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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 15, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Michael Holmes. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
The Asia tsunami has dominated news coverage for more than two weeks. Now, however, some media organizations are starting to pull their teams out of the region. What responsibility do we as journalists have in keeping the story on the news agenda?

To discuss this further, I'm joined from London by ITV correspondent Dan Rivers, who has just returned from Indonesia's Aceh region. Also, Howard Kurtz, media columnist for the "Washington Post" and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Dan Rivers, if I can start with you, in London, you spent a lot of time there. Tell me, do you think media organizations took too long to actually respond to this disaster?

DAN RIVERS, ITV CORRESPONDENT: No, I don't think they did. I think we, along with several other media companies, were very quick to respond to the disaster. We were there within 49 hours, which was as quick as we could physically get there.

How long it stays on the agenda, though, is a different issue. The news agenda is difficult to predict and difficult to control. I'm not sure really it's our job as correspondents to dictate what should be the news agenda. I think we have lots of other responsibilities in how we report this disaster, in the humanity that we report it with, in the way that we report it, in the objectiveness with which we report on it, but I don't think it's our job to decide that this should be the news for the next two months and no other story should feature at all.

I think there is a big danger that the viewers will certainly get concern fatigue, that they will give up caring and switch over if they're just confronted by day after day of images of death and destruction, and that's one of the big challenges in news, is to try and hold people's interests on big stories like this, and I think we've managed to do that for a couple of weeks.

But it's inevitable the news agenda will move on. I think our responsibilities are more wide-ranging perhaps on reporting on how, for example, NGOs and governments respond to this crisis, making sure that they do respond to this crisis, make sure the money gets to the people who need it and make sure the aid is getting through. We can report on those, but there is only so long that we can hold people's attention before the agenda inevitably moves on to something else.

HOLMES: Important point. I'd like to raise that with you, Howard Kurtz. Like it or not, media is a business and once the public loses interest, so too does the media, because inevitably if they don't then the ratings are going to fall, despite the story's obvious journalistic and moral importance. Is that just a fact of life?

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it may be a fact of life, and I certainly expect the coverage to continue to fade. I don't think that it should, however. We're talking about, after all, the biggest natural disaster of the last half-century, that has effected so many tens of thousands of lives.

But I disagree in saying that, you know, the news agenda just sort of takes on a life of its own and we slavishly follow. We make choices every day about what to put on the front page, what to put on the newscast, and while obviously no one would expect the level of saturation coverage of the last two weeks to continue, this remains a terribly important story that has affected a number of countries around the world. And I think to simply say, well, people are getting kind of bored with it so let's move on is not the way to go.

One of the hidden factors here is that it's expensive to cover this kind of disaster. Most Western news organizations don't have bureaus in Indonesia and Thailand, so it becomes a budgetary question as well.

HOLMES: The reality is, though, that there is a fatigue that sets in among those who watch. I remember being in Rwanda in '94 and my previous employer, an Australian television network, said we're a bit tired of the horror, irresponsible as that is. Is that a reality, though, Howard, that people will get tired of the horror? They start switching off, news executives are going to say, OK, enough, let's switch. Where does that fit into our duty as journalists?

KURTZ: Well, look, we always have one eye on the ratings. One of the reasons that CNN, among others, provides so much cover of this disaster, in addition to the fact that it is an terribly important story, is that there numbers went up. Everybody was aware of that. A lot of these superstar anchors for the major broadcast networks are in the United States, went over and worked long hours and did stories, but most of them have come back now.

And so I understand completely the fact that you can't bombard people with this at saturation levels week after week after week, but it's kind of like when we cover hurricanes or earthquakes or flooding, which is common in many countries. We're there for the dramatic pictures, but reconstruction is a less dramatic story. It doesn't have the exciting video. But it's an equally important story and I just think to completely let this go or reduce it to a minute a day would be a mistake on the part of journalism.

HOLMES: Dan, when it comes to reconstruction, how important is it that we are there for the follow through? I think it is inevitable that the story is going to slip down the news agendas, hopefully not off the news agendas, but the follow-up and, at the same time. Not just when we're talking about reconstruction, but also when we're being watchdog on nations, donor nations.

RIVERS: I mean, that's absolutely right. That's what I think of as one of our main jobs, if you like, as journalists, is to be a watchdog, be the eyes and ears of the public. And that's crucial in this story, for example.

And I don't mean when I say that it's inevitable that the news agenda will move on that we should ignore the story completely. All I mean is that we have to find new angels to talk about the story. It's no good going on for two weeks showing the destruction. You know, there comes a point when we've see the destruction, we know it's horrific, but we must then move the story on.

You know, one example of that is, for example, the debt relief for these countries. You know, it's been announced this week that some of the world's richest countries have frozen the debts of some of these tsunami countries. You know, that's a drop in the ocean. For example, Indonesia owes I think it's $132 billion in debt, yet the aid they're going to receive is perhaps going to be $5 billion or $6 billion. You know, if they really wanted to make a difference, they could cancel the debt and wipe it off altogether. That would make a far bigger difference to the people of Indonesia, long-term. Those are the kinds of angels that we could be looking at now, rather than just looking at death and destruction, you know, ad infinitum for weeks and weeks.

HOLMES: You were on the ground for a long time. I mean, how many stories are there to be told?

RIVERS: Oh, I mean, you only have to step out of where you are staying to find a story. I mean, in some senses it's an incredibly easy story to cover, because it's right there on your doorstep and it's incredibly harrowing and incredibly powerful and incredibly tele-visual.

But as I say, you know, there's only so much that the bulletins can sustain of that and that the general public can sustain. You know, you can only show so many destroyed villages, so many destroyed lives, before, as I say, this concern fatigue kicks in. And like it or not, that's just a reality, and I think as journalists it's very important that we try and move the story on and look at different angels.

And I totally agree with the other guest that, you know, we shouldn't allow this to slip off the agenda completely. It's vital that we should keep a spotlight on Indonesia, but we have to move the story on in some way.

HOLMES: OK. Howard Kurtz, last word to you. Our responsibility. Do we sometimes lose sight of it and forget about the people on the ground?

KURTZ: Sure. A veteran foreign correspondent told me the other day, what about Darfur? What about Rwanda? Why are those not high on the media radar screen. And the answer is that day after day poverty or civil war or that kind of -- those kinds of death tolls don't make for exciting television because there is no video and the story doesn't change very much.

The next big story clearly is going to be Iraq and the elections coming up on January 30. So I am sympathetic to anybody who has been there trying to make sense out of this human tragedy. It's an awfully hard story for journalists to cover. And I do hope with my colleague in London that we will continue to find new angles and fresh ways of covering this without just bombarding people with more images of death and destruction.

HOLMES: All right. I want to thank you both, Howard Kurtz, media columnist for the "Washington Post," Dan Rivers, ITV correspondent who has been in the region, in particular in Aceh. I want to thank you both for being with us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, bullets and bullying, what reporters have to deal with in the Middle East.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOLMES: Welcome back.

Mahmoud Abbas was this week of course voted in as the new Palestinian president, his victory clear. But covering any event in the Middle East is not so straight forward. Violence always a major issue, as is pressure from both Israelis and Palestinians.

Joining us now are some of the journalists risking their lives, quite literally, to cover this region. We welcome first of all CNN's Ben Wedeman. He is in Gaza; Abdullah Al Saafin, the Ramallah bureau chief for "Al Hurra"; and from Jerusalem we're joined by Ari Shavit, a columnist for the "Ha'aretz" newspaper and also the BBC's Middle East bureau chief Andrew Steele.

Ari Shavit, if I could start with you perhaps, there -- I remember when I first started covering the Middle East, I was advised by an old hand, both sides are going to want to own you and if they can't own you, they'll try to destroy you. Does that sound like a fair comment?

ARI SHAVIT, "HA'ARETZ": Well, the danger is always there. But basically I think that there are two different dangers on both sides. There is the problem of the Israeli occupation and the Israeli military might, which has influence on the ability of journalists to cover what's going on in the occupied territories.

On the other hand, there is the great danger of journalists not really wanting to give a critical story on the Palestinian side. There is an inner discipline or inner tendency not to tell us really bad stories about the underdog. And I think these are the two main threats for fair and objective coverage of this region.

HOLMES: Do you think that one of the problems is also that many Israeli journalist cannot cover the territories, or at least effectively, because they can't go in there because of generally safety concerns, and Palestinians can't cover the Israeli side effectively as journalists because generally they're not allowed it.

SHAVIT: There are many problems, but I must say that if you compare it to other war regions, I do think that journalists here in the end of the day do come up with the stories. The difficulties in this country, both in Israel and Palestinian, are not as serious as in some other war zones.

So obviously in specific times there are difficulties, there are dangers, and it is a problem that journalists have to be with one side or the other in order to be where the action is. But that is a universal problem that you have in any conflict site, and actually I think both Palestinians and Israelis have given -- have understood the importance of journalism and therefore they restrict journalists less than the British in Falkland, than then Americans at the height of the Iraq war and definitely the Russians in Chechnya or in other conflicts.

HOLMES: All right. Sitting next to you is Andrew Steele of the BBC. The BBC has had some fairly specific problems with in particular Israeli authorities in the past. Without going into the specifics, though, how do you react to the difficulties that you face, your people face, in reporting both sides of the conflict?

ANDREW STEELE, BBC: Well, I think your comment, Michael, about the fact that both sides try to own you, that's just about right.

On the Israeli side, there is a very sophisticated PR machine which is watching what we are saying at this very moment, in fact. And similarly with the BBC and with the other continuous networks. And so there is always that very clear presence in the background.

On the Palestinian side, there is a less sophisticated machine, but my colleagues who work in the Palestinian territories have the problem of intimidation from what they report. They're not just working there, they're living there. So they have to be careful sometimes in how they act, and it's very difficult for them and it's a great tribute to them that they manage to keep to the sort of international rules of objectivity and balance when they have those pressures.

HOLMES: I want to -- I'll come back to you in a minute if I can, Andrew. I want to go to our Ben Wedeman. He's standing by in Gaza.

Ben, few people have covered the region as much or for as long as you have. I want to touch on the risks of being caught up, specifically in the violence that routinely comes out there. And I know that you have personal experience. I know that I have personal experience in that. And that often it's talked about as being caught, if you like, in the crossfire.

I've had experiences of being targeted by the Israeli military with gunfire very specifically. And you yourself have been wounded as well in another incident. Tell me about those dangers and how difficult it is to walk the line.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Michael, you are in many instances caught in the middle of a battlefield. Now, the battlefield in this conflict is not always an equal one. You have on the one side the Israeli army, which is one of the most high tech, sophisticated military machines on earth. On the other side you have the Palestinians, who have only light weapons, are not very sophisticated.

But I've come under fire from both sides, and you really have to find most importantly just a physical place to hide and in my case, when I was shot here in Gaza four years ago, it was the beginning of the intifada, when there was really a shift going on from rocks and rubber bullets and tear gas to live ammunition, and I just had the bad fortune of being at the end of one of those bullets. But really, it's most important just to be aware of the situation, aware of the people around you.

Having covered this conflict for a long time, I've also covered Iraq, and certainly the big difference is that on both sides of the conflict here, Palestinians and Israelis, you have people who are well aware of the role of the media and therefore they appreciate it, and you don't feel the physical danger you do in Iraq, for instance, where the situation has gotten to the point where you simply cannot operate. As a journalist, you really have to get all of your information secondhand.

So despite the dangers, it's a much better story to cover here than it is for our poor colleagues who are based in Baghdad.

HOLMES: And, Ben, what about politically? Intimidation is a word that's been used. Both sides, either side -- what sort of difficulties does that present?

WEDEMAN: Well, both sides have their means of pressuring you, of telling you that they don't like what you're doing.

But on the other hand, you try to work around it, and for those of us who come and go, it's not too bad. I mean, for instance, the other day we were on the street. I interviewed somebody who essentially made a death threat against Mahmoud Abbas, who now is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Afterwards, he came up to our local fixer and made it clear in no uncertain terms that he did not want to see that bite or what he said, that threat, put on air.

Nonetheless, our local people here are very courageous. He said, don't worry about it. We're going to put this on air, because it's important. And really you just have to go by the guidance and the wisdom of the people we work with here to know, really, where the lines are, but normally we try to overcome that intimidation.

For instance, here in Gaza just a few months ago I was with one of our producers when he was kidnapped, and that was obviously some form of intimidation, but I'm back here and I'm making the point that intimidation, pressure or otherwise, we've got to do our job. That's why we're here.

HOLMES: Indeed. Abdullah Al Saafin, I want to bring you in now, if I can. You're in Ramallah. You've covered the region for a long time for a variety of news organizations now, "Al Hurra" in particular. Your thoughts on what you've heard thus far and how difficult it is for you to do your job. Can you go to Tel Aviv to cover a story and do the Israeli side of it, for example?

ABDULLAH AL SAAFIN, "AL HURRA": Yes, I can. Well, Michael, let me start by saying this: I worked for many, many organizations in many, many different areas, some of them extremely dangerous. I was embedded with the U.S. Navy during the Iraq War, for instance. I never experienced such an experience, a similar experience, like my experience here in this region.

I started almost a year ago. I find working here eccentric, interesting, difficult. The difficulty I am facing stems from two things. First, the political side. The political side, I am working an American Arabic language organization. Given the fact that there is a great deal of anti-Americanism amongst the Palestinians, within the Palestinian society, for different reasons, for obvious reasons, because of the U.S. position towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and given the fact that the United States has occupied two Muslim Arab countries in the last two years alone, and all of these things.

So when I came here, first I found a great deal of hostility against my organization and this resulted in hostility on the field, on the ground. I am intimidated sometimes to take my logo, my organization's logo, to go report from the field. So I hide behind some other reporters if I want to conduct a field interview with the public, for instance.

The other thing is -- the other difficulty that stems from this hostility towards my organization is the official position from my organization -- towards my organization. Most of the time I am finding difficulty in finding the proper person to talk about or to discuss the topic under discussion because they have, I mean, they have a stand, a position, not to talk to an American organization.

The other difficulty I am facing here is the restrictions opposed by Israeli occupation, restriction of movement, and cultural restrictions. Basically, for instance, the Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza, East Jerusalem and West Bank and Gaza, basically, have habit of firing into air whenever they want to celebrate, whenever they want to mourn their martyrs, whenever they want to protest. So firing in the air -- suppose you are reporting or conducting an interview in an overlooking place. You are in danger of being shot most of the time.

So I have -- I have taken care of two other reporters, my colleagues, who are covering intensively Ramallah and Gaza. They have difficulties in moving across the Israeli locates and checkpoints. For instance, a journey from Ramallah to Hebron, it takes (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 45 minutes. Now under Israeli -- as a result of the Israeli checkpoints and restrictions on movement, it takes up to eight hours.

So sometimes we don't -- we give up the luxury of taking original footage and rely on recycled or agency material, because we simply cannot get there to get the original material.

HOLMES: OK. I understand. Andrew Steele, of BBC, in Jerusalem, if I could go back to you. One last thing. It could be better, it could be worse. The idea of, as Abdullah was saying, of guns being fired into the air. I mean, nine people were wounded at Yasser Arafat's funeral. Can I ask you, what could be better? Assuming that, as Ben Wedeman was pointing out, it could be a lot worse too. We've all been covering Iraq as well, where things are far more dangerous. What do you think could be improved?

STEELE: Well, you're absolutely right, Michael, the fact is that we can still conduct journalism here. Talking of Arafat's funeral, that was - - the firing in the air there was a lot more dangerous than some of the live fire areas that we've all been in, but we can conduct journalism here.

How we could improve this, on the Israeli side, certainly we could get rid of some of the overt pressures that come upon us, the censorship laws which the British mandate had during state of emergency here in the 1940s, those laws still exist and can still be used against the press working here. That is clearly -- has no place in modern society and in a functioning media democracy.

On the Palestinian side, what we must see is a better functioning media democracy in countries. It's a lamentable situation in the Palestinian territories and in other Arab countries, where there is no press freedom. The sort of journalism that we conduct as an international body is a great privilege. Our Arab colleagues just cannot do that.

So a lot of room for improvement on both sides, really.

HOLMES: Wish we had more time. Andrew Steele, on the right of your screen there, with BBC, in Jerusalem; Ari Shavit of "Ha'aretz" newspaper, a fine newspaper, also talking to us from Jerusalem; our own Ben Wedeman was in Gaza; Abdullah Al Saafin of "Al Hurra" was joining us from Ramallah in the West Bank. Thanks to all of our guests.

And that wraps up this special version of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Thanks for being with us.

END

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