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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired June 4, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, 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 the assassination of a prominent anti-Syrian journalist in Beirut. Samir Kassir was killed Thursday when a car bomb exploded outside his home in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. He was a front-page columnist for the "Al-Nahar" newspaper, which frequently criticized Syria and its military presence in Lebanon.

Kassir is the most prominent Lebanese figure to be murdered since the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. His killing in February plunged the country into its worst political crisis since the civil war.

Well, to discuss this further I'm joined from Beirut by CNN's Brent Sadler; Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor of the "Financial Times"; and Xan Smiley, Middle East editor at the "Economist."

Brent, in Beirut, this killing of this journalist, shock waves throughout the country?

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. This man, Samir Kassir, was a strident opponent of Syria for a much liberal intellectual -- pushing for Syria to change its entire strategic relationship with the Lebanese. And really, a very well read and very well respected member of the media here, and really seen by the opposition leadership that were really behind the so-called Cedar Revolution popular protests in March in Lebanon, seen not just as an Arab intellectual and a very skilled writer, but also a hero of that independence movement -- Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: Brent, who had the most to gain from his death?

SADLER: Well, certainly the opposition are making no bones about it. They're pointing without any hard proof, again, the suspicion that Syria was somehow behind it, directly or through Syrian agents operating in Lebanon.

No proof, as I say, about this, but certainly in terms of what's happening on the ground, it further undermines the process of change that is going on here. Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, says that every time Lebanon attempts to take a step forward someone tries to knock it backwards.

Remember that Mikati is a very close ally of the Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Other opposition leaders absolutely pointing the finger of blame at Syria, saying only they and their security apparatus here could have carried out this attack and that they will gain from this by further undermining attempts to democratize this country -- Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: Roula Khalaf, what are we witnessing taking place in Lebanon? And what impact will the death of Samir Kassir have on other journalists, do you think, covering the story there?

ROULA KHALAF, "FINANCIAL TIMES": I think it will have a terrifying impact. I think this will be seen as a message to journalists and to other intellectuals. Clearly it will take a while before there is some kind of an investigation, before it's clear what happened today. But I think this is already being seen as a message to people who have dared to criticize the Syrian presence in Lebanon and perhaps who have continued to criticize the remnants of the intelligence presence and also of the security services in Lebanon.

Samir Kassir in particular has had the long-running dispute with the local general security. He had been threatened before. There were often cars that would be parked near his house or that would be following him. So I think it was very well known in Lebanon that he felt under threat.

SWEENEY: Xan Smiley, in terms of covering the story in Lebanon, what impact do you believe his murder will have?

XAN SMILEY, "ECONOMIST": I don't think it will have that much real difference. As Roula says, I think it will make everybody very nervous. Lebanon is a jumpy sort of place. But I done think you're going to get the press pedaling back. It's a very vibrant and lively press. It will make prominent journalists nervous. But, you know, the general trend against Syria and to argue for Syria's influence to diminish I think will continue.

SWEENEY: Brent, in general, journalists in Lebanon, how much under surveillance are they, particularly journalists like Samir Kassir, who would have been anti-Syrian?

SADLER: There is no real secret here that many journalists receive strange calls, threatening calls in some cases, in the middle of the night. They certainly are effected by the security apparatus here that operates behind the scenes, has pressured newspaper editors, editors of TV stations here to reel back on criticism at crucial times.

It is worth noting here that Samir Kassir's newspaper that he published that front-page column in every week is indeed under the ownership of Jaban Twani (ph). Jaban Twani (ph) just elected to parliament. He's an important member of the opposition. He himself says he was driven out of Lebanon some years ago as a result of pressure against him and what his newspaper stands for, which has often been a strident opponent, critical viewpoints, against Syria.

So, yes, indeed, threats, coercion, are no surprise, and not unusual here in the media. The fact that the media does battle against this, quite openly in some cases, has really come out more so than ever in recent months, particularly in the build up to the Syrian withdrawal of its forces just a few weeks ago. And I don't think we're going to see the political establishment here, what they say and how it's reported in the media, in any way being toned down, even after this assassination.

SWEENEY: Xan Smiley, you've covered the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s. You recently returned there. What are your impressions, particularly in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, about who holds power there?

SMILEY: Well, there are two really conflicting impressions. One is terrifically hopeful. There was a sense, particularly two or three months ago, that Lebanon was one country, it could recover its sovereignty. We're all Lebanese together.

But sadly, I think in the last month or so, we're in the middle of elections. It has slipped back somewhat to a more sectarian way of thinking about life. And that, of course, points out the very fragile nature of Lebanon. Even though most Lebanese, including Muslims and Christians, are pleased that the Syrians have gone, they are still very, very nervous about whether they can get on well together in the future.

SWEENEY: Roula, how much does this murder, in the wake of elections, which are continuing over a staggered period of time, create a vacuum, an absence of real authority?

KHALAF: I don't think it necessarily creates a vacuum of real authority. I think, you know, Lebanon has been going through a long and painful transition in the last new months and these elections are supposed to allow it to produce a new parliament and a new government that would then work on new electoral law. And then that they would have new elections.

So I think this makes this transition period even more complicated because it raises questions, I think, in a lot of people's minds about whether, you know, there remains a Syrian intelligence presence in Lebanon, what the remnants of the local security and intelligence services, whose heads have been recently sacked. I think it complicates what is already quite a complex and confusing picture for a lot of people.

I think, as Xan said, there was a lot of hope a couple of months ago in Lebanon, and I think some people have been disillusioned more recently, and that was seen in the very low turnout in the elections on Sunday, the first phase of the elections. I think people turned around after seeing the Syrians withdraw and started asking themselves, you know, what do we have? What kind of political system do we have in Lebanon? We need it to be changed, and how do we go about it?

SWEENEY: Brent Sadler, as Roula just said, Lebanon is a particularly complex story and it is often portrayed in the wake of Rafik Hariri's assassination as being either -- one being a member of either the pro- Syrian camp or the anti-Syrian camp, but it is much more complicated than that. But let me ask you, within the pro-Syrian camp, how unified are they when it comes to dealing with internal dissent in Lebanon?

SADLER: Well, in terms of what you have in the power structure now, you have Najib Mikati, the prime minister, who hopes to become prime minister for a second term after parliamentary elections. He's a very close friend to Bashir al-Assad. He says he wants to have an equilibrium in the relationship between Syria and Lebanon. In the presidential palace, you have President Emile Lahoud. He is seen as an extension of the hard- line Syrian approach that the opposition claims is trying to break and has been trying to break the oppositions will for many, many months now, and Emile Lahoud is more than likely going to be a target of opposition demands to step down from office, and Lahoud is also seen as an important part, if not the head, of the security apparatus here, past, present and future. Demands for him from the opposition to step down after this election.

In terms of where this leads this country after this assassination -- no, it's in terms of the future. This is a transitional period, as our other guests were saying. But it does shake confidence. There have been five other blasts since March, after the Hariri assassination, and this killing particularly at this time after the first round of elections and of such an obvious and high profile personality in the media who has been writing against Syria for a long, long time, and made no secret of the fact that he's tried to support the Syrian opposition inside Syria, certainly will shake many in this country as they look at how this country is going to progress under the electioneering that goes on for the next three weeks, and, more importantly, what comes after it.

SWEENEY: All right, Brent Sadler, in Beirut, Roula Khalaf, in London, and also Xan Smiley, here in the studio. We're out of time, but thank you all very much indeed.

Now up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a media mystery is solved by a high society magazine.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

One of the best kept secrets in the history of journalism is out of the bag. The closely guarded identity of Deep Throat has been revealed in the July edition of "Vanity Fair" magazine. Only a handful of people knew that the FBI's former deputy chief, Mark Felt, was the source who leaked secrets to two reporters during the Watergate scandal.

So, how important a role did journalism play in bringing U.S. President Nixon down? And what can we learn now that the final piece of the puzzle has been solved?

To discuss this further I'm joined by Eric Pfanner, media correspondent for the "International Herald Tribune," and, from New York, Timothy Noah, who writes for "Slate" magazine.

Timothy Noah, you have been critical of Woodward and Bernstein, the two journalists involved in the Watergate conspiracy cover-up. You say they didn't portray Deep Throat accurately. What do you mean by that?

TIMOTHY NOAH, "SLATE": There are three problems with the way that Woodward and Bernstein have portrayed or discussed Deep Throat.

The first is that in "All the President's Men," Deep Throat is described as a smoker, and Mark Felt was not a smoker. So unless Mark Felt had a second secret, which was that he was sneaking cigarettes, that would seem to be a deliberate misdirection and --

SWEENEY: But is that really vital to the story itself?

NOAH: Well, I think that reporters should not ever put into stories knowingly things that they know not to be true, even trivial things.

The second potential -- and I say potential difficulty, because I don't know exactly how Woodward and Bernstein would answer this, but there seems to be -- or it's been said there's a discrepancy between the identification of Deep Throat in a newspaper article from 1973 and in the book "All the President's Men." In the newspaper article, there is a quote that is attributed to a White House source, and in "All the President's Men" it's attributed to Deep Throat. Ergo, one would think Deep Throat was a White House source.

The third problem, and I think it's a more straightforward problem, is that in the 1979 interview with "Playboy" magazine, Woodward was asked by the late reporter J. Anthony Lucas (ph) whether Deep Throat was a member of the intelligence community, and he said he wasn't. Well, the FBI is part of the intelligence community, so that would strike me as a falsehood.

SWEENEY: This current White House administration is really coming down hard on journalists who quote one anonymous source or even anonymous sources. Where do you stand on that?

NOAH: Well, I think that anonymous sources are a necessary part of journalism. They're certainly nothing new in journalism. Woodward and Bernstein relied on a great many anonymous sources, and I think one interesting lesson from the discovery that Mark Felt was Deep Throat is that everybody leaks. People far down in an organization leak. People way up high in an organization leak. James Reston, the American journalist, famously once said "The ship of state is the only vessel that leaks from the top."

SWEENEY: Eric Pfanner, to bring you in now. What do you believe to be the standard when it comes to using anonymous sources yourself? And do you believe now that it's enough to have an anonymous source with one corroborate?

ERIC PFANNER, "INTL. HERALD TRIBUNE.": I think it has to be something that you can corroborate. You have to be able to use anonymous sources. We have to keep that alive as a journalistic technique. There has been a huge effort to crack down on that and that's probably good. Anonymous sources were abused. It was used as a tool by both sides.

Journalists for a long time have played a little game where if you quote an anonymous source, it sort of markets your story onto page one because it sounds a bit more exciting than it might otherwise. At the same time, you have people in the White House, elsewhere, using the veil of anonymity to try to get stories planted that they might not otherwise get planted. So that has to stop. And there are efforts to try to get that to stop.

SWEENEY: A lot of the reaction to the revealing of the identity of Deep Throat has divided America along right and left lines. Is he a traitor, what role has he played in American history. Is that something that journalists should necessarily be concerned with now, given -- or how much has that changed, rather, since the 1970s, that kind of view about the role of the anonymous source in such a sensitive situation?

PFANNER: Well, I think the role of big media, as it's often referred to, has changed so much since the 1970s. It's lost some of its swagger that it had when Bernstein and Woodward were breaking this story. So that's clearly a difference.

You can see it even over here in the United Kingdom as well in something like the David Kelly case, where you had an anonymous source breaking what looked like a big story about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the British government's efforts to, as the reporter said, to sex it up. That's the kind of story that might have run a little further in the 1970s, but in the current era of greater accountability, people started looking at the details and what was wrong with the individual account.

SWEENEY: In those days, Woodward and Bernstein were able to get some time to develop their story. How often does that happen in the world of print journalism now at that kind of level in the United States? Or is it a case almost that the story has to be developed to the point of publication before it can actually be accepted?

NOAH: I think that, yes, there's a much shorter turn around time on stories. And probably some resultant sloppiness in stories. The Internet has speeded up the timing of journalism and so that has put some severe pressures on people in my business. I think you could argue that there is less investigative reporting today than their used to be, partly because of that.

SWEENEY: Do you think, Eric Pfanner, that it is a question of time, the news monster needs to be fed? And do people pick up the phone as much, or walk the sidewalks these days, pounding the sidewalks, trying to get that source or develop that story?

PFANNER: Probably a little bit less than they used to, but there are other reasons why this has faded as well. There are journalists in the United States facing jail time possibly for failing to reveal anonymous sources in court. This eventually has a chilling effect.

SWEENEY: And finally, Timothy Noah, what is your prognosis for this kind of journalism in the states in the near future?

NOAH: You know, young, ambitious reporters will want to break hot stories. So will middle-aged, ambitious reporters. And anonymous sources will be a necessary part of that because people in government do not like to attach their names to information.

SWEENEY: All right, we'll have to leave it there. Timothy Noah, in New York, thank you very much for joining us. Also Eric Pfanner, here in the studio.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, happy birthday to, well, us. We look at the impact CNN has made since its launch 25 years ago.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. You're watching CNN.

But if it wasn't for one man's dream, this network may never have existed. Ted Turner launched the world's first-ever 24-hour news network a quarter of a century ago. Since then, from Baghdad to Bali, Israel to Ireland, CNN journalists have reported the news from across the globe.

Kelly Wallace looks back at what's been coined the CNN effect.


COLIN POWELL, FMR. U.S. SECY. OF STATE: I think the best source of how careful we have been is listening to the CNN reporters who were watching it unfold.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The best reporting that I've seen on what transpired in Baghdad was on CNN.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Observers say to analyze the CNN effect you have to go back to the first Gulf War when people around the world, even then President Bush, watched the war play out live on CNN, and only on CNN.

The night the war began, NBC's Tom Brokaw interviewed CNN's Bernard Shaw, who was in Baghdad.

TOM BROKAW, FMR. NBC NEWS ANCHOR: CNN used to be called the little network that could. It's no longer a little network.

WALLACE: It was during and then after the first Gulf War that U.S. policymakers knew what they said and did would now be broadcast around the world.

Mike McCurry served as State Department spokesman and then White House press secretary in the Clinton administration.

MIKE MCCURRY, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Many foreign embassies have told me this. They used to monitor the coverage on CNN, the broadcasting of the various news briefings around town, and instantaneously relay that information.

WALLACE: McCurry says there is a downside, a press corps sometimes getting it wrong.

MCCURRY: Sometimes in the need to report quickly on a breaking story, it's very difficult to get on top of the facts.

WALLACE: Since the 1990s, academics have been analyzing what they have termed the CNN effect, the impact of 24-news on our culture, not just from CNN now but also its competitors.

KURT ANDERSON, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE: It has just speeded up incredibly the, not only the way people expect to get news, but in fact the way news is made to the degree that news is made by people like politicians.

WALLACE: Hollywood took notice too.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can't run for the president of the United States without CNN.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have two things that we can do. We can either help or we can sit back and watch the country destroy itself on CNN.

WALLACE: From the big screen to television --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leo Enzri (ph) is a sadistic madman. This can't possibly be argued. But he's not a stupid man and he knows when CNN is on his television.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sharon, you've been watching CNN for about eight weeks now. Don't you want to watch something else?

WALLACE: Even the "Gilmore Girls."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why do you wish to be Christiane Amanpour?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I don't wish to be her, exactly. I just want to do what she does.

WALLACE: And a sign CNN was truly part of the pop culture, kudos from one of the most famous women in the world.

OPRAH WINFREY, TV HOST: I just came back from Africa. I've been in other countries. And no matter where you are, CNN is there, your friend.

WALLACE: Kelly Wallace, CNN, New York.


SWEENEY: And 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 Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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