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Aired May 16, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, HOST: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big issues of the moment.
Under fire and in the media spot light, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia faces growing criticism in the wake of Monday's suicide bombing in Riyadh. Thirty-four people were killed, including nine Americans and two Britons. The response from Riyadh has been relatively public with news conferences and briefings explaining the Saudi side. But trying to under respond the true workings of what for so long has been such a closed society is a tough assignment for any journalist.

Joining me now, in studio, Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor of the "Financial Times," and joining us on the telephone, from Riyadh, Steve Weisman, chief diplomatic correspondent for "The New York Times."

Roula, let me begin by asking you, have the Saudis really changed? Are they open this time? Or is it still the same old closed Saudi paranoia we know so well?

ROULA KHALAF, "FINANCIAL TIMES": I think you have to look at it in relative terms.

Compare it to the reaction after September 11th, where we had silence for a long time, not a single word, where they went into denial essentially.

I think what we've seen this time is an attempt to show that there is more of a recognition that a problem exists. At least publicly, what we've seen is press conferences, some information coming out, some response to questions. Also, I think we need to note that last week, when there was an attempt to arrest some terrorist cell, I think for the first time, what we saw in Saudi newspapers is that the names and the pictures of the suspects were published, and what I've been told is that that had not been seen a Saudi Arabia in the past.

RODGERS: Steve Weisman, if I can ask you essentially the same question -- are the Saudis more open this time? Is it genuine? Is it irreversible? And if they're more open, why do you think they are?

STEVEN WEISMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES: I agree that they are more open. I wish I could say whether it was irreversible, but I can't.

But I think Roula's point about the announcement last week of a list of 19 suspected terrorist was itself a major step, to have those pictures published in the paper. And then around that time there was a shoot out of a hide out or a compound, an apartment, where weapons were being kept, and then a few days later, just a couple of blocks away from that place, one of these car bombs went off.

And so there is a connection between the earlier announcement and the explosions that adds credibility in the eyes of the Saudis to the existence of this problem.

RODGERS: Roula, are the Saudis doing this because they're trying to placate the United States? Or are they doing this because it's the right thing in terms of opening up their own society to their own people? And culturally, why have they been so secretive, almost paranoid, in the past?

KHALAF: Clearly, there's an attempt to stem any criticism or stem the same type of criticism that they got last time.

But I think since September 11, there's also been a lot of soul searching in Saudi Arabia. This doesn't necessarily mean that we've seen reforms, serious reforms, but what we have seen is a lot more talk about the need for change, and I think this is now going to be the real test, is, this has happened in Saudi Arabia. It has touched Saudi society . It's killed, these attacks have killed Saudis as well as they've killed Americans. And some people at least in Saudi Arabia are now saying that this is our September 11.

So there is the hope that this will be the real wake up call, that September 11 started the process, but that that process did not develop enough and that perhaps today, after this tragedy, it can be taken forward.

You ask why have they been so secretive. I think there are social reasons and there are political reasons. It's a very conservative society -- tribal, deeply religious. But also, if you're not transparent, if your asked to be accountable -- Saudi Arabia has been close to the rest of the world. People inside have not had a voice. They haven't been able to express themselves or to ask for accountability, and no one on the outside has ever forced Saudi Arabia to be more open.

So if there's no pressure on you, you don't change and you don't become transparent. And I think what we've seen since September 11 is both outside pressure, but also increasingly pressure from the inside.

RODGERS: Steve, the United States has been more than a little vexed, impatient and frustrated with the Saudis in terms of coming to grips with the terrorist threat, the al Qaeda threat within their own country. Vexing for the United States government. Is it vexing for you as a journalist to have been there the past few days and trying to develop this story?

WEISMAN: This is a very difficult place to cover. It's secretive, as was just said, you can't very easily get in touch with people who know things and there's only a tiny handful of people who do know things.

But there has been more openness this week. The foreign minister held a press conference, partly it was instance, I think, to the unusual accusation by the American ambassador, who said, on the record, something that was very impolite, which was that the Saudis had been told that there might be some attacks and were asked for, to beef up security at the foreign compounds and that they did not respond positively. So that that forced the Saudis to go public and discuss it, and there may be more defenses to come.

But, you know, Walter, you've covered stories like this, in this part of the world. I don't, frankly, think we'll ever get to the bottom of these attacks. They're very mysterious, whether it's al Qaeda or not, was there a cell in al Qaeda, was this operating independently. This is -- it's not just the Saudi government that's murky. Obviously, the terrorist themselves are the murkiest part of it, and they don't hold press conferences or briefings.

And so it's a very frustrating thing for a journalist.

RODGERS: Steve Weisman, Roula Khalaf, thanks very much for joining us and for your insights.

Coming up on the program, lies, deception and intrigue, the makings of a great story, only this story is happening to one of the world's most trusted story-tellers, when we come back.



It has all the drama and intrigue of a Hollywood movie: Lies, deception, racial undertones, and a huge media empire against the ropes. It's the story of one journalist at the much-revered "New York Times," and how his actions have sullied the reputation of one of the world's most trusted newspapers.

CNN's Jeff Greenfield has the story.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sunday's "New York Times" told the story in 14,000 words splashed across 4 full-sized pages, the biggest black eye in its 152 year history. A "Times" reporter, 27- year-old Jason Blair had written dozens of stories that were either wrong, fabricated or plagiarized from other papers.

In spite of repeated warnings from his editors, Blair has been assigned a prominent role in reporting big stories, like the Beltway sniper tale, although his exclusive reporting had been flatly challenged by the authorities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want the media to know that, particularly the media that follows like lemmings behind "The New York Times' and says whatever "The New York Times' says, as if it's gospel. They've been wrong before and they're wrong on this one.

GREENFIELD: Blair was finally undone by his reports from the family of a Gulf War casualty, complete with powerful false descriptions of the home and quotes ripped off from another paper.

Blair resigned last week and is now said to be hospitalized with emotional problems. What remains are some hard questions.

Howard Kurtz, of "The Washington Post" and CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" broke the Blair story.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN HOST: Jason Blair hold so many lies, had so many problems, both in his personal life and with his journalistic corrections and with his expense accounts, that it was really hard to understand in retrospect how it is that it took "Times" management so long to catch on to the fact that this guy was a fraud.

GREENFIELD: It's hardly the first time a major news outlet has been embarrassed. " The Washington Post" had to return a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 when it learned that reporter Janet Cooke had made up the story of an 8- year-old heroin addict.

NBC was shaken when a "Dateline" expose in 1992 rigged a truck to explode. "The New Republic" published a series of stories by writer Stephen Glass that were wholly inventions.

And in 1998, CNN suffered it's own big embarrassment when it retracted a story alleging that U.S. forces had used nerve gas in Southeast Asia.

Now the spotlight is on the "Times" and it's recently named executive editor Howell Raines.

Why were the warnings ignored? Did the paper's commitment to diversity lead it to put Jason Blair on a fast track?

And the fall out from all of this is likely to go well beyond "The New York Times."

KURTZ: People are not going to forget, and unfortunately it's going to cast out not just on the "Times" but on all of journalism among those who are skeptical about whether reporters just simply make things up.

Jeff Greenfield, CNN, New York.


RODGERS: Well, to discuss this further I'm joined now, in Boston, by Alex Jones, the director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and in New York by Seth Mnookin, media critic at "Newsweek" magazine, and in Washington, D.C., Terry Neal, chief political correspondent for

Alex, let met begin by asking you, how much damage has this scandal at the "Times" done to the credibility of our profession and each of us?

ALEX JONES, SHORENSTEIN CENTER: Well, I think that for one thing I wouldn't say that "The New York Times' is on the ropes, but I think it's certainly going through a very, very bad time. And I think that you're right to think that this is a wound that goes beyond "The New York Times." I really believe it does.

But I think that how damaging it is and how lasting it is will depend a lot on what happens now, because I think that, in a way, this has given the industry, the news business in this country, the opportunity to address something that they need to address clearly, that it's too easy to cheat, and it's something that things can be done about, and I think if they're done publicly and strongly, then things will be in the long-term better.

RODGERS: Seth Mnookin, in New York, how egregious was the management's policy handling of this at the "Times"?

SETH MNOOKIN, "NEWSWEEK": I think we're still learning what happened at management. And one of the questions that's come up repeatedly is why the warnings about Jason Blair, the "Times" reporter who was caught plagiarizing and fabricating, weren't heeding beforehand.

And I think one of the things that gets to you is the sort of institutional arrogance at the "Times" and a long-standing sense that they don't need to listen to complaints from outside, that they know best. And that's one thing that has reverberating, I think, within the "Times'" newsroom, and also outside, and that's something that people who aren't journalists are bringing up again and again.

RODGERS: Terry Neal, is this a case of affirmative action going off the tracks? And isn't this going to cost those who support affirmative action the kind of friends they need?

TERRY NEAL, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Actually, I think that you're right. I think it will, and I think that's very sad, and I think that it's sad that in this day and age, that, you know, someone like me needs to answer for what some other guy did, some other conman did, and that's basically all he was.

And the other two panelist know this very well. Their have been a couple of other examples of some really egregious conduct by white reporters in which the issue of their race never came up. Most notably a fellow named Stephen Glass, who was profiled on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, who was accused of doing essentially the same thing that Jason Blair did, and probably even making it somewhat worse in the sense that he went over -- to cover his tracks, he created Web sites and voicemails for fictionalized characters he created in his stories in case anybody checked.

And the difference, one of the differences between the Blair case in his is, obviously, he was working for a smaller publication, "The New Republic," but he did have a fairly big forum and was writing a lot for other magazines, like "GQ" and "Vanity Fair" and that sort of thing.

I think the issue of race has been blown out of perspective. I don't think that it played no role, but I don't think that it was a primary role here, and I think it's, what it's done essentially is given people who oppose affirmative action, I call them ideological opportunists in this particular case, to jump on this issue.

If there is an issue beyond Blair, if there are dozens, scores, hundreds of minority reporters being pushed like he was, I'd like to know when they are, because they're not in "The Washington Post," they're not in "The New York Times," besides him, and they're not at "The Wall Street Journal." They're not at CBS and ABC, et cetera.

And I think in this particular case, Jason Blair was an aberration. I do think that Howell Raines, who's the editor of the paper, and he's said as much, his liberal white guilt maybe subconsciously led him to give this guy a break that he wouldn't give others, but that's hardly a condemnation of the larger picture of affirmative action, and that's a perspective that I hope people keep in mind.

RODGERS: Seth, would you sign on to that?

MNOOKIN: Absolutely. I think Terry is entirely correct when he says that race played a role, but was not the determining factor.

And I think another factor, and this is something that's being talked about a lot inside the "Times," is this sort of penchant for a star system, promotions given out on the basis of personality and maybe not in some cases on journalistic merit.

And I found again and again, in talking with people this week, that the ideologues, especially the right-wing ideologues, are holding this up or twisting reality and are using this as an example of why any affirmative action is bad, and why you can never trust what -- when you see a minority journalist advancing.

I think that's offensive on any number of levels.

RODGERS: Alex, you worked at the "Times." You wrote a book on the history of "The New York Times." What does this say about the culture within the newsroom of "The New York Times"?

JONES: Well, I think that -- let me also add my voice to the affirmative action complaint. I think that this is really a bum rap, that this is about affirmative action and the race of this reporter.

I think it's very important to keep in mind that at the time, Jason Blair, who was given special treatment because he had been identified as someone who had energy and had potential and was viewed as being someone who had, you know something to cultivate, something perhaps giving a second and third chance to.

Several other, you know, black reporters who had come in on the same kind of program he did, were let go because they didn't have that. They were not perceived -- this was not about whether he was black. It's about what he was as a reporter, perceived to be. Unfortunately, they didn't really understand, you know, that he was also a duplicitous man.

RODGERS: But, wait a second.

JONES: As far as the culture of the "Times" is concerned.

RODGERS: I was going to say, the metro editor, Jonathan Landman, I think, said this man should have been let go a long time ago, and he was protected by the managing editor of the "Times," who is black. So it does have something to do with race, doesn't it?

NEAL: Can I say something about that?

JONES: Well, I mean, I lived inside the "Times," and I can tell you that favoritism inside a news organization depends on all kinds of things. It may have something to do with race, but Gerald Boyd (ph), who was the black managing editor, could also have favorites who aren't black.

I mean, people who are pushed ahead and given special opportunities are always presented, and sometimes it's unfair that they get the special treatment that they get. But to put this as a basis of denouncing affirmative action purely on the basis of race is just not to understand the way a newsroom, like "The New York Times" works.


NEAL: And also, on top of that, to suggests that Jason Blair is the only person in the history of mankind that has ever received special treatment from an editor is just ludicrous.

The thing that we have to keep, as I said, all of this is about perspective to me. You know, the question of -- one of the first questions of race was when people realized that Jason Blair had 50 corrections at the paper since he started in 1998. The argument was, how could a guy who had 50 corrections, so many corrections, how could he continue to be promoted.

RODGERS: Seth, let me just ask you. You're covering this story. Is Howell Raines going to take a fall for this?

MNOOKIN: Well, I just want to correct the record on one thing. I don't -- and I spoke to Gerald Boyd (ph), the managing editor, this week, and he told me he was not to person who sort of saved Jason's job, and that he didn't have any more involvement with Jason than he did with any other reporter.

So, I know there's some debate over that, but I at least, to be fair to him, I want to put that out there.

I don't think Howell is going to take a fall. They had -- the "Times" had this extraordinary town hall meeting this week in which they assembled the entire staff, and Howell said he wasn't going anywhere, and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the "Times," said that he wouldn't accept Howell's resignation even if he offered it.

So that seems like a pretty strong indication to me. That being said, who knows where this is going to lead. And if more damaging facts come out, especially about Howell's involvement in this case or in other cases, you know, you could reach a tipping point.

But at this point, would say that it seems like Howell is going to soldier on through this and try to sort of revitalize the paper.

RODGERS: Alex, from your ivory tower on the Charles, are people less honest than they were 50 years ago? And if so, why? Is this a -- is this a cultural problem?

JONES: I don't know that they're less honest than they were. Maybe they are a little bit less honest. I mean, certainly, there seems to be an awful lot of examples of people casually lying on resumes and things like that, which I think is astonishing.

But it's certainly easier to lie. It's easier to lie about, for instance, where you are and that sort of thing, using cell phones and e- mail. And there's certainly more use of anonymous sources, which means it's easier to make up quotes because they can't really be checked if the sources are not identified.

I think that there is a problem, there's no question. It's too easy. However easy it is, it's too easy to cheat right now, and something really needs to be done about that.

RODGERS: Alex, Terry, Seth, we're out of time. I want to thank you very, very much -- especially grateful to each of you. Thank you

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another in-depth look at how the media are handling the big stories.

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



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