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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired October 9, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Matthew Chance, in London.
Welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media covers the big stories of the moment.

It started as an innocuous e-mail, one foreign reporter to her friends, recounting her personal views and very personal fears about covering Iraq as a Western journalist.

One excerpt reads, "I am housebound. I leave when I have a very good reason only. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't eat in restaurants. I can't strike a conversation with strangers. I can't look for stories."

Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter, of course, for the "Wall Street Journal" and her very private thoughts became very public as her e-mail found its way on onto the Internet, becoming an instant phenomenal.

I'm joined now in Baghdad by Fantasi Kanbanas (ph), a correspondent for the "Boston Globe" and in New York by Barry Peterson, CBS correspondent who has just returned from a reporting assignment in Baghdad.

Barry, let me start with you first, in New York. It is extremely difficult, isn't it, to report a story like the Iraq situation, or at least report it safely.

BARRY PETERSON, CBS: Yes, very much so. In fact, I'm not sure what's controversial about that e-mail. Because that's how we're all basically living in many ways.

It's harder for us because when we go out, and we have to go out with a camera crew, we're very obvious. We travel with armed guards. We travel in armored cars. Every time we make a decision to go out, we run it by our security people.

So what happens is, you spend a lot of time not going out. And that is terrifically frustrating, to be a reporter and not be able to get out to the story. We spend a lot of time in our hotel, which it self is not particularly safe, and you try as best you and to get other sources of information, to get information brought to you.

But it's probably the most difficult war story I've ever covered because it's so hard to get to.

Fantasi, in Baghdad, let me ask you, do you think international correspondents are doing enough to try and get to the reality of life of ordinary people in Baghdad and to broadcast that or to write about it in papers?

FANTASI KANBANAS (ph), "BOSTON GLOBE": Well, let me say, while I think Farnaz captures very vividly and accurately the constraints under which we work, there is a whole bunch of us who are still going out and about and making the personal decision and risk assessment that we can move around and talk to people and interview strangers on the street.

For example, today, I just came here to CNN from a lunch meeting out in Baghdad in what American officials can the Red Zone, and we met at a restaurant where there was live singing and lots of Iraqi families having a Friday afternoon lunch. And regularly, I go to Sadr City. Regularly I travel around the capital.

Now, we can't leave Baghdad as much as we would like. In fact, since April I think most journalists would say they don't leave unless they're either embedded with the military or have taken extreme security precautions. But I would like people to know that there are quite a few journalists, particularly print journalists, who don't have the obvious machinery of TV correspondent teams who do move around.

CHANCE: Well, that, Fantasi, doesn't seem to be the perception, does it? I mean, this e-mail from Farnaz did create quite a stir. People thought it was really getting to the nub of the issues that perhaps have been skirted around by other journalists on the scene.

So while certainly there are people like you and others who do go out and take risks like that, that's not really getting across, is it, certainly not to the U.S. public, perhaps not even the international public as well. What are we doing wrong?

KANBANAS (ph): Well, Matthew, I thing that Farnaz's e-mail was so popular because it captured on a personal and visceral level what it's like to live here. And that's something that is missing, I would say from probably all of our reports.

We focus so much on the political story, we focus so much on the spectacular violent attacks that we rarely write about -- whether it's from our own experiences or the experiences of Iraqi citizens and families that we know, we almost never convey what it's like to go to the grocery store, to go to dinner, to walk on the street, and to what extent life goes on and to what extent to regular terror attacks have stopped it.

CHANCE: Barry, in New York, let me bring you in again. It is such a difficult place to report from. There are these huge security concerns. You have to weigh out every move you take.

Do you still think that it is practical for foreign correspondents, for international reporters, to work out of Baghdad, or is it worth us taking the risk actually being there?

PETERSON: I think it's always worth taking a risk, covering a story like that. It's a hugely important story and we develop ways of telling the story no matter what the situation is.

I have been on the streets. I have had a chance to chat with people and talk with people. You know, we try very hard in our reporting. We tried very hard to find out what Iraqis were thinking because we were constantly being challenged by people in New York saying to us, what are people thinking about this situation, how are they reacting.

We just were very careful how we did it. We were careful what neighborhoods we went into. You know, when we pull up with a couple of cars and bring our cameras out and that sort of thing, we attract attention, so we have to be very thoughtful about that.

We also have to be very thoughtful about the fact that we journalists are targets because we're foreigners and the rash of kidnappings now is really focused on foreigners. And I think one thing that's important to us is we don't really want to become part of a story. You know, I want to show up on the "CBS Evening News." I do not want to show up on a Web site as a hostage and that's a very important consideration and it's something that we take in mind.

None of us wants to be caught in that situation, so that's why your always balancing the risk against what your gut is telling you is the story that you need do go out and find.

CHANCE: Fantasi, one of the things that Farnaz said in her e-mail is that you could argue that the battle for Iraq had already been lost. I'm short of abbreviating what she actually said, but is that something, do you think, that is adequately reflected in the reports that you see and you read coming out of Baghdad?

KANBANAS (ph): Well, I mean, I think the job of reporters here on the ground is to present the reality we see and not to make an argument for whether the policy here is lost or whether it's impossible to turn this country around.

What we capture in our stories, and I think everyone is doing a pretty strong job of this despite the constraints, is exactly how things are going. I mean we go to the car bomb sites. We go to the firefights. We also try to go to some of the reconstruction events to try and tell some of the good news about the progress that's happening here when it's real, and that is our job. Our job is to be witnesses here on the ground, and at the risk of sounding defensive, I think the media here has done a really good job of that.

CHANCE: All right, Barry Peterson, from CBS News, thank you very much. And thank you also Fantasi Kanbanas (ph) of the "Boston Globe," reporting there from Baghdad.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, it's an imprecise science, but are opinion polls taking the place of simple old fashioned journalism?



It's an imprecise science, yet it guides much of our media coverage. Opinion polling remains one of the new ways we can gauge public sentiment, but it is always accurate? And in the run-up to U.S. presidential elections, is its continuous use by the press simply an excuse for lazy journalism?

Well, I'm joined now by Joe Klein, senior writer for "Time" magazine and in the studio here, Bob Wooster (ph), chairman of Maury (ph).

Let me first turn to you, Joe, in New York. It seems that every time you switch on a television set or pick up a newspaper, there's some kind of poll telling us what people think. Do you think that journalism is overusing this format?

JOE KLEIN, "TIME" Well, yes. I think that polling is what journalists do instead of thinking.

But I think that there is a larger problem here, and that is that politicians have begun to overuse polling and also focus groups to find out what people want them to say rather than telling people where they want to take the country. It's become a form of institutionalized cowardice among politicians and to a certain extent it's a form of cowardice among journalists as well.

And all of this happens at a time when, at least in the United States, you know, this -- what they call a science -- is becoming more and more speculative because so many people refuse to answer the phone with pollsters.

CHANCE: We'll come back to the way politicians use polls in a minute, but let me just say this. Isn't it important, this technique of polling, though, for us to gauge kind of things that aren't easy to assess -- the outcome of presidential debates, for instance, people's opinions on the Iraq war. If it weren't for polls, how would we do it?

KLEIN: Well, we would do it by going out and actually talking to human beings.

Iraq, for example, is a very, very difficult issue to poll here in the United States because people's feelings are so mixed. You can't quantify them. On the one hand, people want to support the troops. They want to appear patriotic, support the president. They also have grave doubts about their level of knowledge about a part of the world that isn't very familiar to Americans. And yet at the same time they have this nagging feeling that things aren't going well and maybe it wasn't the right thing to do.

So how do you put a number on that? It's very difficult. And what we do is overanalyze the polls. I think it's very clear after the first Kerry-Bush debate that public opinion swung a bit toward Kerry, just as it was obvious that after the Republican convention, public opinion swung a bit toward Bush.

But a lot of this is just barely outside the margin of error in polls and I think that, you know, where we get into trouble is when you see a 2 point movement in one direction or another direction, which is well within the margin of error, and we say Kerry is picking up steam here or Bush is losing traction, and that, to me, is overanalyzing.

I think polls are a very useful device and you can trust them when they're 70-30 or 60-40 and you can also trust them to track, you know, discreet shifts in public opinion. But what we do is way overanalyze them.

CHANCE: Bob Wooster (ph) do you think that polls do create this illusion of fact where in fact they're often little more that educated guesses?

BOB WOOSTER (ph), MAURY (ph): They're not educated guesses. They are precise measurements within the kinds of margin of error or tolerance limits that Joe was talking about. And if the media would just stop for a minute, not overanalyze them but reanalyze them and look at the detail, they would find that that's the case.

I want to knock dead the idea that you can not talk to the American people and find out what they think about Iraq, but what you can't do is what Joe said they were trying to do, or the media are trying to do, put it down to one number. People do have very different views about different aspects of it and by asking 6 or 8 or 15 or 25 questions you can get a very clear measure of exactly what those differences are and why there is the mixed feeling over Iraq that exists in the mind of the American and indeed the British public.

CHANCE: Joe Klein, Bob Wooster (ph) has a point, doesn't he? It's not the information that's inaccurate in any way provided by these polling organizations. It's the way that information is used by us, the media.

KLEIN: Well, it's a little bit of both.

I mean, certainly, it's the latter. I mean, you know, the media overuse and under-analyze polling. But we have a unique situation this year. Well, there's one trend and then there's a unique situation.

The trend has been for fewer and fewer Americans to answer the phone when the pollster calls and then there's a whole new group, a younger generation of people, who have mobile phones, who are unreachable by the pollsters. The way pollsters deal with this is by weighting the polls, by giving disproportionate strength to underrepresented groups. So you might have two pimply, over-weight 23-year-olds representing all of young people in a poll. And there is a problem in that.

And the other major problem that polling has in a year like this, is that usually what pollsters do to determine what the electorate is is on the basis of what happened before. They build an electoral model on the basis of the last election, but we have had major events in this country that may well have changed the nature of the electorate. Nobody knows at this point whether or not we're going to have a surge of 18 to 24-year-old men who are afraid of a military draft, which would completely skew the numbers that these pollsters are giving us now.

CHANCE: Bob Wooster (ph), these are very uncertain times, of course. How do you mathematically kind of adjust the result to take into account all of these factors?

WOOSTER (ph): Well, you ask the people how likely they are to vote. Who is better to know whether there's going to be a surge of 18 to 24-year- old, to use Joe's analogy, except by asking 18 to 24-year-olds. Not going out the way the Joe Kleins of four generations ago went out and talked to the ward bosses and said what's happening or the locate newspaper editor, when they got to Kansas City, where he's been seeing Peter Hart (ph) doing a focus group -- hell, Joe, I grew up in Kansas City. I read in "Kansas City Star" and I listened to those things in 1948 and 1944. I'm older than you are. But there I was, paying close attention to the politics of Kansas City, and they were asking Roy Roberts (ph), the editor of the "Star," who was going to win. Who did he think? The Republicans, of course.

KLEIN: Well, obviously, no one wants to go back to that, but I.

CHANCE: We're going to have to wrap it up. Joe, quick answer on that.

KLEIN: But, you know, when I talk to American pollsters privately, they say that they charge customers a 30 percent premium to give an actual poll now that isn't weighted.

Peter Hart told me that we may have to go back to door-to-door polling because telephone polling is becoming so inaccurate. These are problems.

WOOSTER (ph): I still do poll door-to-door.

KLEIN: . real problems.

WOOSTER (ph): I still do door-to-door polling.

CHANCE: All right, we're going to have to wrap it up there.

KLEIN: That's great.

CHANCE: Thank you, both of you, Bob Wooster (ph), from Maury (ph), Joe Klein, from "Time" magazine. I'm sure we'll have plenty more polls to look forward to.

Still to come in INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, it was the first famine broadcast live into our living rooms. 20 years on, we talk to one of the first journalists to cover Ethiopia's tragedy.

Don't go away.



It was 20 years ago that a band of musicians managed to pull off what politicians had failed to do. Band Aide marked the beginning of an initiative raising millions to help ease the plight of famine-stricken Ethiopia.

The music may have brought in the funds, but it was the harrowing images of starving children which started Band Aide's bandwagon rolling.

I'm joined now in Austin, Texas by Brian Stewart. He's the host of "World View" on CBC News.

Brian was among the very first television journalists to cover the famine in Ethiopia.

Brian, thanks very much for being with us.

You must have seen some absolutely appalling images there in Ethiopia. Just remember us the extent of this tragedy that befell Ethiopia.

BRIAN STEWART, CBC: Well, it was an extraordinary scene. It was like one's vision of the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, frankly.

You had 7 million people in danger of starvation. Many of them lived two-day's walk from the nearest feeding centers, so all along Northern Ethiopia, where the dust was blowing, where everything was brown and crops would not grow, you saw first thousands then tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands walking along the roads, finally reaching these gigantic feeding centers which were full of disease and dying.

It was just a scene that I had not imagined before. I had never seen before and I have never seen since.

These terrible scenes, unfortunately they kind of replicated with unfortunate frequency around the world and have been over the past 20 years.

I was, for instance, in the earthquake in Bam, last year, in Iran, which was incredibly sort of appalling as well. But, I mean, one of the feelings I got was a sort of sense of helplessness as a journalist, that I couldn't really do anything when I was there. But did you feel that your coverage actually made a difference?

STEWART: Funny enough -- not funny, but sadly enough, not at the time, because the BBC reports had just come out. Canadian television, CBC, had just arrived, and we were in this pocket where really there was no other media there, and I didn't see signs of other media there. Normally, of course, that's rather encouraging news, but to me it was frightening because I knew from the Red Cross that as many as 7 million people could die of starvation.

And I wasn't aware of the huge impact that already Michael Burke's (ph) BBC coverage was having. So we were sending out reports and we got our first indication that the public is getting -- beginning to respond. But for a while there, it looked on the ground like the world wasn't going to pay attention. Then all of the sudden this overwhelming outpouring of donations, and it was just like a jolt of electricity went through the whole aid community.

More journalists started to come in. And fairly soon, you saw the first kind of convoys of food making their way over the mountains, sort of dust rolling as they came down, and that gave us some encouragement that the world was responding. We had no idea then that it would reach this momentum of Band Aide and later Live Aide. And that was astonishing. At the time, we felt lonely, tired and terribly scared that the world wasn't going to respond and, in fact, we were going to see millions die of starvation.

CHANCE: But there were individuals as well that you managed to help. I know there is a story about a child that you were personally involved with saving. Tell us about that person.

STEWART: Well, that was remarkable. You see so many tragic cases. Some maces always stand out.

We were filming a feeding center and we saw a young girl collapse who was 2-1/2, I believe. A nurse picked her up and rushed her to the feeding center. And it was clear she was dying. The nurse said she was dying. We started to film on it and then said no, we can't do this. We went away. Expected her funeral later in the day. Went back to film it.

Somebody had stuck a needle in her, one last attempt, and she was alive.

We later filmed her, 3 weeks later, and then lost her for years. She went into the great mass of Ethiopians who were moved, resettled in the south.

Four years late, 1988, I decided I just had to go back and find out what happened to her. We went back to Northern Ethiopia and found Burhan Waldu (ph). I've kept in touch with her and the family ever since. She is now 23, second year college, and she's kind of a -- yesterday -- she's second year college, and she met very recently Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bob Geldof and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

But it is just -- you know, you can save -- help one, help two, but ultimately in this kind of story, it's the thousands of other faces you see, and you know it, that tend to stay with you for a very long time.

CHANCE: Now this was one of the -- perhaps the first sort of famine that came to the mass audience with sort of live or television pictures at least and had this incredible impact.

Do you think that since then the people of the world have become desensitized to this sort of catastrophe? Do you think that the media still has the power to motivate people in the way that it did back then, 20 years ago?

STEWART: Well, one of our worries at the time, and I remember within 6 months of the great African Ethiopian famine we were discussing this, was that the pictures were so graphic that it might lead to desensitization and that before the world would respond, each new crisis had to be more vivid, more visual than Ethiopia. It would have to be something like Rwanda.

And I think the media has to be terribly careful of that. And I felt at the time the great fault the media would make is not to go back to these scenes, because people might get wearied of famines, wearied of these tragic pictures, unless the media returned afterwards, unless the media went back and saw people putting their lives together, societies reforming, a kind of defeatism or even cynicism would set in. And it does worry me that that defeatism is out there in the air and unless we do return to these tragic countries afterwards and see people, like Burhan Waldu (ph) building, rebuilding their lives, see the children of that famine of 1984 now going to college, studying computer science or what have you, see new crops being harvested and life renewed.

CHANCE: All right, Brian Stewart of CBC News.

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 Matthew Chance, in London. Thanks for joining us.



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