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Radio Days

February 23, 2006
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Ask any random student, professor or administrator at Swarthmore College and they'll confirm that the majority of those on campus simply didn't support the American invasion of Iraq, which is not unusual for a university with such strong Quaker and pacifist roots.

So what can be made of the fact that the administration at the liberal-arts institution - which does not offer classes on journalism in any of its varied forms - has been investing significant financial resources, more than $100,000 so far, in a student project called War News Radio?

The weekly half-hour Internet-based radio program, modeled largely on National Public Radio, aims to "fill the gaps in the media's coverage of Iraq," according to its Web site. It does so by having its student reporters speak directly with those affected by the conflict, such as Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers.

But Alexander Joffe, the director of Campus-Watch.org, a project of the Middle East Forum, said that while it's well-produced - War News Radio is overseen by Marty Goldensohn, an NPR veteran - the program often does little more than offer what he called a "soft-left" perspective of events.

"Does it provide new insights and fresh angles?" he posed in an e-mail. "Mostly for people who don't like to read, and who feel voices are more real and immediate than words.

"The only people who don't think that the 'media' is telling the story are those, from one side or another, who don't see their narrative dominating the news and political discussions."

He went on to argue that broadcasting personal stories - an admitted concentration of War News Radio - may tell listeners how people feel, but not why they feel that way or the complex history behind those feelings.

Numerous administrators, professors and students involved with the Swarthmore program offered the same message: The radio show puts listeners in touch with voices not always heard on the nightly television news, and it paints a fuller picture of life in Iraq.

Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore history professor who helped get the broadcast off the ground in January 2005, said that while some members of the faculty would like to see the students pursue more investigative stories, he's fine with relying on softer news features.

"This is not a vehicle for activism," he asserted. "The war zone is something that we have very little information about. If we could capture life as it is lived in all its messiness and ambiguity, then that would be an achievement."

The idea for War News Radio came from David Gelber, a 1963 Swarthmore graduate who is currently a producer at CBS' "60 Minutes." In a phone interview, Gelber blasted how the mainstream media, specifically his own medium of television, has covered the war. He said that news stories often lack voices of ordinary Iraqis, as well as those of the American soldiers who staff checkpoints and train Iraqi troops.

Too often, he added, programs are limited to simply tallying the dead and injured.

Based on Vietnam Reportage 
Gelber, a member of Swarthmore's board of managers, modeled War News Radio after a Vietnam news-summary program he helped start back in the late 1960s on WBAI in New York City. That show relied heavily on reporting from Agence France-Presse, which was considered slightly more critical of the war effort than the American media at the time.

The program was broadcast on Pacifica Radio, a Berkeley, Calif.-based network regarded as anti-establishment in its orientation.

The producer, though, added that the students at Swarthmore, while liberal and anti-war in their views, walk a decidedly neutral line.

Goldensohn, the radio's journalist-in-residence, said the program's validation as a mainstream, unbiased source of news came when an official from the Marine Corps' Center for Advanced Operation Culture asked for permission to provide a link to War News Radio on its Web site.

Maurice Eldridge, vice president for college and community relations at Swarthmore, further explained that War New Radio is not a student organization like The Phoenix weekly newspaper. Instead, it's an official project of the school, and as such, adheres to standard doctrines of ideological fairness.

"We are an educational institution and not an ideological one. I would hope that both with the guidance that comes from the faculty and their own innate sense of responsibility, the student journalists can find ways to be as objective and clearheaded as they can," said Eldridge, who nevertheless offered that he himself is a pacifist.

The goal of the project, the administrator went on, is to allow students to use their research and analytical skills to speak to people whose lives are defined by the biggest issue of the day.

But according to Joffe, such high-minded rhetoric doesn't explain why many of the experts the program taps in an effort to impart context to a particular report are decidedly anti-Bush in their views.

"Overall, I would see this as a typical kind of Swarthmore feel-good, do-good, peace studies-ish training effort for liberal radio activists/producers," said Joffe.

So far, War News Radio has largely steered clear of covering Israel or the Palestinian Authority. Still, after Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature earlier this year, the program ran a piece looking at the intersection of terrorism and politics.

Wren Elhai, a sophomore who has worked on the show since its inception, said the question was raised in order to look at whether the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq could one day become a similar political movement.

Nate Allen, a member of Ruach, the Jewish Student Group on Campus, said that he was not concerned about a possible pro-Palestinian bias.

"Many people listen in, and there is certainly a lot of awareness about War News Radio," he stated via e-mail. "But I don't think it's caused a significant shift rightward or leftward in general Swarthmore opinion on the war."

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