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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 12, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


BILL NEELY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Bill Neely, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin with mutters of democratic change in the Middle East. After elections in Iraq, a new Palestinian leader and a grassroots revolt in Beirut, the media is now suggesting that the winds of freedom are whistling through the region, this even from the most cynical parts of the press.

Some editors have added up recent developments and are asking was President Bush right after all.

To discuss this apparent change in sentiment, I'm joined by Leonard Doyle, the foreign editor of Britain's "Independent" newspaper; and Dilip Hiro, Middle East expert and the author of numerous books about the region.

Leonard, let me start with you. It was your newspaper, in fact, that asked that very question: Was Bush right after all? It's a headline. It's not news. It's a question. Why did you think it was worth putting on the front page?

LEONARD DOYLE, "INDEPENDENT": Because, clearly, there is a cacophony of sound now. People saying Bush was right. Change has come to Iraq. We've had the elections.

And so we who opposed the war felt it's time to grapple with this question. You have demonstrations in Lebanon. You've got indications of change all over the place. Is this because of George Bush or not?

And let me say that absolutely we come out and say, not at all. I mean, certainly, we've had elections in Iraq, but that's the least that the occupying powers could have delivered. The question is, has anything changed for the better, and I think the little we know about what's going on in Iraq, becaues it is frankly so dangerous for journalists just to be there and to move outside their hotels, tells us that there is not much that is improved.

Right throughout the region, the change such as they are that are taking place are either completely unrelated to George Bush or the results of the globalization of democratic institutions in any event.

NEELY: So you're saying it wasn't very difficult for you to acknowledge the question to begin with.

DOYLE: Yes, we thought it was time to grapple with the question, because clearly lots of people are asking it, and people, I think, too the undoubted success of the elections insofar as so many people -- 16 million people -- came out very bravely and voted in Iraq, that people sort of, you know, quite naturally want to ask, well, is something changing.

And I think we thought we've got to deal with this question and we've got to deal with it in a very upfront way, and we did so, and we looked right across the region, looked at all the countries, and we can go right through them.

You've got elections in Saudi Arabia, but they're a joke. These are municipal elections, from which they banned women from participating a couple of weeks before hand.

In Lebanon, far from having a "cedar revolution", you've got the middle class effectively bravely protesting, but their protests are falling on deaf ears from the Syrians. I mean, it's quite clear that the reappointment of the Libyan-appointed prime minister -- Libya. Did it get rid of its weapons of mass destruction because of George Bush?

Well, we know that they were doing this already, because they actually were getting nowhere. They were absolutely incapable of putting together a weapons of mass destruction. So they got on side.

So for all sorts of reasons -- and then, of course, the most famous, you've got Egypt having contested presidential elections. Well, you know, with the leader of the opposition in jail, do we really expect a change of regime in Egypt? Do we really accept that if there is a change of regime, that things will change on the ground? We think not.

NEELY: Dilip Hiro, do you agree? Is nothing changing in the Middle East?

DILIP HIRO, AUTHOR: I think one cannot say nothing is changing. You see, whenever there is a war or there is a huge assassination, things change, because war accelerates the social and political processes.

So nobody can saying nothing is changing. The question is whether these changes are directly related to the war or not.

Let's take Iraq first. OK. In Iraq, because it was invaded by the Anglo-American forces, therefore everything after the invasion follows from that particular event. But specifically about elections, had there been no Grand Ayatollah Ali-Sistani, had he not repeatedly given his religious fatwa -- not political fatwa, not civic fatwa -- called on all Muslims, Shias and Sunnis, to vote because it was their religious duty to vote, I don't think the elections would have as many people going. So he's the most important factor in this whole equation, and I can't say that many newspapers in the Western world are talking about this gentleman.

NEELY: You're both, in a way, singing from the same hymn sheet. But even Senator Edward Kennedy in the United States says George Bush deserves some credit for what is happening in the Middle East. Does he not?

DOYLE: I think credit in the sense that -- I think he's learning that it is also important to direct criticism at America's oldest allies in the region, the Saudis and the Egyptians, and so if we move away for a minute from the talk of war against the axis of evil and their friends and look at America's closest allies, the people who to some extent have needed most examining and most cleaning out of their stables, the focus of his state of the union speech and of his recent speeches directly attacking the Saudi regime and directly attacking the Egyptians, has truly sent a chill through these countries.

And that is something that we support. The idea that democracy needs to come about in these countries, of course it's important.

NEELY: It's interesting you say he's learning, which sounds a bit patronizing, actually. Aren't we all guilty in the Western media, in Europe and in the liberal press in the United States, of rather demeaning George Bush, of saying he doesn't know anything about world affairs, and yet the truth is, he is having an impact on the Middle East. His grand design for democracy is a factor.

DOYLE: There is no doubt, and it's not mean to be patronizing. But there is no doubt that the episode of the war in Iraq was poorly planned, and poorly executed, and the aftermath was an absolute disgrace.

NEELY: But moving on from that?

DOYLE: And it was a total disgrace, and the people of Iraq are still suffering that disgrace. They're still enduring death by the roadside, death by bombs, kidnapping on a scale that is just unbelievable.

NEELY: Dilip Hiro, many of us greet what George Bush says about the world with amused scorn. Surely he is vindicated by what is happening today?

HIRO: It's not a question of vindication or not. It's very simple, and I'm not being patronizing to this gentleman, who is the most powerful man in the world. He can get lots of things done, but the military has a practical limitation. You can have the most powerful army in the world, you cannot change two things.

You cannot change geography. Iran and Iraq have a 37-mile long border. Iran is 90 percent Shiite and Iraq and is 50 percent Shiite. You cant change that.

OK. So I don't honestly think that Bush, Jr. quite honestly sat down and understood, these are Shiites, these are Sunnis, these are Kurds. They are different in this way.

No. All he wanted to do -- and you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) whenever Mr. Bush applies himself to a political solution, he is oriented with "how can we solve it." So you have to give him an answer in 15 seconds, which is exactly his attention span, and it should be like a little slogan at the back of a card, and that is the way he operates.

NEELY: Things can change very quickly in the Middle East. We wait and see.

Dilip Hiro, thank you very much. Leonard Doyle, foreign editor of the "Independent," thank you for coming in.



DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHORMAN: For the "CBS Evening News," Dan Rather, reporting. Good night.

NEELY (voice-over): The end of an anchor's era.

Stay with us.



NEELY: Welcome back.

Dan Rather has braved hurricanes and dodged bullets, went after U.S. presidents and even wept on camera, and that's the easy stuff or part of his job as the chief host of the "CBS Nightly News."

The end of his 24-year tenure has been infinitely tougher. Rather's departure this week was clouded by his high-profile role in a flawed story about President Bush's National Guard Service.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer looks back at the career of the reporter, stuffed probably rather uncomfortably into the shell of a news anchor.


RATHER: Once I was told by a high-ranking CBS executive, "Dan, you're a very good reporter, but I don't think you're an anchor and I don't think you're ever going to become one." What got me the job, what brought me the job, was field reporting. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just have a report from our correspondent, Dan Rather, in Dallas, that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead. WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Rather became anchor of the" CBS Evening News" 24 years ago today, he had a tough act to follow. He replaced Walter Cronkite, a broadcasting icon who had been called the most trusted man in America. Rather was more intense, more edgy, and sometimes seemed to be uncomfortable as an anchor. His solution was to emphasize his strengths, redefining the anchor's chair by taking it on the road. BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS: This is the "CBS Evening News." Bob Schieffer in New York, Dan Rather is in Baghdad, Iraq tonight. Good evening. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the "CBS Evening News," with Dan Rather reporting tonight from Amman, Jordan. RATHER: This is the "CBS Evening News." Dan Rather, reporting live from Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China. Good evening. BLITZER: From interviewing Saddam Hussein in Iraq to covering hurricanes, Rather won widespread acclaim. When he dressed as a peasant to report from Afghanistan, some pundits dubbed him "Gunga Dan." But much criticism of Rather centered not on personality, but politics. As CBS White House correspondent during the Nixon era, Rather angered many conservatives with his aggressive reporting. RICHARD NIXON, FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT: Are you running for something? RATHER: No, sir, Mr. President, are you? BLITZER: Years later, a confrontational interview with then-Vice President George Bush only added to conservatives' charges the CBS anchor was, in their words, rather biased. RATHER: I don't want to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President. GEORGE H. BUSH, FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT: You do, Dan. This is not a great night, because I want to talk about why I want to be president. BLITZER: Then last year, another controversy involving the Bush family erupted, when Rather reported on George W. Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam war. The report was based on a memo that was discredited, and when Rather announced plans to step down from the anchor chair, it wasn't just Republicans who said he was leaving under a cloud. WALTER CRONKITE, FMR. ANCHORMAN: He hung on too long to his faith in his staff. They had provided him this material and he trusted them implicitly in all things and insisted that the information was correct for a whole week, when evidence was beginning to pile up that it wasn't. MARVIN KAIB, FMR. CBS CORRESPONDENT: I think he cares a great deal about the fact he's going out on a negative note. And probably deep down wonders why so many people, so many more people, can't remember literally the thousands of broadcasts he did. BLITZER: Rather tells he "Washington Post" his critics are entitled to their opinions. He says that after 24 years of anchoring, he's looking forward to returning to his true love: reporting. RATHER: I believe my best work is ahead of me. I hope my best work is ahead of me. BLITZER: Wolf Blitzer, CNN, Washington. (END VIDEOTAPE)

NEELY: Well, whatever note he is leaving on, there is no denying Rather's prolific contribution to journalism.

To discuss his legacy and the current state of television news, I'm joined from New York by Ton Fenton, a former CBS foreign correspondent and the author of "Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News and the Danger to Us All."

Tom, what is Dan Rather's contribution to journalism?

TOM FENTON, FMR. CBS CORRESPONDENT/AUTHOR: Well, Dan Rather's contribution to journalism is a long and a big body of work, a lot of solid work. Much of it in the field.

It is, I think, tragic that he is leaving his job as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" under this terrible, terrible shadow. My only hope is that he can work for a few more years and do another body of work and that he won't be remembered just for this one thing, this flawed story -- seriously flawed story, apparently -- on the president's National Guard duty.

NEELY: You worked with him as a colleague for 34 years. What were his strengths? What were his weaknesses?

FENTON: Well, his biggest strengths were in the field. Dan was a very aggressive reporter. He loved to be out there, mixing it up.

He was the one who was constantly dragging his "Evening News" along with him, to Baghdad or to Afghanistan.

I think those were his greatest strengths, his -- also his ability to work endless hours. He was a good ad libber. He as very, very good doing, for example, political coverage, the conventions, the election nights. He was sometimes -- some people laughed at his Ratherisms. They were down home Texas Ratherisms.

But he was a very strong anchor and a strong reporter.

His downfall, I think, was because he was spread too thin. He was doing far too many things. He was doing four or five major things on the day they aired that story and, of course, he read the copy that someone else had written for him, and the reporting had been done by somebody else.

NEELY: He was the face of the network, but of course he can't be faulted for many things that some people might say are wrong with the network. For example, he didn't control the pursestrings, did he.

FENTON: No, well, this is not just Dan. It was Dan Rather and Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, who just retired as the anchor of NBC. They all presided over the decline of the evening news, and it was, as you say, it was primarily a question of the pursestrings, that ever since the -- I suppose it really began with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ever since then, the networks have cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. They have hollowed out what were once great news gathering organizations.

They closed foreign bureaus. They got rid of foreign correspondents. To the point now where they are simply shadows of what they once were and are no longer really good news gathering organizations, especially overseas.

NEELY: You've gone further than that, though, in your writings. You say, for example, the networks can no longer vouch for much of what they put on air. That's a direct attack, not just on their funding but on their very editorial content.

FENTON: Indeed. A lot of what is done -- I worked in London for CBS News and I have colleagues who worked for NBC and ABC in London, and what we do most of the time is we package, and we all know what packaging is. In the trade, you know, you use -- you buy in video. You use video from Reuters or the Associated Press, shopped by you don't know whom, someone who may or may not have an agenda.

You wrap it up in wire copy. You slap on it the face and the name of a correspondent, and you broadcast this as ABC news, or NBC news, or CBS news. That's a deceptive practice, and potentially it's also a dangerous practice.

NEELY: Briefly, Tom, Dan Rather is going back to reporting. Is that just a fig leaf for a rather inglorious exit? Or does he really mean it?

FENTON: Well, he really means it. Dan thinks of himself as a reporter and I hope they'll have a few good years now reporting for "60 Minutes Wednesday," one of our best programs, and people will remember him for that and not for the mistakes that were permitted in what was a "60 Minutes Wednesday" story.

NEELY: Tom Fenton, from New York, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

FENTON: My pleasure.

NEELY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the power of a picture. We speak to an award-winning photojournalist about his coverage of world events.

That's next, stay with us.


NEELY: Welcome back.

Graphic, historical and starkly emotional. That's how judges described this image taken by the Reuters photographer Arko Datta when they named him winner of the 2004 Press Photo Award. His iconic picture captures the human suffering of the Asian tsunami last December. A woman mourning her relative killed by the giant waves in Cudalor (ph), in India.

Arko has spent years behind the lens covering stories in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir, and he joins me now to discuss his life and career as a photojournalist.

Arko, thank you for coming in.

Congratulations, first of all. Were you surprised to win this award?

ARKO DATTA, PHOTOJOURNALIST: To say surprised would be an understatement. I really didn't expect it. I was quite numb when I got the award.

NEELY: We can see the image. What lies behind it?

DATTA: This is a very spontaneous picture. It was in the first couple of days of the disaster, and I was just going from one fishing hamlet to another fishing hamlet along the coast where the tsunami had struck, and I didn't know what to expect, so I just was traveling. And when I would see a crowd of people, I would stop and see what was happening.

And this was up the coast, on the shores of a bay which was coming into a rural village, and I just stood there and waited as she got down there, and they were bringing in a body. There were onlookers, rescue workers, and I guess some family members. So this woman, when she saw the body and recognized the body, and came rushing to it.

The rescue person put the body down on the ground. There was a man from the same family and he just broke down. He couldn't even cry, he was so shocked. And you can see her, she also broke down, and it was quite grim then. No one was talking much. I wasn't talking. I just took the pictures. That's it.

NEELY: Obviously, it's very sensitively framed, because we see the woman, but we just see the hit of the body, the arm and the hand here. Why did you frame it like that?

DATTA: Because no one likes to get up in the morning and see a body picture, and the purpose is not to show the body. It was quite distorted. And if I showed that body, people's attention would go there, not to the grief. We can't relate to dead bodies. We can relate to the grief of the survivors, and that's what I wanted to show. But I had to have the hand, just to put it in context.

NEELY: It's quite detached. You're very much standing over this woman. Did you feel detached or engaged at that moment?

DATTA: Both. It was both.

I was getting kind of emotionally relating to subjects, I was getting attached. I was trying not to because they're two different things. I mean, they're the same emotion out there. You know, you cant help but relate to what is happening. And on the other hand, if you're going to take a picture and then send them and write captions, it's a very kind of rational activity. You know, you've got to be stable. You can't be emotional. So you're trying to balance out between both of the feelings. And it is difficult.

NEELY: Some of these images are very graphic. Some of it must have been very difficult to deal with. How do you deal with scenes like this, psychologically, when you take your last picture at night and then you go back. How do you deal with it?

DATTA: It is very difficult sometimes. Some situations, you don't relate so much, but some situations it's like part of your family, your own family member. At times, I had just been staring at what is happening, visualizing myself in the place of the survivors, and I had to really tell myself, Arko, come out of it, you have got to take these pictures.

And then I was working in a trance. I was not thinking about anything. I was not thinking about plays, newspapers, publications, nothing. I was just working in a trance.

NEELY: And yet those are the moments that professionally you have to be at your absolute best.

DATTA: Absolutely right, and that's difficult. You can't have any productive output and be meaningful if you are emotional, you know, and you have to try not to be.

And so when you work in the daytime, you're just working, like I said, in a trance, or you go back to finish your work. It all comes back to you. It just --

NEELY: A lot of photographers don't talk about taking pictures, they talk about making pictures, because they're aware of being almost like vultures. Taking something from these people. Did you feel you were intruding, that you were taking here?

DATTA: Yes, I do feel sometimes, and when I do my work I try to reason with myself that I am doing something very meaningful. I might be intruding on the privacy, but I'm bringing this whole disaster to the people and I'm playing my role in what way we can help.

NEELY: Arko, they say every picture tells a thousand words. Your pictures tell a thousand words, and much more than that. Congratulations to you and thank you again.

DATTA: Thank you very much.

NEELY: 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 Bill Neely. Thanks for joining us.



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