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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired July 10, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Nic Robertson, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
A good source is invaluable to any journalist, but what happens when that source is the enemy of many? One Western journalist has managed to gain the trust of a group of insurgents in Iraq so much so that they are sending him tapes of their terrorist activities in the country. But while some of them do contain information worthy of being disseminated, one has to ask, is playing them to the world playing right into the hands of these terror organizations?

That journalist, Michael Ware, joins me now from Baghdad.

And here in the studio, Philip Knightly (ph), author and journalist.

Michael, let me start with you, if you will. You've been given these videotapes by some of these organizations in Iraq. Is there a moral dilemma here in pushing these videotapes out to news organizations?

MICHAEL WARE, JOURNALIST: Well, one always has to be careful in these situations. We're treading literally a fine line here, morally and ethically, within the profession. But part of the dilemma is that there is an unseen enemy here in Iraq.

We get very little from them, of them. You have to fight and claw for every scrap of information, to try and put together a profile of just what we're dealing with here, and thereby helping understand the true dynamic of the war here in Iraq. They have made these offerings.

I receive dozens of tapes. I don't disseminate them all. In fact, most of them sit on my desk. I observe them. I absorb them. This one, however, like a few in the past, had extraordinary significance. It let us into things, it told us things, we did not know.

ROBERTSON: Philip, when you see videotapes like this being handed to journalists, are there historical concerns that you would have in relation to this?

PHILIP KNIGHTLY (ph), JOURNALIST: Yes, there are. I mean, the first question, of course, and I'm sure Michael asks himself this all the time, is am I being used? Am I being just a propaganda conduit for the other side.

But, of course, it's every journalists' duty to discover as much as he can from whoever he can, and you have to listen to everybody. Then of course there's a personal dilemma for Michael. Whose side am I on? Which faces all war correspondents. Sooner or later, they have to chose a side, and particularly when it's a war that involves your own country.

And I'm certain Michael has considered all of this and I think he feels that the weight of the information and the public interest in knowing it justifies doing what he's doing at the moment.

ROBERTSON: Michael, do you feel you have to take sides on this?

WARE: I mean, that in itself is a thorny issue. I mean, the true essence of journalism is objectivity. I mean, really, what we're about is the pursuit of truth and particularly in times as shrouded as these in conflict, I tend to think that this is the moment, if any, where our profession should be stepping forward to seek the real truth.

Everyone lies in conflict. Everyone lies in war. Our governments, their governments, the enemy. We've got to seek the information where we can find it. And of course we're being used. The Americans use us. Every time CNN pumps out American Central Command footage of a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) impressively blasting through a window or a Nintendo game Apache helicopter pilot blowing away a truck, that serves a propaganda purpose.

Your being used. We are here too, but we're applying the same forces to both sides in pursuit of the truth.

ROBERTSON: Philip, is the truth getting lost here in Iraq? I mean what is the historical context one should look at this in. I mean, in 15 years time, we'll look back now at these videotapes and the process of the moment, what's at risk here?

KNIGHTLY (ph): Well, one of the things that's intriguing me is I've gone back over my original book, my original thesis that the first casualty of war is always the truth, has been how often the historical context has meant that what we thought was the truth at the time had to be revised and rewritten.

So Michael is absolutely right. I mean, his job is to be as objective as possible. When I said that he's going to have to chose a side sooner or later is he's going to be forced to do so. Otherwise, he's not going to get the access that he's got now, and the coalition forces are going to bear down on him and do everything possible to stop him from doing what he's doing at the moment.

ROBERTSON: Well, Michael, the Gulf broadcaster Al Jazeera that's received tapes from, let's say, al Qaeda in the past has also received threats on Internet Web sites, saying you need to broadcast this in full and in its entirety and you need to do it soon.

Are you concerned about that? Have you seen -- have you received threats that you need to push this material out?

WARE: I mean, I'm clearly walking on a precipice here. I'm very alert to that kind of pressure from either the terrorists or the insurgents.

I've made it clear from the beginning that anything you give me is for me. If there's news value, I'll use it. If there's not, you need to understand, I'm not just here pushing out everything that you give me.

So far, the insurgents have seemed to understood that. However, I also face pressures or potential threat from other areas. As Philip rightly points out, there is the coalition. They could shut me down, make my job inoperable here.

I also have the risk of groups here in Iraq opposed to the terrorists, to the insurgents, who may view me as some sort of perpetrator of their midst. So I'm sort of -- I'm looking in front, I'm looking behind and I'm looking above and below at the moment. It's a tenuous situation.

ROBERTSON: But when you're in that situation, and you're forced to make a decision, am I going to go along with this, perhaps an idea that they're proposing, come along, we have an event that you should film, I mean, what is your line in the sand that you won't cross?

WARE: Well, I won't act on any information I get about impending attacks. I don't want to know about it. So they cannot say to me, oh, we're going to go hit the Americans tonight, show up at this time and we'll take you along. Or be in this place and we guarantee you'll get good footage.

I've made it very clear from my first contact with the insurgents well over a year ago that I'm not interested in that. The only times when I have ended up on operations with the enemy attacking the American forces is when I've been invited to a dinner, for example, and at the end of the dinner, they said, "yawa" (ph), get up, let's go. Where are we going? I have no translator. It soon unfolded.

So, yes, there's very firm lines I won't cross and I continually reiterate that to them. One thing, though, particularly with the foreign jihadis here who have come here answering Osama bin Laden's call. Their leadership is media-savvy. They're alert to all of these issues, to the pressures within the media. They have a greater understanding than the Iraqi fighter does. It's quite an extraordinary thing.

ROBERTSON: In that context, Philip, I mean, what's your advice to CNN, to Michael, when it comes to the receipt of these videotapes?

KNIGHTLY (ph): You've got to use them. I mean, it's impossible not to. We're desperate for information about what's happening in this war. Any sort of information from anywhere has to be assessed, its value weighed against where it came from, set against then the public information, the public desire to know.

ROBERTSON: Michael Ware, in Baghdad, thank you for joining us. Philip Knightly (ph), with us here in London. Thank you both very much indeed.

Time for a quick break. When we come back, the president versus the oligarch through the eyes of the press.

Don't go away.



It's a true "Clash of the Titans." On one side, the president of one of the biggest countries in the world, the other a jailed oligarch with enough money, some say, to challenge that president. And in the middle, the fate of a beleaguered oil giant.

But as the battle rages between Russian President Vladimir Putin and billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, how is this playing in the media?

Joining me now from Moscow, Alexei Pushkov (ph), anchor for Central TV and CNN's Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty.

Jill, isn't this just a trial about a corrupt businessman? We've been playing it so big on the international media. Why is that?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Well, I think it's many stories woven together, Nic.

You know, it's the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, his fate. It is tied up with the government and its view on business and where the country is going. It's tied up with Yukos Oil Company, the most productive Russian oil company. There are a lot of different layers to this, and there is I think a very good reason for it to be a major story.

ROBERTSON: Alexei, it's not playing so big in the Russian media as it is on international television and Western newspapers. Why is that, do you think?

ALEXEI PUSHKOV (ph), RUSSIAN ANCHORMAN: Well, to tell you the truth, the Russian media is still very attentive to this story because two things come together. One is the fate of the Yukos Company, which happens to be the number one oil company in Russia. And the second issue is the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself because he is on trial, and the trial will start in a few days.

So the Russian media does cover it, but the Russian media has lost, I would say, the sense of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), as French people say. It's not new anymore, you know. Khodorkovsky was arrested last November or October, so it's a very old story. He has spent more than eight months in jail and the Yukos affair has been around for more than a year, and so people, you know, like everywhere, they get tired of old news.

ROBERTSON: Alexei, in the international media, it does come across as really a clash between two powerhouses, that of President Putin and Khodorkovsky being a very, very rich man, and therefore some would say in the international community this is really a test of democracy within Russia, that's how it's playing. Is that fair?

PUSHKOV (ph): It may be considered the test of democracy, but I would say from both sides.

I think that Mr. Khodorkovsky decided to convert his huge fortune which was amassed in the `90s as a result of a very dubious privatization process -- he was trying to convert this fortune into political power and he was trying to challenge directly the Kremlin and personally Mr. Putin.

Naturally, Mr. Putin did not like it and one may well argue that Mr. Khodorkovsky's plans were an attack on democracy. Then he was jailed and the Kremlin has shown that it will not allow big business leaders who want to play it straight, you know, in politics, to kind of pay for power. They will not be allowed to do so. And some people say that the Kremlin has crossed a certain line.

So I would say it's a test of democracy from both sides.

ROBERTSON: Jill, you're able to sort of view this not just in the context of this particular trial but perhaps the way the Russian media as a whole is able to cover all events in Russia. Do you feel that the Kremlin has somehow stepped over a line here, a democratic line?

DOUGHERTY: You know, I think you'd have to say that if there's any basic analysis that many people do agree upon, and as Alexei said, no one is a saint here, no one, especially Khodorkovsky, is a saint here. But if there are no saints, then why go after one devil? Why go after Mikhail Khodorkovsky only?

Now, maybe this is just the beginning. Maybe we will see the government go after other people who supposedly carried out some type of criminal or economically dubious types of things in either early Russia or right now. But why him? And that's the problem.

And, Nic, the other issue I think would have to be, to get to how the media is covering this, right now what you have with the Russian media is essentially a very straight read. This happened, that happened. The court did this, Khodorkovsky did that. Actually, very little on Khodorkovsky at this point because his trial will resume next week. But essentially, there is very little interpretation going on, very little, if any, in the media, like television, where it really counts, where people really listen.

That happens in the newspaper, but not everybody reads -- it's like the "New York Times." Not everybody reads the "New York Times." So what you've got here is a confusing story, hard to tell. Personally, I can tell you sometimes it's complex to get it across. But the debate that a society would have over this, I would argue, is not really taking place on the level that perhaps it could if there were more media coverage.

ROBERTSON: Jill Dougherty, our Moscow bureau chief, and Alexei Pushkov (ph), thank you very much for joining us.

Staying with Russia and the country's last surviving independent talk show is being cancelled. Savak Shusta (ph), the host of NTV's "Freedom of Speech" program, giving his last show on Friday. Shusta (ph) is said to frequently criticize the Kremlin. But a far worse fate has befallen other journalists in the country.

There's a new documentary called "Russian Newspaper Murders Details." Paul Jenkins, the director of this documentary, joins me now.

Paul, we've heard some journalists in Russia, or perhaps a lot of journalists in Russia, perhaps don't have the freedom to report on the Kremlin and President Putin the way that they'd like to.

What did you discover in your documentary? What is the situation like there for journalists?

PAUL JENKINS, DOCUMENTARIAN: Well, I think we found that being an investigative journalist, particularly in regional Russia, is extremely dangerous.

The problem is two-fold, really. One is that corruption and crime is absolutely pervasive in Russia, so challenging those, doing journalism that touches those, is very, very dangerous. The powers become conglomerated in Russia, political, criminal power, you know, it's a conglomerate. Which means that if a journalist touches crime or touches a politician connected with crime, the forces can come against him in a deadly fashion.

ROBERTSON: While you were actually making your documentary, one of the people you were actually covering was killed. How dangerous was it for you in that situation?

JENKINS: Well, it was very hard to assess. I mean, the official version of that killing is that it was an act of street hooliganism. This is a version not believed by anyone locally, certainly not believed by journalists, colleagues, both in the newspaper and in Moscow.

So, you know, we had to do a security assessment after he was murdered, and it certainly seemed to me that it was quite a murky and complex affair, and one in which one had to tread very, very carefully indeed.

ROBERTSON: It seems we're on the verge, or Russia is on the verge, f having another high profile sacking of a media reporter. What does that say to you, with your knowledge there, what does that say to you about the current state of the media's freedom?

JENKINS: It seems to me that the problem is that at the top levels in Russia, there's not an understanding that actually a free media can drive the country forward and can actually help the kind of centralizing and positive acton I think Putin might want. You know, that the perception at the very top seems to be that the media is an impediment, the free media is an impediment to centralizing power again and getting things done.

And indeed, unfortunately, a wide perception in the country, I think something like 75 percent of Russians, would actually prefer not to have a free media in order to get things done and, you know, to improve the economy. So, you know, the very sadness here is that actually both at the very top in the country and in the population at large, there is not an appreciation of the positive role a free media can play.

ROBERTSON: But there's also a perception as well within -- among the ranks of journalists reporting these stories, that this is absolutely necessary, for Putin to take a strong hand, that the oligarchs are actually the problem and that we in the international media really are just taking a far too liberal view of them.

JENKINS: Journalism in Russia has gone through several evolutions really. I mean, first of all, you had the kind of, you know, use of journalist simply as a propaganda tool in the Communist times. Then I think there was a period of relative freedom in the early `90s, before the oligarchs really got ahold of the media and, you know, basically the oligarchs and powerful business interests were driving the editorial line in many publications.

You know, now we face a situation where both that is happening, and you have a kind of strong political pressure on newspapers and on the media, so journalists are getting it from both directions now.

ROBERTSON: Quick last question: where do you see it going in the future?

JENKINS: I'm afraid I'm pessimistic. I don't see any sign that Russia has the kind of judiciary, the kind of independent judiciary, the kind of effective judiciary and law enforcement bodies that will actually protect journalists trying to do their job.

ROBERTSON: On that somber note, Paul Jenkins, thank ou very much indeed for joining us.

Coming up on the program, why being first isn't always the winning ticket. One American newspaper found that out the hard way.


ROBERTSON: Welcome back.

Sometimes what looks like a scoop can turn out to be a dupe.

This week, the `New York Post" found that out the hard way, claiming the exclusive on who Kerry's running mate would be. They said Richard Gephardt would be his pick and as we know now it turned out to be John Edwards.

The "Post", of course, finding themselves in a humiliating position. They did manage a modest recovery by mocking themselves the next day.

Still, this does turn the spotlight on how far the media will go to get the story in the run up to the U.S. elections.

I'm joined now in Washington, D.C. by the political editor of NPR, Ken Rudin.

Ken, every journalist has got to be looking at this situation right now and saying how did they manage to get it wrong? The Holy Grail is to get the scoop, but get it right. What happened?

KEN RUDIN, NPR: Well, it is every journalists worst nightmare to come up with a scoop and then it turns out it's not a scoop at all.

What happened was, apparently the Kerry campaign -- I don't know if this is what happened here specifically, but each day there was a new favorite candidate for John Kerry. Once it was -- sometimes it was John Edwards. Sometimes it was Dick Gephardt. Sometimes it was Tom Vilsack, who is the governor of Iowa. Each day the Kerry camp -- somebody in the Kerry camp would leak, saying this could be the guy, and obviously Kerry wanted to throw off the press as much as he can, to keep a big surprise when the Kerry announcement ultimately would come.

But, you know, the funny thing about this specific story is that, why the "New York Post." First of all, the "New York Post" went with an unsourced headline -- front page headline. Nobody in the newsroom knew that the "Post" was going to do this, and yet, you know, in the zeal to sell newspapers, the post wanted to be first, and of course it was first. Matter of fact, that's the only paper that had Gephardt as the running mate.

ROBERTSON: Is there too much pressure, too much competition? Is it bringing out the worst in journalists, particularly presidential elections, of course.

RUDIN: Well, especially in a city like New York. You know, New York used to be like a 9 or 10 newspaper city. Now it's really, there's a big rivalry. The "New York Times" is the number one newspaper in New York, but there is a rivalry between two tabloids these days, the "Daily News" and the "New York Post," which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. And, basically, they just love to needle each other.

Matter of fact, the "Daily News" today, the headline of the "Daily News" was basically rubbing it in on the "Post." It says "Here's Kerry's Real Choice," and it says on the bottom of this paper, it says "The "Post" is wrong again."

You know, with fewer and fewer viewers and more and more expenses coming with these newspapers, there's a smaller audience and you just have to see, you know, what you can do to sell the paper.

ROBERTSON: But, of course, the "Post" has made an effort at some sort of a recovery here, recovery in their position, which is sort of beyond the pale, really. I mean, is it going to wash with their readers, do you think?

RUDIN: Well, people will remember in New York, but ultimately, who cares who was first. And the problem with this is that with 24-hour cable TV shows, with all these newspapers trying to be first, with all of these rumors going on the Internet, everybody tries to be first. But, ultimately, will people remember who was the first -- I mean, NBC News in the United States was the one that broke the Kerry-Edwards ticket. It's kind of so silly.

But, you know, people say will you remember that, will people remember that. We remember the "Dewey Defeats Warren" headline in the "Chicago Tribune" from 1948. You know, the "Chicago Tribune" actually sells that as a tee-shirt now, as a memento, mocking its own mistake. But, you know, this is 55 years ago, 56 years ago, and people still remember that "Chicago Tribune" erroneous headline.

ROBERTSON; Ken Rudin, thanks very much for joining us. The message here, clearly, if you're a newspaper reader, watch out for the newspaper wars.

Thank you very much.

RUDIN: And watch out for the "New York Post."

ROBERTSON: 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 Nic Robertson. Thanks for joining us.



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