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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 14, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, 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, 25 years since Iran's revolution, we get the insights from journalists who covered the country then and now. Plus, telling Ethiopia's tragic tail. How one journalist covered this story by becoming part of it.

But first, it's been one of the deadliest weeks in Iraq since President Bush declared an end to major combat last May, but the casualties have been highest among the Iraqi people. More than 100 Iraqis were killed in two separate bombings. The targets in both cases were people trying to enlist in the country's security forces. Some say events such as these, like the story of Iraq itself, are fading in the prominence in the American consciousness.

On e story that certainly is not is the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Every twist and turn, big or small, is talked about and debated. So is the coverage of Iraq being eclipsed by the American election?

To discuss this, I'm joined in Washington, D.C. by Bill Schneider, CNN senior political analyst, and here in studio by Patrick Tyler, London bureau chief for the "New York Times." Patrick has recently returned from Iraq. His articles also appear in the "International Herald Tribune."

Patrick, let me begin by asking you, are reporters finding it more and more difficult to get Iraqi stories on the front pages because of the Democratic race?

PATRICK TYLER, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think there has been the phenomenon of kind of numbness, the numbing quality of a car bomb going off every day, the numbing quality of the statistics of American casualties there. So there has been this repetitive phenomenon that has, I think, pushed people away from the Iraq story at a time when politics has really heated up in Washington and in the United States and become quite interesting.

That being said, I think this is a genuine phenomenon, that Americans are truly concerned and interested in the fate of Iraq and how it's going to come out, and I think they're interest is going to be sustained and is sustained.

RODGERS: Yes or no, a decisive factor in the American elections?

TYLER: I think if we get to next summer and into convention time and you've got still the sense of chaos that really took hold this week with these big car bombs that killed 100 people, it's going to be a factor. The cost is going to be a factor. The bloodshed is going to be a factor.

RODGERS: Bill Schneider, is this dulling of the mind, so to speak, inevitable, like attention focused on the World Cup and the Super Bowl?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I'm not sure I'd call it a dulling of attention. The fact is, it's right there. It's not in the background. It's in the foreground.

Look, the "Washington Post" just reported this morning that for the first time ever, more Americans think the war was not worth fighting than say it was worth fighting. It's taking a toll on President Bush's political support. He appears to be paying a price for it. Right now, many polls show John Kerry running ahead of President Bush and Iraq is certainly a central reason why.

So Americans are not neglecting Iraq. It's bothering them a great deal, and the news is very disturbing.

RODGERS: Is he vulnerable? Is President Bush vulnerable because of Iraq -- Bill.

SCHNEIDER: That's one reason he's vulnerable. He's vulnerable for several reasons. Iraq is a major one, not so much because of the war itself but because of the occupation.

Americans aren't comfortable being an occupying power. They wonder what's being achieved there. And, of course, what's created the front page news is all the publicity about what was the intelligence, was it misused, did the president of the United States mislead the American public.

But there are other reasons as well, even more prominent in the American mind, namely so many jobs lost. Over 2 million jobs having been lost since Bush became president. The rapidly escalating cost of healthcare. Those issues are also very prominent and they're not helping Mr. Bush.

RODGERS: So he is vulnerable and the public does care about Iraq?

SCHNEIDER: Yes, the public definitely cares. Look, when you've got 120-some thousand American troops over there, even if Americans aren't being killed, and they are, but not in huge numbers like Iraqis. The fact is the news is, we are not controlling the situation on the ground. It's not clear what the United States is accomplishing there. From all appearances, Americans are not beloved liberators but they're resented occupiers, at least that's the picture most Americans are getting, and it's costing President Bush politically.

RODGERS: Patrick, 100 dead Iraqis on the ground this last week. Do Americans care about that as a news story, dead Iraqis?

TYLER: I think they care in the sense that the humanitarian factors of this war have been front and center from the beginning. The unearthing of the mass graves in the early phases of the war I think effected Americans and everybody who was watching the war unfold. The collateral of how precise our use of military power has been an issue all along.

I think Americans also look at the impact of destruction on a country on the meter on which they're judging this operation as success or failure, and if we save the country by destroying it, that is going to be a negative.

RODGERS: Bill, last time I was in Baghdad, six, eight weeks ago, I found myself reciting one American killed by a roadside bomb today, two Americans killed the next day, one American killed the previous day. I was almost offended at my own callousness, as if I was reciting multiplication tables. Does anyone in America care that these kids are dying out there?

SCHNEIDER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's unimaginable that that doesn't have an impact on Americans. The fact is, when the number hit 500 Americans killed since the beginning of the war in Iraq, that was sensational news, and everyone has heard that figure. It's a central figure in this election campaign. It's not upwards of 530, which is over one American killed every day.

Americans are quite cognizant of that fact and they're wondering exactly what is the United States accomplishing. One issue of controversy, of course, is that the White House says that what's happening on the ground in Iraq is not being accurately reported. Progress is being made. Iraqis are in fact welcoming the Americans as liberators, and that's not being reported, so the role of the press in Iraq is becoming an issue in this campaign. But that kind of negative news is having an enormous impact.

RODGER: Patrick Tyler, Bill Schneider, suggesting George W. Bush apparently does have an Achilles heel, and it's Iraq.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, 25 years since Iran's revolution. Journalists who covered the country then and now share their insights.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

This past week marked the 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The Shah was deposed and the Western-backed monarchy was replaced with a strict Islamic regime. Since then, Iran has been somewhat veiled to the outside world. Now the voices and pressures for reform within Iran are growing and next week's elections may prove a defining moment.

Covering Iran is a challenge for any journalist, and joining me now to share their experiences, in Tehran, BBC correspondent Jim Muir, and here in studio Azar Nafisi, Iranian author and author of the book "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

Jim, first to you. You know, the old Churchill line about the riddle inside the enigma inside the mystery -- that's Iran as well as it is Russia. You've been there four years. We've got an election this week; wither (ph) Iran, where's it going?

JIM MUIR, BBC: The simple answer, Walter, is that nobody knows where Iran is going at the moment. You can ask practically anybody up to the highest level and they haven't got an answer. They can only guess.

We've got a situation now where the reform movement in office is widely seen to have failed because next week's elections will see, we believe, certainly the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) wisdom is that the reformists will do very poorly at the polls, not the least because something like 2,500 of their candidates have been weeded out by a hard-line, unelected, right-wing body.

Even before that rumpus over the disqualifications, however, the reformists were not expecting to do well because they have in office failed to achieve much of what they had promised or what they had led people to believe they might be able to do. They have made very little progress, and the signs were that the public was turning away from them, indifference, apathy and so on.

So the turnout is expected to be low in any case, even before those disqualifications. Where does that leave you? It leaves you with an immovable object, namely the grip of the hardliners, a seemingly irresistible force, which is the cause for change from the public, 70 percent of whom consistently in recent years have been voting for reformists, hoping for change, wanting change, but that is now frustrated.

So where do we go from here? The simple answer is, nobody really knows.

RODGERS: Azar, with Iran's nuclear potential, with its oil and with its strategic seat in the great game, as of today, does that scare people? Should it scare people?

AZAR NAFISI, AUTHOR: Well, it does scare people. I mean, it should scare people if it's in the wrong hands.

You mentioned weapons of mass destruction. Then there is Iran holding some of the highest al Qaeda people whom they're not giving back to other countries, and their links to Hamas. So as a whole, if the country is in the wrong hands, then we should worry.

RODGERS: Is the West getting a good picture, Azar, of what's happening in Iran? How could it be better?

NAFISI: Well, you know, the West would be getting a good picture if it considers Iran as a very paradoxical and complicated society and not simplify it.

Jim was talking about the situation within Iran. People voted for reformists not so much about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but against the hardliners. And as he mentioned, the reason they are now disenchanted with the reform movement is because they could not stand up to the hardliners.

So I think the West should put the pressure where the pressure should be, which is on the hardliners, because the society as a whole is very disenchanted with the regime and we don't want the people to become too utterly demoralized.

RODGERS: Has the West been getting a good picture of the feminist issues in Iran?

NAFISI: I don't think the West has been doing all it can in relation to feminist issues in Iran. The West should understand that this regime, by putting women in the spotlight, has also made them a very, very important force for change, and Iranian women, no matter what religion they have, they are behind this change and it would have been fantastic had the West been more active in supporting the women's movement.

RODGERS: Jim, let me ask you, how difficult is it for a Western reporter or a non-Iranian reporter to cover Iran?

MUIR: Well, it's certainly not easy, Walter.

Apart from anything else, there's a lot of bureaucracy, there's a lot of control imposed through the use of visas. For example, for next week's election we would like quite a number of people to come here to help out during the election and we've only got one so far. We're hoping for more. There is, as I say, a lot of bureaucracy. Quite a fair measure of control.

But you would be surprised how much you can achieve. It just takes longer and more effort than it would in some other places. Things are possible. You'd be surprised at what you can do here, but you've got to have the right bit of paper in your hand, and if you haven't got that you will get picked up by somebody, taken away, a couple of hours of questioning, lots of tea and all the rest of it. But you will get badly delayed. So bureaucracy, delays. But you can do things here.

RODGERS: Jim, what would you like to cover in Iran that you can't do because of the bureaucracy, because of the totalitarian aspects of the state?

MUIR: I would like to say not a lot, really, Walter.

We've just finished making a one-hour documentary on a very sensitive subject. People thought we wouldn't be able to do it. We have done it. We didn't get access to everything we wanted. Some officials simply wouldn't talk to us, gave us the run around and so on. But we got the job done as well as we could.

I wouldn't say there's anything out there that I'm frustrated because I haven't been able to get at. You can get at it. Maybe not as well as you'd like to, but then in almost any country you can think of, including the United Kingdom and the United States, there are subjects that are very difficult to get into. People clam up for one reason or another.

So I would say in that respect, it's not that different here from other places, although there are some subjects where you are treading on very thin ice because of security considerations and so on. So as in most countries, there are taboos, there are redlines, you've just got to try and sail as close to the wind as you can. But I wouldn't be here if you couldn't do quite a lot.

RODGERS: Azar, last question. President Khatami said that Iran could go, the Afghan model of fundamentalist extremist route. It could go a middle road with reform. Which way do you think it's going to be?

NAFISI: I don't think that these are the only choices. I think that even if the hardliners win, the dissatisfaction within the society and the advanced nature of the forces within that society are too strong for Iran definitely to go the Afghan way. I think there's no comparison to Iran and Afghanistan.

I do think that Iran can go the way of change, of fundamental change, because these forces might be demoralized and momentarily pushed aside, but they're not going away. And within the hardliners, even, there are sort of doubts and vacillations.

This is a regime that is crumbling from within, not from without, and that is what is so important about Iran and makes it different from any country in the Middle East or in the Muslim world.

RODGERS: Azar Nafisi, Jim Muir, looking into your crystal balls, it appears Iran is a clouded picture still and yet. Thank you so much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, journalism or reality TV? How one reported investigated hunger in Africa by starving himself.

Stay with us.



It's a very unique approach to tell a story, be the story and live it. That's what one journalist did to explain the ongoing battle with hunger in Ethiopia. Award-winning correspondent Sorious Samura went virtually without food himself alongside the Ethiopians.


SORIOUS SAMURA, JOURNALIST: My legs can't quite carry me. We've not eaten anything since this morning, we we're really tired. These are the only things you can find to eat during this trip. I don't know the names, but they're flowers that these guys are eating. They're eating it -- is this what everybody (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that is all you're going to make in this trip.


RODGERS: And while this documentary offers some incredible insights into life as an Ethiopian, some may question whether this new genre of reality TV reporting has merit.

Joining me now are Sorious Samura and freelance journalist Tim Lambon.

Sorious, I need to begin by asking you, is this news or is it entertainment?

SAMURA: You know, I don't think that as far as I am concerned -- I think it's about time -- I don't think there is anything wrong with this format. I think it's about time we try and understand that there is huge competition as far as telling the story of far away Africa is concerned. And therefore, I am convinced that we have to put up with the competition, we can't shy away from the competition, but in order to do this, we have to make sure that we use -- even if you say it's unique method, but we have to use an approach. There is no one single approach to telling the stories about Africa.

There are so many ways that you can go into understanding what is happening in the developing world.

RODGERS: Tim, legitimate journalistic technique, or entertainment?

TIM LAMBON, JOURNALIST: Well, I work a lot in hard news, and I have to say that I don't think that this is a legitimate way of telling the story, because in the end what it does is it focuses the viewer on the personality that is telling the story, that is suffering along with the Ethiopians, and the problem is that it doesn't give you any context.

We don't know the history of the cycle of poverty in Ethiopia that has led to the situation that these people find themselves in now, unable to feed themselves, unable to get enough food aid from the government, et cetera.

So it doesn't give you the context. It doesn't actually take you into where the people are. What you see is Sorious's hunger, and that's interesting in and of itself. It doesn't tell you about the problem.

RODGERS: Sorious.

SAMURA: I think this is where I find it completely the opposite of what Tim is saying.

In the past, we have seen so many stories from Africa and we have always been just about the Westerners looking from the top down. And you don't get the details.

You know, if you look at Live Aid you will see that yes, it was good that some of that Live Aid happened, that it was brought up, but what was lacking were the details about who these people are, names of who these people are, so people can engage. And what we have thought of using is to make sure that we make this important story interesting by making sure that first of all we dignify these people, because in the past, whenever you get stories covered about Africans, all you get is these huge headline negative stories about Africans who are dying in the millions.

How they survive, how they cope, the details, you never quite get them, and this is why we decided that in order to get these details, you have to live with these people, and in order to live with these people, you've got to gain their trust. And when you gain their trust, then you the journalist living there, you'll be able, through you people will be able to follow you on this journey, because it's about a journey. It's about taking these people across.

RODGERS: Are you suggesting only black African reporters are capable of doing a good job with black African stories?

SAMURA: Maybe not, but you know, I have worked with Tim together and he knows the huge problems that are in African as far as trust is concerned. You know, in the past, you know, Africans have always felt that Western media had told stories about them from their own perspective and never giving the African perspective, the details, and that has created that element of mistrust.

RODGERS: So that's a yes to my question, isn't it?

SAMURA: Somehow, I think it's making a difference. In fact, I must say that this is the saddest part of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that Africans have never quite been trusted with telling their own story. This is the first time that we think, just like Europeans, like Americans, like Australians, Africans should be entrusted and allowed to tell their own stories, and we can see that the focus will be different.

RODGERS: So you don't like reality TV news?

LAMBON: I'm afraid that I don't like the involvement of the reporter as the focus of the story. I think the people are important in this, and the people are the focus of the story, and a lot of the people were peripheral to Sorious's starving story. They weren't the central image.

RODGERS: But we've seen that so much through television in the last 15 or 20 years, where the White House correspondent becomes the story himself. And the correspondent in Serbia becomes the story, or the correspondent in Iraq becomes the story. You can't hang this on poor Sorious, can you?

LAMBON: No, no. It's not a personal thing at all. Sorious and I, as he said, have worked together a lot. I don't think it's that particular thing, but I do think that this is borrowing from the entertainment industry.

Anthropologists will have to tell us where this comes from and what it says about our society, that we have to continually watch other people doing all sorts of things in the reality TV genre, and basically what that is doing is trying to get the ratings. And Sorious, I'm sure, would argue that this pulls more people in to watch the documentary and therefore elucidates, illuminates the issue to people out there that wouldn't be reached if it wasn't reality TV. I agree with him. That is true.

However, I think that it is a duplicitous way of reporting the details and getting the story out there.

SAMURA: But I think we have to accept one fact, Walter. There are things that one can learn from reality TV and that for me, clearly, is that, you know, looking at reality TV, it has proven that once you take real people and put them in extraordinary situations, they tend to do extraordinary things.

What we're trying to do here is to make sure that we don't fall victim of this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) celebrity, because that is what is wrong, but I think it's a useful tool, real reality, to make sure that you can engage people, because what you actually want is to make sure that they get the details.

RODGERS: Sorious Samura, Tim Lambon, thanks so very much.

And you can catch "Surviving Hunger" on CNN at these times.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune it again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Thanks for joining us.



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