News Event, Or Propaganda?

Columbia University

for extending an invite to

Iran

president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but that didn’t stop all three cable news nets from carrying the speech uninterrupted.

The three also carried

Columbia

president Lee Bollinger’s lengthy preamble, in which he denounced Ahmadinejad as a “petty, cruel dictator” for, among other things, denying the Holocaust, aiding insurgents in Iraq, and plotting the destruction of Israel.

“Everyone knew Bollinger was going to be very tough on him,” said NBC News senior veep Phil Griffin, who oversees MSNBC, explaining the net’s rationale.

Chief legal correspondent Dan Abrams said MSNBC wouldn’t have taken the speech without context. “We have no interest in just putting his views across on television—it was in the context of a controversy,” he said.

Cameras caught applause for both Bollinger’s scathing attack, but also robust applause for Ahmadinejad’s response, which provided an afternoon of analysis and punditry.

Fox News and MSNBC stuck with the story longer than CNN. Fox, which had former UN Ambassador John Bolton weigh in, repeatedly asked students whether allowing Ahmadinejad to speak didn’t play into the dictator’s PR strategy. Anchor Shepherd Smith asked a student whether they believed Iranian audiences would see any of Bollinger’s attack–or just the applause for the Iranian president.

One irony: Fox also had a choice of whether to give Ahmedinejad a forum, and opted on the side of free speech.

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