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Conflicting Reports About Arafat's Health

Aired November 6, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Matthew Chance, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
As we tape this show on Friday, the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is, quote, "gravely ill" in a Paris military hospital, that the official word from French medics and the Palestinians themselves. They've offered a swift rejection of earlier media reports that Mr. Arafat is clinically dead.

CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney has been covering the story in the French capital and joins us from there in a moment, and here in London I'd like to welcome Baria Alamuddin, the foreign editor of the Arabic language newspaper "Al Hayat."

Thank you both for being here.

Fionnuala, let me start with you, though. How difficult has it been there at the gates of the hospital outside Paris to get accurate information about the situation, the condition of President Arafat?

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's been extremely difficult, Matthew.

I mean, as I speak to you now, we're waiting an imminent news conference which could happen at any time, but also it could take several hours to take place, and given what happened yesterday and the dearth of international on Wednesday, we already know here, the many correspondents who are milling around, that what is going to be said is going to be something less than probably authoritative and definitive, but it is nonetheless the only official news we'll get from the hospital.

The other sources we have are Palestinian sources in the delegation here which accompanied Yasser Arafat to Paris and also, of course, Palestinian sources in Ramallah and the West Bank. But, of course, as you know, Matthew, there are other sources. The Americans are saying various things from information that they're getting from other people and, of course, the Israeli media have been very assertive in pushing this story forward.

So in a sense, it's been extremely difficult. And as I speak to you, as I say, we're waiting for a news conference which will probably take place, last a couple of minutes at most, and there will be no questions and will probably not even fill in the many gaps and blanks that there are in this story.

CHANCE: There has been so much conflicting information, hasn't there.

Do you get a sense that there is a kind of deliberate attempt underway to perhaps mislead the international media about the condition of Mr. Arafat?

SWEENEY: Well, I have to say that usually the first head's up that we get that something has happened, that the president's condition has deteriorated, has usually come from Israeli media, and that of course sends everybody scurrying.

But journalists that I'm talking to here for the wire services, and we're all getting to know each other quite well, as you can imagine, on a story like this, over a period of days, we're finding that the Palestinian sources here in Paris know a certain amount, but we think that the information, really, from that hospital is being filtered to everybody and there are very few people that have direct knowledge of what is happening.

I mean, as we speak to you, as we tape this show on Friday, we know that Yasser Arafat has taken a sudden deterioration, he's gravely ill. We still have no diagnosis as to what ails him, and it really begs disbelief that actually the doctors at this stage don't have some idea of something.

But I should point out as well that the French authorities here and the French doctors are not under any obligation whatsoever to release the full details. They have to work with the family. There are other obvious political considerations taken into account here.

But basically, they only release what they agree with the family, and they're not obliged to release further information. So, for example, last Monday, I believe it was, when Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy came and spoke to the media, she ruled out leukemia. She ruled it out, but she didn't actually rule anything else in, and that I think probably is an illustration of just how difficult it is to find out what is happening behind these gates.

CHANCE: All right. Baria Alamuddin, let me ask you. We're getting all these different crumbs of information from different sources, but it's true, isn't it, that, you know, everybody who has a little bit of information may themselves have a kind of political ax to grind and may be trying to achieve something in the media. Is that true?

BARIA ALAMUDDIN, "AL HAYAT": Yes, well, the feeling was that the Israelis are trying to definitely achieve an end by, you know, leaking information and disinformation as well.

So there has been, if you like, a bit of soulful feeling amongst the Arabs and the particularly the Palestinians, saying even in this humanitarian situation, where their leader, you know, this leader that they think is bigger than life, is being used by the Israeli media in this way. They haven't been happy about the leaks and about the way it has been covered in the Israeli press at large.

CHANCE: So in this situation, is there anyone we can trust with reliable information?

ALAMUDDIN: I think that we have seen that they have been very economical with the truth or the information, if you like. They haven't misinformed us, the Palestinians, but I think it is the wishes of the family at this point that are very much respected.

And also, don't forget there are only just probably three people that are being able to see Mr. Arafat. It's his wife, it's his nephew (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and it's his very, very close aide, Ramzi Khouri.

So there are -- this is why you couldn't get leaks, because these people are there, they are staying in the hospital. They're not going out, and I think this is basically the wish of the family, because they apparently want to know more before they release anything, and don't forget the sensitivity of releasing any information.

Of course, in this circumstance there have been many theories. Amongst them, the conspiracy theory, that Arafat has been poisoned, because as Fionnuala was saying, no other information has been given. The information that has been coming from the hospital is just one brief sentence or two, and indeed we are not learning much from that.

CHANCE: And, Fionnuala, the speed at which this information has been transmitted is quite phenomenal, isn't it? At one stage earlier we have various politicians, including President Bush, responding to early reports that weren't even confirmed and in fact turned out to be untrue.

SWEENEY: Well, I think what is fair to say is that, as we've already pointed out, he is gravely ill and, you know, hedging my bets here, airing on the side of caution, I think that it is unlikely that he is expected to survive.

I think also we in the West perhaps have -- say for example it was the president of the United States or the prime minister of Great Britain, we would be expecting daily bulletins from hospitals. We would be expecting updates. I don't think that in fact necessarily applies around the rest of the world, and so what we're used to in the West, in terms of what we would regard as efficiency and keeping the people informed, wouldn't necessarily apply elsewhere for varying, different reasons and for very good reasons, and in this situation, you know, we are talking about the sensitivity. What's going to happen after his death and the implications of his death and, you know, the Palestinian people here are being prepared as well for the eventuality that he will not survive.

ALAMUDDIN: I totally agree, actually, with what Fionnuala is saying. It's very interesting that this story has been covered very well, of course, in the Arab press, but what has also impressed me is also the way it was covered here in London. Nevertheless, there was something which was very, very strange.

While we had President Arafat gravely sick, we had reports about his family and about specifically his wife, which was totally, totally (UNINTELLIGIBLE), what she spends, where she shops, which I thought was so irrelevant and so untrue.

And I was amazed that this is not coming from tabloids but coming from the serious press. I thought this was worth mentioning, because talking about the way the West or the Arab world covers a story, I was totally unimpressed with some of the stories that ran in the British press, to be honest with you, last weekend.

CHANCE: All right, Baria Alamuddin, thank you very much for being with us here. Fionnuala Sweeney, thank you as well.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, broadcasters were afraid to call the U.S. vote. We issue a report card on how the media covered the election after the mistakes of 2000.


CHANCE: Welcome back.

As American flocked to the polls, the rest of the world waited to find out who would win the White House. For months, the media has been recording in minute detail every single political scare and smear, not to mention the caucuses, the primaries, conventions and the debates.

This week's cliff-hanging finish kept us all in suspense, but after the fiasco in Florida four years ago, the media was ultra cautious not to call the vote until the bitter end. How did we do this time around?

Well, from Washington, D.C. I'm joined by Arnaud De Borchgrave, managing or rather editor-at-large of UPI. Here in London, as well, we've got John Micklethwait, the U.S. editor of the "Economist" newspaper and Stephen Armstrong, who is a media journalist with the "Guardian."

Steven, let me start with you because you've just come back from the States where you were covering this election. You talked a little bit earlier about the sort of hostility that you sensed towards you and other members of the international media covering that election.

STEPHEN ARMSTRONG, "GUARDIAN": In the end, it became the story that I ended up following was more about the way the international media were perceived and treated by the election, because it struck me that perhaps in search of an angle, that that in itself was quite interesting.

What you found was I think the figures were roughly said to be about 8,000 foreign journalists from all over the world, which is an enormous number of people, close to the British presence in Iraq, and they were chasing around, trying to get access to these two candidates, who literally did not have two seconds to speak to them in any capacity at all.

When you would arrive at a rally or convention, there was no space set aside for the international media, they would quite often be pushed out of the way. And there was a famous quote from a Kerry aide, which I think he actually made to the "Washington Post," when he said the foreign media are about as useful to us as lice.

So that was the kind of way that all these 8,000 journalists who were charged with getting the story found it literally impossible to get any access at all.

CHANCE: Arnold De Borchgrave, in Washington, is it simply a problem of logistics, that there were so many journalists there, what, 8,000 covering this U.S. election from overseas, that the candidates, the campaigns, didn't have time to focus on them? Or is there a real sense of suspicion, perhaps, amongst the U.S. political establishment, of the foreign media?

ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI: Oh, yes, suspicion definitely, and suspicion also of the U.S. media. I don't think I'm exaggerating in saying that 90 percent of the 8,000 journalists and about 90 percent of U.S. journalists favored John Kerry to become the next president of the United States.

And there was a great sense of disappointment. After all, after the "Economist" in its October 30 issue voted for Kerry, recommending that the world in effect was voting for Kerry. So the let down was tremendous, and also on the part of the Democratic politicians -- the Republican politicians -- a sense that the journalists were against them.

CHANCE: John Micklethwait, let me bring you in because you're from the "Economist," obviously. Do you think that the world's media perhaps took too much of a side? Your newspaper promoted the victory of John Kerry.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT, "ECONOMIST": Yes, it did. We did endorse Bush before, so as Arnaud points out, we were in a strange position. I think we may have been seen as either particularly treacherous or of changing sides.

But I think there was still a bigger problem than that. I think particularly -- and Arnaud is absolutely right. It's not just a question of international journalists and domestic journalists. I think particularly within conservative America there is a deep suspicion of journalists.

I would actually argue personally that certainly I found wandering around conservative America, you are better off being a foreigner -- or being a Briton, anyway -- is they are much more likely to talk to you than if you came from the "New York Times" or you come from the "Washington Post." They immediately identify you as being on the other side.

I think genuinely this time there is actually an advantage, weirdly, in being a foreigner, although you don't always get the best seats, as Stephen was saying.

CHANCE: What about this -- on a slightly different issue -- the issue of the rise of these moral issues in being the determining factors in the U.S. election, the fact that abortion, same-sex marriage stem cell research, played such an important role? I know you've been writing about these things for some time, but do you think this was something that was perhaps missed by much of the international media?

MICKLETHWAIT: I think it was. I think too many of the international media were brought up on this myth, sort of the Michael Moore Myth, that basically Bush only got in last time because he stole the election. And there was a general feeling amongst the educated elite outside that Bush was just an aberration, a brief sort of Texas kidnapping of the presidency, and that always looked slightly unlikely.

But when they actually -- now they have to face a slightly more difficult thing, which is the basic fact that there is this huge sort of right nation within America which has enormous power and is extremely effective. And what you saw this time is you saw a huge -- you saw huge turnout, which is exactly what the Democrats wanted, and yet still Bush won, and I think for foreigners, that they're going to have to rethink exactly how they deal with the Bush presidency.

CHANCE: Arnaud De Borchgrave.

DE BORCHGRAVE: Yes, I think that what we've underestimated is the infinite capacity of the American public for sound bytes -- sound bytes about almost everything that was discussed. Real issues were not discussed, incidentally.

America is technically bankrupt today. That wasn't much of an issue. There is no exit strategy for Iraq. That was not much of an issue. So the 9 second sound byte culture in which we live delivered one platitude after one clich‚ after one banality about basically things that were irrelevant for the future of this country.

CHANCE: Stephen Armstrong, do you think when you were in the States, speaking to all of these people, covering the stories you covered, that there was a kind of clash of cultures between what international journalists were expecting to see and hear from these people and what they were actually getting on the ground?

ARMSTRONG: What I think is clear is there is a very clear divide, picking up from what John was saying, there is a very clear divide between the political establishment and the ordinary people of America.

I mean, what I found, for instance, was out on the road with a group of vigilantes on the border, with Mexican immigrants, who carried a van sticker saying -- in fact, it actually said "CNN Lies." So it was a very anti-media group, for instance.

But when you said that you were from the British press, it was almost as if you were paying an enormous compliment by showing up. It was as if you were saying, what, you're showing interest in our little election? Why would you care? This is fantastic news. You get fed and taken into everyone's homes.

Whereas when meeting up with the candidates and their teams, they really didn't have two seconds to talk to anyone who wasn't, for instance, from the "Ohio Sentinel" -- the deputy chief reporter from the "Ohio Sentinel" was far more important than the chief political correspondent with the BBC with all the worldwide channels that they have at their disposal, because that was where they were pitching themselves.

But that hostility, as I say, was in marked contrast to the warmth of the American people themselves when you went around on the election.

MICKLETHWAIT: I spent two years wandering around conservative America, and the only time I ever had any difficulty at all was when somebody thought that I worked for the Communists, not the "Economist," which was my fault for mumbling it.

I think Stephen is absolutely right. There is such a suspicion at the top, because journalists on both sides are going to get a story if they can trap somebody into saying something. And that makes a big difference.

Arnaud is absolutely right. You look at the past election, it was far more debate throughout the entire campaign about what John Kerry did 30 years ago in Vietnam than in some ways what he did at first. I mean, all the stuff to do with the Swift Boats, all those type of things, became a huge issue. Very, very tiny arguments.

DE BORCHGRAVE: That also hurt John Kerry, because I think he, of course, antagonized the Catholic church, antagonized all of the Vietnam veterans, or most of the Vietnam veterans, and the biggest mistake he made was to appear at the convention in a military capacity, saluting, saying "Reporting for duty," and surrounded by Swift Boat veterans. That's what made Vietnam once again a topic of discussion and debate during the campaign.

CHANCE: Arnaud, just one last question before we finish off here.

The U.S. television networks were very cautious in calling individual states, calling who had won the presidency, in contrast, of course, to the last presidential election, where they pretty much jumped the gun. Do you think they got it right this time, or were they too cautious?

DE BORCHGRAVE: No, I think they got it right. They played it just about right. I had some Democrats, friends of mine, who called me up and said it's a Democratic sweep, it's a landslide, and at a time when I was already beginning to doubt that Kerry would make it.

CHANCE: All right, sir. Arnaud De Borchgrave, thank you very much. At least the media got something right, it seems. John Micklethwait and Stephen Armstrong, from the "Guardian," thank you very much for being with us here.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, from Washington to Wyoming, Ohio to Oregon, we take a look at the wackier side of American politics.


CHANCE: Welcome back.

The American political process is far from simple, and the challenge of covering an election campaign for an international audience is just as complex. How do you find that one story that nobody else has?

We sent our own Richard Quest to find an exclusive and got slightly more than we bargained for.


RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're in America. We're talking politics.

ANNOUNCER: The U.S. presidential election 2004 on CNN.

QUEST: What are Americans saying? We're finding out.

ANNOUNCER: From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, he's on a quest and no one in America is safe.

QUEST: You can bet on the wheel, you can bet on the cards, you can bet on the slots, but in America you just can't bet on these two.


QUEST: $500?


QUEST: That's a good bet on evens, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. He's going to win.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I had $100 million, I guarantee I'd bet $1 million on Kerry.

QUEST: This is a political tug-o-war, quite literally. In the last few days before this bruising election, Republican and Democrat students like to get a bit physical. Wisconsin is another of these battleground states.

A giant badger for president? Now there's a thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does that have to do with what we're talking about?

QUEST: From the left and from the right, the airwaves in America are humming and the temperature is rising.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So don't lecture us about going to war. Just sit down and shut up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If Daffy Duck runs against Bush, Daffy Duck is my guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not part of my personal job to get George Bush elected, but it's my personal feeling that he should be reelected, and I'm going to do whatever I can to try to get him elected.

QUEST: In the Pacific Northwest, logging is just one environmental that pits Republicans against Democrats.

You would say that, wouldn't you, because let's face it, you're a logger and you make your business cutting down trees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely, and I agree about 100 percent. I'm bound to say that. But with what I know and what I see and what I read, I couldn't change my mind.

QUEST: Here Mark Russell (ph) is a registered Republican, who this time is not voting for President Bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There has never been somebody in a four year term that has turned the whole world off like he has.

QUEST: These are strong words in a part of America that Democrats and Republicans believe is winnable. Both candidates will find catching the undecided Pacific Northwest vote a slippery task.

Richard Quest, CNN, Seattle.


CHANCE: Richard Quest there on another expedition around the United States.

And that is all we have time for on 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. Thanks for joining us.



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