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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired July 17, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
On this edition, questions of unequal treatment. Are the American media going easier on U.S. President George W. Bush than their British counterparts are on Prime Minister Tony Blair over Iraq? We'll also look at the impact of the war there on journalistic efforts: what can be show, what constitutes taking sides.

But we begin this week with a tragic development to an issue we discussed last week, the killing of journalists in Russia. Hours after we taped the program, gunmen in Moscow shot dead Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of "Forbes" magazine in Russia. The attack came two months after Klebnikov published a list of the country's 100 richest people.

At the time of this taping, there have been no arrests in Klebnikov's murder. On Wednesday, his brothers expressed confidence in authorities conducting the investigation.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He gave no indication to any of us about any dangers that he felt he was facing during his work here. But we are supremely confident that the Russian authorities -- and I've been personally assured in my conversation with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- will do everything they can to bring the murderers to justice.


SWEENEY: That was a reference to Vladimir Ustinov (ph), Russia's general prosecutor.

Well, back with us this week is Paul Jenkins. He directed the documentary "The Russian Newspaper Murders," a look at deadly retribution against reporters probing corruption.

And from Moscow, we're joined by Mark Franchetti, Moscow bureau chief of the "Sunday Times of London." Mark had dinner with Klebnikov and his wife just four days before the killing.

Mark, my first question to you, having read your article, he did not seem to be under any pressure whatsoever, or didn't seem to feel his life was in danger.


In fact, he was stressing that he was here to do positive stories about Russia. He himself as an America born of Russian descent was very excited about being back, living in Russia. He said that he was very optimistic about the bright future of the country and I did not get the impression that he felt in any way that his life was in danger, that he had received any threats as a result of any stories he had published.

In fact, he was quite keen for his wife and three children to move from America and come and join him in Moscow.

We also briefly touched upon the issue of security and safety at the end of our dinner together, when we were both telling his wife that he had nothing to worry about and that Moscow, at least Moscow in the last few years, had changed, and that disputes more and more so were being solved with the help of lawyers as opposed to contract killings. And of course, we were both terribly wrong.

SWEENEY: Indeed, as four days later he was dead.

Paul, let me turn to you. What is your sense of what happened here? Do you think that he was, as some people have suggested, being načve in thinking that his life might not be in any danger?

PAUL JENKINS, DOCUMENTARIAN: I think my sense is that perhaps this killing is not necessarily connected with the 100 rich list which was published earlier in the year but that perhaps it's connected with something that Paul was actually currently investigating.

I mean, after all, the people who might kill him wouldn't have necessarily had an interest simply in a revenge killing. That doesn't get them very far.

SWEENEY: So in a sense, you feel that he was working on something that was so troubling to some people that it was better, despite the international outcry and despite the possible involvement of the FBI, that they were going to take his life?

JENKINS: The sort of people who commission these killings are not stupid. They understand that there will be all sorts of consequences after the assassination. Therefore, they must be prepared to take quite a big risk when they decided to kill him. Therefore, it must have been -- you know, he must have posed some sort of real threat to them.

SWEENEY: Do you agree with his assertion, as Mark gave us earlier, that things were changing in Moscow? That the bullet wasn't the way to resolve issues, that it was now going through the courts?

JENKINS: I think if you are a foreigner in Moscow, you do have that sense that you have a degree of protection because you're foreign. I don't think Russian journalists necessarily share the same kind of feeling. I think Russian journalists are, you know, widely assumed that if you touch certain powerful business, criminal, political interests, that in fact it can have very serious consequences for you. You can be very badly beaten, your family can be threatened or you can be killed.

SWEENEY: Mark, as he lay dying he apparently said that he had no knowledge or reasoning why anybody would want to kill him. The question that I've put forward -- I mean, was he načve?

FRANCHETTI: Well, I don't know. You know, it's a difficult question to answer.

I think that I certainly agree with Paul, that we did not feel until Paul was killed that we were running the same risks that Russian reporters are running. I mean, we know that it's a very dangerous place of doing any serious investigative journalism for Russian reporters.

It's not as if there had been a history of foreign reporters being targeted in contract killings. He is the first. Foreign journalists have been killed in Chechnya, but that's a war zone, but to be fair to him, I think that there has been a history of it and I did not get the impression that he had received any threats.

I think that there was maybe a certain -- not so much naivete, but he was very enthusiastic about Russia. He very much had a very positive outlook on the country and clearly did not believe that anything he had written or was working on could have such serious consequences.

SWEENEY: And what does this mean, then, Paul, for cutting edge journalism and for Western journalists in Moscow and the whole idea of being on the cutting edge of discovering something in a country which is changing so rapidly?

JENKINS: I think it means that if you're going to really touch things that are very sensitive, like big business, like the links between politics and business, you have to make very, very careful security assessments and indeed you have to think hard about the competing political interests inside the country and try to make covering moves prior to engaging in those investigations.

I mean, it, you know, at a certain level, it doesn't become journalism anymore. It becomes something else.

SWEENEY: All right. There we must leave it. Paul Jenkins, here in London, Mark Franchetti, in Moscow, thank you both very much for joining us.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, different approaches to similar roles. Why British journalists seem much more critical of Tony Blair than their American counterparts are of George W. Bush.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

It was another tough week for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Wednesday saw the release of the Butler Report. Once again, British intelligence on Iraq's alleged pre-war weapons program has come under fire. The inquiry describes some sources as being, quote, "seriously flawed" but stops short of accusing Mr. Blair of deliberate distortion.

While back in the United States, President George W. Bush was on the campaign trail ahead of the November elections. Criticism of how each leader justified the war in Iraq continues to dog them. But arguably, where the news media are involved, the treatment is not equal. American journalists arguably show more deference to Mr. Bush than British journalists show Mr. Blair.

With me here in London as Anthony Grayling, contributing editor to "Prospect" magazine, and joining us from Washington, Howard Kurtz, media critic for the "Washington Post" and host of CNN USA's RELIABLE SOURCES.

Howard, why do you think it is the case that American journalists in general show more deference or respect for the presidency?

HOWARD KURTZ, "WASHINGTON POST" & RELIABLE SOURCE: Well, when you have a different style here -- I certainly don't think that the press in the last year on Iraq has handled George Bush with kid gloves. I mean, there have been front page stories everyday, a drumbeat of headlines, accusations, editorials, about whether the White House misled this country into war.

Where the difference is is I've seen journalists go at Tony Blair. There tends to be a little more reserve, if you will, about personally attacking the president in a television setting. I think the fear is that that would make more people sympathize with the president than with the journalist.

SWEENEY: But here's my question for you. Do you think the media in the United States believes they were misled by the White House, never mind the American people. Does the media believe that it was taken down a garden path?

KURTZ: Absolutely, and the latest evidence of that is, just this morning, "New York Times" editorial page saying that it had made mistakes in its coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war, that it had not asked the hard questions, that it had not been skeptical enough or aggressive enough in challenging the claims that President Bush and Vice President Cheney made about the now-missing weapons of mass destruction.

So I think there is a pretty widespread sense among a lot of publications, news outlets here, that we dropped the ball, that we blew what was one of the biggest stories in recent years.

SWEENEY: But, Anthony, the British media couldn't be said to have dropped the ball in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

ANTHONY GRAYLING, "PROSPECT": Well, it's very hard in a way to level that accusation at the press because, after all, the press have only the information that government is prepared to put out and that it can get from other sources. I mean, we saw the difficulty the BBC ran into when one of its journalists tried to dig a little big deeper and come up with an assessment that was somewhat at odds wit what the government was saying, especially as what the government was saying was based on such reliable- seeming sources, like the Joint Intelligence Committee.

So what tended to happen before the war was that there was a certain division on party political lines. I mean, quite a lot of the debate about whether it was right to go to war, whether the government misused the information that the intelligence services gave them, has rather predictably fallen into a kind of party political battle lines division, and that's what we see now.

SWEENEY: Do you believe, Howard, that perhaps President Bush and the nature of the office of the presidency in the United States means that he's less exposed in some ways that Prime Minister Blair here is?

KURTZ: Well, he's less exposed in one sense, and that is unlike the prime minister, who regularly has to take questions in the very raucous environment of parliament, there is no constitutional requirement that any president here talk to the press, and George W. Bush has held fewer full- scale news conference, about 11 since he took office, than any other president in modern history.

He doesn't much like the press. He doesn't much like the give and take that comes with dealing with reporter's questions, and so we often have here a situation where maybe he's meeting with a foreign leader and one or two questions can be asked.

It's kind of unsatisfying, I think, from the media's point of view, but it does show the degree to which the imperial presidency can be surrounding by a bubble, where the president doesn't have to be questioned by either journalist or the opposition party, at least until the fall debates with Democrat candidate John Kerry.

SWEENEY: OK. My final question to you, Anthony. How much of the attacks on Tony Blair are personal as opposed to politic? That this is a man who's been prime minister for seven or more years, was supposed to have handed over to Gordon Brown at some time. How much of that is playing into things here?

GRAYLING: I think there is a measure of truth in that. There is certainly a degree of personal animus in some of the attacks and with the increasing polarization of the political debate in the country, this question of Tony Blair's personal style -- I mean, we saw, for example, the Butler Report in it's very veiled and rather elegant way, criticizing his what they call sofa cabinet, the fact that everything is done very informally, off the record with just a few select advisors.

You know, he's got this coterie of people -- always had this coterie of people with him, who have been very sensitive to what we call spin here, how things play out, how things are presented to the public, and that has created a good deal of hostility from people who think that his personal style of leadership is part of the problem.

But then, on the other hand, of course, it's also part of the strength, and as Howard says, the United States president doesn't speak to the press very much. Tony Blair is talking to the press all the time. He has these monthly press briefings and he's seen on the floor of the House of Commons doing battle with the opposition, and he likes that and he's quite good at it too. He relishes the challenge and always believes that if he is given an opportunity to put his case in person, that he can swing some hearts, and in the past he's managed to do that.

SWEENEY: All right. We have to leave it there. Anthony Grayling, Howard Kurtz, in Washington, thank you both very much for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, changing ethics for changing times. The inflict of the conflict in Iraq on what the media show and how they show it.

We'll be right back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Just as the Iraq war marked a turning point in the country's history, it will also mark a change in how the media cover such conflicts.

In this segment, we examine how codes of ethics and conduct have evolved in recent months.

Joining us from CNN headquarters in Atlanta is Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, and from Doha, Ahmed al-Sheikh, editor-in-chief of the Arabic language network Al Jazeera.

My first question to you, Ahmed al-Sheikh, I have in from of me a fax of Al Jazeera's code of ethics in which it basically outlines the points that Al Jazeera shall resolutely adopt in terms of ethics in pursuing the vision and mission it has set for itself.

Can I ask you, why did the network feel the need to publish such a list of ethics?

AHMED AL-SHEIKH, AL JAZEERA: Well, actually, as a matter of fact, we have been practicing this code of ethics in reality, but we haven't -- we didn't in the past try to publish it. It was applied in practice, in real practice, for over eight years.

And now, as we feel that Al Jazeera is coming of age, we feel that it is time we printed this and published it to the public, so that we become more transparent in the message and the mission that we are trying to carry on our shoulders. I think we feel it's time that we did this.

SWEENEY: In a sense, you're willing to be held more accountable to the public.

SHEIKH: That's right. We want to be more transparent and more accountable, first of all to ourselves and to our journalists and producers. We want to be transparent. We want everyone to know that he is accountable, and then we want the world to know that we believe in these principles and we want to be held accountable accordingly.

SWEENEY: OK. Eason Jordan, in Atlanta, CNN has long had quite a volume of practices, but as we mentioned in the introduction to this segment, the war in Iraq has changed an awful lot. What has evolved, in your mind, in terms of addressing ethics and issues and how CNN covers the story there?

EASON JORDAN, CNN: Well, first I want to compliment Al Jazeera for putting out this code of ethics. I know Al Jazeera worked very hard on that and I hope that Al Jazeera, like CNN, will continue refining its policies and developing standards and practices.

I think Iraq has posed some unique challenges for us, from a safety perspective, from a news coverage perspective, and from a perspective point of view. For example, when you look at Fallujah, where there has been very intense fighting in recent months, Al Jazeera's preponderance of coverage comes from inside of Fallujah. CNN's coverage for the most part comes from the outskirts of Fallujah, and this leads to a somewhat distorted point of view. At least not an entirely balanced point of view, not because we want it that way but because safety concerns pose real challenges for us in telling the story.

In Iraq, 48 journalists have died in the past 18 months and the danger there has really made providing all the coverage and the type of coverage we would like to provide very, very difficult.

SWEENEY: Well, doesn't that raise the question then, Eason, of how well Western journalists can cover that story, get both sides of the story there?

JORDAN: Well, I think you could say the same for all news organizations, not just Western.

It's a real challenge, and we do use, for instance, some Al Jazeera coverage on occasion from Fallujah. CNN produced some coverage out of Fallujah from an embed with U.S. Marines that I believe was used on Al Jazeera.

It's important to get all sides of the story as best we can, even if we cannot do it with our own journalists.

SWEENEY: Can I ask, Ahmed al-Sheikh, about the number of videotapes that are dropped off at Al Jazeera offices in recent months that you choose to air. Being a devil's advocate, for example, if you chose not to air a lot of these videos of hostage-takings, then perhaps it would be, as Margaret Thatcher once famously said about the IRA, it would be depriving them of the oxygen of publicity.

SHEIKH: Well, I don't think so. When we receive these tapes, we deal with them in a news context, and we believe that this thing is happening in Iraq, it is taking place in Iraq in reality, and people's lives are at stake. So when we receive the tapes, in many cases it creates a dilemma for us in the newsroom, whether to put it on air or not.

But the general policy, our general policy is to deal with these tapes in a news context. We study these tapes and we try to verify whether they are authentic or not in the first place, and once we verify that they are really authentic, we take them in a news context. We do not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) everything in these tapes and we do not give those who have -- where these tapes originated from, we do not -- we are careful not to give them a platform.


SHEIKH: . to propagate their point of view.

SWEENEY: OK, but you had a situation earlier this week where, if I'm correct, there was a tape of a Filipino hostage announcing his upcoming release, as he expected it, only to followed shortly thereafter by a statement from the hostage-takers saying that he wasn't being released until such time as all the Filipino forces were removed from Iraq.

How does that play into your evolving standards and ethics? Did you regard that as a mistake or was it just one of those things that slipped through?

SHEIKH: Well, I think it could have been -- we should have been more accurate in this regard. But as long as he was saying it in his own words, we could not ignore that. He was telling his family and his wife that he will be released very soon, so how could we tell that the group who was -- who are still keeping him hostage, are going to change their mind. We could never tell that was going to happened. But we had the tape and the man was saying it and we wanted to put that on air to send that message to his family.


SHEIKH: . that he is safe and that he would be released.

SWEENEY: Eason Jordan, what is your feeling about the preponderance of videotapes and wouldn't CNN really be quite grateful to receive some tapes as well?

JORDAN: No. In fact, we'd be grateful not to receive these tapes. In fact, not until now have we disclosed the fact that we did receive one of these videotapes of a hostage, a Pakistani hostage in Iraq. We were told that 72 hours after we aired the tape for the first time this Pakistani would be killed unless all Pakistanis pulled out of Iraq, and we asked to be sure.

We said, "Are you saying that from the moment we air the tape, 72 hours later this hostage will be killed unless all the Pakistanis are pulled out?"

We were told yes, and our response was, "Well, then, we're not going to air the tape, because CNN is not going to be responsible for the clock starting to tick."

So you have to deal with these things very judiciously, with great restraint, and I think we want to discourage anyone from thinking that we can be used as a platform for terrorist tapes, and I use the word terrorist very rarely, but when we talk about beheading innocent people, I think it falls into that category.

SWEENEY: And so what you're saying is in a sense that it seems that CNN policy is being constantly refined according to the situation on the ground.

JORDAN: There's no doubt about it. I'm not saying CNN would never air such a videotape, but under a circumstance where we're told 72 hours after we first air the tape the clock starts ticking, CNN will not be responsible for the clock starting to tick. That will have to fall to another news organization should another news organization choose to air tape like that.

SWEENEY: How competitive is the 24 breaking news networks internationally and how is that fed into some of the decisions that are made by executives like yourselves?

JORDAN: Well, time is a factor. Breaking news is a factor. We break a lot of news at CNN, but then again, so do a lot of other news organizations. The Arab news organizations tend to break a lot of news from kidnappers, the people threatening beheadings and things like this, and I think that's natural to a degree.

SWEENEY: All right. There we must leave it. Eason Jordan, of CNN in Atlanta and Ahmed al-Sheik in Doha, thank you very much for joining us.

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. Thanks for joining us.



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