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Coverage of Iraqi Elections

Aired February 5, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


TOM FENTON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Tom Fenton in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin this week with a look at Iraq's historic elections. Television networks had wall-to-wall coverage of the event. Most sent their star anchors out to Baghdad. Newspapers too devoted many column inches.

Head lines in both the Arab and Western press talked of voting and the violence. The overwhelming sentiment was one of hope and skepticism, but despite the extensive coverage, did we get a full and accurate account of the landmark event? And what should the media be doing once the relates role in?

To discuss this further I'm joined now from Baghdad by Stephen Farrell, foreign correspondent of the "Times of London" and here in the studio, John Lee Anderson, author of "The Fall of Baghdad."

Stephen Farrell, did the Western media overdo the skepticism in the run up to the elections?

STEPHEN FARRELL, "TIMES OF LONDON": Well the people who have done so, as it turned out, people went to the polls in far greater numbers than everybody thought would happen in the weeks and months leading up to the elections.

There were very good reasons for that. Everybody was afraid that the insurgents would strike. Everybody was afraid that the police would fall or collapse and not defend the polling stations properly.

As it happened, that didn't turn out. There may well have been too much skepticism.

On the other hand, I would advise against an excessive euphoria just because of one good day in Iraq. We've seen many false starts over the last year and a half here, and nobody knows what is going to happen next.

FENTON: John Lee Anderson, I'll ask you the same question. You've spent a lot of time on the ground, covering either for the "New Yorker" or researching for your own book. Did you come away after this election feeling any different at all about Iraq and its prospects?

JOHN LEE ANDERSON, AUTHOR: I was delighted with what I saw happen on election day in Iraq. I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn't expected it to go so well either.

It gave me a glimmer of optimism that this sort of bludgeoning through that we've seen -- very difficult to see through the fog of war and events and propaganda over the last couple of years -- has finally reached this event where people are actually going to the polls and voting.

I think there were a lot of us that felt that because things have been so bad that it wouldn't come to pass in quite the way that it did. I think perhaps it was less a historic watershed than it was a psychological turning point and what I mean by that is that we saw for the first time Iraqi civic society expressing their free will, independent of the American occupation, independent of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the head- chopping militants.

We had, what, 7, 6, 8 million people going to the polls in very difficult adverse circumstances against, what, a hundred insurgents that actually used violence to stop them from doing so. I think that was important. I think it probably undermined, to a certain degree, the cause of the insurgency, although it is by no means over -- by no means. And I thing it probably empowered Iraqi civic society, which was very important.

I think independently of the United States and its political aims in Iraq, it is very much I see an indigenous expression of civic society in Iraq, and that is a good thing.

So I am reasonably heartened by what I have seen, but like Steve and I agree, we have a long road ahead of us and there is going to be a lot more bloodshed.

FENTON: Well, listening to both of you I get the impression that maybe the media will have to shift their aim a little bit. Perhaps there's been a slight shifting in the point of view we have to take.

Stephen Farrell, you are now on the ground. Can you talk a little bit about the difficulties of reporting in Iraq? What is it that we may be missing because, unlike you, many reports don't get out and about very much. They're stuck in the hotel or stuck in the Green Zone.

FARRELL: We're missing a lot. And frankly we are missing almost everything in Iraq.

The -- I've been here nearly two years now. In the beginning you could go almost anywhere, do almost anything. Now the bubble has shrunk down right around to the hotels where we live. Outside the Green Zone, most of us inside the Green Zone, some of us -- but it is becoming increasingly difficult to get anywhere. To get a full picture of what is going on in Iraq, no journalist organization in the world has one.

The -- there are things you can do. Geographically you can decide there are places you are just not going to go. You can change your physical appearance, grow a beard, but on a kafir. You can go in more than one car. You can obviously work with staff you trust completely. You can go out -- you can send one of your staff out on an embed with the U.S./U.K. forces and you can have your Iraqi staff sliding around the town or you can slide around the same town yourself doing interviews and getting the picture behind the embed, but ultimately what we are getting out of Iraq is a lot less than we were in the first six or eight month of this occupation.

FENTON: Apparently you are trying the beard route yourself.

FARRELL: Yes, with limited success. But I did have an interesting experience in Basra when I went down there last month in the run up to the election. Basra not so much a problem with the insurgency down there -- Shia dominated area, delighted the elections where coming up.

But as we slipped around the town very quietly, very furtively, going into the occasional hotel here, police station there, everyone said, look, we may be in southern Iraq now and everybody is very positive about the law and order situation down here, as opposed to Baghdad, but do not be seen on the treat, because the thieves, the bandits, the kidnappers are everywhere, and they are.

I mean, unfortunately, today, we're hearing news of another journalist kidnapped in Baghdad, a young Italian lady. So that is very disturbing.

FENTON: Is it likely that we will eventually reach a point where it will no longer be worthwhile or even safe to send journalists out to cover Baghdad or any part of Iraq?

FARRELL: Well, that is a question everybody is asking themselves and each other almost nightly here.

Everybody has there own red lines. Some will go out, some won't. Some will only go out with guns, some are happy not to do that. There will come a point at which the return -- which are diminishing almost by the week -- just don't become worth the risk. That's a decision for editors in London, Washington, wherever, and judgments on the ground.

My feeling is that we can still work just about here, but I don't know how much longer that will last.

FENTON: John Lee Anderson, would you agree?

ANDERSON: Yes, I do. I left Baghdad not long ago myself and, as Stephen says, the space has shrunk extraordinarily.

I went around with a man I trust a great deal in an ordinary car, but feeling extremely exposed, and took strategic outings only.

I think that it has been a very dangerous place to send journalists for a long time now. And I'm not sure that the public is quite aware to the degree to which correspondents take extreme risks just to go to the country. Just to get into the city from the airport is a real piece of work.

FENTON: How do you make that call? When is it no longer worth the gamble?

ANDERSON: Well, God forbid, what you were talking about just now, Stephen, about the young Italian journalist, I mean, unfortunately we've seen -- I mean, until now, journalists do not appear to be specifically targeted, but as Westerners everyone is at risk. Not merely necessarily from political insurgents but from criminal gangs. And if it does develop into a discernible pattern where journalists are clearly being targeted as journalists and not merely because they're Westerners or unlucky, then I think probably news organizations are probably going to begin to take action.

You know, some have already pulled into the Green Zone, in essence abdicating there sovereignty, their ability to report in Iraq proper. But some may begin to decide to pull their people out entirely.

FENTON: Thank you, John Lee Anderson and Stephen Farrell, in Baghdad.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the objectives, omissions and the implications. We recount the headlines of the president's State of the Union speech.

Stay with us.


FENTON: Welcome back.

It ticked all the boxes, but George W. Bush failed to get a smooth ride during his State of the Union address to Congress. Democrats heckled the U.S. president as he promised to bring democracy to the Iraq and to reform the welfare system at home.

He used the word freedom 21 times. But did Mr. Bush say anything we haven't heard before? And what responsibility to the media have to insure that he delivers on those pledges?

Joining me now from Atlanta to discuss this is "Radio Talkback" host Martha Zoller, and from Washington, D.C., Richard Wolffe, "Newsweek's" senior White House correspondent.

Martha Zoller, did the president say anything that we haven't heard before?

MARTHA ZOLLER, "RADIO TALKBACK": Well, certainly his speak was very much like the kind of messages that you heard from John F. Kennedy, about freedom. These are things that he talked about. He was more detailed about his Social Security reform program.

He was speaking to the America people, though, much like he did about tax cuts in his first State of the Union address, and he is going directly to the people over the next two weeks. He is hitting states where there are Democratic senators that voted for him in the last election and he is going to put the pressure on.

But he was speaking to the American people much more than he was speaking to Congress in his State of the Union address.

FENTON: Martha Zoller, do you think the president's speech got a fair hearing from the media, from the American media?

ZOLLER: Well, I think overall we got what we expected from the American media, which is to be cynical, which is the role of the press.

I'm not one of these conspiracy theorists about the American media. But I do think that when they suggest that the speech was staged or the moment at the end of the speech, where the mother of the fallen Marine hugged the daughter of someone who was killed by Saddam Hussein, that that was somehow a staged moment, it wasn't a staged moment. It was a moment -- yes, they were sitting together, but other than that, I think they took it on their own.

So in that case, the media suggesting that somehow that was a trick or staged, really, those are the kinds of things that hurts the American media, which something is obvious like that, that it is an emotional moment and they take it as some kind of cynical thing that was staged.

FENTON: Richard Wolffe, this State of the Union address got one of the smallest audiences, in fact the smallest audience in the last five years. 60 percent of the people who were watching their television that night preferred to watch something else, despite the fact that things that are vitally interesting to them, things that concern their future, where being discussed by the president.

Why so little interest?

RICHARD WOLFFE, "NEWSWEEK": Well, there may be some overload in terms centerpiece events for the president.

It is not that usual that you will have an inaugural address and a State of the Union the second time around so quickly. I mean, obviously, there aren't that many presidents who have had second terms. So that may be part of it.

Another part of it, though, I actually think American viewers are probably quite discerning here. The amount of new stuff in this State of the Union was pretty limited and a lot of the issues around Social Security, the debate has already begun, so the new details were fairly limited. They were also flagged up in advance.

You know, I have some sympathy for them. Frankly, I was there in the chamber and it was must more interesting watching the response from the members of Congress than it was actually listening to what the president said.

FENTON: On this side of the Atlantic, the thing that most of the media picked up on was Iran. It was seen as perhaps a warning of an American attack eventually on Iran. Was that a misreading by the media in Europe?

WOLFFE: A total misreading, and I understand that there is that sort of general conventional wisdom, not just in the European media, but also across the Arab media, and I think a lot of that comes from the inaugural address, which as you probably recall, the administration really tried to redefine almost immediately in the days after the address saying this wasn't something that was going to change American policy immediately.

I was there. I think back to the run up to the war in Iraq. The tone was very different. The approach was very different. There is none of the sort of threatening language or maneuvering from the administration that there was on Iraq as there is now with Iran. In fact, if you see what the president actually said -- look at his language in the State of the Union, and it was incredibly soft. There was no axis of evil language. There was no threatening language.

He talked about simply working with the international community to make clear to the Iranians, to try to end the various nuclear programs they have. This is very soft stuff from this president.

FENTON: Martha Zoller, was the president's speech overly ambitious?

ZOLLER: What people remember America for over history are the big things. You know, winning our independence, ending slavery in our country, going on and helping other communities around the world to end Communism and that sort of thing.

So I don't think it was too aggressive, but the point I would make is that my sources in the Middle East said that this was the kind of speech that they were waiting for, and these were democracy type of groups that are trying to work for democracy, that this was a speech that said if you are willing to do it yourself, we will help you.

And I would agree with Richard, that the language was much softer, but that it was also very firm and clear as far as what our goals are.

FENTON: Richard Wolffe, this White House seems to be pretty good at spin and I wonder at this point, going into his second term, if the media is going to be any better at all at de-spinning the spin, in penetrating the mist that seems to be spread over some of these issues.

WOLFFE: I think that has been underway for some time, actually. Pretty much over the last year, starting with the sort of collapse of order in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib scandal, moving into the election, there was a much more skeptical approach by the American media in terms of pretty much everything that was coming out of the White House.

You could see that in the sort of open hostility at White House briefings and certainly in the tone of the coverage as it appeared, largely in print but also in broadcast media.

So there is a wariness there that really comes from the run up to the war in Iraq, a sense of asking much more critical questions. So I don't have any -- you are not going to get to a situation where European journalists are basically parted down one side or the other. I do think the American media by and large tries to be more objective than their international counterparts, but it is certainly more skeptical than it was before.

FENTON: Richard Wolffe, in Washington, thank you very much, and Martha Zoller, in Atlanta, thank you.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, it is being bill said as the thriller trial of the year, but will it be a fair one? Analysis after the break.

Stay with us.


FENTON: Welcome back.

Mention the words Michael Jackson and what do you think of? Pop star eccentric? Musical ringleader? Well, this week he had his very own media circus. Hundreds of journalists descended on the small town of Santa Maria for the start of the singers sex abuse trial. It has been billed as the highest profile celebrity hearing since O.J. Simpson was acquitted of his wife's murder.

Everybody has an opinion, including Jackson himself.

He posted this on the Internet last weekend.


MICHAEL JACKSON, POP STAR: Years ago I allowed a family to visit and spend some time at Neverland. Neverland is my home. I allowed this family into my home because they told me there son was ill with cancer and needed my help. Through the years I have helped thousands of children who where ill or in distress.

These events have caused a nightmare for my family, my children and me. I never intend to place myself in so vulnerable a potion ever again.

I love my community and I have great faith in our justice system. Please keep on open mind and let me have my day in court. I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen. I will be acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told.

Thank you.


FENTON: With so much about the case already in the public domain, can Michael Jackson ever get a fair and unbiased trial?

Joining me now from Los Angeles, Michael Joseph Gross, author of "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame." And here in the studio, ray Bennett, European art critic for the "Hollywood Reporter."

What is it that makes this the trial of the year?

MICHAEL JOSEPH GROSS, AUTHOR: My opinion is that Michael Jackson's trial is going to be much more interesting to reporters than it is going to be to audiences. I think one reason that is is that so many of us where kids when Michael Jackson was popular.

And we were the kind of people who were on the school newspaper. You know, we were the geeks. We were the ones who loved Michael Jackson because of his weirdness.

FENTON: Are the media making more of this than it actually deserves? Is the public so interested?

RAY BENNETT, "HOLLYWOOD REPORTER": I think they are. I think they will be.

I think Michael Jackson has been, if not now, the biggest pop star in the world. He has sold more records than just about anybody. Certainly his career in the last dozen years has faded and diminished, largely because of all the allegations that have surrounded him and his increasing weirdness.

FENTON: What is this going to do for Michael Jackson's career? He is already deeply in debt. He is on a decline.

GROSS: He does have a core group of extremely enthusiastic fans who will always stand by him and who in fact their dedication to him only grows as his personal troubles deepen.

FENTON: Ray Bennett, with such a media circus, can Michael Jackson get a fair trial?

BENNETT: That is the key issue. I mean, the central issue here really is can either of the parties get a fair trial. Can the plaintiffs get a fair trial ask can Michael Jackson get a fair trial.

The wisdom of the judge in barring cameras, which I think is wise, is a good thing. It is possible I suppose that the media circus outside can not infiltrate into the middle. There have been reports of information from the trial already leaking out as to various contributors to it.

Clearly, there will be an interest on the part of the more salacious media to keep doing that. Whether in the end in will influence the 12 members of the jury remains to be seen. It is -- I don't know. It is on imponderable.

FENTON: Ray Bennett, thank you very much. And in Los Angeles, Michael Joseph Gross, thank you.

That is 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 Tom Fenton. Thanks for joining us.



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