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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired August 28, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Becky Anderson in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
We begin this week with the story of four faceless men being prosecuted by faceless military officers before a faceless panel. Where? Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, where hundreds of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban operatives are being held.

The men are accused of conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder and helping the enemy through the 2002 conflict in Afghanistan. These are the first such military commissions to be held since World War II and are taking place largely behind closed doors.

So with the emphasis of secrecy and with a long list of media restrictions, can the trials be fair and transparent?

CNN's Susan Candiotti has been in Cuba.


SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are several differences in covering this military commission compared to other courtroom proceedings.

For example, in this case we have been asked not to use any names of any member of the military commission or the prosecutors. We are told this is for security reasons, that they are afraid for their own personal safety of being identified.

Also, we have no direct access to members of this commission whereas when you cover another kind of court proceeding you can perhaps enter the judge's chambers or at least approach them in some way. Here we have no direct opportunity to do that.

In addition, our courtroom sketch artist is not permitted to draw any recognizable faces of any member of the commission or the prosecutors or even the defendant himself. Now, this seems very unusual because in many if not all of the cases we have been provided photographs of the defendants, at times by their families even. So they have no problem in being identified. The reason we're being given by the military is that they are protecting these defendants as part of the Geneva Convention, that they should not be subject to ridicule.

However, at the same time there seems to be a contradiction because the same U.S. military says it is not treating these people as prisoners of war and that's why they don't deserve to have a court martial, they say.

So, again, this is something we can't really explain.


ANDERSON: Well, joining me now in the studio to discuss this further is the "Guardian" newspaper's Vicram Dodds (ph), winner of this year's Amnesty International Award for his investigation into the plight of the detainees.

We thank you for joining us.

Fair and transparent, so far as the trial is concerned, is in question. Fair and transparent so far as the reporting is concerned, what do you think?

VICRAM DODDS (ph), "GUARDIAN" NEWSPAPER: Reporting at all from Guantanamo is incredibly difficult. As in other aspects of the war on terror, the authorities want to control the access to information.

Their message is plain and simple: what we're doing is justified, these people are the hardest of the hard.

Now, once they start to lose control, as in when people have come out, detainees have been released, that message they're trying to push starts to fall apart, starts to be challenged.

So as in any -- all the other aspects of the war on terror, you have a problem here in terms of basic journalism, of getting to people who know what they're talking about, who are telling you what they know faithfully and accurately, and being able to report in the sort of fair and balanced way you'd like to do.

ANDERSON: Some people might suggest we're being slightly unfair in the sense that this isn't an open trial, at least to the media, and our suggestion is that it will -- or we assume that it won't be fair and balances so far as the reporting therefore is concerned.

After all, at least it is an open process at this point, isn't it?

DODDS (ph): There was discussion at the Pentagon about doing this entirely behind closed doors, but there's a reason why they have reporters there and there's a reason why they do lots of trips for reporters to Guantanamo. They're trying to create the illusion of openness.

What's happening, there's always politics behind this and they've taken a beating around the world for the whole Guantanamo process, for locking up people without charge or trial, plus the whole allegations that keep coming out about ill treatment, torture.

So what they're trying to do -- never mind the beating they're taking in the Arab world. They're taking it amongst allies. They're taking it, you know, in France, they're taking it in Britain.

It's, you know -- our paper, sometime ago, tried to get someone British to write a piece in defense of Guantanamo and we couldn't find anyone. I mean, if you look at parliamentary debate about a year ago, right wing conservatives who are life long (UNINTELLIGIBLE), life long supporters of the United States, were getting up to condemn the United States.

ANDERSON: You've been to Guantanamo Bay. You won an award for your reporting of that story. What was your experience of the camp?

DODDS (ph): I'll tell you, it's -- I wasn't going to go initially. I was told by others who had been that it was essentially a show-and-tell exercise, you know, that they show you the canteen and they show you this.

It was well worth going. I mean some of the access you get is -- it depends very much on the press officers. And you can tell the Pentagon though is putting a lot of effort into this. For Guantanamo's 600 prisoners they have eight press officers. And very much what you can get and what you can do is in a way determined by their own personalities and their own characteristics.

So it's long days and some of it is boring nonsense which, frankly, you're never going to report on. But you were able to sort of eke away and get a bit more to the truth.

Some of the guards are quite interesting. And we -- I was on a trip where two reporters ended up being banned from the island for good because they were deemed to have misbehaved. And I remember at one instance where a cook let slip the fact that the food they were giving the men was making them ill. You could just see the faces of their military minders when they realized their carefully crafted PR operation was slowly falling apart.

ANDERSON: What do you then want to see covered at Guantanamo Bay by the press?

DODDS (ph): I would like us to have access to detainees. If they want to be interviewed, I think we should be allowed to talk to them, not because we're going to necessarily sit there and say tell me your pain and tell me tall tales about being tortured. But also, you know, what were you doing in Afghanistan, et cetera, et cetera.

And by and large, the lawyers and the families are up for that and they'll take the rough with the smooth that will come of the coverage. I mean, when I tried with the Pentagon before, they first of all claimed that the Geneva Convention didn't allow it. When I talked to the Red Cross, the Red Cross said that it was permissible as long as the detainees wanted it.

So the Pentagon's answer in the end is that these people are terrorists who shouldn't get a platform, but it strikes me as odd given that a convicted murderer in the United States can have free access to the media while people who are untried, uncharged and unconvicted have to remain silent.

ANDERSON: Vicram (ph), we're going to leave it there. We thank you very much indeed.

DODDS (ph): Pleasure.

ANDERSON: That was Vicram Dodds (ph) of the "Guardian" newspaper.

Next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the war on bias in the media. A new breed of documentaries is enjoying unprecedented success at the box office. Does this mean we're being failed by the mainstream media?

Stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back.

Now it's won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, "Farenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's scathing indictment of America's war on terror.

Hot on it's heels came "Uncovered," archiving the Bush administration's quest for war in Iraq and next to hit cinema screens is "Outfoxed," an 18 minute denunciation of the United States-based Fox News Channel.

Do these documentaries signal a newfound hunger for the polemic or is it because we are being failed by the mainstream media?

Top newspapers have admitted they failed to, quote, "make the grade" in their coverage of the Iraq coverage.

To debate this I'm joined by Howard Kurtz, media correspondent at the "Washington Post," and from Los Angeles by Robert Greenwald, who made both "Outfoxed" and "Uncovered."

Let me start with you, if I can, Howard. You wrote an article this month that essentially amounts to a critical self-examination of your paper's own coverage of the Iraq war. There's been an awful lot of naval gazing going on both at the American press and at our own network over the way that the media have covered the war.

Do you believe that the public is turning away from the regular media as a result of the way it covered the war and is looking for other sources of information?

HOWARD KURTZ, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, I put it this way. There's a lot of anger at the mainstream media, including my newspaper, from people, mostly on the liberal side of the spectrum, who don't like George W. Bush, who don't like the Iraq war, and who feel like journalists failed them.

What I tried to do in this piece was give on honest assessment of the shortcomings that my newspaper had. Other papers like the "New York Times" have done the same thing, but the difference is that I think that we didn't do as well as we might journalistically. It was an awfully hard story to get at. A lot of our detractors, again, mostly liberal detractors, believe that we did this deliberately, we are in bed with George W. Bush, we wanted the war, and there I would part company with some of the critics.

ANDERSON: Robert, your reaction to Howard's assessment there.

ROBERT GREENWALD, FILMMAKER: I think that we -- the lead up to war was a tragedy for American primary media in general. I don't think it was a conspiracy. I think it was a series of complicated factors and in "Uncovered: The War in Iraq" I go into some detail, using 25 experts who have had 400 years of government experience to analyze not only how the reasons were inaccurate but how the primary media let go of their usually terrific cynical job of asking hard questions and became implicit or explicit cheerleaders for the war.

ANDERSON: Your documentary, "Outfoxed," itself is being criticized for being one-sided, giving the channel no right of reply, and indulging in some fairly suspect editing. Given the fact that the public may be looking for alternative means of information, that's not really fair, is it?

GREENWALD: Well, the comment is not really fair either, actually.

Fox News is on the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of correspondents. My one little film was an effort to put together information from Fox News, nine former people who worked at Fox News, the memos that Fox News has, and a commission study of 25 weeks of the Brit Hume show, showing the guests where 80 percent Republican and 20 percent Democrat.

This was hardly biased. And in fact, I did not ask Fox News for comment while I was making the movie because they would have sued to stop me. I finished the movie, I asked them for comment, and what did they say? No comment, other than Mr. O'Reilly calling me a smear merchant.

ANDERSON: Howard, have Americans lost their trust in the mainstream media? And can the regular media be fair and balanced going forward? Can they be trusted?

KURTZ: Gee, I sure hope so, though I guess there are an increasing number of skeptics out there on both the left and the right.

This is the most polarized media environment of my lifetime, and I think that's one of the reasons that there is a hunger, a void, an appetite, for movies like "Outfoxed" and Robert Greenwald's earlier film on Iraq, for Michael Moore, for all of these best-selling books here in America that have titles like "The No Good, Horrible, Terrible Lies of George W. Bush."

People are really passionate now on both sides. We're in the middle of a presidential election. I still think it's the job of the mainstream media, even with all of our flaws and all of our shortcomings -- and as I've said, we didn't do the best job in the run up to war -- to try to give both sides, to try to bring some semblance of fairness to these debates.

As for the partisans, I'm glad they're out there adding their voices to the debate, but I wonder whether some of them are kind of preaching to the converted, preaching to the choir at this point.

ANDERSON: And that's a good point, Robert. At the end of the day, many of these documentaries are being written and directed by what seem to be left wingers, liberal minds. Would there be the same amount of people making the same sort of documentaries which are anti the John Kerry administration, if indeed there were to be a John Kerry administration, going forward?

GREENWALD: Well, the conservatives and the right wing have hate radio. They're able to do that on a regular basis. That's why they haven't turned to films and books in the same way. Similarly they have Fox News.

These films have come out of -- by the way, not just the political agenda, but I think Howard would probably even agree with this, that the primary media has become a sound byte media of 30 seconds and we're dealing with very complicated issues, not only the issue of terrorism and how we're going to deal with it in the future, but job outsourcing, 45 million Americans don't have healthcare.

There is really a perfect storm of an extraordinary, complicated series of questions that we as a culture are going to need to struggle with. People are looking for information in depth wherever they can find it, and that includes books and films because, tragically -- and I love the primary media, I read two, three newspapers a day -- they've not been going in depth.

However, having said that, I'm very encouraged. I've seen a big change in the last couple of months and I've seen the newspapers particularly going back and doing hard investigative stories, not just becoming stenographers for the Bush administration.


KURTZ: Well, I would take issue, Robert, with your term hate radio. Now, there's no question that talk radio here in America is dominated by conservative hosts. Some of them may be a little harder edged than you and I would like, but they're out there pushing their point of views, just as conservative Web sites do this, just as conservative newspapers, like the "New York Post" do this.

So I think it's a healthy development that liberals are fighting back and liberals are trying to find their own message machine, but we ought not to confuse these partisan outlets with, as you just were generous to point out, the more serious investigative news organizations that at least try to get at the truth.

Now we sometimes do a lousy job. I would be the first to admit that. I make my living doing media criticism. But I think most people would say that we are trying to be fair.

The problem is, if you passionately hate George W. Bush or the war in Iraq, you're not being objective. I don't mean you, Robert. I'm talking about critics out there. You're not being objective when you look at the "Washington Post" or the "New York Times" or the "Los Angeles Times" because it doesn't reflect your point of view.

So for those people, they want to see "Outfoxed." They want to see "Fahrenheit 9/11." They want to read these books because it matches what they already believe.

ANDERSON: Robert, you've been politically active as an independent filmmaker for many years now. What's next?

GREENWALD: What next is a film called "Unconstitutional: Civil Liberties After 9/11," which will go into the civil liberties question and then these films will be going to theaters throughout the country, which is a real breakthrough because we're able to go into theaters and reach a variety of people. We don't ask whether they're Republican or Democrat when they sign up to pay their money to go into the theater.

ANDERSON: Robert Greenwald and Howard Kurtz, we thank you.

Up next, going for ratings gold in Athens. We explore the challenges and the costs of covering such a huge sporting event.

That's in just a moment.


ANDERSON: We've seen the triumphs and the tears, images of winners and losers at the Athens Olympics have been beamed around the world. But it's the race for ratings that the television networks are concerned about. They've poured millions of dollars into the games.

So has it been worth it? What makes people watch these, the suspense or the scandals? And how do reporters on the ground in Greece find that one story that beats all others?

We're joined now for Athens by Richard Galpin, a correspondent for BBC World, and in the studio, Giles Morgan from Gem, an international sports marketing group.

Welcome, both of you, to the show.

Richard, let me start with you. Just how challenging a story is the Olympics to report on?

RICHARD GALPIN, BBC WORLD: Well, obviously it is a massive challenge in the sense it is just such a massive event. So it's a huge logistical operation, particularly for example for the rights holders, which the BBC are.

We have a massive operation here which cuts across all BBC divisions. Obviously BBC sports are here in huge numbers and then sports news and then us, the news correspondents. So we divide it up into very different roles and it's a question, in a way, of focusing on the right story.

And I think doing these Olympics has been fairly clear, certainly for us news correspondents. In the run up to the games, the obvious story was are they going to be ready. We had been so focused on all the building work which had been left so late, right up to the last minute. Many of us, including myself -- I am based here in Athens -- really couldn't see how they were going to do it.

ANDERSON: When you're talking about the story of the infrastructure and whether Athens would be ready, earlier on before the Olympics started, do you think then that the media had misjudged that story and played it up too much? After all, the authorities in Greece where incredibly annoyed by the way that the international media focused on the bad side of the story and didn't give enough credibility to the good side perhaps.

GALPIN: I don't think so. I would defend the media's position.

Personally, I think that the Greeks in many ways made a very bad strategic error. They all along said trust us, we do it our way, the Greek style, which is last minute. And that's fine if this is an event just for people in Greece, because that's how they expect the whole thing to operate and they will deal with it at the last minute -- if they're going to buy tickets, for example, if they're going to attend.

But I think, you know, if you're dealing with a big international event, and it doesn't get any bigger than the Olympics, then they needed to be well ahead of the game, you know, not least because people who were thinking of coming to watch these games from around the world have to book many, many months in advance, if not a year in advance.

ANDERSON: Giles, you marry sponsors with the media effectively. You watched this story with your clients as we built up toward the Olympics. You must have been incredibly worried about what sponsors would get effectively from the broadcast coverage that you would be anticipating.

GILES MORGAN, GEM: Well, I think that the whole story of the Athens Olympics since they won in 1997 has been one of will Athens get it ready and the whole issue with the world watching.

What has happened, I think, during the games, is that the games themselves have been a very well run event and there's been some great competition, great human stories of defeat, triumph and all of the things that the Olympics stands for.

But yes, I think beforehand people were concerned, and it was probably hyped up by the media in terms of what was going to happen and how disastrous Athens may have been.

And so I think people were worried. The good news is, once day one happened and 16 days which started with a wonderful opening ceremony, the games so for have been an absolute triumph.

ANDERSON: Without doubt this is a huge commercial event. The BBC have paid some $300 million for their rights. They've paid another $15 million for their coverage, men and women to be on the ground. Are people, viewers, getting bang for their buck?

MORGAN: I think so. I think in this age of celebrity TV, reality TV, where people are looking for stories about human -- about the human psyche, the Olympics really covers it all in terms of all of the things we look for and where fact is better than fiction, and the Olympics provides that.

And when you look at ratings, what's been the most interesting statistic from Britain that's just come out is that 54 percent of the viewing public are women. And I think in normal sporting occasions, whether it be football, rugby, cricket, within the European marketplace it's a much more male dominated audience.

ANDERSON: The state broadcasters, Richard, effectively own this coverage, the likes of CNN and Sky don't get to get the rights and therefore aren't able to show the sort of expensive coverage like the likes of the BBC. You've got 400 people on the ground there. The numbers I've just quoted are huge so far as costs are concerned, and yet there have been accusations that broadcasters like the BBC are dumbing down the coverage, they're not effectively explaining to people properly what's going on in many of these events. Would you agree with that?

GALPIN: No, I wouldn't. I mean, I think that the BBC coverage has been phenomenal and been very, very comprehensive. We've had hours and hours of coverage every single day of these Olympics and a huge amount in the run up. So I think, you know, the kind of hours that the BBC has provided for its audience have been phenomenal.

It's not just on television. It's also across all our radio networks and across a huge Internet site. So clearly I think, you know, the BBC is doing everything it can to provide it's audience with a very, very comprehensive picture of the games with a lot of very expert sports commentators explaining exactly what the stories are and what's been going on.

ANDERSON: We're going to have to leave it there. Richard Galpin, BBC's correspondent in Athens, and Giles Morgan, of Gem, thank you very much indeed.

Well, 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 Becky Anderson. Thank you for joining us.



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