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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired August 7, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Hala Gorani, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
Now, the warnings are coming to us in a fast and furious way, threats of a fresh and imminent terrorist attack in the United States and in Britain.

Recent arrests are said to uncover an intricate web of al Qaeda contacts and preliminary plans. But there is confusion over whether the information contained in these alerts is new or old. But reading the papers and listening to newscasts, you may well believe that an attack is all but certain in some cases.

Critics argue that the media are simply at the service of politicians these days and are not adequately probing the potential political agendas at play.

To debate this, we're joined in Washington, D.C. by Stephen Hayes of the "Weekly Standard" magazine, and in Oxford, England, George Monbiot, columnist with the "Guardian."

George, I'll start with you, if I can. Do you think that the media are culpable of over-hyping terrorist threats for, I suppose, an editorial advantage of getting sensationalist news out on the air?

GEORGE MONBIOT, "GUARDIAN": Yes, there's no question about that, and if in particular you look at the run up to the Iraq War, we heard plenty of in the media of the most misleading kind, about how Saddam Hussein could destroy us at any time, that he's got nuclear weapons, that he was responsible for the anthrax attacks in the United States, that he posed an imminent threat.

The media was just as culpable as the U.S. and the U.K. governments in hyping up that threat, and today, of course, the media are still dancing to the government tune. We have no way of knowing whether the intelligence we're being told is there about these terrorist suspects is valid or not. It might be just as dodgy, just as untrustworthy as the intelligence which we were fed before the war with Iraq.

But, unfortunately, the media seems to be taking it as if it's gospel and reporting it as if there is no question that what we're being told is true.

GORANI: Let's get Stephen Hayes into this discussion. Do you agree with George -- Stephen?

STEPHEN HAYES, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, no, I actually have a different view, actually.

If you look at the recent terror alerts and the recent raising of the terror threat level here in the United States, one of the first things that happened right out of the gates was that the "Washington Post" and the "New York Times" both ran front page, very prominent articles suggesting, I think, or hinting, implying, that these were perhaps politically motivated because of the timing.

The information, the intelligence, was reported to have been in some cases three years old, and I think the suggestion of those articles was that this was somehow timed for a political advantage. And I think, you know, on further exploration, that's not necessarily the case.

I mean, if you look back at the 1998 embassy bombings, the planning for those attacks happened five years in advance. The September 11 attacks were first hatched in 1995, seven years, six years in advance. So I think, you know, it's entirely possible that some of this old information was relevant and should have been put before the public, not to mention the fact that more recent reporting suggests that this information has been updated kind of constantly.

GORANI: And, George, this is a point, of course, that many people make. It might be information that's three years old, but it could be information that will be used in attacks in one or two years.

The question is, is it time to become cynical and tough only after an attack happens? Isn't it time to cover it in a substantial and tough way before the attack happens?

MONBIOT: Sure. Cover it in a substantial and tough way and, of course, as Stephen says, the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post" have broken with precedent in doing that in this recent case. But that should be done all of the time.

We should absolutely report the warnings that the government is putting out, but add to that report a safety warning, saying we're not sure whether we can trust this or not.

Now, democracy is sustained by public skepticism. It's sustained by the public and the newspapers on behalf of the public constantly asking whether we can and whether we should believe what governments are saying. The moment we stop asking that, democracy is not backwards and the state becomes less democratic because it's subject to less scrutiny.

The moment we start to believe unquestioningly what we are told, then we might as well not live in a democracy at all, and the role of the media is constantly to question and expose and embarrass government and to find holes in its case and to dissect and pull apart its arguments and when there is credit due to the government, give them credit. But when there is not, take them to task and give them a very hard time.

And unfortunately, by and large, over the past few years the media has been failing in that task.

GORANI: All right, Stephen, what do you make of the criticism, for instance, that since 9/11 there have been fewer terrorist attacks than in many of the years preceding 9/11, yet the coverage of terrorist threats, increased terrorist threat levels and potential terrorist threats has quadrupled and was sometimes multiplied by five in some newspapers.

HAYES: Well, I think -- I think that's entirely possible and I don't have any reason to doubt those figures. It is I think one of the downsides of our media -- our media today, is that these things tend to get sensationalized.

On the other hand, when you have so many people who have seen up front and, you know, let's be honest, it's probably because a lot of these attacks, many of the deaths, happened in America, so American media is paying more attention to attacks now, to terrorism now, to the threats now, than the American media was before.

And on a certain level, I think that's lamentable. On the other hand, I think it's quite natural. You know, Americans are going to be more interested when Americans are threatened then they are when people of other nations are threatened. I just think that's a natural outgrowth of our concerns.

I don't necessarily disagree with anything that George said, either. I think George hits on a key point. It is very important for the media to keep the government honest and to the extent the media can question the intelligence, can challenge some of the reporting, I think that's fantastic. My problem is, you have to do that based on some evidence of your own. You have to have gone out and collected something that gives rise to this skepticism. Something that you can push off against, if you will.

GORANI: Right.

HAYES: And I think in the case of the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post" they simply didn't have that. They floated this notion that these things were three years old and, therefore, not important.

GORANI: George, that's an important point. Look, if you're going to disagree with the government, you'd better have something to back it up.

MONBIOT: I completely agree, and what we desperately need to see is a revival of the investigative journalism which we used to have.

There used to be a fantastic tradition of investigative journalism on both sides of the Atlantic, and by investigation I don't mean discovering what David Beckham's underpants look like, I mean finding out what the government is really doing. The Watergate Scandal, of course, being a classic example. Now that tradition has more or less died and instead --

GORANI: Why is that? Why has it died?

MONBIOT: I think it's because of partly the politicization of the media. There's been a massive concentration in the hands of a few corporations and those corporations are often very close to power and they don't want to see investigative journalism because a lot of their friends could get tangled up in it.

But, secondly, because people are chasing ratings, they want cheap TV, they want cheap reports in their newspapers, and it's much cheaper to follow celebrities around and turn yourself into a scandal sheet than it is to do very long-running, expensive, hard grind investigative stories of the kind that we desperately need.

HAYES: I think -- I think once again, once again I agree with George on his diagnosis of the problem. I think we probably just disagree on what it all means.

I do agree that there is a serious lack of investigative journalism. We need much, much more of it, but I guess I would suggest that the problem lies not in media concentration, but in something much simpler, and that is that many journalists hav become lazy. They don't go out and they don't look for what I would --


MONBIOT: The reason, Stephen, they've become lazy is that they're not being rewarded for working hard.

GORANI: Let me just -- we've got to wrap it up because we're running out of time, and if I could just put this to you, Stephen, there is a danger here, isn't there, of crying wolf? Of every single time that a potential threat is out there, it's over-reported and over-hyped, people stop believing it, so when a real threat comes out, or a more tangible threat comes out, nobody believes it anymore.

HAYES: I think you're right, and I think that's a problem not only for journalists, but for the government as well, and I think, you know, George and I would probably agree that this can be remedied by more serious investigative journalism.

Let's get to the bottom of this. Let's find out exactly what kind of intelligence is in these reports that the government is using to justify raising the terror threat levels, and let's figure out if, you know, if the experts believe that these are real threats, that these are significant things to be worried about or if this is something that is over-hyped.

GORANI: And a quick last one to George. It's also very difficult to sift through, in this world of the 24-hour news cycle, where everything is reported the second it comes out. It's very difficult to understand what's actually going on.

MONBIOT: Sure, and news organizations must now make a special effort not to just recycle government press releases and corporate press released but to actually generate their own news through their own investigative activities, and that means ceasing to just stand on top of a hotel in Baghdad and say this is what we're hearing from there, this is what we're hearing from here. That way you learn nothing about the world and, as a result, your viewers learn nothing about the world either.

GORANI: George Monbiot, "Guardian" columnist, joining us from Oxford, England, many thanks.

MONBIOT: Thank you.

GORANI: Stephen Hayes, of the "Weekly Standard," in Washington, D.C. It's been a pleasure speaking to both of you.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, here on CNN, a decisive moment for photojournalism as it says goodbye to one of its legends. A tribute to Henri Cartier-Bresson when we come back.



His work inspired generations of photographers, capturing on camera some of the most extraordinary events in the 20th century in the most extraordinary way.

Henri Cartier-Bresson died this week in France, aged 95. In his lifetime, he revolutionized photography and was responsible for the concept of the decisive moment, a moment in time frozen, encapsulating the essence of an image.

To talk about his immense contribution to photojournalism, I'm joined now by one of his colleagues from "Magnum," Ian Berry.

Thanks for being with us -- Ian.

IAN BERRY, "MAGNUM": Pleasure.

GORANI: First of all, why are we calling Henri Cartier-Bresson a genius?

BERRY: I think because he almost single handedly started this photojournalist era, if you like.

There had been photographers before him using the small camera, but I think Henri was the first person to combine his artistic background - - he had studied in art beforehand -- and sort of bring a new element to photography. Not just the moment, but an element of composition, of geometry, and I think he did that for the first time, and also at a time when the magazines in America and Europe were really at their peak.

GORANI: Picture hungry.

How would you define the decisive moment?

BERRY: I don't think you can other than to say it's when everything comes together. When the moment, when the shape, when everything works. And Henri used to say if we can do that once a year, you know, have one photograph a year, we're doing well.

GORANI: Now, when we look at this picture, and this is one of the most famous photographs in the world, what is it that we see in this photo in particular that was so innovate when it was taken?

BERRY: Henri never posed anything. You know, he never arranged photographs. I mean, sometimes, you know, we all wait for a moment, we see a possibility of a background.

But this could not have been anticipated. You know, it was just the speed with which he managed to make a picture, but combine it in a shape which works, you know, just worked perfectly.

GORANI: Now, when you have a picture like this, that was taken decades ago, what would have been different, do you think, in the world of photojournalism and photograph had Henri Cartier-Bresson never been a photographer?

BERRY: I think there had been some good photographers before him, and also some contemporaries, to be honest. But Henri influenced a whole generation of people, and if you like, educated a whole generation. People like, well, I'm not admitting to having been educated, but he really brought home to photographers who had really been journalists to --

GORANI: A sense of the artistic, in a way.

BERRY: Exactly. To realize that you had to bring more to it than just the moment.

GORANI: That's what makes photography such an incredible medium, in a way, because you need incredible technical ability, rapidity of movement, coordination like no other art form, and also -- like, if we look at this picture, a sense of humor, a sense of history, a sense of the moment. That's what makes him such a genius.

BERRY: And the ability to recognize it in a fraction of a second.

GORANI: Right.

BERRY: I mean, Henry, the first time I met him, he told me, when I first joined "Magnum," you know, photography is like shooting a gun. You know, you wait until exactly the right moment and attack.

GORANI: And, again, the decisive moment. But I'm wondering, if you're standing on top of a staircase, you have to be waiting for something, or it must take immense patience to come up with a photo like that.

BERRY: Yes, I think there are two ways. One, one shoots -- either sort of recognizes the potential of a great shape and you need to add something to it. You know, as a shape it's not enough, it's just an exercise, a finger exercise. And so you wait until the right moment when someone comes along who is interesting, when the bicycle goes by, which contributes to the composition.

GORANI: And he didn't shoot in color.


GORANI: Why not?

BERRY: I think for many of us, color is a limiting factor.

I mean, if you look at that photograph, the staircase might have been painted in silver and the bike might have been red and it wouldn't have worked, whereas in black and white, in a way, it's easier to control the terms.

GORANI: So has it influenced you in that sense, that you're really only shooting black and white?

BERRY: Oh, yes. Very much so.

GORANI: So, historically, finally, a question on how Henri Cartier-Bresson's work was a witness to the 20th century in many ways, and how we've seen through his lens many of the most important events of the last century.

Without him, we wouldn't have had this Cartier-Bresson eye, this look through his lens.

BERRY: I think that's very true. I mean, he always claimed not to be a photojournalist. He didn't really like the expression. But he was also something of an intellectual, and always managed to find himself in parts of the world when something interesting was really happening.

I mean, for instance, in China. During the Civil War in China, when Chiang Kai-shek was retreating, he was retreating with him and, you know, took some amazing photographs of that. Well, that, for me, is true photojournalism. It's being in the right place at the right time, anticipating the event, and remember that Henri hated flying so he probably got around China by train or by bus and so on. You know, to be in the right place at the right time really shows.

GORANI: Not always an accident.

BERRY: Absolutely.

GORANI: All right, Ian Berry, many thanks for joining us here on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS for a look back at a genius and a pioneer in the world of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Still to come on the program, decoding the success of "The Da Vinci Code." We talk to one prominent columnist who thinks he's worked out why this book is inspiring a cult-like following.

Stay with us.


GORANI: Welcome back.

Everyone loves a conspiracy, but take it and combine it with a riddle and religion thrown in and what have you got? A worldwide phenomenon.

Author Dan Brown and his book, "The Da Vinci Code," have spawned a cult-like following. This week, it reached the No. 1 bestseller spot in Britain. Even prominent political columnists are commenting on what underlies the book's success.

Jonathan Freedland of the "Guardian" thinks he's solved that puzzle.

How have you solved it?

JONATHAN FREEDLAND, "GUARDIAN": Well, I think I've tried to understand what is going on with a phenomenon which is a huge hit, not just in Britain but in the United States. Up to 10 million copies sold worldwide, so straight away something must be going on here beyond just commercial success.

As a book, you can see why. It's a real page turner once you start, it's very hard to stop reading it. But there are a lot of thrillers like that. I think there are a couple of things that distinguish it from the rest of the pack and the first is that it seems to be staying something more substantial than your regular thriller. It does offer this whole thesis about the history of the Catholic Church, suggesting it's been involved itself in an enormous conspiracy going back 2,000 years to hide the real truth about the historical Jesus and that people of all kinds have been conspirators in collaborating with that and that there's a notion of a group Leonardo Di Vinci and a few other great artists for a thousand years who have been privy to this great secret.

GORANI: And, as we were saying, everybody loves a conspiracy, right?

FREEDLAND: And everybody loves a conspiracy. I think the -- but the thing that it taps into that are important, I think, is one, there is - - and this book reveals it -- an esteem problem for the Catholic Church at the moment that makes a book which casts the Catholic Church as villain plausible.

And the idea to me that particularly in the United States that coming up to 8 million people have bought a book that has as its apparent arch-murderer a Catholic monk whose strings are being pulled by a very sinister bishop and people buy that, that this is the mass market villain of our time, people in the Catholic Church, suggests that perhaps the crisis over sex abuse in the Catholic Church has eaten deep into the public esteem for the church.

GORANI: So it's a reflection of how times have changed as well with regards to the perception people have of the Catholic Church?

FREEDLAND: Absolutely. I think there would have been a time when you couldn't say that kind of thing about the Catholic Church, and if you did you'd be very unpopular. Your book would not be a hit. That's one part.

The other part is your wider point, as you said, about everyone loves a conspiracy. You have to, to buy the premise of this book, have a very, very distrustful attitude towards authority. You've got to believe that the powers that be have been fibbing and lying for 2,000 years. People buy that now. This is the era of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" being a blockbuster movie, which again says that the authorities lie to you.

This book, in a very much lighter way, does make the same point, except it is the Catholic Church rather than the White House.

GORANI: But in a world where blockbuster movies usually feature high tech, you know, arms and vehicles and "Mission Impossible I," "Mission Impossible II," this doesn't have any of that. This is relying on the power of the brain, solving a riddle.

FREEDLAND: That's what's so interesting about it. It isn't your regular thriller with arms and bullets and wizardry. It is two people who barely even use a computer throughout this span of a 600 page novel. They just once or twice dip in. The rest of the time, they are using the kind of brain power that might make you able to solve crossword puzzles.

GORANI: Right.

FREEDLAND: The satisfaction through the book is the same one as when you read the solution to yesterday's crossword puzzle in the paper and you realize, ah ha, that's what it mean. Anagrams that you could never get yourself, or you might struggle, you could nevertheless work out when Dan Brown, the author, holds your hand through it.

But I think even that too reveals something larger, which is notice what been big publishing phenomena in recent years. Harry Potter --

GORANI: Right.

FREEDLAND: A phenomena first among children, but then all these adults reading it. Here in Britain, the Philip Pullman trilogy, again about magic, also casting the Church as villain. Adults reading those books.

It says to me -- "Lord of the Rings," a big blockbuster series -- that fantasy and magic are something people are yearning for, and maybe that's a commentary on these very dark times we live in, in this era of the war on terror, et cetera, people want to escape, even grownups want to escape, and imagine a magical world where things are mysterious and puzzling but in a sort of magic way rather than in a sinister and dark way.

GORANI: So when you have usually a blockbuster hit, like "The Da Vinci Code," you can expect many imitations, and you can expect it perhaps even to determine where literature and mass market literature will go in the coming years. Do you see that changing, because of a book like "The Da Vinci Code"?

FREEDLAND: Well, certainly there are all the "Harry Potter" want- to-bes, and there's a real appetite among publishers to find more of those, and in fact a new book is coming out next month which will be like an adult "Harry Potter." That's how their marketing it.

In this particular case, I'm sure that in the publishing industry they are all gagging for the next "Da Vinci Code." The problem many of them have is that Dan Brown himself is at work on another book and, of course, he's going to have the brand name now in publishing. But I think the idea of sinister conspiracy theories, code-breaking, all of that territory is going to be very, very fertile for thriller writers and readers.

GORANI: And clearly, stay tuned for the movie.

Jonathan Freedland, of the Guardian, thanks very much for being with us on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

FREEDLAND: My pleasure.

GORANI: 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 Hala Gorani, thanks for joining us. See you next time.



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