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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired April 4, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christiane Amanpour, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
And this week there was a big story. It was in Iraq, where the horrors of what happened on Wednesday still hang in the air.

Four Americans on contract in the country were slaughtered in the city of Fallujah. Their bodies dragged from their cars, burned, beaten, mutilated and then hanged. They were images so graphic and so shocking that U.S. networks faced tough decisions on how much material to broadcast.

Here to tell us about these decisions, in Atlanta, Richard Griffith (ph), CNN's editorial director, and in Washington, D.C., Leroy Sievers, the executive producer of ABC's "Nightline" program.

Can I start with you first, Richard, being as it is a CNN program and that CNN has come under some criticism for what it decided to show.

Were you conscious of how we as a network were hammered during the infamous Mogadishu event when you made your decisions about this one?

RICHARD GRIFFITH (ph), CNN EDITORIAL DIRECTOR: No. Every decision is different.

These are tough calls and they come up, calls like this come up all the time. And you have to make a decision on the merits of the particular case.

This was a particularly tough one because the images were so graphic. It was an important watershed moment. It was an important story. But the tough call for us was how do we handle it and how do we show these images. How do we find ways of telling the story.

What we did in this particular case was screen every frame of video. Senior management too was involved in looking at every frame. Then we made a decision about what we could show that would convey the horror of what happened. We decided that the best way to handle the most graphic elements was to put it in a reporter package, prepared by our Baghdad correspondent, and in that way we could give the images some context.

We held off on airing that package on CNN INTERNATIONAL until about 3:00 in the afternoon Atlanta time, which gave us time to properly report what happened on the ground and also to give a bit of lead time for the contractor, which we later learned was an American contractor, to be able to get the information out.

We did the same thing on CNN domestic, making a decision until about 7:00 to hold off, again to give that contractor time to reach the families.

AMANPOUR: Leroy, I know that ABC "Nightline" showed more than what was shown on some of the other networks. What brought you to that decision? And why some of the criticism against CNN for the decision it made?

LEROY SIEVERS, "NIGHTLINE": Well, like Richard said, this is a really tough call. I mean, I think all of us in this business do remember the Mogadishu images.

The difference there was that the bodies of the American soldiers in Somalia were so recognizable that it was, you know, no one wants to put on that footage without remembering that there are families, there are loved ones, there are friends and colleagues out there.

At the same time, you don't want to sanitize it so much that it becomes meaningless. If you talk about this event in Fallujah but don't show it, then I think we're doing a disservice as well.

It's a tough call. On "Nightline" we aired a couple of shots that weren't aired on "World News Tonight," in part because of the time difference, but again, the same process we went through. We went through with "ABC News" senior management. We all looked at it. We cut it a couple of times.

But you try to balance it. You have to tell the story in this case, which is a grisly one, because if you sanitize it, if you sanitize war in general, it becomes too clean. It becomes too easy.

AMANPOUR: So that's the issue of taste and editorial imperatives. What about the political issue, because let's face it, Mogadishu was a major political watershed. That image caused the essential ending of a U.S. mission there. Were you at "Nightline," Leroy, at all conscious of the political implications of this image, these images?

SIEVERS: I think you can be conscious of it, but that's it. You cannot edit your pictures with an eye to causing a particular reaction or avoiding a particular reaction. We have to do what we think is the best -- make the best decisions we can and the consequences are going to happen, regardless.

If we start shaping our coverage, our use of pictures, what we say, with an eye to the political impact, then I think we're failing in our job. You just -- that's a road we can't go down.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask Richard. One of the CNN anchors is quoted as having said when these images were broadcast, "Does today change the way you look at the war?"

In other words, to the viewers, saying that to the viewers.

Do you think that these brutal pictures will or could undermine support for the Iraqi mission?

GRIFFITH (ph): Well, that's not my area of expertise, to survey the public. I do know that from the perspective of television and television journalism, that images very often shock, and television reserves the right to shock. That's what we do as a medium.

It conveys painful things in a way that simply the printed word on a page does not. So it is, as Leroy pointed out, there are political ramifications to this. I'm sure there probably are. But that's not for us to decide going in. We try to convey what happened as clearly to the public as we can and let them decide.

AMANPOUR: Gentlemen, thank you both very much for your comments and analysis on this really vital actual moment of what's been happening in this war and how we as journalists are covering it.

Thank you both, Richard Griffith (ph) and Leroy Sievers.

It's time for a short break, but when we come back, was this a Mogadishu moment? Can these images from Fallujah actually change the course of events in Iraq?

Stay with us.



The brutal scenes of the mutilated bodies of four U.S. contractors in Fallujah are drawing parallels with something that happened in Somalia back in 1993. The images of a dead U.S. soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu came to symbolize the failure of U.S. foreign policy in Somalia.

When then does an image become so evocative that it can change the course of public opinion and history?

Joining me now is "Los Angeles Times" correspondent Paul Watson. Paul was with the "Toronto Star" back then, in Mogadishu, and he took that infamous photo, the well-known picture of the soldier being dragged through the street. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for that.

Thank you very much for joining us -- Paul.

PAUL WATSON, JOURNALIST: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that what happened in Fallujah and the way it was broadcast and represented in the newspapers will have the same impact as what you showed from Mogadishu?

WATSON: I can't say with 100 percent certainty, obviously. I'm not in the United States, so I can't feel the reaction directly. But I think it's clear that after September 11, things have changed significantly.

The public's ability to absorb this kind of thing is much greater. But at the same time, and I think this is a lesson not from Somalia or Iraq but from the Vietnam War. People repeatedly say that if politicians present to the public reasons to go to war and their sound reasons and that there is a way out and goals that can be achieved, the public will support it.

But we can see day by day the questions being raised, and this incident in Fallujah just adds to doubts in people's minds. So it may not have the immediate impact that I think the picture did in 1993, but certainly I would expect that it raises questions in people's minds.

AMANPOUR: Are you aware of the media debate that's been going on over the pictures of Fallujah? How much to show, how much not to show. Some networks showed a little less. Some networks showed a little more.

WATSON: Yes, I'm following it, and really it just reminds me of a similar discussion that happened in '93.

I think that it is a very simple debate, unfortunately made complicated for reasons other than journalism.

We're in the business of informing people, of telling the truth, and if we err it should be on the side of telling them too much, not deciding on issues of moral judgment and such and saying we won't tell it to you. We're dealing with adults that can decide what they can or cannot handle. We need to inform them.

AMANPOUR: Give me -- tell me -- you know, you were in Mogadishu for a while before October 3, that famous moment when Black Hawk came down and the terrible repercussions that have. The image you snapped there, why was that such a defining moment? What happened before that perhaps could hav prepared us for that?

WATSON: Well, this is a key point and this is why I believe so firmly in telling everything.

On September 25, this is just over a week before that day, a Black Hawk was shot down. Five crew members aboard. The co-pilot and pilot escaped. Three died in the back of it.

The U.S. military insisted that it got all three of those dead soldiers out of that aircraft. We went to the scene. We saw Somalis with burnt flesh hanging from sticks, human teeth, et cetera. And we had good evidence through a journalist that worked with me, a Somali by the name of Harun Maruf Hassan (ph), who I trusted because I had worked with him for many months, over a period of years. He went and personally saw, in an area that we couldn't go to, a human torso burnt in a burlap sack.

We reported those facts, but we made the mistake of not giving him a camera. That issue effectively just disappeared. There was some reaction to it, but not much.

That's precisely why just over a week later, on October 4, at the end of that 16-hour battle, I was bound and determined to get photographic proof of what had happened, because effectively I had been called a liar by the Pentagon after September 25. They insisted that these reports were not true.

AMANPOUR: Paul, thank you very much indeed.

And it's worth remembering that networks did air Paul's footage over and over again, and six months later, the Clinton administration ended its mission in Somalia. Not only that, the horror of Mogadishu caused the administration and the rest of the world not to intervene in Rwanda.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda in which nearly 1 million people were killed.

Turning now to a different issue, under fire from all sides, the United States national security advisor will in fact testify before the 9/11 Commission in Washington, D.C. Condoleezza Rice had previously refused to give evidence citing the long-standing precedent of executive privilege.

The move follows mounting pressure from all sides, especially the testimony of former anti-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke. Mr. Clarke accused the administration of focusing on Iraq at the expense of al Qaeda and terrorism.

Joining me now from Washington, D.C. is David Sanger, the White House correspondent for the "New York Times."

David, the whole 9/11 Commission, the public testimony has been widely viewed around the world, and the controversy surrounding the accusations and counter-accusations.

What is it in the United States that has now forced the administration to back down on Condoleezza Rice? Is it public pressure? Is it media pressure?

DAVID SANGER, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think it's a combination of the two, Christiane.

We saw for months the administration took the position that executive privilege and the walls that they've built around using that needed to protect people like Condoleezza Rice and many others in the White House staff from having to conduct public testimony. They had of course given several hours of private conversation, not sworn, before the Commission.

But the Clarke accusations and the whole frenzy that has accompanied this basically made the pressure too great, and so the president decided last weekend to do something that, when you think about it, he could have done last summer, which was simply say we are going to cooperate with this commission in any way we need to and in that case I'll waive the executive privilege and hope it doesn't set a precedent.

AMANPOUR: Well, this is the second time on this issue that the administration has sort of stonewalled and then backed down. Does the press in America treat this as stonewalling, or how is it portrayed in the United States? First he didn't want the 9/11 Commission, and then he had to agree with it.

SANGER: Right.



AMANPOUR: Go ahead, sorry.

SANGER: It's part of pattern. I was going to say that it's part of a pattern that we're seeing.

He didn't want the 9/11 Commission. He didn't want a separate commission examining the intelligence failures surrounding the weapons of mass destruction. He didn't want to create a Department of Homeland Security. When he created this 9/11 Commission, he didn't want to turn over many of the paper and we're reporting this morning that they'd even blocked some of the Clinton administration era papers from going over.

I think that it has to do with a mindset in the White House about restoring the powers of the presidency, which many, including Vice President Cheney and President Bush, believed were eroded during the Clinton years and even before that.

And so I think they started these issues with the question of how can we keep this in control, and then the pressure builds on many issues, not all of them, and in this particular case they finally decided that the political damage that was being done outweighed the sense of control or the benefits of maintaining executive privilege.

AMANPOUR: Of course, around the world many people think it's because they don't want the facts to come out rather than just to keep the power of the presidency intact.

Do you think that a political storm is building?

SANGER: It could be. My suspicion is that we've seen a turning point here and that when Dr. Rice comes out and testifies, and as you know she is highly articulate (AUDIO GAP) case on this that the administration can make, that probably that will do a lot to take some of the air out of this.

But at the same time, they have a difficult story to tell here, because while we're moving forward between the time that President Bush took office and September 11, and they did come together and create a strategy and a plan that in the end included the possibility of military strikes against both the Taliban and al Qaeda, the process took eight months, and I think that that shows a considerable lack of urgency, especially when you consider it was only six months between the time that the president went post-9/11 to the United Nations about the Iraq and the time the invasion happened.

So it tells you that while they viewed that there was a threat here, they didn't view it as an essentially very urgent one, and I think that is going to be the crux of what you hear next week.

AMANPOUR: David, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Up next on the program, the battle for America's airwaves. Can this actress and activist help liberals (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the conservative thunder?



Radio talk shows in the United States are dominated these days by conservative hosts, but now they face a challenge from the left or the liberals.

Actress and activist Janeane Garofalo has launched a new show on the liberal radio network Air America. It's called "The Majority Report," and she joins me now from New York to discuss it.

Firstly, thank you for joining us.

Tell us what motivated you to become part of this experiment.

JANEANE GAROFALO, "THE MAJORITY REPORT": Well, over the last 30 years or so in America there has been a rise in right-wing radio talk and right- wing dominance of the corporate media, and unfortunately a byproduct of that has been a lot of misinformation and propaganda dumped into the American culture.

It's called conservative talk radio, but really conservatism im America traditionally is fiscal prudence, small government, personal responsibility. These new contemporary conservatives are not really interested in those things. They practice the politics of extreme belligerence and sort of tapping into everyone's inner bigot, if you will, in this country, and they've helped usher in the Bush administration over the years they've set the stage in this country to allow one of the most corrupt, secretive and I don't know how else to put it.

I was going to say -- never mind.

The Bush administration is very bad for this country and right-wing radio has helped make America sort of amenable to an administration like that, whereas years ago this country probably would have had a much bigger problem with a presidency like the Bush presidency.

AMANPOUR: Given that that's your view, what do you think is going to make your new radio station, your show, stick, because you know what it's like. Conservatives are, as you say, much more belligerent. It's more entertaining because they go around doing a lot of bashing. What are you going to do to compete just for listeners, to be as informative but also as entertaining?

GAROFALO: Well, I actually don't find their insulting and bashing and sort of professional wrestling style of radio particularly entertaining, and I'm sure millions of Americans would agree with that. But one thing I need to point out to people even in this country is the word liberal is not a dirty word.

America was founded on the philosophy of enlightened liberalism. We live in a liberal Western democracy. And many of the things that Americas are proudest of are because of liberal reform -- desegregation, voting rights, the civil rights movement, women's rights, birth control, child labor laws, environmental protection, seatbelts, unions. All of these things are liberal, and because of liberal reformers.

And without liberals and liberal reformers, America would not enjoy some of the things it is proudest of, and the conservatives -- or so-called conservatives in this county, and I call them new metal conservatives, because they are just loud and brash and really in the business of propaganda -- are really creating a polarization in this country and creating a kind of coarser, less able to think critically group of people that tend to blindly support people in the Bush administration and wrongheaded policies, like the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

AMANPOUR: So, OK, this is a.


GAROFALO: Did that even answer your question? I don't even remember what your question was, I'm very sorry.


GAROFALO: I apologize.

AMANPOUR: No problem. This is an election year. Do you think that you face a ready pool of listeners who are eager for your message or do you think you're going to face an uphill struggle to compete with what is after all a highly saturated environment in which conservative talk radio does dominate?

GAROFALO: It is an uphill battle, and that's incredibly unfortunate, that the conservative message dominates radio and corporate mainstream media in this country, and so it's very difficult to get another perspective into the national conversation.

It is almost like fighting with one hand tied behind your back and there are millions of Americans who are very hungry for another perspective in news and another perspective in talk radio.

AMANPOUR: Thanks for joining us, from New York.

And before we go, a tribute to a real legend in journalism. Alistair Cooke, the veteran BBC broadcaster, died this week. He was 95 years old. He was best known for his long-running radio series called "Letters From America," which was broadcast for 58 years, almost uninterrupted.

And that's all for this edition of CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Christiane Amanpour, in London. Thank you for joining us.



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