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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 6, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


JEREMY BOWEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Jeremy Bowen, from the BBC. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
In this edition, should the French media have exposed the terrorist threat to their country? Some in government say they've hindered more than they've helped. Plus the entire group of "Big Brother" housemates are evicted from their house in Bahrain. We find out who voted them out and why, and ask whether reality TV has a place in the Middle East.

But first.


GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm George W. Bush and I approved this message.



BOWEN: This week, U.S. President George W. Bush launched his general election advertising campaign. Many see it as an integral tool in Mr. Bush's arsenal and a way to go above the press, taking his message straight to the public.

To talk about that, we're joined from Washington, D.C. by Michael Franc, who's vice president of the Heritage Foundation.

First of all, Michael, tell me, does the Bush administration trust the newspapers and the TV networks?

MICHAEL FRANC, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: In some ways yes and some ways no. I think overall, any president, and that includes for example President Clinton, would prefer to be able to have a direct line of communication into the living rooms of the average American voter, and in doing that, with that desire, they tend to find media strategies that allow them to do as much of that as possible.

That means you have very carefully scripted presidential moments of exposure to the press. They only answer the questions they want to answer. They limit the visuals to the visuals that they want and try to deny the media any other chance to portray the president in another light, maybe less favorable.

And in terms of buying ad time, to give you a good example, in the 1996 election, President Clinton was masterful at buying ad time in secondary media markets. He avoided New York. He avoided Washington. And he avoided Los Angeles, and he spoke directly to different key voter groups for several months under the radar of the mainstream media. They didn't really pick it up until after it all had happened. And that was an integral part of his ability to be able to put Senator Bob Dole, his opponent in '96, away relatively early in that election cycle.

So President Bush is going to have a similar.

BOWEN: But isn't it the case though that there is a degree of mistrust between the Bush people and the press, some suspicion.


BOWEN: . that leading reporters harbor liberal sensibilities, which they certainly wouldn't agree with.

FRANC: Right. That's the premise of a lot of the targeting that goes on in their ad buying campaigns and the way in which they try to script their various public events.

Having said that, I think in America, though, the last four or five years, the media markets themselves have become a little bit more segmented in the sense that conservatives have outlets that they tend to gravitate toward. Moderates and liberals maybe gravitate toward other outlets. It's almost like a gerrymander, which is a way of carefully defining different media niches that didn't exist as readily even just one or two presidential cycles ago.

So if you're sitting in the situation room for either the Kerry campaign or the Bush campaign, I think you're better able to try to craft a very targeted strategy to get to certain voter groups and hit a particular message. The Hispanic media in America, for example, is a little bit more developed now than it used to be, and President Bush has already in his first round of ads unveiled a Spanish language ad, and that's going to be a very common box to check and every media strategy from now on at the presidential level.

BOWEN: Surely one of the problems in trying to advertise the president is that the president is a very known commodity. People already have perhaps quite strong opinions about the president. How effective are these very expensive adverts in actually changing voters perceptions?

FRANC: I think even though President Bush has 100 percent name ID with the American people, you can never do enough self-definition. It's always important for a candidate to define himself the way he wants to be defined to the voters that he wants to attract to his cause. And President Bush has had six or seven weeks now of basically giving John Kerry and his opponents in the Democratic primary a honeymoon. And they were able to define themselves the way they wanted to be defined and because they were very much in the mode of attacking George Bush the entire time, they spent seven weeks defining George Bush for the average American voter.

This period now is the beginning of George Bush's chance to respond to that.


BOWEN: There's been controversy, hasn't there, about the use of images of 9/11 in the first Bush advertisements. It's a fair criticism, isn't it? Isn't 9/11 supposed to belong to everybody in America?

FRANC: See, I think after the last couple of months where there was an unshakeable effort by the Democrats to define John Kerry as a war hero and use the Vietnam War to his advantage in trying to avoid potential pitfalls in his voting record on security issues, it seems only fair that given that Bush has been the commander-in-chief of the armed forces for the last three years that he's allowed to discuss the terrorist attacks, how he's responded to it, and he's trying to define himself in a way that allows the average voter to think that he's handled this very trying time very well. We've come through it and he deserves credit for his leadership skills and being the commander-in-chief.

So if you take that off the table and if you don't allow George W. Bush to talk about that, it seems unfair to allow John Kerry and his surrogates to talk about the Vietnam War and his six-month experience in the Mekong Delta.

BOWEN: So why do you think some of the 9/11 families are then so angry about it?

FRANC: It may be more on the particulars of those ads, maybe the imagery that's involved.

It seems to me that if I were -- and I lost several friends in the attacks -- that you're looking for someone that understood that gravity of the situation and was willing to change everything in response to that, and not let any of the preexisting rules get in the way of what we needed to do to properly respond to those attacks. And I guess I can understand that there's a sense you don't want to take advantage of this, but frankly this is an essential element, maybe the essential element, of what's happened in the first Bush term, the last 2-1/2 years. It's defining George W. Bush. And if he can't talk about that, he might as well, you know, he might as well just fold up his tent and go back to Crawford, Texas.

BOWEN: All right, Michael Franc, vice percent of the Heritage Foundation, thanks very much for joining us today.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, France's terrorist threat exposed. Some in government are pointing fingers at the press.

Don't go away.



BOWEN: But you're not saying this was your exclusive though, are you?


BOWEN: You had the information, you were the only people, and you went with the story because it was.


GRESBERT (ph): The only one in France. Because most of them didn't want to publish the information, probably because they have good relationship with the minister. We don't have to have any good or bad relationships with the minister. We have to do our job and our job is to publish information even when this information is not very in favor of the government.

BOWEN: Now you're saying that other newspapers did have some information as a matter of fact.

GRESBERT (ph): Some of them had, yes, five, two, I don't know, two, three, four, five, not more than that. Even so.

BOWEN: But they decided not to go with it and you did, that was the difference, wasn't it? Because they were worried about national security.

GRESBERT (ph): Because they know that if they publish the information they will not have further information on other investigations, on other items, you know, and we don't have to get involved in that. We're in Toulouse and we are not, as we say, in the Paris microcosm, where journalists and politics are very much very often together to decide not to publish such and such information. We don't have to get involved in such things.

BOWEN: How do you balance -- tell me, sir, how do you balance the needs of the public to know, their right to know, with the duty the government has to try to safeguard the population?

GRESBERT (ph): But listen, how can you image that for about three months there were risks of having bombs on the railway track and suddenly because we give information we increase the risk? I have the feeling that -- we decided to publish the information when we knew that the rendezvous for the ransom had failed and we knew that the contact was lost, and then we decided to publish, you know.

BOWEN: Jean-Christophe Gresbert (ph), thanks very much for joining us today.

GRESBERT (ph): OK. Bye-bye.

BOWEN: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, "Big Brother" falls out of favor in the Middle East, but should the reality TV show have been broadcast there in the first place?

Stay with us.


BOWEN: Welcome back.

Some call reality television the worst of the west, but that hasn't stopped "Big Brother" moving to the Middle East. The show found more foes than it did fans in the Arab region. This week, all of the housemates were evicted, and not through votes.

Less than two weeks into the show, controversy got so heated that NBC pulled the program. The station bowed to pressure from Islamists and from the Bahrain Information Ministry.

So does this kind of programming have a place in Arab society?

Joining me here now in the studio is Baria Alamuddin, who is foreign editor of "Al Hayat" and Walid Abu Murshid, who is senior editor at "Al- Sharq al-Awsat" newspaper.

Thanks very much for coming in today.


BOWEN: Baria, what did you make of reality TV in the Middle East?

ALAMUDDIN: I must say, I'm somebody who is against forbidding anything. I'm somebody for total freedom, but freedom that is responsible freedom, meaning that these reality TV's are not my type of programs. However, one finds out that they attract many, many viewers and millions of viewers. And I must add that NBC has not actually pulled this altogether. It has stopped for the time being. They might move it and it might resume.

BOWEN: So maybe waiting for a better time.

ALAMUDDIN: Absolutely.

BOWEN: Walid, they had separate male and female living rooms, single sex prayer rooms, no cameras in the bathrooms, no dancing marathons, which they've had in some incarnations of "Big Brother." What was wrong with that?

WALID ABU MURSHID, "AL-SHARQ AL-AWSAT": Nothing wrong with that, but what is wrong is that the whole idea is anathema to the Middle Eastern traditions, especially to what you call the Islamists and the traditionalists.

Besides, it's a blatant invasion of privacy and privacy that in the Middle East is kept much more than.


BOWEN: They didn't have to be on the show. People probably competed to be on the show.


MURSHID: Exactly.

BOWEN: So you say it's an invasion of privacy. If people volunteered to have their policy invaded, what's the problem with that?

MURSHID: I'm talking in a general way. I mean, for me I find that somebody offering to give up his privacy willingly or for some kind of a reward at the end of the show is not something I would agree with.

BOWEN: Baria, does this mean that at least in this small battle the onward march of Western so-called culture has been at least halted?

ALAMUDDIN: But only, I must tell you, we have many other television shows to do exactly the same thing, except they're not being done in Bahrain. They're not filmed in Bahrain.

BOWEN: You have other reality TV shows, you mean.

ALAMUDDIN: Yes, absolutely.


ALAMUDDIN: There have been one or two and they're very popular and you see people -- presumably the show was stopped because one of the contestants kissed another on the cheeks to say hello, and that enraged some, as you called them, Islamists, or whatever, and they had to stop the show, and there was some demonstrations. I must add that some people in Bahrain suggest it was against the economy because it was employing people.

My point here is, why do you view a program that is being aired from Beirut and not allow it in Bahrain? For me, this is hypocrisy. If you see it, if you watch it while it's being done in Beirut, then you might as well let it happen in Bahrain.

I want to say something else, Jeremy, which is very important. The Middle East is undergoing a lot of transformation. There is a lot of debate going on about these programs and other things. There are these people who want to stick strictly to Sharia and of course people interpret Sharia in many different ways. And other people who want to say no, hold on, the Koran doesn't say this.

Actually it is people who are interpreting it in a different way. What we should do is respect our customs, our identity, our religion, but also move forward.

BOWEN: Walid, does making progress -- does change mean becoming more Western?

MURSHID: That sounds maybe, but I would say that the problem with this program was that it was an unsuccessful transplant from a Western TV station to an Arab or Middle Eastern one. And the problem with our Middle Eastern television is that they would rather imitate than initiative a program of their own.

And by imitating, they discard the values of the region, the traditions of the region. And this is the problem that they have had with transplanting this program into a Middle Eastern series.

BOWEN: Baria, some commentators in the Arab world have long.


MURSHID: . liberalizing, democratizing, the Middle East. But this should be done gradually and step by step in an enlightened way. Not give them this kind of shock of a program that, as you say, is not worth seeing, not even in the West. And arouse the feelings of lots of traditionalists and Islamists. And this anyway doesn't -- it means that whenever you are against certain values in the West, it might spread over all the other values which are good values, like democracy and human rights and so on.

BOWEN: Baria, last one to you. Do you think that reality TV has a future in the Arabic-speaking world?

ALAMUDDIN: Yes, I think it does. I think it's happening. I think it's there. As I said, there are other programs and people watch them.

My only hope is that when people do these programs, they do take into account the religion, they do take into account the customs of the people and the culture of the people. There is nothing wrong with anything if you take it and adapt it to what you believe in, and I think this is a global village. You cannot stop people watching it on other television stations.

So this is why moving it from one country to another is not going to change it, and statistic say people are watching it with vigor.

BOWEN: Baria, Walid, thanks so much for joining us.

MURSHID: Thank you -- Jeremy.

ALAMUDDIN: Thank you.

BOWEN: Before we go, a tribute to a journalistic legend. The BBC hosts Alistair Cook is signing off after 58 years filing his letters from America.

The 95-year-old is retiring, because he's 95, and Cook only missed three broadcasts in around 3,000 programs during his tenure at the BBC.

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

I'm Jeremy Bowen, in London. Thanks for joining us.



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