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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 2, 2004 - 16:30:00   ET

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

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.
In this edition, the serious campaigning has begun in the United States presidential election. We'll talk to two journalists covering the race for the White House.

And we begin this week with Al Iraqia, the television channel that rose from the ashes of the old state-run TV under Saddam Hussein. Al Iraqia is staffed by Iraqis, but paid for by the U.S. government, the Pentagon to be precise. And that's led some to question, quote, "whether it has just traded Saddam's propaganda for George Bush's." We'll discuss that. Al Iraqia says no, they are fully independent, but for some time there was no coverage of attacks on coalition forces, for instance. Most Iraqis with satellite dishes prefer to get their news from Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, foreign Arabic stations the United States accuses of being unduly harsh on the coalition.

Joining me now to discuss Al Iraqia's fortunes and the media landscape of Iraq in general today are Abdul Salam Al Sheikh Dharry, the news director of Al Iraqia. He's in Baghdad. And also in Baghdad, Dr. Farhad Al Hasani (ph), the director of the Middle East broadcasting corporation MBC.

Gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. Dharry, what about these accusations that we hear over and over again, that Al Iraqia is just U.S. propaganda?

ABDUL SALAM DHARRY, AL IRAQIA: Well, Al Iraqia is determined to be a free, independent station for the Iraqi people. We are just reflecting the events in the Iraqi situation.

These accusations are baseless accusations. We have much freedom, our editorial freedom. Nobody don't have any effect, neither from CBN (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Governing Council because we are not working under any flag. We are independent station.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Al Dharry, why is it do you think people in Iraq say that they would prefer to watch Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, that they are not getting news, they say, from Al Iraqia?

DHARRY: Actually, in the beginning, in the mid of May, Al Iraqia started airing locally for the Iraqi people. At that time, we had few cameras, a number of five or six cameras, and that we (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Iraqis at the right channel. We don't have available source of power. We don't have enough editing machines.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hasani (ph), why is everybody so mean about Al Iraqia? After all, there's never been a free television station in Iraq. At least this is freer than it used to be under Saddam Hussein.

FARHAD HASANI (ph), MBC DIRECTOR: After all, people actually are watching television for two reasons, at least I think they are waiting for good news and for good news actually related to their own life, and at least especially the kind of living they have, it's going to be quite miserable of course of the coalition forces. And that's the reason of course, they're waiting to see the television. But most definitely because they enjoy watching television as it used to be, at least, during Saddam's regime.

I know that during Saddam's regime there was some kind of limitation, of course, to the media, at least to the audio-visual communication and such, but at this time, they seem to have bene thrown into the open option of watching different channels and watching some kind of media that was no so definitely quite known to them and they are watching that actually just to follow-up the news, the most recent news, that is related in fact to their own ideas and thoughts and precisely they would like to know more about what will happen to them, at least because the people coming and introducing that kind of media to them were professionals and they would like, of course, to make them understand who they are, and probably that would make them, of course, watch.

Otherwise, they have their own political affiliations and leanings and definitely when they see that, they will try to react differently. Sometimes with the media and sometimes against the media. And sometimes they would like very much to make the comparison between the past regime era and this kind of era, and they would like to get their own conclusions -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Why do people criticism Al Iraqia so much?

HASANI (ph): I think Al Iraqia is a premature step to be introduced of course to the public. I'm sure that in comparison to the other satellites and to the other channels, which are quite professional, of course, Al Iraqia cannot at least stand that kind of competition up to this moment.

It seems that they need some kind of experience and they need some kind of experienced people in order to cope with the professional satellites like CNN, like Al Jazeera, like Arabiya, and it seems to me that it needs some kind of time.

I have heard that some of the personnel were sent abroad, you know, to get some more training actually for coming to the Iraqis in order to produce something new, but as far as I am concerned, I feel that Iraqis really are criticizing Al Iraqia because Al Iraqia is introducing nothing except certain cinemas and they reflect one sided, I would say, point of view, that is of the G.C., the Governing Council only. And it's thought to be some kind of propaganda rather than turning into a criticizing (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of course to any kind of passive features of passive phenomena, they might recognize in their society.

AMANPOUR: What are you going to do about getting more professional people to work on Al Iraqia, to do journalism that can compete with things like CNN or Al Jazeera or other such stations?

DHARRY: Actually, we are sending, we've already sent three waves of Iraqi journalists to Dubai to get trained at Al Arabiya. Now we have our crew getting trained in Italy.

AMANPOUR: And do you think that once you have these trained people that you will provide the news that most Iraqis want to see, for instance talking about the fuel lines, for instance talking about security in Iraq, because right now, most of what happens on Al Iraqia is essentially meetings by members of the government and things like that.

DHARRY: Actually, daily we report about the events taking place in the Iraqi cities. So we are working (UNINTELLIGIBLE) giving much importance to these meetings because the meetings are concerning the transfer of power, for example, and other developments of a democratic process taking place now in Iraq.

AMANPOUR: How long will you have funding from the United States government?

DHARRY: Well, I don't know. As the news director, I don't know about that. But I know that Al Iraqia still promises to be an independent source of information for the Iraqi people and that's a free station.

AMANPOUR: Can is survive without funding from the U.S. government?

DHARRY: Frankly speaking, we got funds from the Pentagon, but the main objective of Al Iraqia is to be a free station, in the future to be like BBC or other free stations. Truly they got support from the government, but they are free stations. So in the future, we expect from commercial items, other things, we can fund ourselves.

AMANPOUR: Do you think, Mr. Hasani (ph), that Al Iraqia will survive in the current journalistic climate? Will it survive?

HASANI (ph): Well, it's very easy to say that, but I feel that Al Iraqia, as I mentioned earlier, Al Iraqia is an experimental station, and it seemed that because it is a channel introduced immediately after the arrival of the coalition forces, I think it has a very specific mission, and this specific mission indeed seemed to be accepted by people on two levels.

The first one is to accept it as it is, because it introduces something new to them. And the second level, of course, it is rather rejected because not only technically it is not as efficient as the other stations, but because the kind of coverage is one sided, and probably this creates a lot of problems to the Iraqis because they are quite interested, actually, in receiving something new and something that is technically and informatively as efficient as for example the BBC or NBC or CNN.

AMANPOUR: OK. Well, Mr. Al Dharry said that his aim is to be like the BBC. Well, that's quite a good aim. Perhaps like CNN as well. We'll see in the future.

Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Baghdad.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the United States is electing a president this year and the serious campaigning is now underway. We'll look at what it's like for journalists covering what some say is the most important election in the world, after this short break.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday could have been considered the first major speech of his campaign for reelection. In the past weeks, caucuses in Iowa began the race to be the Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

The battleground has now shifted to New Hampshire, and joining me now from New Hampshire are Ronald Brownstein of "The Los Angeles Times" and James Harding of Britain's "Financial Times."

Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Let me ask you first, Ronald Brownstein of "The Los Angeles Times," for an international audience, what is it that strikes you at this moment of covering this campaign as the most interesting?

RONALD BROWNSTEIN, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, clearly it would have to be the decline of Howard Dean. Howard Dean dominated the year before the election, Christiane, as much as any outsider candidate ever has. He went from an asterisks in the polls to leading nationally, raising more money than any of the other Democrats, stockpiling endorsements from big name candidates and powerful labor unions, and then toward the final few weeks of the year, he began to make a series of gaffs that eroded his support and of course now, in Iowa, has been dealt a serious blow.

The questions are really two; can Dean recover? And if he doesn't, who fills the space that he has been occupying in this race for so long?

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, as to the first question, do you think his implosion, at least at the moment, is a natural phenomenon? Or is it a result of the press having prematurely anointed him as the frontrunner without a vote being cast?

BROWNSTEIN: Always dangerous to go too hard on your predictions, as your question suggests, before voters get to weigh in.

Look, Dean did a lot of damage to himself through the last few weeks of 2003. His comments about Osama bin Laden, his suggestion the country was not safer after the country of Saddam Hussein, his attack on the centrist Democrats and his even implied criticism of Bill Clinton, all culminating, of course, in the speech that he gave Monday night, the sort of frenzied concession speech that crystallized a lot of the doubts about his temperament.

He was falling -- it's important to recognize, he was falling here in New Hampshire even before the result in Iowa and certainly even before the speech. Did the press pump him up too much and perhaps is taking him down too much now? Yes. But intervening events also changed the dynamic. He changed his own dynamic with a lot of the problems he created for himself.

AMANPOUR: Let me turn to James. James, you write for a predominantly English British audience, although the paper is sold in other countries. What sort of focus are you putting now on this race?

JAMES HARDING, "FINANCIAL TIMES": Well, as you know, Christiane, our newspaper is a funny animal. We sell actually as it turns out many more papers internationally than we do in the United Kingdom now, more in the states than we do even there. So we're trying to tell the story on an international stage, tell a global story, and I think for a world audience, two things have happened this week.

One is, to start with, George W. Bush, is the sense of anger and everyone has talked about electability (ph), but what's happened here in a tightened and unpredictable race is that there is a sense of George W. Bush's, if I can call him this horrible world, beatability (ph). Suddenly, there is an excitement that actually Bush, who looked so strong, may actually be challenged by someone who seems a more centrist candidate, someone who seems stronger on national security, and the question of Bush's strength and the notion that Bush is an incumbent, as a man who has been very strong in the war on terrorism, someone who has got clear family values, that he is unassailable, that's been shattered this week.

And I think one other thing that's been important also from an international point of view is, there was the sense last year, in the pre- primary race, that this election was going to be about Iraq, and as the voters have weighed in, what they've started to say is actually, "Yes, we're concerned about Iraq, but we've got mixed feelings," and particularly among Democrats. There is deep division in terms of the war.

What there is not deep division about, what there is great anger and what there is a determination to hold Bush accountable for is the issue of jobs and healthcare, and the debate has moved back home.

AMANPOUR: So to follow-up on that, you say he has sort of a vulnerability or an assailability (ph) has sort of sprung up around Bush. How do you -- where do you get that from?

HARDING: Well, I suppose there are two things there. One is the sense that the campaign itself has evolved around this electability (ph) issue, coming out of Iowa this week. There was a real focus on beating Bush, not just on the issues but primarily on beating Bush.

And secondly, I think that jobs is a real concern. Look at the way in which the State of the Union address was pitched. It was pitched as an attempt to address this perennial problem of jobs, and if you remember back to 2002 and his axis of evil speech, Mr. Bush stood up in front of the Joint Session of Congress, in front of the television audience and said, "Economic security, I can sum it up in one word: jobs."

Well, two years later, jobs is still the preoccupation of his administration and of the American people, and so I think that that particular issue is one that dogged his father and looks as though it's going to dog him.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me turn to Ron. Do you agree that this man, who is winning the war on terror, who is presenting himself as the man who is making the world a safer place, and by the way the U.S. economy is showing some kind of an upturn, is he assailable? Is he beatable?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I would say two things. First, this is a 50/50 country. If you look at the polling, we are very closely divided.

But having said that, I do think the playing field tilts slightly in Bush's direction. The best indication of a president's health in an election year is his approval rating. It's actually a better long-term indicator of where the race is going than the head-to-head polling showing him against the various Democrats or the other party if the case were reversed.

And the fact is, Bush's approval rating is in the low to mid 50's. As long as he stays in the mid-50's, you'd have to give him the advantage.

Can I just pick up on one other point, though. What's clear, I agree, what's happened is, as the vote has come closer and the universe of Democrats has widened, this race has reverted to a more conventional, concerned on two fronts. You're seeing a greater emphasis on experience among voters. The people who are tuning in now are different than the people who were tuning in last year. And also, the overwhelming focus on Iraq that drove the activists, that drove the Internet fundraising for Howard Dean, that in effect created his candidacy, now is being moderated, and we are seeing the voters who are coming to the table later in Iowa and New Hampshire, much less the states that follow, putting more emphasis on what had been traditionally the bread and butter issues that matter more in presidential campaigns.

AMANPOUR: Well, if that's the case, Ron, then, who in your view will take over frontrunner status from Howard Dean?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, if John Kerry wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he becomes the frontrunner almost immediately by definition. Very few candidates have ever done that. As far as I'm aware, only one who has one both has not won the nomination. But I don't think it's a given for John Kerry. There were a lot of doubts about him among Democratic voters earlier. His performance is still kind of unsteady on the stump. And the question is whether a John Edwards in South Carolina or a Wesley Clark or even Howard Dean, as down as he now looks, if he can pull himself out of this tailspin, finish a strong second here, much like Bill Clinton in 1992, he might portray himself as the comeback kid.

He still has the constituency. The question is whether he can find a persona that speaks to more than the angry, anti-war voters, who animated his campaign in 2003. He really needs both a message and a style that reaches out to the broader universe of Democrats who are now just tuning in to the race.

AMANPOUR: Ron, thank you.

James, were you surprised at the tone of President Bush's State of the Union address? Much less aggressive, some would say, than it has been over the last couple of years, in terms of how he described U.S. relations with the rest of the world, much more of a reach out, much more of an emphasis on diplomacy?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, funny enough, I was surprised by the aggression of the speech in as much as it was a speech that was politically aggressive. It had a very Republican tone. It was ideologically very conservative. And he cherry-picked a few choice Democrat issues, healthcare, prison reform, community colleges.

And on the other hand, you're right. It was much more emollient on the international agenda. But, you know, this is an election year and, to be honest, I don't think anyone was surprised that any belligerent rhetoric was axed from the speech. This was not a time to be suggesting to the American people that another military intervention is in the offering. Quite the opposite.

It's a time to say we're being muscular, people respect us, and now it's time to sit down at the negotiating table, and that was, of course, the whole gist of his argument with Libya, is look, we carried the big stick in Iraq, Qadhafi saw it, and now we're making some progress.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask both of you one sort of final atmospheric question. There was a lot of ho-humming going into this election year, a lot of, you know, oh, look, there are these nine or more Democrats and, you know, nobody has broken out of the pack. Do you guys, as you cover this election, is it now a fun race to cover?

BROWNSTEIN: I think so, absolutely. The primaries are always fun. There are always surprises. It never really turns out quite the way you expect. Even when the frontrunner wins, it's almost always the challenger is unexpected.

I still think the fundamentals, though, do raise an issue. The Democrats are facing, I think, a slight uphill push, and once we get to April and we have a nominee, I think it's likely that Bush is seen with a small advantage, and their challenge will be to move away some of the swing voters who like him personally, think he's a strong leader and think he's doing a good job in the war on terror but aren't really sure about his prescriptions on the economy and healthcare at home.

HARDING: If I can just say, Christiane, I know that as reporters we're always supposed to say that we're having the most terrific time, and the fact is that it is unbelievable to be out in America, even in these arctic temperatures.

But if I'm honest, there is something even more exciting and even more fun, by that early stage in the campaign. It's like following, you know, a young rock band through sort of pubs and clubs. Suddenly, they're all playing these big stadium concerts now, and for example, at this debate last night in New Hampshire, and there must have been a crowd of 500, 600 journalists following this small pack of half-a-dozen politicians, and so some of the intimacy is lost.

The really exciting thing about following politicians is seeing them close up, seeing how they work the retail politics in the primary campaign. And so I guess as we move on to February 3 and the race becomes more diffuse again, we'll get a little more of that intimacy, but actually right now, in New Hampshire, it's a feeding frenzy.

AMANPOUR: On hat note, thank you both very much indeed, Ron and James, from Manchester, New Hampshire.

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

I'm Christiane Amanpour. Thank you for joining us.

END

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