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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 20, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET


SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin in Spain where the political fallout of the Madrid bombing was growing. Now the media are lashing out. Many in the local and international press are criticizing the then-government of Jose Maria Aznar. They say they were manipulated to follow the line that ETA were the prime suspects in the attacks and not Islamists linked to al Qaeda.

I'm joined in Madrid by Giles Tremlett, correspondent with Britain's "Guardian" newspaper and Ernesto Ekiza (ph), senior editor at "El Pais."

Ernesto, let me begin with you. This has been an extraordinary story, the notion that the Spanish prime minister is on the phone minutes, literally, it seems, after that explosion, days before an election, and saying, we know who did it and it was ETA. Did "El Pais" get such a phone call?

ERNESTO EKIZA (ph), "EL PAIS": Yes, of course.

The call was directed by Aznar personally to, you know, to assert that it was ETA and nobody else than ETA. It's better not too thorough. You know, some manipulate the news that we are circulating at that time. You know, that in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Mr. Arnoldo Kegy (ph), which is related to a legal group now but (UNINTELLIGIBLE) he mentioned immediately at 9:30 that Thursday that it was not a time. Perhaps he speculates that it was an expression of the Arab resistance.

MACVICAR: And I understand, Giles, it wasn't just the Spanish press that was getting these phone calls. It was also you in the foreign press that were getting phone calls from the Spanish president.

GILES TREMLETT, "GUARDIAN": That's absolutely true.

I and many of my colleagues were called on Thursday afternoon, I think the calls came in between 5:00 and 7:00 in the afternoon, telling us that the government was convinced it was ETA, giving us their reasons why they were convinced it was ETA, which included proof of the type of explosives used. That was meant to be an ETA type of explosive that has since turned out to be not quite as accurate as we thought, let's say, being generous, and also what struck me as a rather extraordinary argument, which was that ETA did not always give warnings before its attacks.

Now if you consider that ETA has killed 850 people over 35 years, that's a very obvious line of argument. And I have to say, when I heard that, I began to wonder at the very least whether the government wanted it to be ETA.

MACVICAR: Now, Giles, I mean, you raise the question, this is clearly a very sensitive time, just 48 hours before the polling stations opened on Sunday for the vote. Did it cross your mind or cross the minds of your colleagues that if it were ETA it would be much better for the government of Jose Maria Aznar than if it were Islamists who could be challenging his foreign policy?

TREMLETT: Yes, Sheila. I think we were all very aware at that stage that if it was ETA, the scenario was likely to be more favorable to the government, to the ruling party. Similarly, we were all aware that if it was al Qaeda or a radical Islamist group, the scenario was likely to play towards the Socialists.

Certainly at the beginning of Thursday, early on Thursday, both parties were talking about unity, that they had to show a joint front, and it looked for a while as if they were going to stick to that, but I have to say by the end of Thursday, certainly on Friday and through to Saturday, there is no doubt that the issue of who did it became not just a police issue, a practical issue, it became a political one.

MACVICAR: And, Ernesto, if I can ask you, how did you begin to see this question of responsibility for these attacks and the government claim, insistence in fact, that it had to be ETA play out?

EKIZA (ph): Let me tell you that. You know, the textbook of intoxication of manipulation, the classic one says that the government can manipulate the press. But this is not a case of manipulating the press, because in answering your question, you have the main great story in the afternoon of Thursday, the minister of foreign affairs here, Signor Ana Palaacio, sent a message to all the embassies throughout the world and especially to the ambassador of Spain at the United Nations, claiming that the condemnation must be with the name and the surname -- it must be (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with the word ETA.

You have Mr. Lavrov, which is the Russian ambassador, he opposed. He said normally a resolution by the Security Council at the United Nations don't need to get to that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and it was a very, very strong discussion, and Spain was absolutely intransigent. They need ETA.

And in that case, you ask why. I mean, why you need a worldwide chain, people throughout the world, saying ETA? My explanation is that when you have three days general elections so important like the Sunday (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the government thought that if you can contain, you know, the matter of the possibility that it was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or Islamic group, you will buy time and if you construct a wall, a word wall with the word ETA, you will win.

MACVICAR: Ernesto Ekiza (ph), senior editor of "El Pais," Giles Tremlett of the "Guardian" newspaper, thank you both very much for joining me.

Time for a short break, but when we come back, Iraq a year on. Are the press getting the story right?

Don't go away.



First there was the debate over the war in Iraq.


COLIN POWELL, U.S. SECY. OF STATE: Iraq has put itself in deeper material breech.

MACVICAR (voice-over): Not just in diplomatic circles, but in the press as well.

Then the war began, the world's media capturing every milestone. From what the Pentagon called shock and awe to the declaration of the end of major combat.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: We have seen the turning of the tide.

MACVICAR: Then to the capture of Saddam Hussein.

And now the horribly familiar daily attacks.


But as we reflect on a year of covering the war and the occupation, we have to ask, did we get the story right?

To discuss this, I'm joined now by John Snow, "Channel 4 News" anchor, Charles Sennott of the "Boston Globe," and in California, Susan Moeller from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Susan has just published a study on the media and WMD.

Let me begin with you, John. I mean, you have covered this conflict. You've been in and out of Baghdad many times. Is it your sense that we were able to accurately report this story? Or have we -- do you think somehow we were dragged into some great spinning machine that put us in a place where we perhaps did not do our readers and viewers great favors?

JOHN SNOW, CHANNEL 4: Well, let's accept that we are reporting with hindsight now, we're talking with hindsight, and with hindsight, my sense is that in the weeks leading up to the war, we were freer than we thought. I think we -- I personally was able to travel the length and breadth of Iraq in the sort of five or six weeks before the war.

My sense was of a country on its back, of U.N. inspectors largely unimpeded. I traveled around with them quite often. And I -- although I believed there could be weapons of mass destruction, the very concept of weapons of mass destruction was rather an illusionary thing, and I thought they must be talking about nuclear, and I didn't really -- I don't know. I was open to it, but I didn't -- I wasn't convinced.

MACVICAR: I mean, Hans Blix has said that up until a month before the war, he himself believed that there were weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological and nuclear. It only seems to be now that we've heard from David Kay that we seem to know better.

SNOW: Did we ever know what we were talking about? I mean, what is a weapons of mass destruction? I mean, I've learned actually what they were talking about were battlefield chemical and biological weapons, not a weapons of mass destruction. That they in fact accepted there probably never were nuclear weapons.

And yet nuclear weapons is what I was constantly being asked by my news desk and by my viewers to determine.

MACVICAR: Charlie, when you look back over the coverage your newspaper gave to that issue in particular over the course of the prelude to the war, the wartime period, the post-war period, do you think your readers have a good idea now in Boston what the status is or was?

CHARLES SENNOTT, "BOSTON GLOBE": No, I don't. I think we haven't done a good job of admitting to the fact that we all got it largely wrong, that we didn't ask hard enough questions from the very beginning, as John points out, about what are we talking about when we're talking about weapons of mass destruction, and does what they believe exists rise to the level of eminent threat.

And I think our questions were held back a bit. I don't' think we were aggressive enough in the first phase of the war? I think during the war there was some courageous and really heroic reporting that was done. We lost a colleague in the aftermath of the war. There are many news organizations who also lost colleagues. I wouldn't ever want to undercut the risks that journalists take or the hard work they put into covering the war, but in the aggregate, in the big picture, I think we have a lot of room for self-criticism of how we covered it.

I think in the aftermath I'd turn it around. I'd say we have been asking harder questions now, but we haven't been looking at the big picture and I think we kind of missed it on the back end as well in the sense that we've missed out on a lot of important gains that have been made in Iraq and positive developments that have taken place.

MACVICAR: Susan, let me turn to you. This study that you have just completed is an examination of media coverage, specifically of the WMD issue. Do you think that media organizations in Britain and the United States got it wrong? And if we did get it wrong, what were the big important factors?

SUSAN MOELLER, UNIV. OF MARYLAND: I think your two previous guests just identified really two of the major elements of the study. One is a big picture question and that is that in the coverage that I looked at, which was for the most part print, U.S. and British media, although we also looked at public radio in the United States, the media accepted pretty much without question this conflation of the war on terror with the fight against weapons of mass destruction.

So they didn't really push to question the connections between 9/11, Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.

I think John Snow also identified another problem that emerged in the coverage in the study, which was a conflation of WMD, a sort of talking about weapons of mass destruction without breaking that down into not only chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but into categories of threat. You know, were these really weapons of mass destruction or, as John suggested, were these battlefield weapons at best.

The other element of the study was less to do in fact with the content of what the media was talking about, which for the most part, what was said was said accurately, but had to do with journalistic conventions and how particularly in the United States, but also to a degree in Britain, so many of the news stories led with what the president said. The president's administration was able to dominate the narrative.

SENNOTT: That's a key point, I think, that all of us who covered this story realized that you'd be starting to get your head around a very difficult issue and want to really push a story out onto the front page that would challenge the administration's assertions and it would always be topped by the time you actually picked up the paper in the morning with Washington's point of view.

It was -- "The Pentagon denied yesterday" was repeatedly a lead throughout this war, and in the lead up to the war. And I thought that basically this White House understood the 24-hour news cycle the way no the way no White House ha ever understood a 24-hour news cycle. And I think they played it very effectively, and I think we in the media need to be a lot more sophisticated about being sure the stories have the right angle to them and push the story forward without allowing official denial to take us off the track.

MACVICAR: We're going to take a short break. We'll be back with more analysis of how the media reported the conflict in Iraq over the last 12 months.

Don't go away.


MACVICAR: We're back with John Snow, of Channel 4, Charles Sennott, of the "Boston Globe" and Susan Moeller, of Maryland University, talking about how the media reported on Iraq over the last year -- John.

SNOW: Sheila, I think that to both Charles and Susan, the American mass media were much more cohesive than the British and the European.

MACVICAR: You mean following the administration's line.

SNOW: Yes. I think in fact there was much greater division in this country. We were, after all, riding a wave in which, you know, there were several million people on the streets. Politicians were extremely divided and noisily divided. People were resigning from the administration. We had horses to ride. You had no horses to ride. I mean, you had nobody pulling out -- yes -- Susan.

MOELLER: My sense is that you got it right. Because of the much sharper opposition in Britain, that you had a political opposition to go to, and so you were able to sort of have those stories that led with, you know, so and so on the other side said.

The opposition here, the Democratic leadership, really didn't allow media to really go anywhere, and I think as Charles said, the president was really able to dominate the daily news cycle. And in fact, that became as much of a strategic plan of the administration as well as the military operations in Iraq, because public opinion really wins wars.

SNOW: Sheila, could I ask Susan something? I'm wondering whether you detected an extent to which the noisiest player on the block, FOX, intimidated to some extent, set the agenda, cowed a lot of the American media after they assaulted the American media regularly. Did you detect any effect from the noisy boy on the block?

MOELLER: Well, I didn't cover television, so I couldn't tell you any specific effects.

But what I could say is that the media that I did look at, there was very much still that sort of patriotic coverage of the president that I think you did see in FOX.

MACVICAR: I think the patriotism issue is a key issue. That was not something that you saw, I think, in the British press to the same extent, but once the war began there was this cohesiveness. We have troops in the field, we will get behind our troops.

What you had in the United States was a very strong suggestion, I think in large measure driven by right wing media, whether it's right wing radio, talk radio, or whether it's by right wing commentators and programs like those on FOX, which very strongly say that if you are questioning what we as your top elected officials are telling you, then you are unpatriotic.

SENNOTT: I think there was also a docile media that has really been made docile by this White House that does not allow access to those who ask the hard questions.

MACVICAR: I think that's a historic problem, though.

SENNOTT: It's an historic problem, for sure, but even under Reagan, where the whole notion of bended knee was really developed, even under Reagan there was at least someone like Sam Donaldson or other who were asking hard questions.

I saw a press conference here in London where the day that Bush was here with Blair, the day they topped Bush in effigy in the streets of London, and there was this press conference, and literally I can tell you that I sat at this press conference with my jaw wide open at the fact that on the British side there was this unruly media clamoring for tough questions, and one of the questioners asked President Bush point blank, there are 1/2-million people on the streets who hate you. Why is Europe taking your leadership so personally and so against you.

And on the other part of the room, my brethren from the American correspondents, no one even raised their hands, because the questions were know, who would ask them, in advance. The questions themselves were know and the answers are prepared. And as long as the American media continues this really docile approach, I think we're never going to get those stories that ask the hard questions.

SNOW: I think the problem on this side is different. I don't think anybody feels particularly kind or beholden to Downing Street, as we like to call it.

But on the other hand, the spin machine at Downing Street outstrips anything the Western world has ever seen, and the timing of the deliverance of the message that Saddam Hussein (AUDIO GAP) from now hitting British interests, and that's what we were told, was very hard to query.

I mean if the prime minister of the day tells the media that you're 45 minutes away from a direct assault on a British interest, it's a little tricky to go to air and say, hey, the man's talking rubbish.

SENNOTT: Although in this country there was a great challenge of that, and in America there really wasn't.

MACVICAR: We'll have to leave it there, I'm afraid.

Thank you all very much.

Iraq is a touch assignment for any journalist, especially with the physical dangers it presents. This week five Arab journalists were killed. Three worked for a coalition-funded television station in northern Iraq that was attacked early Thursday by unknown gunmen.

The other two, who work for the Al-Arabiya network, were allegedly shot by U.S. soldiers in Baghdad.

The network says their correspondent, Ali Al-Fatad (ph), and their cameraman, Ali Abdul Aziz (ph), came under fire from U.S. troops at a U.S. checkpoint.

In a show of solidarity, several Iraqi journalists and members of the International Press Corps walked out of a coalition news conference on Friday. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Chief Administrator Paul Bremer were addressing the media at the time.

I'm joined now on the line from Dubai by Salah Najem, head of news for Al-Arabiya.

Mr. Najem, let me begin by offering my condolences. This is truly a dreadful day.

What can you tell us about what happened to your correspondent and your cameraman?

SALAH NAJEM, AL-ARABIYA: We just had (UNINTELLIGIBLE) going to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) bombed yesterday in Baghdad to cover the story for us. There were four people, the correspondent, cameraman, who were killed and a driver and our SNG (ph) engineer.

When they approached the windows of the car, identified themselves to the soldiers on the checkpoint that they are press. Then there was another car approaching and it didn't, I think the story goes that it hit an armored vehicle.

When our team found the situation like this, they went back to their car and drove away from the checkpoint. While they were doing that, there was random gunfire from that armored car and they were shot in the back while they were entering a sideway to protect themselves.

MACVICAR: We heard today at that news conference in Baghdad the Americans saying that there would be an investigation. Have you had contact with the U.S. forces? And what have they told you?

NAJEM: We didn't yet have contact with U.S. forces. Actually, our team in Iraq was busy today for the funerals for the two journalists and comforting their families, which are in real shock and grief now. But we are going to do that in the next few days.

MACVICAR: What do you want the U.S. forces to do?

NAJEM: We want to have a serious investigation of this incident and we want to know whether the rules of conduct were actually followed.

We know that when you identify yourselves, then the other party knows that this is press. And we know that if there is a threat, there are shots to be fired in the air first. And if there is an exchange of fire, then live ammunition would be used.

But I understand that the American troops in Baghdad, they are not security forces. They are combat troops. And actually, the feeling there, and this is my opinion as a journalist, not the situation of Al-Arabiya, that everyone is actually scared and jumpy. The Iraqis themselves get afraid of stopping at checkpoints, as well as the American soldiers themselves are afraid that anything could be a terrorist attack.

MACVICAR: Mr. Najem, we have to leave it there. Again, our condolences. We're so terribly sorry for the loss of your cameraman and your correspondent in Baghdad this week.

Thank you.

NAJEM: Thank you very much.

MACVICAR: And 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 Sheila MacVicar in London, thanks for joining us.



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