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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired September 25, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


BILL NEELEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Bill Neeley, in London.
Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media covers the big stories of the moment.

It's a scenario that's become all too predictable. An ominous warning, a harrowing plea and then the excruciating wait. This week we witnessed more grisly images of three Westerners taken hostage in Iraq. Every chilling detail of their plight shown in the media, including the heart-wrenching appeals of their families.

But while the media did indeed have a job to do, does showing these hostage videos play directly into the terrorist's game?

I'm joined now by David Mannion, editor-in-chief of ITV News and here in the studio Peter Preston, former editor of the "Guardian" newspaper.

David Mannion, let me start with you first. How difficult have the editorial decisions that you've made this week been?

DAVID MANNION, ITV NEWS: They've been some of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make, and all one can do I think in these situations can call on your experience as a journalist over many years and how you feel as a human being about what's right and what's not right to do in certain circumstances.

It's very difficult to try and give your staff or even yourself a definitive list of do's and don'ts in these circumstances because they can change so rapidly.

I think the two extremes of either showing everything or showing nothing, neither of those choices are really valid or appropriate, so we have to find a way through it and we have to do what we believe is necessary to tell the story of the world of what is happening and make sure there are -- we don't cross that line and that our coverage becomes in any way gratuitous. It's tough.

NEELEY: So give us a couple of examples. What did you choose to show? What did you choose not to show?

MANNION: Well, it wasn't a very difficult decisions not to show the awful act of murder itself. Clearly that would be wholly inappropriate and we wouldn't dream of doing such a thing.

And yes I accept that to a degree, showing anything at all does play into the hands of the terrorists, and yet we have a job to do. So our decisions are really based on what is the minimum required to illustrate the awfulness of what is happening and let's not go beyond that minimum.

I mean, we have given ourselves some rules of self-censorship. We have decided not to show moving video, for example, of the moments before the act of murder takes place. If we do believe it is necessary to show any image collectively about those moments, then it would only be a still frame. And the reason we've taken that is not on the grounds of optioning the publicity, which I think would be a political statement, and we're not politicians, we're journalists.

It is to project the dignity and the human rights of the individual concerned.

NEELEY: Peter Preston, agonizing decisions at every stage of this story. But what David Mannion has described -- is self-censorship enough?

PETER PRESTON, JOURNALIST: I think the difficulty -- and David is clearly being very thoughtful about all this -- is that when you open the papers on Thursday in London, all the nationals, they were all leading with Ken Bigley's video plea from the Internet. They all had quotes of what he'd said. And I felt again -- and personally what I felt very strongly during the Beslan hostage taking a few weeks ago, that these are becoming events for the media. These are stun events by terrorists for the media for publicity purposes.

And that we're all in a deadly difficult situation because of that, because we're the medium for getting their message out and putting them on the front page.

NEELEY: So, again, what do we do? The terrorists know that we're going to go to Beslan and cover this. What do we do? Cover the cameras and not go?

PRESTON: We're a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sight more thoughtful about it than some of the coverage. I'm not talking about David. Some of the coverage has been in the past few weeks, tended to be sort of -- there's a digital picture from the Internet that's ready for the front page. Let's put a headline on it, "Are you listening, Mr. Blair," and we're off.

I don't think that's good enough any longer. I do think just as we reflect when we're talking about Downing Street and politics, where we feel that we don't want to be (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or this story needs to be treated with kid gloves or there's a purpose behind it. We need to make that point, if we believe it, time and again, to our viewers and readers so that they know that we're as dubious about some of the aspects of this as they are.

It's reality. People die. We have to show it. We have to report it. We can't get away with it. But we don't have to be blunt minded about it.

NEELEY: David Mannion, nobody wants to be influenced overly by government, but at the same time there are discussions between broadcasters and government, between broadcasters and police forces about certain news that perhaps is sensitive.

Is there a case for opening up a dialogue after this, because these hostage situations, this emotional manipulation, if you like, just seems to be growing.

MANNION: Yes, I mean, in circumstances like this, normal rules don't apply and I think we'd listen more openly to any suggests from wherever they come, legitimate suggests for government, about what might and what might not be appropriate to broadcast at any one time. And we were convinced -- and indeed that has happened from time to time in kidnap situations, even domestically here. We're sometimes asked by police to operate a news blackout because they think that that would help to get the people out safely. And if we thought that that was really going to be helpful then I think we'd have to think about it and think about it very carefully.

But as I say, in these situations, you really can't go to the extreme, I think, of self-censorship and say just ignore it. We simply can't do that. We have a job to do and it's a legitimate job to do, and in many cases of course the families of these people want us to do what we do because they believe it in some way might help to exacerbate the situation.

But we have to take it on a situation by situation basis and just think through all it time. For example, on a 24 hour news channel, which we're on right now, which we have at the ITV News channel here, the norm on any kind of story is to try to be first, best, fastest, quickest, show whatever we need to show. Normal rules on this kind of story don't apply. I don't want to be first. I need to be right and I need to be sensitive and I need to be accurate and I need to be thoughtful.

NEELEY: Peter Preston, this is a mind field, isn't it?

PRESTON: It's a mind field. We need to know when we're being used and to take our own precautions against that. We also, I think, need to be a little bit less nationalistic. It's been -- one of the terrible things that struck me about this week is that there were two American hostages. We've rather lost news value in the United States. Actually, the "New York Time" didn't clear its front page for that because that's happened to Americans before.

Here, because it's the first Brit, we've gone overboard on it. Not a Japanese, not a French, not on Italian. Not all the people who have had hostages taken before. We need to be a bit calmer about it. This is an international terrorist ploy to get us all hopping around, including relatives, and we have to try and put a lid on it.

NEELEY: Peter Preston, thank you very much. David Mannion, for ITV News, thank you.

Now, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, conspiracy theories and blame games, the standard fare of the Arab media? Well, the editor of one of Cairo's top newspapers joins us next.



Earlier in the show we were discussing the Western media's handling of hostages in Iraq, but what of the Arab press? Some charge they're part of the problem and incite violence instead of merely reporting on it. Conspiracy theories are rife and the blame game is standard fare in many of the Arab newspapers and networks.

Well, to give us more insight into this I'm joined now in Cairo by Hani Shukrallah, editor of "Al-Ahram", a weekly, and here in the studio by Mohammad Shabaro (ph), London bureau chief of Al-Arabiya.

Let me start with you, Mr. Shukrallah, in Cairo. Are you part of the problem?

HANI SHUKRALLAH, "AL-AHRAM": I don't believe it's as facile as that. I don't believe you can easily blame the Arab media.

The way the question should be phrased, how far the Arab media is offering solutions, and there the criticism actually could be valid for a considerable part of the Arab media, although I would like to point out that in the very recent past, since the butchery of the Nepalese hostage, the kidnapping of the French journalist, the horrifying massacre in Beslan, I think there has been very considerable outcry in the Arab media and especially a lot of commentators and columnists and so on have written that, you know, in the sense of we -- going so far as saying this kind of act makes us ashamed to be called Arab and Muslim.

NEELEY: You mention the Nepalese workers. There was an outcry when you buried that story on the inside pages. Why was that not front page news for you, the deliberate killing of 12 innocent Nepalese workers?

SHUKRALLAH: Yes, I think actually this kind of attitude itself generated on outcry eventually. I think people, you know, a lot of people started realizing that there is something very, very terribly wrong and that it has to be dealt with in a much more open and much more courageous manner.

NEELEY: Mohammad Shabaro (ph), in the studio, how is your network dealing with the current hostage crisis?

MOHAMMAD SHABARO (ph), AL-ARABIYA: Well, I mean, before I go back to what Hani Shukrallah was saying, we're neither part of the problem or part of the solution. We're just networks trying to report news as much as possible and lately it's been seen, since the hostage crisis occurred, our network basically leaned backwards to try to accommodate not only the family's appeals but also government appeals that was an undertone that maybe would have helped and maybe generated certain release, or basically we were a medium.

NEELEY: Exactly, and that's part of the problem. We're not just reporting the story anymore. We are part of the story. We're the conduit through which families and indeed the kidnappers get their messages across.

SHABARO (ph): I mean, at one point or the other, one has to be clear that the media is not totally objective and not totally subjective, and we also act with some responsibility, yet also with some duty, i.e. you see a message, you see that the message could help, you see that a picture that was aired on the Internet that could have sent a proper fact, that could have told the family, the Bigleys, that their son was alive and still OK, and what are the demands of the kidnappers, i.e. the media is a medium to put this on, because it's got an information value.

And then also when the mother of Bigley says please show mercy, be merciful as a Muslim kidnapper, I think this is also something of news value as well. I don't think we are part of the story. We're just, like, reporting.

NEELEY: You don't feel that you want to become a player in this story?

SHABARO (ph): Nobody is a player, yet in many instances sometimes your good intentions to work professionally, objectively and responsibly are, you know, translated or interpreted as a player or otherwise. But I think we should be focused that we are trying our duty. We are not part of the story. We are only the messengers.

NEELEY: Of course that's the Western criticism of a lot of Arab media, that Osama bin Laden comes out, let's say, with a video, and you transmit it.

SHABARO (ph): The messenger as a storyteller, but we're not as well messengers carrying for anybody or working for anybody. Let's be clear about it.

NEELEY: But it's becoming more complicated, isn't it, because the terrorists are -- or these groups, the militant groups, whatever you want to call them, are using the modern media as a tool of their terror.

SHABARO (ph): I think sometimes Western media as well excels into trying to portray the other media as, you know, the messengers. They are making us the issue, as a young rising independent Arab media, they're making us the issue rather than the stories of chaos and problem that are the result of some Western policies as well some deeply-rooted problems in the Middle East.

NEELEY: Well, Hani Shukrallah, turning to you, in Cairo, two Egyptians have been kidnapped in Baghdad. Will your coverage of their kidnapping vary in any way from your coverage of the kidnapping of Westerners? How will you handle that?

SHUKRALLAH: I mean, obviously, when Egyptians are involved, you need to go to the families and so on. But I don't think that sense of outrage that -- I believe the media does have a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) not just relaying, you know, news. We do express some sort of position on the kind of news we -- even in the way we report it, definitely.

So as Egyptians, obviously we will look at their families, we will look at their backgrounds, the humanitarian or human part, human interest part rather than just the humanitarian part, will take possible a more -- as would I imagine the British press or the American press with their citizens.

NEELEY: Hani Shukrallah, in Cairo, thank you very much, indeed, and Mohammad Shabaro (ph), in our studio in London, thank you.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the anchor, the apology and the headline that's turning into a headache for a major U.S. network.

Stay with us.


NEELEY: What happens when the newsman becomes the news? Well, famed anchorman Dan Rather now has the camera pointing squarely at him after a controversial report on CBS's "60 Minutes."

The program focused on President Bush's Air National Guard service during the Vietnam War and it alleged that the president received special consideration.

The veteran journalist later apologized for this report after failing to confirm the authenticity of the documents which formed the base of it.

I'm joined now in New York by David Blum, author of the new book "Tick Tick Tick, the Long Life and Turbulent Times of `60 Minutes'", and by Anne Applebaum, columnist for the "Washington Post."

David, let me start with you. How was it that one of the best funded news programs in the world got it so wrong?

DAVID BLUM, AUTHOR: Well, there seem to be lots of reasons. For one thing, this story was speeded up considerably to get it on the air, to beat anybody else who might be working the same story.

Dan Rather is pulled in a lot of directions. He's anchoring the news five nights a week, so he depends more than the average correspondent on his producer, who in this case was a great producer under normal circumstances, who also seemed to have been rushing anxiously to get this story on the air in the hopes of getting another scoop.

She had already had one earlier in the year with the Abu Ghraib prison photos and I think had gotten perhaps a little over confident.

It's difficult to explain, though, There are a lot of checks in the system, and they all seemed to fail.

NEELEY: If a surgeon made a mistake like this and took out the heart rather than the liver, he'd be fired. Should Dan Rather be fired?

BLUM: Well, I'm glad I don't go to Dan Rather for medical care.

I don't think he'll be fired and I'm not sure he should be. He's got a long and strong record. Usually what happens in these cases and probably should in this case is that the management responsible for the show, namely the president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, and perhaps his deputy, will lose their jobs over having supervised this piece and allowed these mistakes to occur. They're the ones who ultimately are responsible.

NEELEY: Anne Applebaum, one observer says this is likely to be recalled as the end of the era of the network news mart -- this is the moment, he says, when the networks abdicated their authority with the American public. Do you see it like that?

ANNE APPLEBAUM, "WASHINGTON POST": I think something like that has happened, yes. I mean, what was really extraordinary about this story is not the fact that Dan Rather made a mistake. You know, we've all made mistakes. The "Post" has, the "New York Times" has, every news organization has.

What was really unusual was Rather's own initial reaction, which was to treat the suggestion that he might have made a mistake like some kind of political attack. You know, this is partisans criticizing me. This is like the McCarthy era. This is like Vietnam.

And that was really an indication to me that Rather seems himself, you know, not so much as a journalist but as a kind of national icon, and I think the fact that the rest of us saw that as so ridiculous is an indication that the era of the network news, when there were only three news stations, when the anchors had this kind of unquestioned authority, has really come to an end.

You know, the network news viewership is dropping. People switch from channel to channel. It's a different era.

NEELEY: Now, to the rest of the world, the big story of the minute seems to be what President Bush is doing or is not doing in Iraq, not what he did or didn't do in Vietnam.

Is CBS, indeed is the American media, getting the whole story wrong?

APPLEBAUM: That is a different issue, and that wouldn't be an issue just for CBS. That's an issue for everybody.

I mean, how this conversation about Vietnam began is hard to say. I mean, it's clearly partly to do with who the candidates are and the fact that they did behave so differently during the Vietnam era. And yes it is partly a distraction, because Iraq is hard and difficult to talk about and because nobody has perfect answers and, you know, Vietnam is the past and we all have very strong feelings about it.

But, yes, I do think it's a big distraction from the real issues of the campaign. Not just Iraq, but also the national domestic issues.

NEELEY: David, a distraction or a red herring that the right in America are really delighted about?

BLUM: Well, ultimately they're the beneficiaries. I do agree with Anne. I mean, this was a distraction. I think the Democrats -- I mean, it was John Kerry who initially brought the subject of Vietnam to the front in this campaign, and perhaps even might have been involved in the leaking of these documents, which was a huge miscalculation, if it was the Democrats.

The mistake that was made, though, it's true, is that, you know, by Rather standing there and claiming that his source was unimpeachable when it turned out that his source was easily impeachable and clearly partisan was not only -- it was a distraction back to this horrible aspect of everything, which is that, you know, partisan attacks on the other candidate as opposed to talking about the real issues. So the Republicans have benefited because they're the ones most vulnerable if the issues are being discussed.

NEELEY: David, you've written about "60 Minutes." It is a program that's had a good history of investigative journalism. Is this kind of journalism dead in the era of 24 hour news now?

BLUM: No, I don't think so. But the problem is, of course, that everyone is so much more competitive than ever before, that a show like "60 Minutes" just has to move faster and be bolder in order to attract attention, and that's probably what happened in this case, the desire to get the story out. The desire to have it be right overwhelmed the need to be prudent and sensible and the appropriateness of an apology in this case, which would have -- should have come much sooner had, you know, cooler heads prevailed.

NEELEY: Anne, I know you're not a great fan of nightly network news, but there is something to be said for it and programs like "60 Minutes." I know bloggers and blogging is a great new development, but that's not surely the way forward, blogging and just 24 hour news and nothing else?

APPLEBAUM: Well, I think there is good investigative reporting still being done. You know, look at the reporting that was done on the Dan Rather story in the newspapers. The "Washington Post" went through very carefully the documents and got experts to comment on them and dissected them.

Even that aside, there are still very, very good reporters in Iraq. There are very, very good reporters around the world. It's just that they're not all packagable in two-minute segments on a half-hour news program that is shown at 6:00 every night. I mean, I think you can find good television reporting. You just have to channel surf a little bit.

NEELEY: Will it discourage other investigative reporting? I mean, CBS has been burned by this.

APPLEBAUM: No, I don't think so. I think it might encourage people to do better. I mean, the fact that CBS got some documents from somebody who clearly had a different agenda is just a lesson to other people who do it, you know, be more careful who your sources are.

NEELEY: Anne Applebaum, David Blum, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

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 Bill Neeley, in London, thanks for joining us.



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