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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 26, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin this week with bomb blasts, death, destruction and delicate steps toward democracy. This is the Iraq that has topped the global news agenda for nearly two years now.

Every day, journalists risk their lives to cover what is happening there, yet almost as often the media is criticized for deceiving the public.

That was the focus of the mock tribunal in Rome this month. The jury recommended legal action be brought against the corporate media and slated the British and American governments for producing, quote, "lies and misinformation."

Is that judgment too harsh considering how perilous the situation is on the ground in Iraq? To discuss this further, I'm joined by Andrew Marshall, Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters, and from New York by Danny Schechter, director of the film "Weapons of Mass Deception."

Andrew, you've just come out of Baghdad after a stint of nearly two years there?

ANDREW MARSHALL, REUTERS: Yes, well, I've been based in Iraq for nearly two years. I do come out on breaks now and again and I'm out for a few days now in London. I'll be back there on Tuesday.

SWEENEY: So you more than anybody must know the difficulties that journalists face there, given that you are responsible for their safety.

MARSHALL: Indeed. I mean, it has become a very serious issue. In my two years in Iraq, we've seen it becoming more and more dangerous for journalists. Even a year ago, we could travel relatively freely around the country. We could go out and report, talk to people on the streets.

These days, for Western journalists, it has become very dangerous, particularly with the threat of kidnapping. So more and more, Reuters is relying on our local Iraqi staff, who often can report more safely, because they can blend into the surroundings more easily.

So -- Reuters often relies on local staff in a lot of countries, and it's always been how we operate. They've really been the backbone of our operation there. But it is an issue, certainly, that foreign journalists operating in Iraq are finding it very difficult to go anywhere.

SWEENEY: And, Danny, obviously the perilous situation for journalists in Iraq has clearly affected how the story is covered.

DANNY SCHECHTER, "WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION": Yes, I think the problems that media workers face in Iraq, the risks they're taking, the courage they're showing, is something that I think is a model for the world. People have to admire, you know, the media people trying to get the story.

The problem is that sometimes you can't get the real story for reasons that have nothing to do with the insurgency, but has to do with your own editors, the way the story is framed in the West, in America and in Britain, the language that is used. The way the issues are discussed often precludes any deeper examination of why we're there to begin with, whether it was legal or not, and what types of crimes are or are not being committed there.

SWEENEY: So what you're saying, Danny, effectively, is that even though the situation is perilous for journalists, it still doesn't excuse how the story is covered by the bosses.

SCHECHTER: My film, "WMD," is an indictment of media companies, but it also shows that there were different wars if you lived in different places.

If you lived in Britain or the Middle East, you saw a very different war than the war we in America saw. If you watched CNN International, you saw one war; if you watched CNN domestic you saw another war. There has been a lot of spinning going on and information management by the Pentagon and in collusion, in my view, with big media companies.

The result is that we've had very deceptive coverage of the war, and I think this is very dangerous for our democracy and dangerous for journalism, because not only are journalists taking risks in Iraq, but they're losing respect in America, who see many of the journalists there as simply shills or cheerleaders for American policy. That's dangerous.

SWEENEY: Andrew, you've been in Baghdad, as we said, in Iraq, for nearly two years now, and I don't know if you are in a position to answer this, but how do you feel the debate has been framed by the Western media compared to media in the Middle East who cover the story? Don't they have the same issues and agendas, maybe, that the Western media would appear to have?

MARSHALL: Well, certainly the Arabic media do report the war differently and I think if you look at the Western media, there is a wide variety of different organizations, and I don't think they can really be put into one category.

Obviously, some organizations do have more of an ideological bias than others. At Reuters, we don't really regard as our job to give our opinion on whether the war was right or wrong.

SWEENEY: But in terms of covering the story on the ground, if you're losing a lot of Iraqi journalists, is the debate framed from the top down or from the ground up?

MARSHALL: Well, in terms of day to day news coverage, really our coverage has been driven by what happens, and we try and cover the events on the ground as safely and as comprehensively and as impartially as we can.

There are some issues. I mean, obviously, it's a problem facing journalists anywhere in the world, not just in Iraq, that you'll always be dealing with organizations who are trying to spin the story, who are going to try and frame it in a different way, and it is the job of journalists to try and get beyond the spin and look at the story.

SWEENEY: Danny, is that.

SCHECHTER: Let me give you an example. "The Lancet," the British medical journal, reported that there were as many as 100,000 dead Iraqis, civilian casualties. Reuters reported it, others reported it, but it wasn't given the kind of prominence in our media in terms of where it was displayed, how it was discussed, how it was followed up, and in fact it was downplayed and suppressed in many news outlets.

In America, in the run up to the war, BBC's Greg Dike (ph), a former director of the BBC, said that there were 800 experts on American television from the beginning of the run up to the war to the statutes coming down in Baghdad. Out of 800, only 6 opposed the war. So there was total imbalance in the coverage, in the analysis that was offered, in the pundits that we used. The government sort of basically sold us a war with the help of the media, and that's what "WMD" shows.

SWEENEY: Doesn't this come down to an issue that we've seen, as Andrew says, that many times before, for example in Northern Ireland in the early `70s -- the BBC had at the time said that they believed that -- because the BBC was a state broadcaster, it was in his interest to use certain language that would perhaps be conducive, patriotic, to what was taking place there in terms of how he framed the debate. You don't think that applies in the United States?

SCHECHTER: Yes, you saw it in the Falklands War, you saw it in the coverage of Northern Ireland, and you're seeing it here today. But the problem is, people are dying and many people in America believe the media is lying, it's not telling us the full story.

As a result, there has been a growth of bloggers, of alternative media, independent media. I cover all of this on MediaChannel.org. There has been a tremendous proliferation and a tremendous lack of respect for mainstream media, a kind of media war taking place inside of the media.

So the people who are covering it in Baghdad are doing a good job. I'm not criticizing them. What I'm saying is that the issues that they are risking their lives to bring us are not coming through on this side, and as a result there has been a tilt in the coverage that has been to this day sort of pro-war. The selling of the election as the big exercise in democracy.

(CROSSTALK)

SWEENEY: Andrew, I'm running out of time here and I want to ask you, given that you are an employee of Reuters -- we talk about the issue there that Danny raised about bloggers. I mean, really, if credibility of the mainstream media is under threat, how do you view it and how do you view it as a threat to your company?

MARSHALL: Well, I'm not so sure that our credibility is under threat. I think especially a company like Reuters, I think people do regard us as impartial, and we are respected for that.

We are attacked from both sides in Iraq, I mean, many people accuse Reuters and other media of only focusing on the bad news, of giving a negative picture on Iraq. Others, like Danny, feel that perhaps the media is, you know, giving too positive a picture of events in Iraq.

But, you know, we are doing what we think is covering the story impartially. We're doing our best to get the facts on the ground. You know, we're not responsible in Reuters or in Baghdad for how this news is then disseminated in the United States. I think there is a role for bloggers, but there are very few of them in Iraq and I think the role of impartial, respected media, like Reuters, is still going to carry on for a long time to come.

SWEENEY: OK. We're out of time. There we must leave it.

Andrew Marshall, Danny Schechter, thank you both very much indeed.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, one lone politician versus Britain's press. Is it a fair contest? We debate the issue after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SWEENEY: Welcome back.

It's been billed as the mayor versus the media, the politician against the press. London's Ken Livingstone has been vilified for likening a reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard. For nearly two weeks, the mayor has ignored calls to apologize. Instead, he took the spat further, launching an all-out attack on the journalists' newspaper, the "Evening Standard."

We invited both sides onto the show, but they declined. So here to discuss the issues involved, I'm joined by two journalists who cover the debacle; Hugh Muir from Britain's "Guardian" newspaper and Yasmine Al- Bahrani, a columnist for the "Independent."

First of all, Hugh, how personal has this become, or was it always personal rather than political?

HUGH MUIR, "GUARDIAN": It's always been personal with him. I mean his personal (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is in the way because a lot of this dates back to his time as the leader of the Greater London Council in the `80s, when the "Daily Mail," or "Mail" group, as he calls it, was one of his tormentors.

They ran story after story describing his red can, saying that he was the leader of what they called the Looney Left. He's never forgotten any of that, and we saw a lot of that coming out this week when he was talking about his more recent problem, and he would often refer back to the way he felt the paper treated him unfairly in the 1980s.

SWEENEY: When he would have seen himself, Yasmine, as a victim. Do you still -- does he still see himself as a victim? And how do you see him?

YASMINE AL-BAHRANI, "INDEPENDENT": Well, he uses every trick, really, to come out on top, and he's very clever. But actually, if he felt that strongly about the "Mail" group, as he calls them, how come he ended up writing for them for three years, for the "Evening Standard," and writing the most incredibly ingratiating stuff about how the "Evening Standard" sends me to such expensive restaurants and how wonderful they are.

This is a con. What I do think where Hugh is right is that the "Daily Mail" in particular, you know, has been relentless in their attacks.

SWEENEY: And this is where somebody who wouldn't necessarily be an obvious buddy or friend, Michael Portilo (ph), of the Conservative Party, says that people really can't understand, even in the media, what it is like to be victimized by the press. I'm quoting from an article he wrote in the "Sunday Times."

"People think that they can imagine it, but they cannot."

I mean, how strongly does that relentless pressure play on one, particularly in the circumstances he was in, in the specific incident, but just generally. Is he victimized? Are people in their position pursued relentlessly by the media, a media that doesn't understand themselves?

MUIR: Well, clearly, he's the mayor. He has a huge personal mandate. There is huge interest in what he does, and rightly so.

But I think that's an argument that is made by the political class, if you like. I mean, what we've seen happen in the last few days is the mayor use a device whereby he said who do you trust here, who do you like. Is it the politicians or the media.

He's played this directly to the public and he's said -- the politicians are pretty unpopular, but the media are even more unpopular, and if it's a straight fight between me and the media, whose side are you on. And he's used that device to extricate himself from that entire problem, and it's worked very well.

SWEENEY: So a story that's been running.

AL-BAHRANI: It's quite dangerous, that, you see, because this is part of a big trend in New Labor. I think there are terrible things that the press does in Britain, but thank God the Fourth Estate has not yet surrendered to the political agenda. They'd like us to. They would very much like us to stop talking about Iraq; Ken would like us to stop criticizing him because he sees himself as a kind of divine God who is delivering London.

And actually it's very important in a democracy that we do actually hound, but not in the way he is suggesting we do. This young man didn't doorstep (ph) in the way he is claiming anyway. He did not.

SWEENEY: Let me go to the wider issue here of -- we talk about the establishment press, but you just pointed out, Hugh, how he has gone directly to the people, Ken Livingstone, and he's got by all accounts in the opinion polls their support in this straight fight between the media or the press and him.

How representative is the media today of the press here in Britain?

MUIR: I think that's a debate that we're having here in the media at the moment. There have been books written quite recently about whether or not we are connecting with our readership. We're all looking at the sales graphs, and all newspapers are seeing their sales decline, and I think one of the things we're wondering is, is it because we aren't reflecting the views of our readers.

SWEENEY: What is the establishment media -- what does it mean to you?

AL-BAHRANI: Well, no, I think the establishment for me includes some members of the media, but the media at its best is outside of the establishment too, and that's when it's at its best, and that's what Ken, if he is a real democrat, has got to understand, because what is he saying here by kicking up this storm? That in a democracy a media has no right to ask him any tough questions? No.

Where I think also this is leading and I think we have to be very, very careful. Ken's personal ratings in some of the polls, by the way, has fallen. Because it's one thing to say to them do you like the media or do you trust me, but there is also this issue of is he behaving like a statesman. Is he behaving like a leader, especially at a time when London is bidding for the Olympic Games. And on that question, he does fall.

SWEENEY: We talk a lot about Ken Livingstone, but let's just talk about the "Mail" group, this particular group of newspapers, "Evening Standard," "Daily Mail," and that he claims is vilifying him. I mean, do they have an agenda and how long can they keep this story moving?

MUIR: I'm not sure the story will continue to move for much longer. I think in a way.

SWEENEY: Do you think he's saved his job -- Hugh.

MUIR: I think he's saved his job and I think that almost uniquely from any politician I can think of, he's come out the other end of this and he's not even apologized. I think in some circumstances, some politicians would have to be thinking about whether or not they resign.

SWEENEY: Well, not any longer if you're to be believed, this story won't be around for much longer.

Yasmine Al-Bahrani, Hugh Muir, thank you both very much for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a mischief-making madman bows out. We bid farewell to a literary legend.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SWEENEY: Welcome back.

His mission was to nail the decadent and dissect the establishment. But as far as facts go, well, Hunter S. Thompson wasn't one to let them get in the way. Exaggeration, alteration, inebriation and perhaps some fabrication served Thompson well, until, that is, until last Sunday, when the pioneer of gonzo journalism committed suicide at home in Colorado.

CNN's Bruce Morton traveled occasionally with Thompson during the 1972 presidential campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a different time. 100 or more Americans dying each week in Vietnam; an atmosphere that still remembered Woodstock; sex, drugs and rock and roll, they said; passionate politics; and as Hunter Thompson reported at the 1972 campaign, the debut of gonzo journalism. Personal. Facts be damned, sometimes.

Was democratic candidate Ed Muskie on some drug called Ibogaine nobody has ever heard of? Did Thompson get an interview with President Nixon by promising to talk only about football? No wonder he called his book "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail." It was funny, irreverent. He was funny, irreverent, talking about the booze he'd drunk, the drugs he'd scored, but you were always glad to see him on the campaign bus or plane because things would liven up. The rest of us were trying to make sure we had the coat right. He was rocking and rolling.

He got one vote for vice president at the 1976 Democratic convention. And he never mellowed with age. In the 1994 Nixon obit, he wrote "Henry Kissinger made the Gang of Four complete. Spiro Agnew, J. Edgar Hoover, Kissinger and Nixon. A group photo of these perverts could say all we need to know about the age of Nixon."

He went from politics back to Aspen, Colorado, but it's the campaign Hunter I remember. The last time I heard from him was probably a year or so after Nixon's reelection. I got a call, something about "I'm being held by the CIA, can you lend me $20."

"The $20," I think I answered, "is no problem. Getting you away from the Agency is something else."

Bruce Morton, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SWEENEY: Love him or not, there is no denying the gap left by the icon of counterculture.

Joining me now from New York is Thompson's friend and former editor of "Rolling Stone" magazine Terry McDonnell.

There is no denying the gap, Terry, that is left, by the icon, as we've described him, of counterculture, but what do you think Hunter S. Thompson stood for?

TERRY MCDONNELL, FMR. EDITOR "ROLLING STONE": Well, I think the truth. The great thing about Hunter was that he always told the truth.

I mean, he would have gotten a big kick out of your introduction, because he pushed limits, but the subtext was always right on the nose. That's why "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" completely foreshadowed the corruption of Watergate.

SWEENEY: Do you think -- if I quote here from Paul Thoreau (ph), would you agree with this quote; "I think Thompson has remained a writer of significance because essentially a satirist, he has displayed utter contempt for power; political power, financial power, even show biz juice."

Is that a sentiment with which you would agree?

MCDONNELL: Absolutely. I think Hunter had a lot of Mark Twain in him.

SWEENEY: And I want to ask you a personal question. How much do you feel the death of his father at the age of 14, which had he not died, allegedly, he would have gone to Yale or Harvard, and he ended up by all accounts going off the rail slightly. How much do you think that might have shaped his writings and his attitude to life later on rather than if he had gone through an institutional education and come out the other side. Do you think he would have been as rebellious?

MCDONNELL: You know, I don't know. I think that the force of his intellect and imagination allowed him to create his own rails, more or less.

He had a huge determination, and he was very private. He very seldom spoke about his family. But when he did and when he talked about why he wanted to be a writer, he mostly talked about the discipline that he brought to it. A lot of people don't know, for example, that he typed the entire "Great Gatsby" to learn how Fitzgerald had done it.

SWEENEY: You said he was fun. Was he always fun, and if he wasn't, would you necessarily have seen that or known that?

MCDONNELL: You know, there are moments that are famous. To the degree that he always thought something would go wrong, that was self- fulfilling whenever he went on television. That never worked out too well. You couldn't script him.

But he was fundamentally very courtly. He had very good manners and he just didn't like to be, you know, on the wrong side of the velvet ropes.

SWEENEY: You said something a moment ago which struck me, it was something to do with how he was able to pinpoint the culture. Now, the culture of that time, he's often been revered since as really the epitome of the post-Vietnam era. Is that true? Was he a man of his time? Could he have been Hunter S. Thompson in another era, maybe if he was starting out now?

MCDONNELL: Oh, sure. I mean, he would have found something.

I mean, what Hunter saw, I think so clearly, was the disparity between the reality of the culture and the values that we proclaimed for it, and as he saw hypocrisy or pompousness or platitudes or whatever, he could not help but exploiting them.

SWEENEY: Finally, we know he was quite audible and vocal in his later life, in recent years, about his thoughts, for example, on the George W. Bush administration. Had he slowed down?

MCDONNELL: Not intellectually. I mean, the great job of Hunter were the conversations. And that never changed.

SWEENEY: And what kind of gap has he left for you?

MCDONNELL: Well, I think that -- Hunter engineered a network of people that he found amusing, and if you had the good fortune to be in that network for a little while, you found that because of him you had friends in, you know, far reaching sectors of the culture where you never would have thought to go without him. I'm talking about on the one hand you have James Carville and on the other hand you have Johnny Depp, and then you have the guy who makes the greatest fish sandwich down on Ramrod Key, and the three of them know each other because of Hunter. And so there is a big hole.

SWEENEY: All right, a great note to end on. Thanks very much indeed, Terry McDonnell, for joining us from New York.

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

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.

END

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