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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired November 13, 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.
Revered by some, reviled by others. Yasser Arafat became not only the icon of the Palestinian cause, but one of the most recognized faces in the world. For the journalists that covered the man, they came to know him as charismatic and also enigmatic. But while he was able to put the struggle for Palestinian statehood on the map, statehood's very existence was something he never achieved.

To discuss his life and his death, let's talk to the journalists who knew him from his early struggle. In Philadelphia, Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist for the "Philadelphia Enquirer." Trudy has covered the Middle East for 30 years for the "Christian Science Monitor" and has interviewed Arafat personally. And here in studio, Michael Binyon, columnist at the "Times of London." Michael is also an old Arafat hand.

Trudy, if I can begin with you, chaotic funeral aside, do you think the media has been overboard in its coverage of Arafat's death, perhaps gushed too much?

TRUDY RUBIN, "PHILADELPHIA ENQUIRER": You know, I don't think people are gushing now because I think it is the end of an era and this man has had a tremendous impact not only on Israel and the Palestinians, but on the whole region, and I think people recognize that his death opens up huge possibilities for change for the better and for the worse, especially at a time when Iraq is going badly.

So I think he deserves the coverage now.

RODGERS: Michael?

MICHAEL BINYON, "TIMES OF LONDON": Yes, I would agree, absolutely.

I mean, it is a turning point in the Middle East and was even before he became seriously ill. We have the Gaza withdrawal planned by Sharon and Israel, we have a new president in America, or rather the re-election of Mr. Bush, and we have the whole attempt to try to get the peace process back on the map.

RODGERS: Michael, was Arafat the author of his myths? Did he nurture them? Or did the news media create them?

BINYON: Well, he was very, very adept and skilled at working out how he wanted to portray himself. He wanted to be the father of the Palestinian people and that came through. He was, in fact, so long there in charge of the Palestine Liberation Organization that he made himself the myth and the media followed it, and he knew how to exploit it.

RODGERS: Trudy, your comments on the same question, please.

RUBIN: Well, I think one of the most amazing things about Arafat was that when one interviewed him you never got the sense of a man who was as great as the myth. Everything about him was calculating. You could see his mind working. His statements were always opaque or he would go into these almost rants and he would have his interviews in the middle of the night, when journalists were exhausted. You'd get picked up at the last minute at some weird hour and whisked to his office, and he would be signing checks as he talked because he controlled all of the money.

You never got the sense of a statesman. You got the sense of a person who was calculating the impression that he wanted to make on the world.

RODGERS: Michael, Arafat also had a terrible image. How much of that was shaped by the way he behaved? How much of it was shaped by the media? And how much of it was shaped by his enemies?

RUBIN: It's a mixture of all three. I think his problem was that he could never really transform himself from being a very skilled guerilla leader to a statesman, and it was just at the height of his achievement, signing the Oslo Accords, the time when he actually did take a bold step, that it began to go really wrong for him, because he never then realized that once you play a card you leave it on the table.

He could never play a card that he couldn't actually then pick up again, and that was the problem. You could never actually pin him down to anything. So as a statesman, it all began to unravel. His enemies saw their chance to take advantage of him. Those who were unhappy about the accords anyway began to plot and conspire and this idea of a sort of conspiracy state and one that wasn't really financially or in any other way accountable became the thing that in the end was the distinguishing mark of his chairmanship.

RODGERS: Trudy, give us a vignette, please. I remember, when I was Jerusalem bureau chief for CNN, Arafat once took off his shoes and threw them at the television set, he was so mad at me. It was the ultimate Arab insult.

What do you remember about the man?

RUBIN: Well, I think that the vignette that will always stick in my mind, because to me it symbolized this failure to transit to being a statesman, took place at the Davos World Economic Forum in January or the beginning of February of 2001.

The Palestinians and the Israelis had just concluded their last set of negotiations at Taba (ph). Barak knew he was going to be defeated - - this is the Israeli prime minister -- and President Clinton was on his way out, but they had come the closest they had ever come to a framework that could lead to two states. And Arafat was supposed to go to Davos and appear with Shimon Peres and sort of publicly anoint this framework.

And instead, to the horror of a thousand dignitaries at Davos, he turned on Peres and started screaming about how Israel was killing Palestinian children. And that night at a press conference, late at night, as was his want, with very few journalists left, I was there, I asked him, "Abu Ammar, why did you do this?"

And he started screaming at me. "Are you saying it isn't true that Israel is killing Palestinians that depleted uranium shells," and I thought, he missed this moment. Taba (ph) could have been anointed for future leaders to turn back to as a framework.

RODGERS: Michael, any Arafat vignettes you would like to share?

BINYON: Well, I think the best one comes from Shimon Peres himself, who wrote in the "Times" today that Arafat turned to him at the height of their joint triumph in Oslo, on the stage, receiving the Nobel Prize, and he said, "Now look what you have done, you have sacrificed all of my popularity with my own people."

And that's it. The popularity for him was the thing that really mattered. There was, of course, the vision, you know, the vision of Palestinian, but it was how to achieve it that alluded him in the end.

RODGERS: Trudy, you saw that funeral on television. What went through your mind?

RUBIN: What went through my mind was that Arafat related I think to many Palestinians on a totally emotional level. He was more of a symbol than a human being. He was obviously more articulate in Arabic than he was in English, but there was an umbilical cord there.

He symbolized the hope for a state, and now that he's dead I think the public just doesn't know what is going to come next and what struck me is that the moderate interim leadership, which is taking over now, won't have that emotional connection with the people.

RODGERS: Michael, quick question, quick answer. Do you think Abu Ammar, Yasser Arafat, was every really serious about peace with the Israelis?

BINYON: Yes, I think he was, because it was his last option. War, he realized, was never going to win him Palestinian.

He was serious. The problem was, both his own failure of leadership and, of course, the Israelis obstructionism and failure to deliver their part of the Oslo bargain, made it impossible, and in the end he turned back to his old instincts of just trying to duck and weave and secure what he wanted by other means.

RODGERS: Michael Binyon, Trudy Rubin, thank you so very much for your insights.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, is embedding the best option for journalists covering Iraq?

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

Operation New Dawn, aimed at subduing the insurgent's stronghold in Falluja, began for the second time last Sunday. 10,000 U.S. marines and soldiers, together with 2,000 troops from Iraq's newly formed army, have been deployed.

92 journalists are accompanying them, affording a safer way of securing information, but is embedding giving us the full picture on the ground? And if not, what are the other options?

Joining me now, Mazin Hounis (ph), a freelance journalist recently returned from Falluja.

Mazin (ph), if I could ask you, do you have to be -- does a journalist have to be an Arab Muslim now to cover the war in Iraq well?

MAZIN HOUNIS (ph), FREELANCE JOURNALIST: It helps a lot, obviously, if the population where you try to cover events do trust you, because what happens, America forces, unfortunately, they lost the trust of the locals. Hence, they start looking at anybody who is, you know, blonde, green eyes, whatever, with some suspicion. So they will not volunteer the information. They will not let that person into, you know, their own houses and tell them, you know, whatever the journalists want to know.

RODGERS: Is it suicidal for a Western journalist to go into a place like Falluja if he or she is not embedded with the military?

HOUNIS (ph): No. I was scared. I'm an Iraqi and look Iraqi as well, but a month ago, when I attempted to go into Falluja, you know, I had a lot of question marks in my mind, so I took a couple of friends who I trusted. They were from Falluja itself. Because I didn't want to face things which I would have sort of not expected.

My guesses were right, because as soon as I took my camera and started photographing some ruined houses, the locals gathered around and started asking, you know, what are you doing and why are you writing down things, and all that.

RODGER: Could a Western reporter do what you did now in Falluja?

HOUNIS (ph): Now, I'm not sure about now, to be honest. Now no one can do any job because of the indiscriminant bombing, neither an Iraqi nor a Westerner, because obviously the embedded journalists, they're going to be in the safest place, which really doesn't give them, you know, the vantage point of such.

RODGER: Would you critique the work of the Western journalists covering Falluja now? Are viewers and readers getting an accurate picture or half a picture?

HOUNIS (ph): They probably are getting 10 percent of the picture, to be honest, because like for example you mentioned -- that was an official figure -- that 600 insurgents were killed. Now to identify who is an insurgent and who is a civilian, because, you know, about 30,000 civilians are left in the city, so probably we are left -- we probably have taken 300 instead of 600 insurgents, and that's probably only 10 percent of the resistance in Falluja, and that puts us quite far away from achieving, you know, full victory inside Falluja itself.

So that certain facts which you might give, but they do not portray the right picture.

RODGERS: Mazin Hounis (ph), thank you very much for your unique insights.

We're now joined by the director of the U.S. military press operation in Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan.

Mr. Bolin, you heard Mr. Hounis (ph) say that in fact the American army is only allow 10 percent of what is really happening in Falluja to be covered. Is that accurate?

LT. COL. STEVEN BOYLAN, U.S. ARMY: Walt, that is the furthest thing from the truth. We allow the embedded journalists to see everything that is happening within the units that they are associated with, so at a minimum, an absolutely minimum, you could say they're at least seeing 50 percent or more of what is happening in Falluja, or wherever they are embedded.

RODGERS: There is a report on Al Jazeera which has just come out from a doctor said to be in Falluja -- I cannot corroborate the authenticity of this -- but it says that the situation in the city is catastrophic for civilians. Bodies in the streets. Is that accurate?

BOYLAN: No, that's not. We have been getting, since the operations in Falluja several months ago began as far as our taking and specifically targeting the Al Zarqawi network and other anti-Iraqi forces, there have been people calling themselves doctors -- we don't know if they are in fact doctors. They've been making propaganda statements to further the goal of the anti-Iraqi forces.

The humanitarian efforts are not near what people are eluding to. In fact, we are seeing that things are actually a lot better than what we expected.

RODGERS: As a media public relations too, how is embedding working this time in the Falluja operation?

BOYLAN: Well, in this operation, just as it has in all of ours, it's been a very effective tool to tell the publics, not only the U.S. public but the international audience, what is happening.

The reporters are down there. They are not constrained as far as what they report unless it goes into future operations or what we consider operational security issues for the protection of the forces, but they have free maneuver, freedom to report what they are seeing as they are seeing it.

RODGERS: How is the embedding system this time working differently than the war correspondents who traveled with the troops in Vietnam and earlier than that, Ernie Pyle (ph), say for example, in World War II?

BOYLAN: Well, some of the big differences, of course, is the instantaneous news aspect, which is something that we're still getting used to and I think the media themselves are still getting used to.

Everybody is seeing their piece of it through a soda straw, if you will, and the problem for everyone is to put everything into context.

We have immediate reporting now, which back in Vietnam you still didn't and definitely back in the times of World War II, with Ernie Pyle (ph), it was sometimes days before the story would get out. Now it can be out almost instantaneously, and sometimes not always accurate.

RODGERS: Colonel Boylan, thanks very much for your special insights in reporting the story of Falluja.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, untold stories, some of them captured with unimaginable risks. Freelance cameramen and women are honored at a special awards ceremony.

Don't go away.



They go to places few others dare venture with little or no support and often with very limited means, but with one goal: to tell an interesting story.

Many of them are stories far removed from the conventional news agenda. Freelance cameramen and women often risk their lives to put us in the picture, and they're honored each year for their courage and work at the Rory Peck Awards here in London.

Rory Peck was a freelancer who was killed in Russia while on assignment.

And joining us now to discuss the awards, Bob Jobbins, chairman of the Rory Peck trust, and Rui Hamid (ph), one of the finalists in this year's contest.

Bob, tell us a little about the trust.

BOB JOBBINS, RORY PECK TRUSTEE: The trust works really hard to try to help freelancers around the world, either because they need help in getting trained so they can go into dangerous areas to work, or becaues they've been injured or in the worst case killed and either they or their family need financial support and we raise money to do that.

RODGERS: The news media seems to rely increasingly on the work of these freelancers. Why are they so important to the overall picture of news?

JOBBINS: I think that somebody at the Rory Peck Awards the other night said that the big organizations have become very concerned about risks and danger and in a sense they're subcontracting it and a lot of the work is being done by local freelancers working for agencies.

Now, it must be said a lot of the big broadcasters, including CNN, are in fact very responsible in the way they manage this, but a lot of these people don't work for the big broadcasters. They work for small agencies, which are just set up, or tiny TV stations, and when they get into trouble, there is nobody to help them, and that's where we step in.

The Rory Peck Trust can help. It can provide financial assistance and backup for freelancers who have come into trouble.

RODGERS: Rui (ph), you were a finalist. You did exemplary work this year among the Laotian tribes people. How do you pick your stories?

RUI HAMID (ph), PHOTOJOURNALIST: Generally sort of listening out for the interesting story, the untold story.

I mean, I'm particularly interested in stories that are neglected or misrepresented, so in terms of the story about the Hmong, this came about from a BBC project, actually. They were embarking on a big project called "One Day Of War," and they wanted to cover conflicts all around the world and to send about 16 of us out to these conflicts.

And I came across a story about the Hmong people, who are still living in the mountainous jungles of Laos, and I thought this would be an interesting story because nobody knows about them.

RODGERS: Tell us about them. Who are they? Why are they news?

HAMID (ph): Well, ironically enough, the Hmong are not news and that's half the problem in that they are a forgotten conflict. They -- the Hmong fought along side the Americans during the Vietnam War. They were trained by the CIA to basically disrupt the Ho Chi Mien Trail, the supply lines from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, so they fought alongside the Americans, and when the war was over the Americans left, and these Hmong were left behind.

The new Communist government saw them as traitors and began to arrest them, persecute them.

RODGERS: All of these years later?

HAMID (ph): Absolutely. 30 years later they are still living in that jungle, hunted.

RODGERS: On the run?

HAMID (ph): On the run. On the run. Constantly moving. I mean, the group that I visited had moved five times already that year and I visited them in March. The year before, they had moved 15 times.

RODGERS: What was it like when they encountered you or you them?

HAMID (ph): Well, it was a very strange experience and I shall never forget it.

I was welcomed by a whole village crying, and I think they thought we had come to save them. They were on their knees, prostrating, holding their hands up to us because they actually thought that someone had come in to save them, to walk them out of the jungle.

And for me, that was very overwhelming, and an immense sense of responsibility fell on my shoulders. Because we were the first TV crew to go in there -- and when I say TV crew, actually it was just me and my husband with a PD150 camera. And I suddenly -- you know, we were the first people to go in there and bring out any kind of visual imagery of them -- them speaking in their own words, showing us the way they lived, you know, us encountering ambushed villages, et cetera.

So, you know, I sort of felt, I immediately knew that this was a big story and I had to get this story out safely.

RODGERS: Bob, how do freelancers find markets for their products?

JOBBINS: Well, I suppose the short answer is increasingly hard.

RODGERS: Even with Iraq?

JOBBINS: Even with Iraq. I mean, you'd have to do an awful lot of work and run an awful lot of risks to make the same kind of money you could safely back here in London.

As I said, a lot of the work there is being done by local guys and I think there you have a slightly different issue. There's plenty of work, but the risks are absolutely incalculable, and the rate of attrition in Iraq over the past year and a half has been awful.

Now, most of the big broadcasters have been, as I said earlier, responsible and have helped people who have been injured. They've helped the families of those camera people who have been killed. But there are still people working in Iraq who have no protection. And we, the Rory Peck Trust, for example, we've helped nine freelancers who were killed, or nine journalists who were killed, up in Northern Iraq, in a suicide bombing, and we're looking at another 20 or 30 cases of people who have nobody else to turn to, and that's where we, the Rory Peck Trust, step in and say we can help.

RODGERS: Tell me about your fears? What was it like being there? You described it as a dangerous environment. That goes with being a freelancer. What did you encounter? What were the worst risks you took?

HAMID (ph): I mean, the worst risk we took was to enter the country as tourists rather than as journalists, because the Lao authorities don't give any access to the Hmong, so the first thing was we had to get in without being detected, which means carrying our cameras in our backpacks. We went in as sort of backpacking tourists.

The most difficult thing was walking through that jungle, because we were under threat of being ambushed at anytime. You know, the Laos soldiers have surrounded there area. And I think a lot of it is just negotiating through that jungle. I mean, it's impossible. It is not the idyllic jungle that we imagine it to be. It was climbing, hot, you know, an impossible environment to walk through, with this constant fear of being attacked. And to be honest, our Hmong guides were really taking the risk, because if they got caught, you know, they would have been shot and killed straight away.

Our worst scenario was being arrested and thrown into jail. So I think the fear was constant, but, you know, we just had this motivation that we had to get to our story. We just had to make it, to be able to film what was going on in the camps where these people are living and then to come out of it. The worst part was coming out of the jungle because we didn't know what was waiting for us out there.

RODGERS: Bob Jobbins, Rui Hamid (ph), thank you so much for your insights and your fine work.

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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