New Iranian TV channel covers Ahmadinejad's Columbia address

"Iranian television will show propaganda and will show that we Americans will accept his political views," said an unidentified Iranian-born Columbia student during Geraldo Rivera's live Fox News report from campus the night President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial address. Apparently he hasn't seen the Press TV channel.

Press TV, a fledgling English-language Iranian television channel that went on the air in July and is partially funded by the Iranian government, struggled to present balanced coverage of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's address at Columbia University.

"We're state-funded, not state-governed," said Amir Afra, producer and host of the channel's 1-hour news-talk show, "Fine Print." "We are like so many non-governmental organizations that receive state funds. We have our own editorial board."

Monday night's "Fine Print" program began with a top of the hour news update typical of most Iranian coverage of the campus address. President Ahmadinejad was the sole source in the story read by the anchor. After a station break that featured a verse from the Koran, the opening for "Fine Print" began.

Host Amir Afra started by criticizing Columbia President Lee Bollinger's introduction for President Ahmadinejad, saying it was mostly name-calling and an effort to undermine Iranian integrity. One of the American guests agreed.

"Bollinger's introduction was a hatchet job," said Sam Husseini, a critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, who claimed Bollinger made the comments on order to protect the university from its critics.

When Afra brought retired New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik into the discussion, criticism focused on President Ahmadinejad.

"I think it sends the wrong message to visit Ground Zero," said Kerik. "You heard the president of Iran today calling for terrorist activity against the Western World!"

Afra broke in to ask if Kerik had heard President Ahmadinejad directly praise suicide bombers, and the discussion moved on to his comments on the Holocaust, the topic that was to dominate the night.

Afra said President Ahmadinejad did not deny the Holocaust occurred, but made two main points: Why not allow more research on it, and why jail professors who raise questions about its history?

At this point, the program's discussion gave voice to freedom of thought rarely heard in Iranian media.

"Of course do research," said Husseini, who argued the President's approach to this issue fed into the Bush administration's portrayal of him as a racist dictator. "But you have to accept the bulk of the research. That the Holocaust happened."

Press TV began broadcasting English language coverage of Iran and Iranian news on July 2, 2007. The channel reaches a primarily international audience via satellite and a live video stream from its website. Its staff of 400 is based in Tehran, with bureaus in Los Angeles and New York City, and works to compliment the shortfalls it sees in mainstream U.S. coverage.

More critical views like those heard Monday night may eventually be heard from guests on Press TV, as the channel becomes more established and its mission more widely recognized.

Afra said he has tried to invite onto the show reporters who have covered Iran for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

"They often say yes, but then can't get permission from their agency," said Afra.

He said he sees these outlets, and CNN, as having a more subtle focus on a U.S. attack on Iran than Fox News.

"If the lineup of guests seems lop-sided, its not our fault," Afra said. "We try hard to have a balanced show, but the mainstream media shuts you out."

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