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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

`NY Times' Issues Mea Culpa Over Iraqi WMD Coverage

Aired May 29, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET

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


WALTER RODGERS, HOST: 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.
We begin this week with the "New York Times" mea culpa. The newspaper of record admitting that its record was somewhat flawed. The instances referring to the paper's reporting on Iraq and its use of information or disinformation from Iraqi exiles.

So are the papers admissions part of a wider problem in the American media? I'm joined now in Washington, D.C. by "Vanity Fair" columnist Christopher Hitchens and Michael Getler, ombudsman for the "Washington Post."

Christopher, if I might begin by asking you, do you think the American media were poodles in the run up to the war, not being critical enough?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, "VANITY FAIR": No. I remember the run up to the war extremely well, and I remember thinking that especially from the "New York Times every day there was a flood of reasons for misgivings about the war, expressed editorially and I would say in the tone of the news columns.

This might not have been true in one respect. I think it was assumed by everybody that the way that Saddam Hussein was behaving indicated that he was back to his usual habits of concealment and bait and switch on weapons of mass destruction. And remember, this was the view held by Hans Blix at the time as well as by German intelligence, French intelligence, as well as British and American.

Not all of these people were obviously under the Svengali-like influence of Ahmed Chalabi, as we are now taught to think of it.

RODGERS: Christopher, you were initially a supporter of the war. Have you trimmed your sails or do you stand by your conclusion it was a justified war?

HITCHENS: Well, I don't trim in the least. It was both justifiable and unless this sounds too much like having it both ways, inescapable. There was going to be a confrontation either with Saddam Hussein or his sons. It was only overdue, in my opinion. I thought it was a good thing that we should pick the time rather than as was traditional leave it to them to commit the next aggression or atrocity.

And I also think that Iraqi as well as being a rogue state was, as we're now seeing very vividly, unforgettably on our screens, their mutating into a failed state where the would have been a terrible rivalry between different forms of violent fundamentalism. And I think an intervention and a rescue operation was very necessary, should have been completed in 1991, '92, but was not. We're paying the price for delaying now, not for being too precipitant.

RODGERS: Mike, Mike Getler, was this one of the bright and shining hours of American journalism, or was it something less?

MICHAEL GETLER, "WASHINGTON POST" OMBUDSMAN: Well, it was clearly something less if you're referring to the look back at some of the pre-war coverage.

I was glad to see that the "Times" did address what had been -- coverage that had actually been criticized in a number of places for quite a long time and I'm glad to see that they actually went back and looked it over and acknowledged that they had made mistakes and that in one sense they were too aggressive in pursuing a particular line of reporting or a point of view, even, that the editors' note explained that they had a view on this particular issue of the nuclear weapons, which is unusual.

So I'm glad to see that they've looked back at this. They did the same thing with Wen Ho Lee, if you remember that coverage about four years ago. So you have two instances now where the most important and influential paper in the country has had to do a mea culpa, and that is not good for American journalism.

The "Times" is a particularly important newspaper and the effects of that kind of problem, not to mention the Jason Blair problem that just unfolded several months ago is harmful. It causes credibility to drop for the American press. And traditionally American newspapers, especially big and serious news organizations like the "Times" and the "Washington Post" and "Wall Street Journal" and others, they're really looked to around the world for important nonpartisan coverage.

RODGER: Mike, if the "Times" in its own words should have been "more aggressive," should not have the American news media outlets, the television networks?

GETLER: Well, I think it's a complicated issue, Walter.

As Christopher was saying, this was a very, very complicated story. There was general consensus.

HITCHENS: No, actually I wasn't saying that. I was saying how simple it was.

GETLER: Well, the point is there was a general consensus that Saddam did have such weapons. As Christopher said, even Hans Blix up until January of '03 thought they had some. And the administration clearly thought so. It was reinforcing that idea.

So it was a hard story. The idea that they perhaps did not have them, as we have since found out, was hard to get at. There was in fact a lot of good reporting on this issue. My quarrel with the "Post" in particular and with some other papers that I've seen is that a lot of the good reporting was not displayed -- the challenging reporting was not displayed prominently enough to have much of an impact. It was often found in the back pages of the newspapers.

RODGERS: Christopher?

GETLER: Well, don't let's replace one apparent fallacy with another. We do not in fact know that the Saddam Hussein regime did not have weapons of mass destruction. We know we have not found them, but we have not had an accounting of the weapons that they did disclose they had. So we are faced with a very interesting enigma.

And I don't think it was mistaken for reporters, because we don't act as if we were born yesterday, to make some assumption, some presumptions on the past track record of the Ba'athist regime.

RODGERS: Could I just ask one final question. Both of you, short answers, please. First, Christopher, you. Was the president of the United States in any way dishonest about his causus belli, the reasons for going to war -- Christopher.

HITCHENS: No. Iraq was playing fast and loose with weapons of mass destruction, had violated the genocide convention, was jihadist in its public rhetoric and in its practice it was harboring deadly enemies to civilization. It was overdue to be confronted. On the main points, the president was right.

RODGERS: Michael?

GETLER: No, I would say that as you look at things, almost everything that was presented to the public as a reason to go to war with the exception that Saddam was bad, which people understood, in terms of weapons of mass destruction, in terms of links with al Qaeda, in terms of the costs, in terms of the resistance, in terms of the reception, in terms of the number of troops, has turned out to be not the case.

Now I wouldn't say that people intentionally lied or misled, but certainly these issues were stated with I think a false sense of certainty that is there and that has produced the kind of situation we're in now.

RODGERS: Michael Getler, Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much.

Time for a quick break, but coming up on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, he was there 60 years ago on the shores of Normandy. Veteran war photographer Martin Lederhandler tells us his story from the frontlines on the D-Day landings.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RODGERS: Welcome back.

Sometimes war photographs capture a moment in history. Other times, they can change the course of history. From the visceral image of the naked girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam through to the current images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Next weekend we commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day and now we talk to one of the photographers who captured some of the most enduring images of that invasion. Marty Lederhandler, former Associated Press photographer joins me now from New York.

Marty, you are one of the few surviving journalist, photojournalists, of that era. What will you be thinking of this June 6?

MARTY LEDERHANDLER, FMR. A.P. PHOTOGRAPHER: Well, as I said, I was there for the 40th anniversary of D-Day with President Reagan and then 10 years later I went with President Clinton for the 50th anniversary or D-Day and I did a story in pictures. But unfortunately, every 10 years more of the details and the facts of the invasion begin to fade away. After 60 years, there's less and less to remember, unfortunately, but I do remember some of the important events.

RODGERS: Were you frightened when you hit the beach that day? Were they still shooting on Utah beach when you were there?

LEDERHANDLER: Oh, yes. Well, the Germans had been there for three years and they had their artillery zeroed in on the beach, so the idea was to do what you had to do, a photograph, and then get off the beach, get inland instead of being stuck on the beach if you were unfortunate. Because you would be injured or killed.

RODGERS: What's your favorite photo?

LEDERHANDLER: My favorite photo? Well, I was shooting a Leica with 10 exposure film and I had carrier pigeons. Our commander decided how is the film going to get back to England with the same stories being published, and instead of going back through channels the next day or two, he wanted the pictures that same morning because the papers were going to say "Invasion of Normandy Begins," and then you want the pictures with it.

So they decided to have English pigeon fanciers donate the pigeons. They used to fly them in peacetime from Cali (ph) to Dover, so they knew the route. It was only 20 miles. So they gave them to the Army, and the Army outfitted the pigeons with little elastic harnesses and a little aluminum tube to carry a 10 exposure roll of film. So we'd get the film back across the channel with an hour.

But the pigeons can't carry a full role of 36 exposures. It's too heavy. So I was given two pigeons and so were other photographers going in that same morning, other units, so I had my helmet on, wearing the invasion gas mask. I had this camera backpack on my back with two pigeons and I had a pistol belt, a life preserver and wearing pregnant (ph) underwear, because they thought the Germans were going to be using gas.

So I was weighted down with all this material. June 6 comes and at 6:00 in the morning at first light I looked up in the sky and you couldn't even see the sky. There were 1,000 planes or more in the sky, just a blanket of planes over the area, and as far as your eye could see on the water were thousands of ships, all types, small landing craft, ships carrying tanks, troop ships, destroyers, battleships, as far as you could see. And I made some pictures of that.

Then I turned toward the direction of the beach and I shot 10 pictures very quickly as we were going into the beach. And I was on an LST, a landing ship tank, where the doors opened in the front of the ship and they had pulled up a landing craft, and we went from the ship onto the landing craft and then we were pushed into shore. And I made some pictures from the landing craft looking back toward the ship and some other pictures. And 10 pictures went quickly.

RODGERS: The pictures you took on D-Day versus the pictures you took 9/11, September, the terrorist attack on New York City. Which is the more graphic image for you and why?

LEDERHANDLER: Well, of course, they're both very, very different. On D-Day there was so much confusion and you didn't look around over to the left or to the right. You had tunnel vision because there was so much going on around either side of you, you had to focus on what's ahead of you so you can get off the ship, get on the beach, do what you had to do and then get inland. Get off the beach.

And of course the immensity of the operation on D-Day was just -- there were planes overhead. There were ships firing. Troops wounded. There was so much confusion.

Then as far as 9/11, there was this one area where the attack took place and they're completely different events in my life. And unfortunately they were both very impressive and very different.

RODGERS: One quick question: why are images of revulsion so colorful, like 9/11 photographs?

LEDERHANDLER: Well, I don't think I was -- I wasn't that taken back with it to a degree because, well, covering New York and other places over the last 60 years, you cover so many events, so much tragedy and other events like that. You put the camera up to your eye and what I do, I let the camera absorb the tragedies, so it doesn't get too close to me and effect me.

Because you're so trained, you see something happen in front of you. You don't stop and dwell on it, you just do the job that you're there to do. You're there to record history, and that's what you basically focus on.

RODGERS: Mary Lederhandler, thank you very, very much.

Up next on the program, the truth in Hollywood fiction. How one movie is sending seismic waves in the scientific world, but could this all be just a tempest in a teacup?

Find out more in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RODGERS: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, here on CNN.

One giant tidal wave hits New York causing catastrophe and it's all happening "The Day After Tomorrow." That of course is the title of the new blockbuster which focuses on the effect of global warming.

So could this be the future or just more Hollywood hype? Well, many environmentalists and scientists see the film as good PR for their cause. They're hoping it will raise public concern about the impact of global warming. But some say it could have the opposite effect, blurring the line between truth and fiction, a dangerous consequence for an issue that is already in desperate need of greater public understanding.

RODGERS: Joining me now in studio are media critic A.A. Gill and climate campaigner for Greenpeace Rob Gueterbock.

A.A., what's wrong with the eco-activists seizing on this film to publicize the issue of global warming?

A.A. GILL, MEDIA CRITIC: I think it should have a big sign across the top, you know, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) saying "Cynicism, you ain't seen nothing yet."

I mean, do you know who has made this movie? It's FOX. It's distributed by FOX. Now, I don't mind that, because Rupert Murdoch pays my wages, but I would have thought that Rupert Murdoch wasn't exactly the sort of man you wanted to get in bed with and agree with.

RODGERS: Yes, but wait a second. Don't desperate times require desperate actions?

GILL: What, you mean my enemies enemy is my friend?

RODGERS: Well, what I'm saying is the president of the United States virtually denies the fact that the climate of the planet is warming, so.

GILL: I think that that's a real and serious problem. I think trivializing it by jumping on the back of what is a disaster movie -- I mean, nobody was saying, you know, the "Titanic" was all in the cause of better nautical safety.

RODGERS: Let me raise this issue. Back in the `60s we had a wonderful movie called "Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Love The Bomb and Stop Worrying." Now, nobody blasted the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament for seizing upon that issue to wrap around their cause, so what's wrong with Greenpeace picking it up?

GILL: I think that's interesting, but "Dr. Strangelove" was a satire. This is a disaster movie. I think this is a difference.

RODGERS: Well, nuclear war is a disaster. Go ahead -- Rob.

ROB GUEETERBOCK, GREENPEACE: Well, I think it's like saying the idea that this film is going to be bad for the kind of issue of global warming is like saying "Jurassic Park" somehow undermines the science of paleontology. I mean, people are grown up enough now to sort of separate what they're seeing, and this is pure Hollywood. You know, it's big bang special effects, but what it does is it takes a nugget of truth, it blows it out of all proportion.

But what I think is important about this film is that the politics of this film are strangely accurate. There's a president and a vice president denying, you know, anything is going on, ignoring the warnings, and then eventually, which is where I hope we get to in real life, but before it's too late, they admit that they are wrong and they needed to do something about that.

And if people come out of this film wanting to get more engaged on the issue of climate change, then that's a very good thing for this debate.

GILL: I agree with half of what you said, but I think you've shot your own fox by saying that -- admitting that this is really not the truth. This is way over the top.

One of the problems with the green movement, and specifically with Greenpeace, is that for 30 years it has done nothing but cry wolf when there are no wolves there. There is a serious problem and you have jumped endlessly on bandwagons, sent people up Big Ben with huge banners for things that simply haven't happened. And what the problem is is that there is a problem and you're not taking it seriously enough.

GUETERBOCK: I think that is totally unfounded nonsense. I mean, you're entitled to your opinion but I think it's frankly nonsense.

I mean, the reality of climate change is that the decisions taken in the next few years are going to determine whether or not 1/3 of land-based species are wiped out by 2050.

GILL: Now see, you there you go. Now, where does that come from? Nobody knows that? This is exactly what you guys do.

(CROSSTALK)

GUETERBOCK: I do know that. And frankly, you know, you have great expertise as a restaurant critic, but as a climate scientist I think, you know, your opinions are not quite as strong.

The science of climate change is out there. It's very strong. We know that.

GILL: Those models -- taking computer models that just say 1/3 of all species are going to disappear, that's exactly the sort of crying wolf that I'm talking about.

RODGERS: Let me jump in here for a second. Let me quote you something, and this is a direct quote. "Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters." That was the "Observer" the 22nd of February of this year.

Now the Pentagon tells Bush global change will destroy us. They're talking about tidal waves. They're talking about European cities buried under water. They're talking about mini-Ice Age. They're talking about riots and wars.

This is the "Observer. This is a Pentagon report.

GILL: Maybe I'm not explaining what I mean. I'm not denying the problem. I'm not somebody saying that climate change isn't happening or that greenhouse gases aren't involved. What I am saying is that the presentation, and particularly Greenpeace's presentation of the problem, has kept it a marginal Taliban (UNINTELLIGIBLE) group who bomb about in little rubber boats and have never made it into the mainstream because they refuse to actually come out and do anything other than start slogans.

RODGERS: Have you sullied your reputation by signing on to this film?

GUETERBOCK: We haven't signed on to this film. We've created a parody Web site, without talking to FOX about it, to explain to people the real issues behind the film. That's what we're doing, explaining to people what they can really do, because the reality is, yes, this is a drama, but there is a real live kind of drama going on, where you've got a president, you've got oil companies funding -- companies like Exxon -- funding this kind of scientific nonsense that climate change isn't happening, saying it isn't caused by fossil fuels, and there are real bad guys out there. And we want to give people the chance to take action that can stop this.

RODGERS: Are you so desperate you have to latch on to a FOX film?

GUETERBOCK: This is a pretty urgent situation. There are decisions that will or won't be made in the next three to five years that will determine whether or not the world makes the emissions reductions necessary to tackle catastrophic climate change. And you can sniff as much as you like about the predictions of the impacts, but these are not predictions made by Greenpeace. These are predictions made by 2,000 of the world's leading climate scientists. They're endorsed by the U.K. government and just about every government around the world.

(CROSSTALK)

GILL: The problem is that on your Web site you say fiction is a legitimate form of radar for civilization. That basically mean -- it's a quote. I've just seen it. What you actually mean is you can lie as long as it's on the right side.

GUETERBOCK: If there is that quote at all it's in no relation to the film. People are entitled to dramatize issues. I mean, dramatizing anything doesn't change the underlying facts.

As I said before, "Jurassic Park" doesn't make paleontology a nonsense science.

(CROSSTALK)

RODGERS: I think we can all agree on this one issue, the outcome could be the same as Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion." It didn't make more Christians and the tragedy here would be that this film is not going to make any more believers in global warming.

GILL: I think that's absolutely the point. Though I think that you're wrong to make half of us into the enemy. This very extreme, you know, you're either absolutely -- you buy the entire program, you buy what we say, or you're against us, isn't true. We are all living on the same planet. We all -- I'm expert in living here, all right? I've been living here slightly longer than you have. I know just as much about being here. I'm not the enemy. I want to be treated like a grownup. I don't want to be shouted out and I don't want to be told that a disaster movie made by Hollywood is somehow a key to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

GUETERBOCK: But I'm not sure a grownup approach is to say that Greenpeace is a nightmare sort of terrorist organization, as you implied.

RODGERS: I think we've run out of time. A.A., thanks very much. Rob, thank you very much. You've shed a lot of light on this, and I hope some heat too.

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 Walter Rodgers. Thanks for joining us.

END

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