens of Iraq – such as the footage of the rescue of an Iraqi kidnap victim or the troops giving gifts to children – but others are more straightforward scenes from firefights.

In “More Fighting in Baqubah” (one minute and 50 seconds) soldiers file by the camera, guns in hand, take positions behind a wall and then begin firing. The sound of weapons firing dominates the scene and camera pans from soldiers to the sky where a helicopter flies by.

In “Iraqi Boyscouts Prepare for Jamboree” (one minute, 43 seconds) young Iraqi’s dressed in what appear to be soccer jerseys sing a song and clap, then rake and clean a field before receiving candy and filing onto a bus.

The clips feel like short reality TV segments (albeit government approved ones) from one of the world’s best known battle zones. There is little description or explanation in most segments. There is no narrator and the videos are shot by combat camera persons.

Of the 25 videos on the channel as of May 11, 15 consisted of footage from firefights or air attacks, four were focused on aiding Iraqis, with the rest focused on patrols or other events.

The channel, according to Lt. Col Christopher Garver, director of Combined Press Information Center, is designed to fill what the military sees as the void left in the traditional media coverage of the war.

“A lot of times it’s car bomb of the day on the news,” Garver told PEJ in an interview. “I understand why that makes the news and the deaths of 10 Iraqis isn’t equaled by our passing out soccer balls, but that’s part of the picture too.”

Garver acknowledges the military videos reflect a point of view, one government produced and approved. “Obviously, it’s a filtered view. It’s filtered by us. But the networks do the same things,” he argued.

That last point implies something worth considering, that the media also are filtering with a point of view in the same manner as the government as a provider of news, no more or less valid. In the era of You Tube and the Internet, however, the government or any other interest group of newsmakers can now more easily act on that point of view and go into the news business for themselves.

What are some of those filters that the Army is using in its presentation of this material? Among the explicit rules, the site promises visitors will not see“Profanity, Sexual content, Overly graphic, disturbing or offensive material or Footage that mocks Coalition Forces, Iraqi Security Forces or the citizens of Iraq.”

But Garver argued that beyond covering the stories that he feels are not receiving enough coverage there is no political tone to the videos post on the channel.

James Crawley, a national correspondent for Media General News Service and president of the Military Reporters and Editors, an organization that works to advance the public’s understanding of the military and to assure journalists have access to place where the U.S. military operates, told PEJ that the Army’s new channel involves a clear element of propaganda.

“This is just another attempt by the administration to get the ‘good story’ of Iraq out,” Crawley said. “We really don’t know how it’s edited, but that’s OK as long as you know where it’s coming from.”

The other side in Iraq is doing the same thing, Crawley said. “There are plenty of sites you can go to that will show your basic Humvee IED bombing.”

Crawley argued that the You Tube channel probably falls into the category of “gray propaganda” – not openly deceptive, but with little explanation about what is being seen. The key questions for users should be do the videos represent an accurate portrayal of events and is there any spin in the footage, Crawley said. People should look at the clips with those things in mind.

Garver said the videos that run on the page are of specific events. Scenes from different incidents are not spliced together and most of the editing is for length.

“We’re not just going to put up video of people selling Girl Scout cookies. There is a war going on here, and we want people to remember that.”

It does seem these are war scenes that people want to watch. It is the more violent video, or “kinetic” footage as Garver calls them, that brings the most viewers. Nine of the top 10 videos on the site are of military operations – the other is the return of a kidnapping victim.

The military has shot its own combat footage going all the way back to World War II and the practice became more common starting in Vietnam.But that video seldom saw the light of day as news organizations primarily relied on their own staff for war footage.

The idea for Multi-National Force site was hatched by two Army contractors in February. Brent Walker and Eric Barnes, both of whom are former marines, and some enlisted men in Iraq saw You Tube as a way to use the footage being shot everyday by the military.

Since Vietnam the military has sent combat camerapersons out on missions with soldiers resulting in hours and hours of footage. Most of that video is sent via satellite to DVIDS, the military’s Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System, but it ultimately ends up languishing there as well.

The contractors who manage the MNF’s You Tube site go through the video from Iraq and see if there is any footage they want to use. If there is, they run it by Graver. Video that Garver is unsure of gets sent to his superior Major General William Caldwell, the spokesman for the MNF.

“When my guys started this I kind of nodded and said ‘OK, let’s see what happens,’” Garver said. “But we didn’t have any idea of the reaction we’d get.”

How big has that reaction been? That may depend on how one measures success. By Army and even You Tube standards the site has done pretty well. Consider some numbers.

The 3,200-plus subscribers is good enough to make the site one of the biggest for the month. That, however,is not even a quarter as many as the month’s biggest subscriber sites. The number one most-subscribed to channel this month “Eclectic Asylum Art,” devoted to portrait painting techniques, added more than 14,800 subscribers.

And while the most viewed video on the MNF site “Battle Haifa Street, Baghdad, Iraq has received an impressive 373,922 views in the past month, that figure pales in comparison to the biggest videos on You Tube. For instance, “David Hasselhoff Intoxicated (Drunk)” received almost 1.8 million views in four days.

Still considering the content, the MNF channel has clearly become something of a success. It continues to gain subscribers steadily – climbing three spots on the most-subscribed to list the second week of May.