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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired August 21, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where examine how the media are covering the big stories.
We all know the clear and present danger that lurks in Iraq. For foreign workers, this danger has become all too familiar with hostage- taking almost a daily reality. And now it seems journalists are not excluded from this. For freelance journalists, the Iraq experience can be even more perilous. But what are the responsibilities for the news editors who hire them?

I'm joined now in studio by Jonathan Baker, BBC World editor, Colum Freeman (ph), freelance journalist just returned from Iraq, and Topaz Amoore, foreign editor for the "Sunday Telegraph."

Topaz, why do you send the freelancers in? Are they the cannon fodder?

TOPAZ AMOORE, "SUNDAY TELEGRAPH": There's really not a description for them. It's not. They're journalist who simply want to report on what's going on in Iraq. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention their work is protected, and we believe that we should give their work a sort of forum.

We have a mixture. There are those freelance journalists who take themselves off to Iraq an then offer us work. There are separately freelance journalists that we hire in London, train up and send out there. But whoever we have out there, whoever is under our auspices, is the term for it, we take their safety incredibly seriously.

RODGERS: But why do you risk their lives? Why don't you send in your tried-and-true trusted staff members?

AMOORE: We have a mixture. We do do that. On the "Sunday Telegraph," actually, we have a relatively small permanent foreign staff. We have essentially two foreign (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who are based in London who have all the kind of staff protection, and we do send them out.

But obviously, they get exhausted. It's a very tiring place to operate. And so we also have to use freelance journalists as well, and as I say, they are a mixture of people who have a contract with us. Some of them we operate out of other territories and put them into Iraq for perhaps five or six weeks at a time. And then we also have journalists who mainly base themselves out of places such as Baghdad and offer work to a number of titles, including the "Sunday Telegraph."

Like James Brandon (ph), who was kidnapped last week, was one of those. He also worked for titles such as "The Scotsman," "The Independent" and various American titles. So when he rang us and offered work from Basra, I was only too happy to accept it.

RODGERS: Do you find that some of these people you put in your paper as freelancers really don't have genuine credentials as journalists?

AMOORE: I make very sure that the ones that we use do have journalist credentials. You know, James himself had been living in Iraq for nearly a year. He had been working for "Bloomberg" and "Christian Science Monitor." He had previously contributed to our paper. His copy was admirably clear and concise. His work was stellar. And he knew -- he knew very well how to operate in Iraq.

You know, he knew about the trade craft. He knew how to mix with the locals, how to operate in a sort of low-cover way, in a low profile way, and ironically, when he was kidnapped, it was in Basra, which is a city that previously had almost been a relatively safe place. This wasn't Fallujah. This wasn't Ramadi. It wasn't Najaf.

RODGERS: Colum (ph), you're just back. If you get wounded there, who pays your insurance? Who pays your hospitalization? You're a freelancer.

COLUM FREEMAN (ph), FREELANCE JOURNALIST: Well, I was wounded back in May. I was down in Basra, went to a prayer meeting of al Sadr followers and then somebody came up, just completely without warning, and fired a pistol right into the ground behind me. Ricochet went into my backside.

On that occasion, a BBC camera crew who had been nearby and who had witnessed what happened alerted the British authorities, primarily because they thought I might be kidnapped and dragged away. I wasn't.

And when I was eventually sort of released about half an hour later, I got myself out of the scrape, they had already told the British Army to expect me at their field hospital. The alternative would have been to go to the Iraqi hospital. Now, whether they would have discovered the bullet that was lodged inside of me, I don't know. I don't know if they have x- ray machines, that sort of thing.

RODGERS: But you don't have insurance?

FREEMAN (ph): When I first went out there, no. That's one of the -- I inquired about it, but the insurance was something like, I think, something like about 3,000 pounds a week, which if you're a freelancer is absolutely prohibitive, and there's not even any possibility that you can even afford to consider it.

RODGERS: John, what's wrong with this use or misuse of freelancers?

JONATHAN BAKER, BBC WORLD: Well, it's not a problem I particularly have at BBC because we only use staff that's there. But some of the camera crews that we regularly use in other parts of the world are freelancers, and both in Afghanistan and in Iraq during the war, there were some freelancers who we routinely employee normally who we did not employ because of exactly the problem that Colum (ph) sets out, that their insurance premiums were simply too high for either of us to bear, and so we had to say on this occasion we could only use staff crews.

RODGERS: When you look at your staff crews, do you ever say this guy or this woman has been in here too long, has done too many of these things, we're going to make the decision, we're not going to send them back or keep them there?

BAKER: Absolutely. I mean, most of our people are on two or three week turnaround, which we find with the very heavy workload that we impose upon them is about as much as they can take without becoming completely physically exhausted. But many of them have been, over the past two or three years, they've built up a long level of experience and have been there several times. So these tend to be our most seasoned and experienced people.

They tend not to say themselves when they feel they've had enough or want to come out, so we do have to make (AUDIO GAP) for them I think on occasion. But for the most part we can kind of see the danger signs and you nicely just suggest to them that they take a little time out for a while before they go back again.

But as I say, these are our most experienced and seasoned people. They know what they're about. And we wouldn't send less experienced people to a place like Baghdad.

RODGERS: Topaz, do you ever spend sleepless nights worrying about the freelancers you hire?

AMOORE: Frequently. As you can imagine, last week was a case in point. We found out that James had been kidnapped. I found out at about 1:00 in the morning when messages come through from the foreign office. I didn't sleep that night and the rest of the day, on Friday, as you can image, was a torture and a torment. If it was an ordeal for us, it was obviously much worse for James, but back in the office we were terribly worried about him.

Fortunately, his particular ordeal was resolved relatively quickly. It lasted only about 20 hours.

But this notion of insurance, I'd just like to go back to it, because when we were sending freelancers out to cover the war proper, the American invasion of Iraq, we had a meeting with the executives of the daily and the "Sunday Telegraph" on precisely this point.

I said to them, and we were in agreement, all the commissioner editors, that we could not in all good conscience send freelancers out into the same theatre of war as staffers and expect them to go under different insurance conditions, and the cover was extended so that freelance journalists who were sent out were covered just the same way as staffers.

And most recently, in the James Brandon (ph) situation, again we had an immediate meeting at 8:00 in the morning on Friday. He effectively was on assignment for us in Basra and therefore our insurance cover was extended to cover him.

RODGERS: Jonathan, would you send Colum (ph) out? He's a freelancer.

BAKER: Not unless either he had made his own insurance arrangements or we could bring him under the umbrella of the BBC arrangements in the same way as Topaz describes there.

RODGERS: Colum (ph), is this a ticket you have to punch to become a big time journalist? Do you, as a freelancer, have to say I will go anywhere, do anything, to become staff member?

FREEMAN (ph): No, I wouldn't say so. There is this image of freelancers as being the ones who are the cannon fodder, as you say, or are willing to take the risks.

In some sense, I think it's more often the other way around; because you're a freelancer you can afford to turn down assignments if you don't want them. It's the people with the big names, with the reputations to protect, where you tend to see the race to be the first into, say Fallujah or Najaf or wherever.

RODGERS: What does a paper like the "Telegraph" owe you, besides a paycheck, when they send you in?

FREEMAN (ph): Nothing, really. I take the attitude that I go out there, it's my decision to go there. People want to run my stuff, that's fine, and that's it. Nobody owes me any obligations or any living when I'm out there. It's entirely down to me.

RODGERS: Jonathan, sometimes I get the impression that when management says we want only volunteers for an assignment like this, it's a bit disingenuous, because a journalist knows that they have to go in there and do the bang bang to get a paycheck, to get ahead. Address that issue, please.

BAKER: Well, it's true. Before the Iraq War last year, about three or four within the BBC came to me and said that they didn't want to be assigned to this war. It wasn't their kind of thing. And they selected themselves out of the process. About 200 people came to me and explained to me why they had to be absolutely strapped to the front of the first tank into Baghdad.

So journalists, you know, with reputations to make or enhance, certainly feel that, as you said, that this is a box that they want to take. So we do have a responsibility, I think, to try and kind of leaven that a bit and try and select both individuals and teams who are -- both have the experience and the kind of temperament to be able to handle this kind of situation. And the more they've done, the better they are at it.

RODGERS: Jonathan, thank you very much. Topaz, thank you. Colum (ph), thank you and good luck.

Najaf, of course, has been one of the most dangerous assignments for those few journalists daring enough to have stayed in there.

We'll talk about that more after this short news break.


RODGERS: Stay out or we'll shoot you. That was one of the warnings to the handful of journalists in the Iraqi city of Najaf while it was under siege. While the fighting raged between Iraqi and U.S. forces and those loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the Iraqi government ordered journalists to leave the city.

But some chose to stay and chronicle the story despite the obvious risks.

I'm joined now on the telephone by Stephen Farrell, Irish reporter for "News International."

You risked your life for this story. Tell us about it.

STEPHEN FARRELL, "NEWS INTERNATIONAL": Well, I think all the journalists here are risking their lives for the story to one extent or another, but each day many of us try to get into the shrine and the old city or as close as possible to find out what the reality is in there, because you have the Iraqi government saying one thing, the U.S. Marines and government often saying another, and obviously Muqtada al Sadr's people saying a third thing, and unfortunately it's just one of those horrible situations where he said/she said doesn't cut it. You've got to be there and say, well, XYZ is true because I was there.

RODGERS: When the Iraqi authorities recently told you leave or we'll shoot you, were they bluffing? What did you think? Why did you stay?

FARRELL: We didn't know if they were bluffing. Half a dozen or so of us stayed. I can't honestly take you through our thought processes, but fairly high up there was this is a new post-Saddam Iraq. It's certainly a new Allawi government. If they get away with it this time, they'll try it every time. It's going to be impossible to do any work in Iraq from now on.

So we just sat in the hotel and tried to write our stories and just not think about it and hope they didn't kick the door down and come in. The thought process was no more simple than that -- no more complicated than that.

RODGERS: The rules have changed. Journalists are no longer noncombatants. Who rewrote the rules and why?

FARRELL: Well, whoever he is, I'd like to meet him.

I don't know what the rules are. The rules at 5 minutes past 12 are different from the rules at 10 minutes past 12 and the rules on one street corner are different from the next street corner. There are no rules.

RODGERS: Do you ever feel like cannon fodder?

FARRELL: No, because nobody is pushing me into the mouth of the cannon. My organization has made it quite clear I'm at no pressure to do anything, and I'm not doing anything that I consider to be reckless and dangerous. I have not and would not walk into the path of sniper's bullets flying around my feet. Nobody I know would.

And we are presenting ourselves gingerly, in groups, with press all over. Marked all over us. Flak jackets, cameras and notebooks, hands in the air, gingerly walking towards positions we have reason to believe the people there know who we are because they've seen us for two weeks. The American troops know we're here. We introduce ourselves to them and they sort of -- they see us moving in a cluster. And the Mehdi Army have seen me and some of my colleagues for one, two weeks, and some of them know who we are.

And it's a really gray areas. Some things you just have a feeling they are safe; some things you have a feeling they're not, and you can't define it.

RODGERS: One of the first things people will ask you when you come out of Najaf is, weren't you afraid? How do you answer that or is that an irrelevant question?

FARRELL: Yes, of course I was and am afraid. The point is that you use what you -- the point is, you choose who you work with, you choose whose judgment you trust. You ask locals. You don't go charging up and down streets into a war zone without stopping at every step and saying to locals sniper, yes or no, American tank, yes or no, Mehdi Army, yes or not, and they sort of say don't go down that street, but we haven't heard anything down that street for a while.

This is not something you do lightly. It's also not something you do for very long, to be honest, and the story has to be very big to justify it.

RODGER: Stephen, thank you very much for your intrepid reporting and your honesty.

Still to come on the program, dirty politics just got a lot dirtier. John Kerry's war record is called into question.

Don't go away.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

There's the claim.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

RODGERS (voice-over): . the counter claim.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The people attacking John Kerry's war record are funded by Bush's big money supporters. Listen to someone who was there.


RODGERS; And now the presidential hopeful, Senator John Kerry, tackling the issue head on.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: If he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: bring it on.


RODGERS: That's just the controversy over the advert by the Swift Boat Veterans, which calls into question Kerry's military service in Vietnam.

So should the media be mired in this topic when there are arguably more important election issues to debate?

I'm joined by the editor-in-chief "Slate," and in Oklahoma City, John Fund, a columnist for the "Wall Street Journal."

Gentlemen, help me. The Europeans think the Americans have gone bonkers. John Kerry has a military track record, he's a decorated Vietnam veteran, he served in combat, yet he now has to defend his patriotism.

George W. Bush never heard a shot fired in anger, never went to Vietnam, never served in combat, and yet no one is questioning him.

Has the world turned upside down? John, begin with you.

JOHN FUND, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, memories are very short. We spent about 12 days in April and May about President Bush's service in the Air National Guard in Texas and Alabama, and he had to produce his dental records in the end to show that he reported for duty and was honorably discharged.

So we had this battle over President Bush's military record in April and May. I thought it was silly. I think it's a little silly and unfortunately we're having a 35-year-old debate about Vietnam now, but unfortunately part of that is that Senator Kerry's speech and his whole Boston convention was built around his Vietnam War service. He also conveniently ignored his anti-war activity with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

I think it's a silly issue, but we have a first amendment in this country, and I'm afraid that because we had to go through President Bush's records, in which Michael Moore called him a deserter and various other people questioned his patriotism. The Democratic National Chairman called him AWOL from military service. Now we're having this debate about John Kerry.

Life is unfair. Let's hope we can move on.

RODGERS: Yes, John, but haven't some of the president's war records simply disappeared in the Pentagon? That's kind of fishy.

FUND: No. No. No. That was a report that was given and they have bene found.

Senator Kerry has not released all of his military records. I don't think he has to. I wouldn't if I were he because I think the campaign should be about other issues.

But the bottom line is, both men served honorably. Both men say the other person served honorably. So I think we should move on.


JACOB WEISBERG, "SLATE": Well, John calls is silly. I think it's worse than that. I think that that is about the most disgusting political smear that I've seen in 20 years of covering politics. They're trying to make out that John Kerry, who volunteered to go to Vietnam, who volunteered for dangerous duty, who distinguished himself, was -- faked his injuries to get medals, that he injured himself.

It's nonsense. There's actually no legitimate dispute about what Kerry did in Vietnam, and in the contrary case John cited, where there had been accusations about Bush's war record, which I happen to think is a more legitimate issue. But put that aside, Kerry has criticized the independent group running a fairly mild ad raising this issue about Bush, but Bush and Bush's campaign refuse to distance themselves from this very vile piece of propaganda that's being run on their behalf.

RODGERS: John, don't you think that if the president thought this was hurting his campaign, this kind of dirty tricks, if you will, that he could have this ad pulled in a trice, but he thinks it's helping him?

FUND: Well, John Kerry has not been able to get the ad attacking President Bush's military record removed, and I recall that when Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Chairman, declared President Bush had been AWOL during the Vietnam War, I went back and looked through Nexus Lexus, and senator Kerry never criticized Terry McAuliffe and never said that Michael Moore shouldn't have called the president a deserted.

I'm not saying any of this is legitimate. I disagree with Jacob. I don't think any of this is legitimate. I think we should talk about healthcare and education and other things.

But let's be clear, we went through this first with President Bush in April and May. This is unfortunately now the payback.

WEISBERG: Well, Republicans tended to think it was a pretty legitimate issue that Bill Clinton avoided the draft, which he did. George Bush avoided the draft.

FUND: Well, John Kerry is very clear.


FUND: Jacob, John Kerry was very strong in 1992 when he said we should not refight a 30-year-old war in 2004. And I agree.

Now, if you want to go back to President Clinton, that was about the issue of the draft and that was because a letter surfaced that Mr. Clinton had written to his draft board and to his colonel.


FUND: I don't think that was the most important issue either. I'm simply saying I think it's time for everyone to move on. I don't think either of these military records are legitimate.


RODGERS: Excuse me. Jacob, is the media falling into a trap by letting this specious issue, which you both agree is specious, become the issue?

WEISBERG: Yes, I think it is. Because wherever this is coming out of the right wing fever swamp, this wacky right-wing publisher (UNINTELLIGIBLE), this ad put out by this shadowy group, and it's really -- I think what's happening now is the story is sort of jumping the specious barrier into a legitimate issue, and the question really is is the mainstream media, not the right-wing media but the mainstream media, going to cover this as an issue about Kerry's service in Vietnam, or is it going to cover it as an issue about the ad, who's behind it, whether Bush could stop it.

I think we're seeing some of each, but I think what would be really unfair would be for journalists to treat this as a legitimate debate about what Kerry did in Vietnam, because there is no legitimate issue.

RODGERS: John, let me ask you. No one challenged General Eisenhower's war record in 1952, even though he made some, in retrospect, dubious military decisions. No one challenged John Kennedy's war record in 1960. What's changed such that this has become an ugly issue now?

FUND: Well, I think there are many explanations, but one of them is probably because the country has been so closely divided.

We've had three presidential elections in which no candidate has gotten 50 percent of the vote. We all have heard about the red states and the blue states and the even division. The country is polarized. Everyone expects a very close vote. You have both sides making early allegations of voter fraud.

Because the country is so closely divided, apparently everything is fair game, and just as President Bush's dental records had to be dragged out in May, not we're having to drag this out.

I hope we can get over this and move on after Labor Day.

RODGERS: Jacob, let me ask you this. These ads have worked historically. Richard Nixon built an entire career, both as a congressman, a senator and ultimately as a presidential candidate. This stuff flies becaues it works, doesn't it?

WEISBERG: I think so. I think it's a Republican style of attack politics, which you see particularly in certain campaigns. 1968, 1972, 1988, when Bush's father ran against Michael Dukakis in a very ugly way, questioning his patriotism. Dukakis didn't really fight back and those charges were incredibly damaging.

Bush's father used Lee Atwater, who is now dead. The current President Bush uses Carl Rove in a very similar way. But I don't think both sides are equivalent here. I think it's a Republican style of attack politics that we're seeing, as people on the right and the Republican Party are increasingly worried about losing this election.

RODGERS: Jacob, John, thank you so very much.

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.



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