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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 13, 2004 - 23:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin this week with the tragedy and carnage that engulfed Spain in what's become the worst terrorist atrocity in the country's history.

Some 200 people were killed Thursday, around 1,400 wounded. Spanish authorities have been quick to blame the Basque separatist group ETA, but possible links with al Qaeda are not being ruled out.

I'm joined here in the studio by Anna Romero, correspondent with "El Mundo" newspaper and CNN's senior international correspondent Sheila MacVicar.

First of all, Anna, is it in the Spanish government's interest to believe that this was ETA?

ANNA ROMERO, "EL MUNDO": I wouldn't say it's in their interest to believe ETA. I would say that it changes fundamentally what the outcome of this Sunday's elections could be, and it changes fundamentally the whole political picture in Spain.

SWEENEY: Sheila MacVicar, there has been a lot of controversy and continuing debate about who is behind these attacks. In your mind, does it bare the hallmarks of ETA?

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: I think in looking at the past with ETA, ETA has targeted civilians in the past. The biggest attack prior to this '87 in Barcelona.

At that time, they apologized, admitted responsibility and said they had made a mistake. Here you have the deliberate targeting of commuters, rush hour traffic. There can be no question of what their intent was and who their target was. So if it was ETA, something fundamental has taken place within the group. There is no warning, no admission of responsibility. Those are things that we've come to associate with ETA in the past.

There are things that point in a different direction, and as Anna has pointed out, it can make it potentially very difficult for the Spanish government in this Sunday's elections. If this attack is now seen to be the work of an outside force of al Qaeda, then what that calls into question are the foreign policies of the government and the track that this government has pursued.

SWEENEY: In a country that has already has a huge anti-war momentum for quite some time.

ROMERO: 90 percent of the Spanish people were against the war in Iraq, and as you know (UNINTELLIGIBLE) had to go to Parliament to get a vote, so he did it just for himself. He decided to go to war, and he went to war against the will of the majority of the Spanish people, so it would obviously be very difficult for him now if this were al Qaeda.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you about something the foreign minister of Spain was very quick to assert after the bombings, and that was that ETA was not a Basque separatist group, it was a terrorist group, and she was quite adamant about this in many parts of the media where she spoke on the day itself and since.

ROMERO: That's very interesting. The foreign minister and generally the Spanish authorities and more and more the Spanish people who read the foreign media, they get very angry, especially now, when they read separatist group. I mean, you would never say al Qaeda is a religious group. And that is the same point.

Another problem and another misconception and another mistake that you see a lot outside Spain is that people refer to ETA has having a problem with Spain. No. ETA wants an independent state that is part of France and Spain, three territories in Spain, three territories in France, so it's not a problem with Spain, it's a problem with two European Union countries.

SWEENEY: Sheila, you've been covering terrorism for quite some time now internationally. What strikes you about this terrorism-at-large catch- all phrase?

MACVICAR: I think several things. First off, this is the first time we're seeing in Europe this sort of grand scale that we have seen elsewhere.

If this is in fact not ETA, then what this speaks to is great organization, the ability to plan, the ability to carryout surveillance, the ability to move people. And remember, this is -- Spain has been a country where there has particularly over the last year-and-a-half been a real crackdown on ETA and its activists.

If, on the other hand, al Qaeda, as an example, as been able to move into Spain, to go from having logistic cells, which were operational in 2001, to basically move beyond the big investigation which has been carried out by Spanish judicial authorities into al Qaeda activities in Spain, to replenish those people, to replenish them with activists who then can source detonators, explosives, plan and carry this out, that suggests a number of things.

And what is most worrisome about it, looking around at the reaction of other European governments today, what's worrisome is it suggests that al Qaeda is again in an operational mode and is preparing to strike in Europe.

SWEENEY: I suppose on a more philosophical note, the term terrorism, for example, in the Irish Republic, the IRA were rarely referred to in the media, if ever, as terrorists -- in some parts of the media, perhaps.

We hear the former president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, refer to the rebels in his country as terrorists. Since 9-11, there does seem to be quite a hardening or a polarization of views from authorities vis--vis rebels or terrorists or separatists.

MACVICAR: I don't think there can be any question the people who are responsible for what happened on Thursday by anyone's definition are terrorists.

Whatever their aim is, if they are waging a political struggle through means of terrorism as ETA has done, if this is an Islamist extremist organization linked somehow perhaps to al Qaeda, whatever their motive, whatever their justification, however they have set their own boundaries, these people clearly were operating as terrorists. Their targets were innocent civilians.

ROMERO: Absolutely. I mean, as I said before, for many years we've been calling ETA a separatist group. ETA is not a separatist group. ETA is a terrorist group. There are Basques who are nationalists and they want separation from Spain, and they are separatist. And the mistake is not to know that PNB (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE), which is a moderate, nonviolent party, some of the people who are part of the party, they are separatists.

So I know it's very hard, because when you're a foreign journalist and you go to a country, you have to cover things fast and it's much easier to put everything in the same sort of package, but I think after what happened yesterday, it is very important that now the foreign media starts calling things by its name and starts understanding what ETA really is and what ETA really wants.

SWEENEY: Anna Romero, Sheila MacVicar, thank you both very much.

And after the break, the president and the press. How Vladimir Putin's firm grip on the Russian media may effect his election campaign.

Stay with us.



The small naval base of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is a big blot on America's image abroad, at least that's what many human rights campaigners and much of the world media say. The release from there of five British detainees dominated the headlines here in Britain, but the same cannot be said for much of the American press.

Some argue there's not enough critical reporting coming from the United States on this controversial story.

Joining me now from Washington, D.C. is one of those critics, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from "Newsweek," Roy Goodman.

Roy, first of all, you've been watching the press coverage here in Britain of the detainees homecoming. How does that differ or is that in any way reflected in the American press?

ROY GOODMAN, "NEWSWEEK": Well, it's night and day. The British press is to some degree sensationalizing the story. The American press is really underplaying it.

SWEENEY: Is the lack of coverage in America about Guantanamo Bay, is that self-censorship on the part of the press, or is it really reflecting a lack of appetite among the American public for the story?

GOODMAN: It's incomprehensible to me. Here we have a case of a sequestered prison where people are held in complete, you know, quite and seclusion, where we cannot get to. The U.S. government has invented reasons of security for denying any access. They have denied these people any kind of due process, any kind of procedure up until now, although I think something is about to start. And the American press is far from banging on the doors and demanding access and demanding responses, demanding answers, I think has been largely quiescent.

Very hard to understand, but I think it's that the administration has managed this very well, from their perspective. From a human rights perspective, from a civil liberties perspective, I think it's a disaster.

SWEENEY: What do you say to those who would argue that a small curtailment of civil liberties is a small price to pay so that we don't see events such as we've seen in Madrid, Spain?

GOODMAN: Well, I suppose that civil liberties, as we enjoyed them before 9/11, will never quite return in that form. And I think everybody realizes that our very openness as a society has made us vulnerable to attacks by people trying to destroy the society.

So some restrictions, I think, are going to be part of the picture, but I think that any government, any administration, has got to justify what it's doing, has to have its feet held to the fire, has to answers questions at every point, and in the case of Guantanamo, we're dealing with individuals, human beings, some of whom were caught -- by some happenstance they were in the wrong place at the wrong time -- some of whom may very well be for all I know terrorists.

But in any case, they're individual cases, and everyone should be dealt with as an individual. The administration has claimed that they're all hardened criminals, and as we can tell from the people who have now come out, both these three Afghanis who were written about and the five Brits, the fact that they've all been released to their homes by their home governments suggests they were not criminals, they were not terrorists, they at most may have been combatants, but in most cases probably not even that.

SWEENEY: All right, Roy Goodman, there we'll leave it. Thank you very much indeed for joining us from Washington, D.C.

The Russian people go to the polls this weekend to vote for their president. President Putin has consistently held a strong lead in the polls. While his popularity ratings remain at around 70 percent, some argue it is his steely grip on the press that's helped him get where he is and stay there.

Chantelle Stein (ph) has more.


CHANTELLE STEIN (ph), CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): All these powerful men know the power of television, especially in an election year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is no exception. But unlike his counterparts, almost all television stations in Russia are largely under government control, and for Russian journalists like Sergey Briliov (ph), this is not without its challenges.

SERGEY BRILIOV (ph), RUSSIAN JOURNALIST: You do have to enter a dialogue with them and to convince them, no, we'd rather do that. And their preferences of commanding does not mean that we obey all the time. You try to convince the government, you try to convince yourself, you have to -- you do have to compromise.

STEIN (ph): Unlike his predecessors, President Putin has used television very efficiently. Some say its his television savvy that helped win him his presidency in the first place. Yet under his watch, controls of this medium have increased significantly, raising many eyebrows, especially internationally.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the importance of a free press in Russia.

Looking at the nightly newscast on Russian television, little overt censorship seems to exist. While almost all the bulletins do indeed begin with the president, the focus is on his day to day activities as the head of state, not just on his election campaign.

Still, some claim it's all in the subtleties, subtleties reminiscent of Soviet-style broadcasts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're seeing an increasingly powerful almost cult of personality around Putin. Real blanket coverage of him, of his achievements, of his excellence as leader. We're not seeing coverage, particularly not sympathetic coverage, of other political points of view and of other political players.

Put together, it creates a very monotonous, singular, Kremlin- influenced voice in the media.

STEIN (ph): Television remains the primary source of news for the vast majority of the Russian people. While newspapers, the Internet and even some radio stations enjoy large degrees of independence, for President Putin it's television that counts, especially in the run up to the elections.

Chantelle Stein (ph), CNN, London.


SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the liberal press in America, a thing of the past? One newspaper's hopes to change that.

Find out more when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

How healthy is America's liberal press? Many argue it's a thing of the past. One Web-based publication is hoping to revive it, but this may prove a daunting task, especially with an administration who, at the best of times, is wary of the media.

I'm joined from Washington now by former Clinton advisor, Sidney Blumenthal. He's the new bureau chief for in Washington. Salon just announced an alliance with the "Guardian" newspaper of London and Air America Radio Network.

And in New York, Ken Auletta, reporter at "The New Yorker."

My first question to you, Sidney Blumenthal, why do you think there's no serious political reportage in the United States?

SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL, SALON.COM: I think there's a good deal of reportage, but as Ken wrote in a brilliant article in "The New Yorker," there's been a lot of intimidation by the Bush administration of White House reporters and political reporters generally. In order for them to get their storyline out and to control their themes, they've been essentially at war with the press corps, and it's very important, I feel, to create an atmosphere for unintimidated news, to report effectively and accurately what's going on.

And some of this requires going around the official sources and around the way in which reporters are bound and circumscribed when they're stuck in a pressroom and have to operate under rules that are controlled by others, and when the others also don't want them to report certain things.

SWEENEY: Ken Auletta, in New York, is this White House really as impregnable as you suggest? And is this something that will change if there is a change in administration, or is it part of a longer-term developing trend?

KEN AULETTA, "THE NEW YORKER": The piece I wrote for "The New Yorker" was called "Fortress Bush," and the point of the piece was that they try to keep the press out of the White House as best they can. They've had only 11 press conferences. And their view of the press is the press is a special interest and doesn't represent the common interest, and therefore they don't have to talk to them.

Now, will that change? It changes some as Bush poll numbers get worse or you have more friction within the administration, you start seeing more leaks. But essentially the Bush White House's position -- what I've found is different about this White House than other White House's, every White House complains about the press and every press corps complains about the White House. What's different is that they've had more control over leaks, because they're more disciplined, and they have a very charged attitude, which basically says that we think you do not represent the press, don't represent the public, and therefore we don't have to talk to you.

SWEENEY: And to what extent, Ken, do you believe that self- censorship is coming into it on the part of journalists who want to stay on good terms with the White House?

AULETTA: I think anytime you have a tough parent, you tend to react accordingly, and I think the Bush administration has been very tough towards the press, and I think the press oftentimes try to curry favor, curry sources. I mean, I have reporters complaining to me that when they went on a nine-day trip to Asia, one of the reasons they made that expenditure, to go with Bush to Asia, was to try and meet some sources who work in the White House.

And they said in nine days, they met no one, because the Bush administration, basically, their people, they take pride in not talking to the press. That's the press secretary's job, they say. We don't have to talk to the press. We have a job to do, which is governing.

Well, that, I think, is not a right attitude, but that's the attitude they have, and they keep reporters out, and reporters inevitably, as any human being will try to do -- you try to make your parent like you again. And I think the press in general, not always, has been a little too soft on the Bush administration.

SWEENEY: Sidney Blumenthal, these are quite some challenges that you face in your publication, just now, so how do you intend to go about this?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, I think that Ken is right, that there's a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that goes on. I saw it when I was in the Clinton White House as well, although we didn't engage in these kinds of intimidating actions. We didn't call up -- as has been documented -- we didn't have administration officials calling up network executives or corporate owners of networks or newspapers to complain and try and suppress individual reporters.

This is a general political method of the Bush White House and I think it needs airing, it needs reporting. We need to report more. We need more enterprise journalism about how the Bush White House operates, the consequences of its actions, holding it accountable for its policies.

SWEENEY: And is the Internet a way of allowing you to do that?


BLUMENTHAL: Well, you know, the Internet is a new media and like print it can be anything. It can range from, where we're setting up the new White House bureau, where we adhere to professional standards, all the way to beyond the edge to places like Drudge, that adhere to no standards whatsoever.

I think you have to know exactly where you're going and have a judgment about what these sources of information are in order to be able to evaluate them.

But, you know, there are some individual reporters in the mainstream press who have been very enterprising and they've broken with the pack. You know, too often the pack has licked the hand that doesn't feed it, and those reporters that have broken with the pack have been the ones who have not been in this herd and haven't been the ones who have been forces to shuttle here and there in the White House press corps for the most part.

SWEENEY: Ken Auletta, a final question to you. What do you make of the procedures now that many newspapers are adopting, where sources have to be on the record? How does that effect covering the White House?

AULETTA: Well, it's a very noble-in-theory idea, and the question is whether it will work. I mean, the Bush administration is very tough- minded about this, and so the question is, will the "New York Times" or "Washington Post," which takes this stance, will it impede the information they provide their readers. I think it's worth a shot, because I think you should try and get as much as you can on the record.

But there are some things you can't get on the record, and you may learn some valuable things by not having them on the record, by having them on what's called a background and not for attribution basis. There's nothing wrong with that, unless it's done to excess, and obviously the Bush administration, what little they talk to the press, they sometimes try to do it on a background basis.

I've had people, when I did my interviews with the Bush administration, say that after I did the interview, on the record, I tape all of them, they said to me later, that was all off the record, and I said like heck it was.

SWEENEY: All right. There we have to leave it. Thank you very much indeed Ken Auletta, in New York, Sidney Blumenthal, in Washington.

And that is 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 Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Thanks for joining us.



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