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Steve Centanni, Olaf Wiib Released

Aired August 27, 2006 - 10:45   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to our viewers, to this abbreviated program on this heavy breaking-news morning. As you have just heard, a happy outcome the harrowing ordeal of two kidnapped journalists.
FOX News correspondent Steve Centanni and freelance cameraman Olaf Wiig were freed today in the Gaza Strip, 13 days after they were abducted by an Islamic terror group. The two men appeared with the Palestinian prime minister, who had worked to arrange their release, and Centanni was the first to speak to reporters.


STEVE CENTANNI, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I'm not sure to being on this side of the news story and not one -- instead of one covering the news. And so this is a bit unusual, and -- but I'm happy to see so many friendly faces and happy to be here.


KURTZ: And we are happy to see him.

Joining us now to talk about the situation in Jerusalem, CNN's Paula Hancocks.

Here in Washington, Donatella Lorch, former foreign correspondent for "Newsweek," "The New York Times," and NBC News.

And Pam Hess, Pentagon correspondent for UPI.

Paula Hancocks, there's still a lot we don't know about how this release was arranged of the two FOX News journalists, but one thing we do know is that they were not treated quite as well as we had thought from that first videotape where they said everything was fine. They were forced to make a second videotape.

What can you tell us about the initial details of their captivity?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Yes, Howard, the second videotape that we saw just a couple of hours, in fact, before they were actually released this Sunday morning, we can see them sitting cross-legged on the floor and seemingly converting to Islam.

It obviously looks staged because they were reading from notes in front of them. And Steve Centanni, just after that, once he was released, did say that they had that filmed at gunpoint. So that was completely coerced.

And also, he's been giving more details, disturbing details about how they had been treated, saying -- talking about the actual capture itself and how they -- it was a terrifying experience, masked men with gunmen dragging them out of their car, pushing them into another car, blindfolding them, putting a mask over their head, tying their hands, he said, so hard behind their backs that they are still in pain, with their wrists and shoulders really being quite hurt.

So, yes, it's interesting seeing what they said in that first video, they have been well treated. Inevitably, they're going to say that as they are still captive, but now, I think, we really are going to see some more illuminated details about how this was not one of the usual Gaza kidnapping scenarios -- Howard.

KURTZ: Right. Yes, you know, that first day, they say, they certainly feared that they would be killed when they were blindfolded and taken to a garage with a loud generator and all of that.

Donatella Lorch, I want to play something from the press conference just a few hours ago. Olaf Wiig, who's a freelance cameraman and has also done some work for CNN had this to say about the impact of their abduction.


OLAF WIIG, FREED JOURNALIST: My biggest concern, really, is that -- that as a result of what happened to us, foreign journalists will be discouraged from coming here to tell the story. And that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine, and especially for the people of Gaza.


KURTZ: Now, you've reported from Gaza for NBC News. If you were still working for NBC and you were asked to go to tomorrow, would you hesitate in light of what just happened to these two men?

DONATELLA LORCH, FMR. "NEWSWEEK" CORRESPONDENT: I totally agree with what Olaf had to say, first of all. I wouldn't -- I would go. I would go with extra precautions, and I'm sure that my various bosses would be very, very adamant on that. But journalists should not stop going and covering the story because of what happened.

KURTZ: Pam Hess, the amount of media attention on the 13-day detention was not that great compared to some of the other kidnappings in Iraq. Jill Carroll being the most prominent example. I mean, that was a story that was at the top of many newscasts for many, many weeks.

What explains the difference?

PAMELA HESS, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: I think there's a lot of reasons. There are some conspiracy theories flowing around the blogosphere that because FOX News tends to the right that the liberal media has been ignoring it. And I just don't think that that holds water. Those conspiracy theories tend to ignore all the evidence that suggest otherwise.

I think, first off, Jill was very well known to a very small and tight-knit community in Baghdad. And so when she was taken, there was a "there but for the grace of god go I" feeling, and also a lot of personal concern on the part of the correspondents in Baghdad.

I think the fact that she was gone for, I think, 78 days, compared to the 13 days, we tend to look back on that coverage and see it as an amalgamation. So there were 78 days of coverage. It's going to feel like there was a lot more of an emphasis.

But most importantly, I think that on sort of a political side, is that Jill Carroll was a human repudiation to criticism that was being launched, that continues to be launched against reporters that are in Iraq, that basically says you're not getting out of your hotels enough, you're scared, and you're not telling us the good news stories of Iraq. And Jill was an example of, here's what happens when you do that. This place is not all puppies and kittens.

KURTZ: Right. I'm told that FOX News chairman Roger Ailes initially called the heads of the other networks, the news divisions, and asked them not to overplay the story, so as not to interfere with the quiet negotiations for their release. But in recent days, the relatives of both men had made televised appeals and it became more of a story.

Paula Hancocks, you have done a lot of reporting in the Gaza Strip. Will this cause you to change your approach next time you go back? After all, you know, we still don't know much about this group, the Holy Jihad Brigades, which seized Centanni and Wiig.

HANCOCKS: Well, that's right. It's certainly going to be interesting over the next few days to see exactly what the politicians find out.

Now, we've heard today they've all said, "We will find out who did this. We'll find out why. And we will arrest them." But, of course, how much actually comes out in the public arena is another matter.

I'd certainly go back into Gaza. I'm planning to. But as one of your other guests was saying, you would probably think twice about maybe just popping down the road on your own to go and buy a bottle of water. You may take somebody with you.

You may just change little security precautions like that, because this is the fact that this is a different kind of kidnapping. It's not the usual kidnapping we've seen in Gaza. And I think that's interesting, one of the reason why it probably wasn't covered as much.

Obviously, when people are -- are kidnapped in Baghdad, it's covered widely because it is such a worrying phenomenon. Here, in the past, it is a worrying phenomenon in Gaza, but usually foreigners and media have been released within a couple of hours, a couple of days at most, and usually they are very well treated. So this is a change from the norm. KURTZ: For the first nine days of this ordeal, Donatella Lorch, there was no mention of this kidnapping on ABC, NBC, or "CBS Evening News." Then the first video was released and it became a story for the "Nightly News" and got more attention on cable and elsewhere.

LORCH: Briefly became a story.

KURTZ: Briefly became a story.

So, I hate to reduce this to simplistic terms, but without video, television has difficulty covering even as an important development as this?

LORCH: Yes and no, if you want to be cynical about it. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the difference, again, comparing to Baghdad.

Gaza is a place which doesn't have -- has not had a lot of coverage. There was no video; therefore, there was no images. It's as if in a way they had been captured in northern Kashmir. How much are you going to pay attention to journalists that are captured in northern Kashmir?

I think that...

KURTZ: So you're saying the fact that there are -- weren't a lot of other journalists in Gaza...


KURTZ: ... contributed to...


LORCH: And it wasn't a well-known story. Gaza is not a well- known story as Lebanon is and as Baghdad is. If they'd been captured in Lebanon during the fighting, it would have been a very different situation.

KURTZ: Is there a gender aspect to this, in the sense that, you know, if it had been FOX News correspondent Amy Kellogg, is there a more natural sympathy for a young woman than for a 60-year-old correspondent, who by all accounts, Steven Centanni is a very hard working and fair-minded journalist?

HESS: I do think that gender plays a role here, because you have the damsel in distress idea, where it really reaches out and grabs people when they think -- especially when you saw video of young Jill Carroll being held captive. With somebody like Steve, who has so much foreign experience, there's maybe less of an impetus to hit the panic button.

I don't think that gender should be determining who we cover. I think that we should be covering all of these thing, but equally, not based on a quantitative analysis, but because it's important that journalists continue to be able to do their work and tell these stories. So anything that we can do to make sure that they get out safely, be that covering it or not covering it, you don't always want to cover a kidnapping really closely because you don't want to make the kidnappers think that they have some really big fish that they want to hang on to.

KURTZ: Paula Hancocks, it was the Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority that at least served as an intemediary to try to arrange the release of these two FOX News journalists. This is a government and a regime that, you know, advocates suicide bombings against Israel.

Why did they decide to sort of play the peacemaker role here when Western journalists were involved?

HANCOCKS: Well, Howard, I think the one thing we should mention is the fact that Hamas at this point does seem to have two completely different arms. It has the political arm, which is the Palestinian Authority at this point, and then it does have the militant arm, which in the past has condoned many and carried out many terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. But what we have seen is, even the interior minister in the Palestinian Authority itself actually said, "We didn't have direct contact with the people who took these two journalists."

They themess admitted they had to go through a third party. So even they didn't know. Or, in theory, what they're saying in public is they didn't know exactly who it was. And this is how...

KURTZ: All right, Paula.

HANCOCKS: ... how it works in Gaza. No one sits down in front of each other to talk like that. It's always someone talking to someone else through back channels.

KURTZ: Very quick question, Donatella Lorch.

We also have "Chicago Tribune" correspondent Paul Salopek charged with espionage in Sudan. A "New York Times" researcher in China Espionage researcher in China has now been sentenced to three years for fraud. They couldn't make a state secrets charge stick.

Is it becoming rather dangerous on a lot of fronts to be a foreign correspondent?

LORCH: Yes, it definitely is.

KURTZ: And -- but will people give up doing it as a result?

LORCH: No, there's always the allure of it. And there's always the desire to go out and report from overseas and tell -- bring the stories back home. And the reporter who has been captured in southern -- I mean, who's been -- who is under accusation right now in southern Sudan is a remarkably experienced reporter who has won two Pulitzer prizes, including one on Africa.

KURTZ: Right. He was on assignment for "National Geographic".

Donatella Lorch, Pam Hess, Paula Hancocks, thanks very much for joining us.

That is it for us on this busy morning.

We're going to go back to Atlanta after this break for an update on that Comair plane crash in Lexington, Kentucky. Dozens of fatalities reported.

We're also watching Ernesto, the first hurricane of the Atlantic season. A lot of news to keep track of this morning.

CNN coverage will continue after this break.


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