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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Aired February 7, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET

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

WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.
In this edition, as seven astronauts meet a tragic end, the Columbia disaster results in massive media coverage.

Plus, me got more attention than Saddam Hussein. We will look at the thriller documentary about Michael Jackson's life that has the media spinning.

But first, one is up front about its nuclear ambitions, the other denies it has any, yet it is Iraq, and not North Korea, which remains the key focus of the Bush administration and the media.

A day after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made out his evidence about Iraq's alleged violation of U.N. Resolution 1441, North Korea came out with strong language of its own.

In some of the most threatening words to date, Pyongyang warned of a preemptive attack on American forces if the United States sends more troops to the region.

On Wednesday, Pyongyang reported it had reactivated its nuclear plants, including its main Yongbyon plant.

Joining me now, from Bangkok, Julian Manyon, Asia correspondent for ITN. Julian just returned from North Korea, disguised as a businessman. And in New York, "New York Times" columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Nick, let me begin by asking you, if I could, please -- are we on the verge of war with North Korea and everybody, all of our colleagues, are missing the story

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, "NEW YORK TIMES": I don't think we're on the verge of war with North Korea, but I think there is a real risk.

I think we're on a bit of a slippery slope, and we're perhaps headed for a military confrontation that I think neither side seems to be doing enough to avoid.

The real risk is that without any diplomatic solution, the U.S. will, at some point, after Iraq is done with, mount some kind of a surgical strike on the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and particularly the reprocessing plant, and there is -- it's not certain, but there is certainly some risk that that would trigger a broader Korean war. That's the danger.

RODGERS: Julian, you were in North Korea. Did you sense a certain readiness amongst the North Koreans for war?

JULIAN MANYON, ITN: Well, the main sense of readiness, really, came from our guide, because even though we were there ostensibly as businessmen rather than journalists, we still of course had to be accompanied by an official guide at all times, who did everything apart from follow one into the toilet.

And this gentleman, shortly before I left, gave me a statement, or rather effectively read from memory a statement, which he delivered in Chinese -- his English wasn't that great -- in Chinese, through my Chinese interpreter, almost making sure that every word was correctly translated to me.

And what this said -- it wasn't in any way out of line with what the regime has been saying, but he seemed to want to emphasize it. He said, "Our people are ready for war. The Americans have provoked this crisis by breaking their agreements. We are ready for war. If it happens, we will make a see of fire." And then we returned to discussing the inconsequential things that we had been discussing up until then.

RODGERS: Julian, you went in to North Korea, disguised as a businessman. You said you -- it was a mad idea. Do you really think they were fooled by it, and weren't they delivering a message to somebody they knew was a journalist all along?

MANYON: Well, Walter, you probably wouldn't be fooled, but on the other hand, you would be surprised at how ignorant -- and this is really the main lesson that came out of my visit to the hermit state -- how astonishingly ignorant about the outside world they are.

I mean, I will, if I may, give you two examples. On the way in, it's quite true, on the bridge going towards this rather forbidding North Korean border post, I said to myself, this is the maddest thing, just about, you've ever done. And when we got inside the border post -- or I should say that one of the reasons that I felt it was one of the maddest things was that in my passport, and indeed in my cameraman's passport, it said quite clearly on several pages in English, "journalist."

This is because there hadn't been time -- the whole thing had happened so fast, there hadn't been time to actually change passports, some we had Indian and Pakistani visas in them which clearly identified us as such.

Now, when we got inside the border post, they spent two hours minutely checking these passports. They quite clearly did not want to let us in, and it was only the person who had organized our visit, an ethnic Korean travel agent from China, who hustled and bustled and eventually got us through. They evidently had nobody who could read the English word "journalist."

Even more surprising, on the way out, I was expecting some sort of trouble, and we did have trouble, but the reason for the trouble was not that our rather thin cover had been blown. It was that one particular key official, who was handling our passports, refused to believe that my colleague, Sean Swann's (ph) passport, an Irish passport, was genuine because he didn't know that there was a country called Ireland.

And I had to spend about five minutes explaining to him the geographical relation, drawing it in the air, the geographical relationship between Ireland, at the end of which eventually, with an enormous show of suspicion, he allowed us to pass.

So, no, they didn't realize we were journalists.

RODGERS: As a profession -- I'd like to ask both of you this, but you first, Nick, do you think that we are remiss in not covering Asia better unless we here war drums?

KRISTOF: I think that's a fair criticism. I think that we in journalism tend to do best at covering things that happen on any one day where there is an announcement coming out of some government office.

I think we tend to be weakest in covering trends or things that happen more broadly. For example in North Korea, the famine that apparently killed 2 million people in the early 1990's went largely uncovered, partly because it was so difficult to cover, but also party because it trickled out.

And indeed, obviously, the Iraq crisis is enormously important. We have to focus on that because very likely there will be a war there. But I think it's a real mistake to ignore what is happening in North Korea because of the danger there will be a tremendous confrontation there later this year.

RODGERS: Julian, I'm sure you're sure that you don't yet enough coverage, enough air time out of Asia, being based there, so let me ask you a different question.

Ethically, did you have any reservations about being a journalist, whose business is truth-telling, misleading your sponsors by telling them you were a businessman? And should your readers have -- or your viewers, have reservations about this case of situational ethics?

MANYON: Well, until you mentioned the word, Walter, I hadn't envisaged our North Korean hosts as being our sponsors. They were, of course, the people looking after us, I should say, and as I say, following us around intently.

I think in a situation like that -- and I've done this once or twice before, in the days before the fall of the iron curtain, in situations where it was really quite impossible to get the news out or any pictures out, or any information of any kind out, without doing that.

And my personal opinion -- others may choose to agree or disagree -- but I think that in these very particular situations, and North Korea is one of the last in the world and certainly the most extreme -- the most extreme that I've ever experienced, for example, I believe it was justified, and I think it was, from our point of view, a success an two levels.

One, we got the story out, and we did actually manage to get some information out of that place, however thin and however much it consisted of, if you like, staged events, you know, staged for us to witness.

And the second is that, as a correspond want, it has actually greatly increased my own knowledge, albeit obviously at a superficial level -- I'm not a Korean specialist, for from it -- but it has at least given me an insight, some sort of brief insight into what that place is like, some of the things that make it tick, or more particularly not tick -- a greater interest in it, which I intent to pursue.

And I thing it was, I would argue, justified.

RODGERS: Nick, could I ask you just one quick question: Good idea or bad idea?

KRISTOF: I agree that it's justified in that case. I think that we have to be very, very careful about misleading, because we are in the truth business.

But in rare occasions where a country does not allow journalists in and it is absolutely imperative to find out information, to convey something about what is going on in that country to the outside world, then I think it is justified to mislead people about ones identity and gain access to that country, if the alternative is providing no information at all.

RODGERS: Nicholas Kristof, thank you very much. Julian, always a pleasure to talk to you again.

Up next on the program, covering Columbia. We take a look at the media's coverage of the shuttle disaster.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RODGERS: On a clear day just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing, seven lives tragically ended as the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated above the earth.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER JENNINGS, NBC NEWS: The heartbreaking and vexing problem with the Columbia space shuttle. Today at the Johnson Space Center in Houston a memorial service for the seven astronauts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now our focus is on the seven men and women, remarkable by any standard, whose lives and passions were remembered so fondly in Houston today.

DAN RATHER, CBS EVENING NEWS: On it goes, the search, into another night, for remains of the astronauts of the Shuttle Columbia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RODGERS: The Columbia disaster got blanket coverage in the U.S. media and in other ports of the world as well. Every detail, every component, every development covered in a forensic manner.

Joining me now to discuss this, from Washington, Judy Woodruff, CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent, and the "Guardian" foreign editor, Ed Pilkington.

Judy, I'd like to begin by asking you the question, on this side of the pond, they're saying that perhaps the Americans over-covered this event, that there was simply too much coverage of a space shuttle disaster. What's your response?

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely wrong.

This is an enormous story here in the United States, and it is an enormous story for the space program around the world.

Seven astronauts lost their lives. This shuttle program, which has been underway for a couple of decades, which, as we have been led to believe, was the best way to pursue U.S. interests in space and exploring space, has for the second time in 113 shuttle flights, we have lost a shuttle in a disastrous manner.

So in my view, we can't do enough to cover this story.

RODGERS: Ed, the British view, was it that big a story?

ED PILKINGTON, "GUARDIAN": I'd largely agree in that space is something we all share. In our news paper we fight over it. Is it a foreign story or is it a home story? We're not quite sure about it.

We all have some interest in it, not least imagination. Space means something to us. It fires us up.

It's more difficult over here, in this specific case. It was an American incident. Do we treat it as though the American lives who died were our lives? We mourn with America. I feel there was a slight element of that in our coverage over here, when we're at a time when it's very important that we remember that we're British, not least over what we decide over Iraq. We must keep our own independence of mind.

So I had some queasiness about it, but overall I don't think you can over-cover such an incident.

RODGERS: Ed, how long were the stories legs? How long was it -- did the story run major blockbuster, in your country?

PILKINGTON: Well, it was huge for the Sunday papers. It happened over here in mid-afternoon. They went big on it. It was huge for us on the Monday as well, but thereafter it quite quickly sort of died away.

We had large pages on the Monday, but by Tuesday it was back on the foreign pages and fairly small.

RODGERS: Judy, how long are the shuttles legs in the states, as a news story?

WOODRUFF: Well, it continues to be above the fold in the "New York Times," and there are new reports today.

"Aviation Week," which is a weekly journal here in the United States reporting today that air force tracking, ground-based air force tracking cameras, at about 60 seconds before the plane exploded -- in other words when it was still largely intact in the skies over Arizona and going into Texas, that these cameras showed serious structural damage to the inboard, what's called the inboard leading edge of the left wing.

So we are still learning new information and will continue to learn information. You know, having said that, we're apparently about to go to war with Iraq, so Iraq is the bigger story right now in the United States, but the shuttle is still an important story.

RODGERS: Ed, newspaper editors, how do they make these calls as to the import of a story? Do you call it from the head, or from the gut?

PILKINGTON: I'm often asked that question.

The first thing I would say is there are no rules. There's no sort of sliding scale on which you check the country, see how many people have died and that gives you how many column entries you give the story. It doesn't work like that.

And the minute you allow yourself to start thinking in those lines, I think you make mistakes.

I mean, it is, overall, an instinctual reaction. How new is it? How surprising is it? How much does it catch your imagination? How big is it? These are subjective questions as much as objective, and you have to sort of take in factors such as what are your readers interested in? What's the context? What other stories are around?

There's so many factors, you can't begin to turn it into any form of science, I don't think.

RODGERS: Judy, in the states, the next chapter in this, is it going to be a search for who's to blame? Is it going to turn into a witch hunt at NASA?

WOODRUFF: I don't think it's going to be a witch hunt, Walt.

I think it is going to be a serious investigation into what went wrong. I mean, we in the United States, I think we pride ourselves on wanting to get to the bottom of mistakes, and some people can say we take it to far. I think at times perhaps that's been a legitimate criticism.

But in an instance like this, when billions of dollars have been spent, many billions, and when lives have been at stake and are at stake - - we still have three people in the Space Station, you know, that's still out there.

So, this is now to just another idle pursuit. This is something that, you know, has consequences. So there will be an investigation. It was made clear yesterday that NASA itself will not have the final word, that Congress will be involved. There will be an independent commission. So the investigation is a go.

RODGERS: Ed, six dead Americans, one dead Israeli on that shuttle disaster. Same time, 50 Nigerians die in a bomb blast in Nigeria. Seven Palestinians dead, we almost ignore that.

Is there a disproportionate amount of coverage to this sort of thing, when you have much greater death on a much larger scale elsewhere in the world?

PILKINGTON: Well, this is probably the most difficult part of my job as a foreign editor in a national newspaper, is trying to make sense of these appallingly difficult ethical questions.

As you say, seven people dead in the shuttle. We agreed we must go big on it. It's a huge story on many different lines. But in India, 800 people die in a typhoon. Do we give it that much coverage? No, we don't.

Most recently, six months a go, 1,000 people died in the world's largest ferry disaster off the coast of Sierra Leone. Partly, for technical reasons -- there weren't any pictures. There weren't any reporters in the area. There were no TV crews to get out there to see what happened to the ship.

As a result, it got hardly any coverage at all, and there was quite a lot of soul-searching, at least at our newspaper over here, and I know in the America press too, about how could we have made such, in a sense, perverse judgment, or absence of judgment.

RODGERS: Ed Pilkington, thank you very much. Judy Woodruff, always lovely talking to you.

Still ahead on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, it shocked and stunned and got greater ratings than an interview with Saddam Hussein. So what is it about "Living With Michael Jackson" that has the media going mad?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RODGERS: It's the documentary that everyone is talking about. British journalist Martin Bashir's "Living With Michael Jackson" provided a rare lack at the pop singer's private life, creating a storm of controversy in its wake.

The show aired Thursday on ABC in the United States and here in Britain on Monday, where it got close to 15 million viewers.

In the same week, an exclusive interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein aired on Britain's Channel 4. Only a paltry 1-1/2 million viewers tuned in.

Joining me now to discuss this is "Sunday Times" columnist A.A. Gill.

Adrian, what offended you most about the Michael Jackson interview, Michael Jackson, or the interviewer, Martin Bashir?

A.A. GILL, "SUNDAY TIMES": You know, this was one very weird bloke talking to another weird bloke.

I mean, it was -- I don't know about you, I mean we're both professional journalists. What made me cringe all the way threw was how incredibly bad he was at doing the interview. I mean, I just thought it used every nasty trick that interviewers have, but with none of the enlightenment that your supposed to get at the end of an interview.

RODGERS: He tried to play up as if he was Michael Jackson's friend in all of this. Is that a good technique?

GILL: No, absolutely.

I mean, an interviewer is not your friend, in the same way that your doctor isn't your friend. I mean, he may be friendly, but, you know, he isn't a friend.

And, I mean, particularly when he was trying to elicit some salaciousness out of Michael Jackson, of the allegation of Michael Jackson and children, when you see Martin Bashir at every opportunity holding hands with Michael Jackson's children, it gives you such an oddly mixed message about who's really being creepy with kids.

RODGERS: As I watched it, I rather felt that Martin Bashir missed -- failed to ask the most important question.

I once interviewed Lenny Riefenstal (ph), the great German cinematographer, and I said to her, "Did you sleep with Adolph Hitler".

She said no.

Shouldn't Martin Bashir have said, have you abused any of the children who have crept into your bedroom at night. He didn't ask that question, did he?

GILL: No, I'm sorry, I'm still transfixed by Lenny Riefenstal (ph) and Hitler. I had no idea.

Absolutely. I think that he was very craven about the way he asked questions. I mean the friendship deal was obviously how he got the interview in the first place, so that whenever he did come to a hard question, he would couch it in terms of "when other people say this," or "how to you reply to the accusations," and it's as if it was you and me, and we know, but there were people out there who are saying horrid things about you.

And that, I mean that's dreadful for an interviewer to do. You must have the conviction of your own questions.

RODGERS: Does Michael Jackson have a right to feel betrayed, as he says he does?

GILL: Probably not legally. I mean, you know, you invite a camera crew into your life, you know, that's what camera crews do.

I think that he probably has the right to feel that he's been badly used.

But I -- perhaps it's a bigger question of, you know, 15 million of us watched that, in Britain, and who knows how many people across the world will continue to watch it. I mean, in a sense we all buy into the badly using of Michael Jackson.

I mean, you know, he's not the full shilling, as we say here. You know, I mean, he's not entirely all there, and there is -- what you get - - what I got at the end of it was that this was a man who was rather sad, in an awful lot of ways, and perhaps that's what we should be looking at, rather than saying because he's famous, because he's rich, it's open season on him, and that we can treat the fact that this man has done monstrous things to his own body as being a sort of criminal act.

RODGERS: You said the interview was deeply creepy. What did you mean?

GILL: I think the whole business of an interviewer pretending to be someone's friend is a very creepy thing, and the fact that it was so soft, and then the toughness was added on later with a voice-over and other shots. I mean, that's just, in journalistic terms, that's just immoral.

RODGERS: What is the human fascination with the grotesque? "Phantom of the Opera," "Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Elephant Man," Michael Jackson?

GILL: Well, I think that you, the answer is in the question. I mean, we are fascinated by the grotesque.

All those other grotesques are figments of fantasy and literature and films and plays. You know, Michael Jackson's a real person.

Oddly enough, yesterday I watched a performance of Michael Jackson that was showing on another television channel, and when he's just singing and dancing, you just think, this is an astonishing talent. I mean, he just is utterly magic on stage. And in a sense, what we like, I think, what we get is the sense of(UNINTELLIGIBLE) of a man who has got, and has had all his life, this astounding talent, but we want him to be flawed as well. We wan him -- we can't really -- we don't really like the idea that he can have it all.

RODGERS: A.A. Gill, thank you very much for your wit and your insight.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Remember, you can e-mail us your comments and suggestions at international.correspondents@cnn.com.

I'm Walter Rodgers, in London, thank for joining us.

END

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