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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 8, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we exam how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
Weird, wacky, freaky, even flaky, but undeniably talented. Michael Jackson has been called many a name. Now, however, he stands accused of something far more serious, child sex abuse.

The pop singer is on trial in the small California town of Santa Maria. His fans are there alongside the paparazzi and row upon row of television satellite trucks. But with cameras band from the courtroom there is a shortage of compelling pictures and only a handful of journalists are allowed inside. So how are the networks and the newspapers covering what has been billed as the highest profile celebrity trial since O.J. Simpson was acquitted of his wife's murder?

I'm joined now by Steve Corbett of the "Santa Maria Times" and Nick Pollard, the head of Sky News in London.

Nick, first question to you. Your network is doing television reenactments daily on the trial. Is that journalism?

NICK POLLARD, SKY NEWS: We think it is journalism and we think it a pretty good journalism as well.

We have used this technique before, most notably during a major tribunal that was held in Britain called the Hutton Inquiry, which dealt with some very fundamental principals of government policy, and we did daily reenactments of the proceedings in that. And we thought it was enormously valuable. We won awards for it.

It gave viewers who weren't able to obviously see live pictures, direct pictures, from the tribunal, a since of how it unfolded and a sense of the flow of things. And I think that is what has happened with the Jackson trial as well.

It is difficult, I think, for journalists who can only report secondhand, as it were, the proceedings, to give viewers an idea of the flow of events and the thrust of cross-examination and so on. And reenactments at length can do that. And we take care to make sure that it is a true reflection of what goes on. It is not dramatized. It is not flamed (ph) up. We think it is an important tool in our armory and we do thing it is journalistic, yes.

RODGERS: What's it doing for your ratings?

POLLARD: It's pushing the ratings up. We run it on Sky News. We run it on our sister channel, called Sky One. E! Entertainment in the States are running it. And we have sold the content to television stations around the world who are doing their own links in between it so that they can explain things to their own viewers.

But it is doing good business for us, yes.

RODGERS: Steve, you're a columnist from the hometown paper out there. How is Michael Jackson deporting himself? You've been inside the courtroom.

STEVE CORBETT, "SANTA MARIA TIMES": Michael Jackson currently is on his best behavior.

I have watched Michael Jackson very, very closely over the past few years, including his testimony from the witness stand during a civil trial two years ago, when he appeared to not know the rules, when he appeared to be very freaky, when he didn't really seem to realize the serious nature of a courtroom.

He seems far more aware of his situation now, although there are times, for example when they showed the Bashir video, where Michael Jackson started to bop and started to move and let everybody know that he is still Michael Jackson.

RODGERS: Steve, it has been called a media circus, the Michael Jackson trial, yet the judge, Rodney Melville, has imposed some very tough restrictions. No cameras in the courtroom. No electronic conveying of messages from the courtroom. Is it a circus or is it a distinguished trial?

CORBETT: This is a drama. This is a very serious, serious trial that revolves around extremely serious issues.

I cover as a newspaper columnist the big stories the same way I cover the small stories. You bring energy, you bring passion, you bring suspicion, you bring a sense of outrage.

Rodney Melville, with regard to government secrecy, opens up a major issue that is of importance to the world as well as to the United States as well as to my own city and my own county. Melville's secrecy becomes a major issue in terms of journalism. So does the simple telling of stories about the lives of real people who sit on this jury and the lives of people who share this community, who pay taxes, who worry about getting on with their lives in the midst of this.

This story goes to the heart of the most powerful social institutions in my city, in my county and in my nation.

RODGERS: Nick, let me ask you, the reenactments seem fine for now, but this is a pedophilia trial and it is apt to get very seedy and unpalatable, the kind of stuff viewers aren't going to want to see. What are you going to do when they start presenting evidence of alleged pedophilia and sexual abuse of children. How do you reenact that?

POLLARD: I think we've got to be careful with that. This would obviously be one of the difficulties, I would imagine, with genuine live coverage, with cameras inside the court.

We have a period of two or three hours where we are deciding after the end of court proceedings and when we see the transcript which parts of it we are going to do. We will be careful with people's sensitivities.

We first run this reconstruction at 9:30 in the morning, which is very much what we call before the watershed, before the time in the evening that adult programming is allowed to take a slightly more wide view of these things.

But it is not really any different, as far as I'm concerned, from reporting such a case in a conventional way. Our reporters at court would have to be careful with the language that they use and an experienced journalist should be able to convey the sense of what is going on in a court during a day's proceedings and convey it fully without gratuitously offending viewers at any time, in my view.

RODGERS: Steve, you know this is a global trial and a global story. Is it because you are dealing with someone who is sometimes perceived to be a freak? Is it because you're dealing with someone accused of being a pedophile? Would any other icon get this kind of attention if it weren't Michael Jackson?

CORBETT: That's a good question. Some people have said that if it wasn't Michael Jackson, this prosecution would never have been brought.

I have written about the district attorney, Tom Sneddon, in other cases. I have written about how he has handled other allegations of child molestation. I have written about the judge, Rodney Melville. I write about the cops. I write about the elected officials.

This is clearly unique because it is Michael Jackson, but the bottom line is, this is a child molestation case. This is a case that, again, goes to the heart of some of the most horrid realities that we experience as people in any nation. This is a case that we as journalists have an opportunity to shed great light on what takes place.

RODGERS: Steve, Nick, thank you so very, very much for joining us and for your insight.

There is another media spectacle in the United States. Martha Stewart's release from prison. The domestic diva served five months behind bars for lying about a stock sale. Martha was all smiles on her arrival at her multi-million dollar mansion in New York.

Perhaps the style queen is dreaming of the cash to be made from two reality shows she has already lined up. Some commentators say her jail stint has made her a media martyr. Others believe it is all part of her comeback strategy.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the Pope and the press. We explore the media's rapport with the Vatican.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

He has been called the media pope. For 26 years journalists have followed John Paul II's every move. His world travels, his Sunday blessings, his creation of cardinals and saints, and now his every sneeze.

The 86-year-old pontiff's recent health scares have prompted yet another media frenzy. Hundreds of journalists from around the world have descended on the pope's hospital.

To discuss his relationship with the media, I am joined now, from Rome, by the BBC's David Willey and here in London by Damian Thomson, editor-in-chief of the "Catholic Herald."

David, first question to you. It is not quite the Michael Jackson media circus there in Rome, but when you see all those television satellite trucks lined up on the brow of the hill by the Gemelli Hospital, it does have some of that about it, doesn't it.

DAVID WILLEY, BBC: It's a real media circus these days. It is, I suppose, only natural in the days off satellite television and instant worldwide communication in it global village that we should have so many journalists descending on Rome every time, as you say, the pope sneezes. But it does make for rather difficult serious reporting, because, of course, there is, I think, a rather false expectation by outsiders that there is something inherently pageant like about the Vatican, which is going to be replicated every time there is a papal event. And that, of course, is just not true.

There is a lot of pageantry at the Vatican, but those moments are relatively far and few between, and in order to read the runes, in order to interpret what is going on in the Vatican, it really requires quite a lot of experience and good luck, I would also say.

RODGERS: Is there any fear or any thought that the Vatican could be on a collision course with the media because of their different perspectives?

WILLEY: I think that is a bit exaggerated. I don't think there is any collision going on.

I would say it is more a lack of understanding between the media and their needs on the one side and the Vatican on the other.

The Vatican is concerned to preserve the traditional secrecy, which has always surrounded a lot of the goings on inside the tiny city state, and the demands of a news hungry world-wide media who particularly in a moment when had pope is sick, are asking really for 24 hour coverage of what they consider is a world shaking event.

RODGERS: Damian, this pope, in the eyes of some conservatives within the Vatican, has been seen perhaps as too much a creature of the media. Do you think this media pope is now going to be haunted because of his previous over-exposure, if you will, haunted by the fact that he is now a sick old man and the media is still demanding too much of him?

DAMIAN THOMPSON, "CATHOLIC HERALD": I think so. I think we still, all of us, carry with us these images from the early 1980s of a tremendously vigorous pope, who went skiing and hiking and spoke with tremendous authority and humor. And even now, it is a bit of a shock to see a decline that is actually progressive. It seems like almost every time we see him, he is more feeble.

What bothers people even more than that, I think, is the question of to what extent his mind is affected by Parkinson's, and that is a question that his doctors could answer but haven't.

RODGERS: Is that a difficult thing for you to write about as the editor of a Catholic newspaper?

THOMPSON: Immensely difficult to write about.


THOMPSON: To suggest that the pope wandered in and out of lucidity, which a number of leading Vatican commentators have said, is a very shocking proposition for readers of a newspaper who have loved and admired this pope for over 25 years.

Nonetheless, if that is the case, then it is a very important story. How do we handle it? Almost every week, we sit around and discuss how far can we go and is it true.

RODGERS: David, is covering the Vatican a bit like covering the Kremlin in the old Bolshevik days in the sense that you have to read tea leaves and your sources are disingenuous?

WILLEY: Well, the question of sources is vital, of course. You have to -- you cannot rely on what the Vatican press office says to your reporting.

You need contacts inside the Vatican, and very often they are very reluctant to speak because this pope has really clammed down on information.

I was in Rome for the last -- in the final days of the papacy of Paul VI, and it was considerably easier to work in those days. You could invite cardinals around to your home. You would go and call on them. Today, that is frowned upon. There is an official order gone out from the pope that senior Vatican people are not to gossip with the media. Full stop. And that is fairly scrupulously observed.

So it really is a challenge for the correspondent who is trying to do his investigative work, to get the right contact said and to see that you are on the right lines.

RODGERS: Damian, quick question. Does the Vatican look over your shoulder, at what you write? Do you think the Vatican overly scrutinizes reporters?

THOMPSON: We're pretty sure the Vatican reads nearly every word of what we write, yes.

RODGERS: What worries them?

THOMPSON: The Vatican is immensely concerned with its public image. Although it is run by a relatively small staff, this is a papacy that, as you pointed out earlier, sets great store by its relationship with the media, or at least the pope's media profile. And I think that in the weeks to come, papers like mine will be read very, very closely, partly because the Vatican wants to pick up clues itself and whatever David said, I'm glad to say that the cardinals are still gossiping to the "Catholic Herald."

RODGERS: Damian, thank you very much. David Willey, thanks so much for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, slaughter in Sudan. Will these shocking images make people care?

That after this short break.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

Gory images of blood and bones. They fill our cinema screens and sell video games. Some even make it onto the nightly news. But how graphic is too graphic?

We saw the latest Iraq war played out in realtime. We even saw dead bodies. Now these, snaps from Sudan, published in the "New York Times." They are said to be from a secret archive gathered by the African Union, about the only people able to travel through Darfur. The photos ran next to a column by Nicholas Kristof. He says they illustrate Africa's latest genocide and that it is time for all of us to look squarely at the victims of the world's indifference.

Nicholas joins us now from New York.

Nick, first, excellent journalistic work.

I would like to ask why it is so difficult for us to feel the tragedy that you are reporting on. We feel compassion and tragedy when it strikes our next door neighbor, but when it is 10,000 people dying 10,000 miles away, why it is so difficult?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think that that is because emotions are always driven by individual cases that we encounter. And so you can read about hundreds of thousands of people dying, but you're numbed by it. You're not moved by it.

What you are moved by is the individual stories about people you can relate to and, you know, the farther away people are and the larger the crowd this is happening to, the more difficult it is to feel that human sympathy that actually gets us out of our chairs and gets us in action.

RODGERS: Why is it so difficult to sell an African story, even if we are talking about genocide? We've got tens of thousands of people dying. Is it because it has little or no constituency? Is it because it is difficult to report on it? Or is it difficult to sell this story because it is so far away?

KRISTOF: I think it is because it is hard for Americans or Europeans to put themselves in the shoes of those people suffering. You know, what makes us care is our ability to think, wow, that could be me out there. And Africa, and especially poorer rural areas of Africa just seem so distant and the lives of those people so remote from our own families, that it is hard for us to make that connection.

RODGERS: In one sense, what you are telling us is that it is an indictment of our craft, but isn't it true that it is extraordinarily difficult to report on that part of Africa? That is to say dangerous?

KRISTOF: It is true that it is dangerous, but, no, I think it is in large part an indictment of our craft.

I mean, look, we both know that when we in the media care immensely about a hard story, then we manage to get it covered, and, you know, places in Africa, I mean, they are difficult to cover, but one can get there. And I think it is really -- I think the more fundamental problem is that we in the news media are good at covering certain kinds of stories. We're good at covering what prime ministers or presidents did yesterday, or in the case of CNN did today.

But what we're not good at is covering things that happen day after day after day t and especially public health concerns that effect millions and millions of people, but effect them every day. And that is where our weakness is and is one of the reasons why we have not done a better job in covering Darfur.

RODGERS: Can you vouch for the accuracy of these photos which the "Times" published? Did you see similar or the same images when you were there?

KRISTOF: Yes, I did. And, you know, this archive that I got, there are thousands and thousands of photos in them, and I made three trips to Darfur. You know, everybody who -- everywhere you go you see similar kinds of things. Everybody you talk to has the same kinds of horrific stories to tell. And, I mean, nobody has disputed the accuracy of the photos.

RODGERS: This genocide seems to have the hallmarks of a religious war. Is it a religious war there?

KRISTOF: No, it is not religious. Both it killers and the victims are Muslim. It is more of an ethnic war.

Essentially, the people doing most of the killing are Arab Muslims whose, you know, native language, mother tongue, is Arabic. And the people for the most part being killed are members of three African tribes who tend to be somewhat darker skinned. So there is a racial element to it. But they are also non-Arab. They are African tribes people. And there has been competition between those two groups for water, for forage land for their livestock and then that just exploded in this horrific wave of killing.

RODGERS: If you were the president of the United States living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, what would you do?

KRISTOF: There are a few things that we can do that I thing would really make a big difference.

You know, the government of Sudan, they're not Taliban-style nuts. They're people who are very practical and they feel they have a problem in Darfur and the simplest way of dealing with it is getting rid of the African tribes people. And they think they can get away with it. And so for, they've been largely proved right.

But if we do things like apply sanctions or even threaten the use of sanctions to the Sudanese government, if we freeze some of their assets, if we impose a no fly zone so that if they send helicopter gunships to destroy a village, we will in turn then destroy that helicopter gunship.

RODGERS: Why the indifference?

KRISTOF: There are a few reasons, and one is the fact that it is so remote.

We in the news media periodically criticize the Bush administration for being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, it is so focused on Iraq that it is not able to focus on other crisis around the world, and I think there is an element of truth to that, but I think the same criticism can be made of the news media, that we ourselves are so focused on Iraq that we haven't been able to pay enough attention to other parts of the word, like Darfur.

And another problem has been that Sudan has oil, and so China, for example, wants that oil from Sudan and has been willing to block any kind of Security Council action against Sudan.

RODGERS: Nicholas Kristof, thank you very much for your insightful reporting.

And now, briefly, a former Ukrainian interior minister allegedly linked to the murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze has been found dead. Yuri Kravchenko reportedly killed himself just as prosecutors where due to question him about the journalist beheading five years ago.

Gongadze campaigned against high level government corruption.

The murder case haunted the last years of President Leonid Kuchma's rule.

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. Thank you for joining us.



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