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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired October 2, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. And welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
They listened to every word, they scrutinized every gesture, and now the political analysts are pouring over it. The U.S. presidential debate was a journalistic feeding frenzy. Between the papers, the networks and the talk shows, there is still no telling which way the debate will actually go. After all, it's often the media who have the final say.

I'm joined now in Washington, D.C. by "Slate" magazine's chief political correspondent William Saletan and in Boston, Alan Schroeder, associate professor at Northeastern University and author of the book "Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High Risk TV."

William, let me begin by asking you, what did you look for in this debate? Was it body language, faux passes? And what did you decide about what you saw?

WILLIAM SALETAN, "SLATE": Well, I actually tried to focus on what the candidates were saying, which was somewhat difficult since, you know, when you're watching on television, most of the analysis tends to focus on things like body language.

If you'll recall, in 2000 most people thought Al Gore won some of those debates on points, but his body language was such a put-off, and viewers tended to react to that, and eventually the media reacted to that as well.

RODGERS: So we've watched the debate, but has the media yet to render its verdict, or is it still up for grabs, the jury is still out?

SALETAN: Well, the media has a very strong bias not to pick a winner in a debate, to say that there were no knock out blows, it was a tie, it was a draw, both candidates did what they had to do.

In this case, what we now have is these instant polls, so that reporters who don't want to, say, give their own opinion, that, say, John Kerry did better than George W. Bush last night, will nonetheless feel willing to step in and say, well, I don't have an opinion about this, but this instant poll shows that by a margin of 10 points, viewers thought that John Kerry did better, and that allows the reporter to draw a conclusion about who won and who lost.

RODGERS: Professor Schroeder, you've written that these presidential debates are essentially rigged. What do you mean? For example, last night it appeared rather scrappy, rather sharp and rather well defined in terms of issues.

ALAN SCHROEDER, AUTHOR: Well, I wouldn't exactly use the word rigged in the sense that there is no outcome that anybody can project ahead of time, but there are so many rules and regulations that govern the debates, and these are the rules and regulations the candidates themselves impose, that limit the free exchange of ideas, so that you have this kind of artificial constraint that's put on the conversation.

For instance, they were standing 10 feet apart from each other on the stage. It looked really bizarre on the wide shot. You're having a conversation with one other person, why do you have to be so far away from that guy?

RODGERS: In the context, Professor Schroeder, of the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, where candidate Nixon, Vice President Nixon, was sweating, looking at the Bush -- earlier Bush debates with Al Gore, what did you see as the defining moment in this debate?

SCHROEDER: You know, I was sitting there thinking about that because I used to be a television producer, and I was thinking, if I were a producer, I'd have a hell of a time isolating specific moments out of this debate that would constitute a defining moment.

I guess if I had to pick one, it was probably Kerry's characterization of the war in Iraq as a colossal error in judgment, because that is sort of the whole conversation boiled down to its essence. That was what they talked about essentially off and on for 90 minutes. So I suppose that was the defining moment, but it wasn't a clear cut defining moment.

RODGERS: William Saletan, same question to you. A defining moment or are we going to get more defining moments in the two upcoming debates?

SALETAN: Well, I don't think there was a defining moment in this debate the way there has been in some previous debates.

In 2000, Al Gore made a misstatement about himself in one of the debates, and what happens when you make a demonstrable misstatement is that the media can then jump on that for the next two or three days, as they did to Al Gore, and that hurt him significantly.

In this debate, there wasn't anything that rose to that level. There was the Bush sound byte that got repeated over and over, about Kerry being inconsistent, and I thought Kerry had a couple of pretty good moments, particularly when he said that President Bush had answered a question about Saddam Hussein by talking about the people who had attacked us on 9/11 and then created confusion, and that caused President Bush to have to say, of course I know that Osama bin Laden and not Saddam Hussein attacked us. That was a pretty difficult moment for President Bush.

RODGERS: Professor Schroeder, are we still in the early innings of these debates and are they just warming up?

SCHROEDER: Yes, although what typically happens is the first debate draws the largest audience and then the ratings trail off as the debates continue.

It's very difficult for somebody to rebound from a bad mistake in a first debate, but you didn't have a bad mistake here. I do think the storyline going into the second presidential debate will be that the general feeling in the polls and even on the part of the pundits, those of us willing to commit, is that Kerry had a slight edge over Bush in the debate, and therefore I think that Bush goes in in sort of an underdog into debate two.

My guess is that is how the press is going to play this.

RODGERS: Does it really matter, William, what happens in these debates? It would appear that 1960 was the only time a debate really on its own decided the outcome of a presidential election. Is it going to matter, what happened last night?

SALETAN: Well, that's certainly the Bush campaign's spin now that their man did at best a tie in the first debate. Their spin is, debates don't really change the outcome. Bush didn't do that badly. It was roughly equal and the dynamics of the race will stay in place with President Bush in the lead.

But that does not square with the whole negotiating strategy of the Bush campaign going into these debates. They wanted foreign policy to be in the first debate because they wanted to close the deal on Kerry. They thought this subject would hurt him the most, would help Bush the most, would lock in the race for Bush.

Instead, this subject has done the opposite. It has given Kerry new life, certainly in the eyes of the media gauging from the first 12 hours of reaction. And so I think it will have an affect on the race, not in terms of closing a deal for Kerry, but in terms of opening the race up and giving him a chance.

RODGERS: Professor Schroeder, what are these guys so afraid of? What are they so afraid of?

SCHROEDER: They're afraid of the following: this is the one moment of the campaign that they're not in 100 percent control of the situation, and each of them is in there trying to seize the narrative from the other and you don't know what's going to happen. They hate not knowing what's going to happen.

So they build all these protective layers into this ridiculous contract that they sign in the hope that somehow that will insulate them from any spontaneity. They don't care whether the voters learn anything about their positions. They're more concerned for their own safety.

They're just terrified of having to be spontaneous for once.

RODGERS: William Saletan, Professor Schroeder, thank you so very much for your insights.

Iraq of course was key in the presidential debate, and up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS we talk to two journalists just back from the country and get their thoughts and insights.

Stay with us.



Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi says the Western media are not reporting on the positive stories in his country. This has been a recurrent complaint, but with bombs, beheadings and continued bloodshed, it seems at times the Iraqi insurgents and Islamist militants are indeed dictating the media agenda.

I'm joined now in Rome by Lorenzo Cremonesi, correspondent for "Corriere della Sera," and here in studio William Shawcross, veteran correspondent just returned from Iraq.

Mr. Shawcross, does it indeed seem to you that perhaps the news story has been hijacked in Iraq by the insurgents, the Islamist militants, terrorists, if you will. And by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the Arab television networks.

WILLIAM SHAWCROSS, JOURNALIST: Yes, I think Prime Minister Allawi's point made this week in London, that the terrorists are brilliant at suborning and subverting the agenda, if you like, and dominating the television news around the world is absolutely true. It's clear.

RODGERS: How does the Western media recapture the initiative or recapture its own story?

SHAWCROSS: Well, it's very hard. When you have the horror of Islamic militants beheading hostages in the most wanton and disgusting evil manner, that obviously is a big story and it's very difficult to get away from it.

RODGERS: Lorenzo, you and I were in Baghdad about 10 days ago. Is there any positive news to report there?

LORENZO CREMONESI, "CORRIERE DELLA SERA": Well, I'll tell you, there were positive news. We tried. We attempted to report. I think there was a kind of hope, economically, financially, socially, until two or three months ago.

Lately I think there are very few positive news. You talk with Iraqis -- actually, I was back in Baghdad in the last three of four days for the liberation of the two Italian girl hostages, and again I saw a progressive collapse, even in Baghdad itself. We see now clear traces of daily war. I call it war.

They really are moving around in Baghdad, in places, areas, quarters, neighborhoods, which are very close to the Green Zone.

No, I don't see very many positive news in Baghdad at the moment, in Iraq.

RODGERS: Lorenzo, I was there with you. I know your courage. And you left. Why did you leave? Were you really frightened?

CREMONESI: Well, I'll tell you, there were different motives.

One, I was told clearly that I was put in danger, that there were signs that I was a target. Another element is that my newspaper saw that I'd been there for too long. In the last more than two years, I've been there almost all the time, and it was time for me to get out.

A third element is that I knew very well the two ladies, the two Italian girls who had been kidnapped, and maybe psychologically it would have been good to have a break. That doesn't mean that I will not go back, and actually, as I told you, after we both left 10 days ago, I was back now in Baghdad. I just came back yesterday.

RODGERS: Mr. Shawcross, you initially supported this war. With 2,300 incidents against Iraqis and coalition forces last month alone, 1,000 in Baghdad alone, do you have misgivings about the war now?

SHAWCROSS: Well, anybody who supported the war or anybody who was against the war must have misgivings about the state of security. It's quite clear than it is certainly worse than I expected. I think worse than most people expected.

The British Minister of Defense Geoff Hoon said this week that it's much tougher than he'd expected. There is no question about that.

But I think the real question is, we are where we are, and there was a very eloquent plea from an Iraqi woman at the Labor Party conference this week, when the conference was debating whether British troops should be pulled out. She said, "Please don't do this. This is the best thing that ever happened to Iraqis. We all -- my family, my friends, all of us -- my generation, were happy and absolutely welcomed the British and the coalition troops. And it is hard, it is tough, but we are in this situation and we need your help."

I think it's true that no Iraqis like occupation. I understand that, and you have been there much more than I have and much more recently. But the idea that we should bug out now and leave Iraqis to sink in the horror of this insurgent and terrorist revolt is just impossible.

My view, having been there recently but only more briefly than you, of course, is that there are these three strands of building up the Iraqi military, building up the Iraqi economy, which of course the insurgents try to stop all the time, and building up the political process towards the elections. And all Iraqi politicians and others seem to be determined, quite rightly and very bravely, to pursue the elections.

And I think it's important that Prime Minister Allawi said recently that if the situation in 15 of the 18 provinces is OK at the moment, not brilliant but OK, and it's not like we see on our televisions every day -- when I was in Basra, the British commander there said in three out of the four provinces, he could hold elections right now if he had to.

RODGERS: Lorenzo, you covered the two Simonas, the two Italian aide workers who were captured, kidnapped. How has that reshaped the face of news coverage there in Iraq?

CREMONESI: Well, clearly the story of the two Simona caught the Italian public. It was the story from Iraq, from Baghdad, in the last more than three weeks. And clearly it focused so much -- that's what the terrorists wanted. In a way, the terrorists succeeded. They showed a country which is in chaos, where kidnappers can move freely to take two young girls in the middle of Baghdad, two young women in the middle of Baghdad.

They went in, 20 people with guns. We all focused on the way in which the kidnappers captured the two girls -- the two young women. And the way in which they were freed. The negotiations. Here they are talking about ransom, apparently $1 million be paid. True or not true, but in affect we know the government and the people who represented negotiated with the terrorists, with the people who kidnapped them.

There is another element. The two girls, the two young ladies, are saying now that this was not a real terrorist movement. This was a guerilla group belonging to the resistance who interrogated them in a very professional way. They wanted to check their identities. They thought they were spies, but after five of six days -- less than a week -- after they were kidnapped, they started to understand they were not. Actually, the two women belonging to a movement which is very leftist in Italy, very pro-peace, very anti-war, very anti-Berlusconi, very anti-presence of American troops and Italian troops in Iraq.

And they claim that that was the factor which saved them. So there is now a huge debate in Italy about how they were freed, why they were freed, who are they. Are they supporting the guerilla movement. What is their position within the Allawi government. It's now a huge debate in Italy, and the people of course close to the government are saying we freed them. It is the merit of the government. And the people on the left are saying these women were safe because of their political position.

So there is even among the guerilla, even among the so-called resistance, people with whom we can talk.

RODGERS: It does seem that the Islamist militants are trying to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States, discriminating in treatment of the hostages, the kidnap victims. The Americans get beheaded, the Europeans get somewhat special treatment. They're either released, they're alive. Even Kenneth Bigley.

Do you see this strategy on the part of the Islamist militants to divorce Europe from the United States, to get the Europeans to sit on the sidelines?

SHAWCROSS: Yes, and it's not just the Europeans. It happened with the Philippines as well. They wanted to break down the coalition, and they are brutally effective. And with allies like Al Jazeera, they are greatly helped.

RODGERS: Lorenzo Cremonesi, William Shawcross, thank you very much.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the Bushies, the Boy Emperor, Rummy, Wolfie and Uncle Dick. The caricatures this U.S. columnist fearlessly invokes.



She's called the Cobra by the Bushes. "New York Times" Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Maureen Dowd has never been afraid to challenge the U.S. administration with her savvy and oft times scathing commentary on the political landscape in America. She joins me now here in studio to talk about her new book, "Bush World: Enter At Your Own Risk."

Thanks for joining us.

You're the diva of international correspondents, but despite the enormous exposure and fine reputation you have, do you ever think that perhaps you're really not changing anybody's minds and that it's all just a kind of entertainment?

MAUREEN DOWD, COLUMNIST: Oh, absolutely. I don't, you know, pride myself on changing minds. I think of Cassandra, and she had a gift and a curse. She had second sight, but the curse was no one ever listened to her.

RODGERS: Do you feel that way sometimes, that despite the brilliant articles, the brilliant columns that you put out, that it doesn't make any difference? Is that discouraging?

DOWD: Well, I try to entertain readers and I try to tell them something they might not know or take it from an angle they might not have thought of, but I don't, you know, I just don't have a big enough ego to think I'm actually going to tilt, you know, a lot of people in an election.

I think a lot of political readers come to you with their minds already made up.

RODGERS: Do you think the expectations for George W. Bush in a presidential debate are so low that if he doesn't self-destruct, he wins?

DOWD: No, I think he was particularly unfocused last night. I mean, usually he, you know, he models himself on Ronald Reagan and usually he is coming across as black and white and sure of himself and he has, you know, a couple of frat boy laugh lines.

But last night he just seemed a little like he did not want to be there. He was very -- you know, he tried not to have cutaway shots. That was one of the many rules they put into play, but there were cutaway shots. And every time they cut to him, he looked annoyed and exasperated, especially when Kerry brought up his father and confronted him and said, you know, your dad did not think there was an exit strategy and that's why he didn't go into Baghdad, and W. looked very annoyed at that.

RODGERS: HL Mencken once wrote, the only way to look on any politician is down. You wouldn't distance yourself from that, would you?

DOWD: Oh, no. I love Mencken. Yes.

Well, I think that it's good to -- this is, again, going to the debate, I think the reason W. had such a hard time is because he has insulated himself. He only -- he and Cheney only talk to Republican audiences and Republican think tanks and military audiences, and Bush has this "Ask George Bush" thing that Doonsberry parodies, where the questions are along the lines of "Thank you, Mr. President, for being president."

But I think the downside of that is that Bush, you know, is not -- unlike Tony Blair, he doesn't get challenged and learn to defend his positions, and that's why last night, every time they cut to him, he was looking like "Why do I have to be here, why do I have to explain myself," and the Bushes are very much like, you know, "Trust us, we were born to rule, we know best, get out of the way."

And that doesn't quite work when the world is blowing up and everything is going wrong in Iraq.

RODGERS: Who was the easier target for you and your column, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush?

DOWD: Well, Clinton was farce. Bush is tragedy in Iraq, definitely.

RODGERS: Why do you say tragedy?

DOWD: Well, because I think that Bush and Cheney took the country to war on false pretenses and Cheney and the neo-cons hijacked the war on terror, and after 9/11 they took all our vulnerabilities and emotions and feelings and turned it to do their own subterranean agendas. They all had various agendas, various transformations they wanted to come into play, including W., who wanted to transform himself from the screw-up son to the son who fixed his father's screw-ups, and I think that was wrong, and, you know, a president can't go to war without explaining to the American public why and what the costs are.

RODGERS: Short answer, please. If Bush is a tragic figure, what's his fatal flaw?

DOWD: Ah, that's a really good question. I would say his fatal flaw is that he is so insulated and he -- most presidents are in a bubble, and he's in a thermos.

RODGERS: And your colleagues in the United States, from overseas, it sometimes seems as if they give the presidency a pass under Bush, that they're not nearly as hard on him or critical as you are, and as perhaps some people overseas are. Why is that?

DOWD: Well, I think that 9/11 was a shattering experience for all Americans, including reporters, and afterwards the Bush administration acted like if you challenged them, you were being unpatriotic.

RODGERS: You're the epitome of writing without fear or favor, but does anything frighten you?

DOWD: Everything frightens me. I spent the first few years of my column, you know, often curled up on the floor of my house crying because it is so -- it is hard to take on powerful people and to make a lot of enemies, and as a woman, especially, you know, I like to be liked. I don't want to make 5 new enemies a week, but -- I don't know how to say this without being corny -- but I think, you know, journalists have an important duty in a democracy to be part of the checks and balances.

RODGERS: Maureen Dowd, thank you so very much for spending some time with us.

DOWD: Thank you, it was really fun.

RODGERS: 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, in London. Thanks for joining us.



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