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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired October 30, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Bill Schneider, in Washington, D.C. Welcome to a special edition of CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS from the U.S. capital.
Tuesday, November 2 will be a day of reckoning for U.S. President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. In any election, the media should play a pivotal role. It helps set the agenda and in some respects it drives campaigns, and in an election as close as this one, and in a country as divided as the United States, the role of the press becomes even more vital.

How has it performed? To try to give us some perspective, I'm joined now by Armstrong Williams, radio and TV talk show host. His program is called "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams;" Michael Tomasky, executive editor of the "American Prospect;" and Melinda Henneberger, contributing editor for "Newsweek." Welcome.

First question, a simple one. We'll start with Armstrong. Is this the nastiest campaign you've ever seen in American politics?

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, TALK SHOW HOST: They all seem nasty to me. That 2000 race between Bush and Gore was as nasty and volatile as they come.

But I've never seen the presidential candidates make such personal attacks and make it so personal in their ads and the things they say when they stand before the podiums, and I've never seen so many candidates just outright, just fabricate. I mean, just fabricate. No second thought about the truth.

And then they have Kerry's kids, who are in Colorado over the weekend, saying it is absolutely a certainty that Bush is going to reinstate the draft if he is reelected and there's no truth to it.

SCHNEIDER: Michael, your magazine is identified with liberals and I assume you have endorsed John Kerry.

MICHAEL TOMASKY, "AMERICAN PROSPECT": Well, we don't endorse candidates, but we certainly are identified with liberals. Yes.

SCHNEIDER: OK. Is this the nastiest campaign you've ever seen?

TOMASKY: Yes, it is. And it's the nastiest not only because of the candidates, but it's nasty because of the fierce partisanship of both sides and the people on both sides. And the country is very evenly split and the partisans behind Kerry are really worked up and the partisans behind Bush are really worked up, and those conditions create a kind of energy that is driving each candidate, just a real intensity.

I've never seen this kind of intensity in any political campaign, in any presidential campaign, on both sides, and both sides really, really hate each other. Many not the men, or maybe they do, I don't know, but if not the men, the partisans on each side really hate each other. Liberals really hate what Bush stands for. Conservatives really hate what Kerry stands for. And that's what's driving it, I think.

SCHNEIDER: Do you think the press has played any role in driving this campaign to this level of nastiness -- Melinda?

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, "NEWSWEEK": I don't think we've done anything to combat that and maybe w shoulder have, but I do think it has been driven by the campaigns and by the partisans and I so agree that people are so angry that they're willing, on both sides, to believe anything of their adversaries.

You know, they're willing to believe that John Kerry wounded himself in Vietnam, you know, the whole swift boat controversy that just went on and on and one. And on the other side, people are willing to believe that Bush isn't worried about Osama, which is clearly not true.

SCHNEIDER: The swift boat controversy was one of the first controversies and a big controversy in this campaign immediately after the Democratic convention. How do you think the press handled that? Would you criticize -- would you be critical of the press's handling of that issue?

HENNEBERGER: I think that when it's been proven that something isn't true, I think we really did fuel that. I just think we showed the commercials, for example, on and on, gave them -- you know, they really had a relatively small advertising budget, the Swift Boats for Truth, or whatever they were calling themselves.

SCHNEIDER: Veterans.

HENNEBERGER: Veterans for Truth. And, you know, yes, we fueled the story. I mean, we kept that story alive.

SCHNEIDER: What do you think -- Armstrong.

WILLIAMS: Listen, these were ads by people who were absolutely part of that history with John Kerry and these were their stories.

Even if you look at the film that was put together by the people who fought with John Kerry on behalf of John Kerry, even in the film that was put out, when they asked him about what he said after he returned to the United States, about war criminals and the atrocities, they would not touch that. They said they were embarrassed and hurt by this words, but they still felt that he was a good man.

I think the reason why CBS got so caught up in the controversy of Bush's Guard record is because it seemed as though there was some sort of collusion between them and the Kerry campaign, where they were trying to get Bush on his National Guard record without checking the facts, without doing their homework, and without holding to their high journalistic integrity. They decided to play favorites. That's the appearance of it. And as a result, they got it so wrong.

I think of all the things that have happened in this campaign, the fact that CBS did such a poor job in handling this, no one has been fired, unlike what happened at NBC, ABC, the "Washington Post," the "New York Times" and "USA Today," and what it does is it gives the media a black eye, and it still is pivotal, what is going on with their investigation of themselves.

SCHNEIDER: Do you honestly believe there was collusion?

WILLIAMS: The fact that Mace (ph) talked to Lockhart (ph) in the Kerry campaign is a problem. How can you not say it? They actually communicated with each other.


HENNEBERGER: Well, what a success for the Bush campaign that the issue is what Dan Rather did and not what Bush's service in the National Guard was.


WILLIAMS: I think it's a legitimate issue, but it's the way he handled the issue, at CBS.

TOMASKY: I want to jump in on this. I'm not going to defend CBS and in fact I don't know any liberal magazine, any liberal columnist or any liberal blogger who did. That was a disgraceful episode.

I want to go back to the swift boat thing, though, because I think that really is the enduring media story of this campaign and I think it's a big problem of journalistic efforts for the media as we go forward.

If one person -- and the problem is this -- if one person is telling a lie and the other person is telling the truth, as far as any documentary records indicate and as far as anyone knows, do the media have a responsibility to report both of those people, both of their stories, and give them equal weight?

If someone is lying -- if I say I don't like your tie and Bill says he likes your tie, that's a subjective thing. That's open to interpretation. Melinda can report that we each say that. If I say, however, that you shoplifted that tie and I have no evidence for it but I start an organization with a bunch of, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars of seed money, called, you know, Group for the Truth About Armstrong Williams' Ties, and I go out and say this stuff, does the media have a responsibility to report that? No. They should be telling the truth about where these people come from.

WILLIAMS: I agree. I agree.

SCHNEIDER: Do you think the left in this campaign is unusually angry at the press, the way the right has historically been?

TOMASKY: Yes, yes. It's really been a striking phenomenon and, you know, there are Web logs. I don't know if people overseas know what these are. There are Web logs set up, devoted to monitoring individual reporters. Not just monitoring the papers, but monitoring individual reporters covering the campaign trail. A so-and-so-watch -- I don't want to name anybody's names, but a, picking apart their story every day. So this has become every bit as much an obsession on the left as it has been on the right.

WILLIAMS: I don't think we can ignore Michael Moore and "Farenheit 9/11." That was the biggest propaganda piece, and both sides admit that.

But the fact is the media did not make Michael Moore as accountable for his propaganda as they did for the swift boats. It seems as though they gave Michael Moore a pass and they did not find their integrity until they saw exactly what the swift boats were doing, and so they in part lost credibility.

HENNEBERGER: But Michael Moore did not have the ties to the Kerry campaign that the Swift Boat Veterans had.

WILLIAMS: They promoted him, though. The media promoted him. They were his PR machine.

HENNEBERGER: . with the Bush campaign.

WILLIAMS: They were his PR machine.

SCHNEIDER: Does it make a difference that with Michael Moore it was a film that was thrown in theatres. You had to pay to see it. It wasn't an ad presented on the airwaves. Does that make a difference?

WILLIAMS: Yes. Though when you have liberal Hollywood that is willing to give him the wherewithal so he can air his films, put them in the movie theatres -- there were others who produced films that were favorable, let's say, to Bush. They could not even get their films played into theatres because of their political ilk and the way they think in America.

So there are double standards and these double standards are quite noticeable.

HENNEBERGER: I think many liberals did not take Michael Moore's film seriously.


HENNEBERGER: Yes, I do. A lot of people wrote about it.

WILLIAMS: What about the young people? Who can easily be manipulated.

HENNEBERGER: I think there are young and old people who can be manipulated, but.

WILLIAMS: The election is still very close.


SCHNEIDER: Did Michael Moore's film really have an impact?

TOMASKY: I think all of these things have some kind of impact. They are not measurable. It's all intangible, but all of these pieces of the puzzle have some kind of impact.

We can measure the Swift Boat people's impact, I mean, from John Kerry had a very high, positive approval rating before that hit. The United States thought of him as a war hero. They don't know and he doesn't have a very high approval rating now. It has inched back up. That had a measurable impact. Michael Moore has had an impact. All of these things are pieces of the pie that add up, yes, sure.

SCHNEIDER: We are talking to an international audience. And as you -- I think it has now been established that George Bush is a very unpopular figure overseas and the United States is arguably more isolated in the world now that it's been at any time since before World War II. Does this matter to American voters -- Armstrong.

WILLIAMS: It should matter, this ability, having our allies, but many Americans are under an impression, be it true or false, that the reason why this sentiment exists overseas and the reason why America is so unpopular is because countries such as France and Germany and even Russia went against America because their own interest in Iraq was at stake.

So it was not a position of principle, but it was a financial interest is why they took that position, and when you look at a place like Germany, where it's 60 percent believe that Kerry is going to win and 39 percent believes that Bush is going to lose and Michael Moore is a rock star. He's a superstar hero in Germany. It shows you how uniformed they are and we have a responsibility to not only inform them, but to try to at least be civil and try to establish good relationships and really understand who we are and why we're doing what we're doing in the world.

SCHNEIDER: Does this bother American voters? I mean, Michael Moore's book and his film have been extraordinarily popular overseas and President Bush is not popular. Every poll in just about every country save a couple shows that they prefer Kerry by huge margins over Bush. Is that having an effect? And should it?

TOMASKY: It bothers half of the American voters a lot, yes. It bothers the half that's for John Kerry and I think it should.

I mean, remember.

WILLIAMS: What is implied there?

TOMASKY: No, no, no. I'm just saying, half of the -- the people who are for John Kerry do care about the opinion of the United States overseas.

WILLIAMS: But they do agree with the people overseas, though? I think.

TOMASKY: To the extent that John Kerry should be president they agree with them. What's wrong with that?

WILLIAMS: That's a problem too, because.


TOMASKY: Armstrong, I'm not suggesting that people overseas should have any kind of vote. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying they happen to agree.


HENNEBERGER: I think people, many people here, are misinformed, because they don't even make the connection and see what it's a problem if the rest of the world feels we're going it alone and we don't need them and that we have this condescending attitude, and I think that a lot of Americans think it' s a point of pride that there's no reason why we should.


TOMASKY: Listen, Armstrong, after September 11, "La Monde," in France, had a banner headline, "We are all Americans now." That's while George Bush was the president.

So they were willing to be the United States friend. It wasn't France who started this.

SCHNEIDER: Let me ask you all.

WILLIAMS: We started it? We started it?


WILLIAMS: We didn't ask for 9/11.

TOMASKY: I'm not talking about 9/11. I'm talking about the deterioration in relations.

WILLIAMS: That's where it all started. That's where it all started, though.

TOMASKY: I'm talking about the deterioration in relations between the United States and Europe. Don't put those kinds of words in my mouth.

WILLIAMS: I'll tell you one thing Americans understand. We have not had an attack on American soil since 9/11, so somebody is doing something right in this country.

HENNEBERGER: Do you really think that proves that, because we haven't had an attack since then.


HENNEBERGER: Had we had an attack since then, would you say that proved Bush had been doing a poor job?

WILLIAMS: But we haven't had one, and that's the issue today.

SCHNEIDER: Let me just ask you a final question which puzzles a lot of people overseas. Americans really are divided. You've said it, you all agree.

WILLIAMS: We're divided.

SCHNEIDER: We're divided. Question: why is the country so divided? Are Americans really divided or is it just Bush and Clinton who divide the country? What do you think -- Melinda.

HENNEBERGER: No. Bush and Kerry, no, I don't think so at all. I think definitely we were already divided in 2000 and especially because of the litigated election, and I think people are very concerned that the huge issue right now, people concerned about fraud and disenfranchisement at the polls this time too, and the last four years have just divided us further at a time when after these attacks you would have thought we would have come together.

I think that if you think that we're in the war, that Bush is in the war on terror, then you're going to vote for him. If you think that we have taken our eyes off the war on terror, that we should have done more with al Qaeda instead of going after Saddam, then you're going to vote for Kerry.

SCHNEIDER: Well, I said Clinton because I meant the country was divided under Bill Clinton. When Bush is presented -- when Kerry says to Bush, "You've divided the country," Bush says, "Well, the country was pretty divided under Bill Clinton." Isn't that true? And what has divided us then if it's not -- is the country really in some fundamental way divided?

TOMASKY: Yes, in a lot of fundamental ways. I mean, yes, the country was divided under Clinton after the Lewinsky story broke, but actually remember there was another strain going on. I mean, Clinton was moving the Democratic Party to the center. In some ways the differences between the two parties, the policy differences, in some ways, were less dramatic through the 1990s.

Now with the Bush administration having gone far to the right and the Democratic Party being back where it is, the country is substantively much more divided than it was, I think, in the 1990s, putting aside the impeachment.

SCHNEIDER: And the last word -- Armstrong.

WILLIAMS: I think this happens in times of war and conflict. It's no different from what happened in Vietnam, when our soldiers returned and were treated like traitors and second-class citizens. I think a war has a tendency to do that.

There are Americans who feel we should not have used preemptive strikes against a sovereign nation and there are many Americans that feel that we should have. There are many Americans that trust Bush. We've lost many lives and they don't feel it's justifiable that over 1,000 men have had to suffer for what they consider a useless war.

I think it boils down to this war on Iraq and how we fight this war on terrorism. It's what has really divided us and brought this full circle to Americans and the rest of the world.

SCHNEIDER: Thanks very much, thanks to all of our guests.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, how John Kerry is finding favor with the international media, but do they know enough about him or is it simply anyone but Bush?

Stay with us.



Few can recall a U.S. election that has attracted such international interest. With so much at stake for the rest of the world, the global press are recording every twist and turn. Perceptions abroad about Kerry and Bush are shaped largely by the media. Some journalists even go so far as to say they have a role in stoking tensions between America and its allies.

To explore this further, I'm joined now by Matthius Rube, Washington bureau chief for the German paper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and Al Hayat's bureau chief in Washington, Salameh Nematt.

Gentlemen, welcome.

First question, very simply, is the United States now in your view more isolated in the world than it's been in your lifetime?

SALAMEH NEMATT, AL HAYAT: I wouldn't say isolated. I would say that America is watched all over the world, more than ever today. I wouldn't call that isolation, but yes, it is basically polarizing people mainly against U.S. policies throughout the Middle East, for example, which is the area where I monitor.

But by no means is there a uniform opinion of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

SCHNEIDER: What's your opinion -- Matthius.

MATTHIUS RUBE, "FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG": I actually would use the term isolation.

George W. Bush, divider, not uniter, not in Europe. He actually unified public opinion against the United States, and I think this is going to last for a couple of years, for years to come, I think.

SCHNEIDER: Has the press played any role? Do you think the press has exacerbated or even exaggerated tensions between the United States and Europe?

RUBE: Yes, I think so. There is a heavy bias in the reporting about what's going on in the United States. For instance, two TV programs will air, Michael Moore's "Farenheit 9/11," on the eve of election day, so as part of the news coverage -- this is not really news coverage. This is really, you know, taking part for one side of the political game within the United States.

SCHNEIDER: What's your view? Do you think the press has played a role in heightening tensions between the United States and the Middle East, the Arab World?

NEMATT: I think yes, they have played a role. The Pan-Arab media, especially the satellite channels, have been very, very aggressive in their anti-American editorial stance, if you like, and in that sense it did contribute.

You know, you are basically mobilizing public opinion against the United States, in some cases, making problems for government, making it a problem for governments dealing with the United States, because they appear increasingly in the eyes of their own people as if they're alienated, you know, they're alienating their own population.

But, you know, on the other hand, the Middle East is different from Europe. You have a mixed opinion of the United States. There are those who would criticize the United States on its policy vis--vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or even, you know, the way it handled the situation after the fall of the Saddam regime, but there is a big segment of Arab society that looks at America as the only hope for democratization in the region, when we have these regimes that have been there for almost half a century, you know, with the president passing it on to his son and these regimes perpetuating themselves.

They look at this administration as a sort of salvation or the potential salvation for them, so it's really mixed in the Arab world.

SCHNEIDER: Let me give you a proposition. I've heard the argument made that Arabs and Europeans for that matter dislike Bush but not Americans. Now, suppose Americans reelect President Bush by a healthy margin. Do you think their antipathy towards Bush could turn into anti- Americanism?

NEMATT: I really think it to a large extent is going to depend on what happens in Iraq in the interim. We've seen what happened in Afghanistan. What happened is nothing short of historic. First time democratic elections in the history of that country.

If we have something similar in Iraq, if we have a semblance of stability over the coming year or two, and Iraq looks like it is on the right course, I think people are going to begin to change. The war would have been gone -- time would have elapsed since the war and the killings and the victims and you see stability and economic prosperity in Iraq, backed by the United States economic assistance and political backing.

Then the United States will begin to look different, just like the United States looks to Europeans or the way people look at America having democratized Eastern Europe to a large extent.

So it really depends, you know, immediately America doesn't look too good in the eyes of people in the Arab world, but things could change with time.

SCHNEIDER: Matthius, Bush is reelected by, you know, a healthy margin. How would that affect the European opinion and what do you think it would mean for Europe? How would they respond to that?

RUBE: I think it wouldn't change much of the picture. I think, Bill, we are already there. Ask any German, French, Italian who opposed the war in Iraq whether he is anti-American. He will say no, I'm anti- Bush, but there is an underlying anti-Americanism thriving all over Europe.

So I think the Europeans have only two choices. They will be disappointed about the elections no matter the outcome, but they will either have a shocking disappointment that those dummy Americans, excuse me, are able to reelect this gun-slinging cowboy, Bush, that will be a shock but they will, you know, live with that. Or there will be something like a creeping disenchantment with Kerry, because I am convinced there will not be a major change in national security policies in the United States and also there will not be a major change in the policies toward the European allies.

The worst thing that could happen for our Chancellor Schroeder is Kerry being elected and traveling to Berlin and asking him give us some troops for Iraq. That would be even worse for him, to say no to Kerry than to say no to Bush.

SCHNEIDER: How much do your readers really know about John Kerry? Who do they think John Kerry is? Do they think he's Bill Clinton or JKK?

RUBE: He's a pop star, really. There are I think six books out on the German language book language, biographies on John Kerry. I think that never happened before, that a candidate get such wall to wall coverage and these books are hastily written by journalists, no translations from the books available on the American market, but originally written for the German market, these are hymns on a candidate, not scrutinizing the candidate but it's really crazy about Kerry.

SCHNEIDER: So he's really a heroic figure.

RUBE: He is. Well, he speaks even some German and went to school in Switzerland, so he's looked at as half European.

SCHNEIDER: What about in the Arab world? How is John Kerry regarded?

NEMATT: Not so in the Arab world. Kerry is regarded as maybe the lesser of the two evils, if you like, among you know a majority of people. But at the same time, you know, they haven't seen any significant difference between his policies on Iraq, his policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Actually it looks identical to the Bush policy on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

On Iraq, it looks like it's too nuanced, it's too subtle for people to see any difference between their policies, so they're looking at, you know, these elections, basically as I said, hoping that Kerry, the least of the two evils, wins, but it's not going to make much difference, really. They're watching the policies of the administration of Washington rather than, you know, individual campaigns here and there.

SCHNEIDER: My appreciation to both of you, gentlemen.

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 Schneider, in Washington.



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