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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired September 17, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Zain Verjee, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We want to begin this week with a ferocious battle for power as Germany goes to the polls in what's turned out to be a cliffhanger election. Breaking with tradition, the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his conservative rival Angela Merkel, have vowed to fight for every last vote.

They've gone head to head on television and attacked each other in the press, but they're not the only ones with an axe to grind. Journalists too have been accused of speaking out of line, not just reporting the campaign but shaping it as well.

Is it right for correspondents to offer their opinion? To discuss this as well as some other media issues, we want to go to Berlin and to our correspondent there, Chris Burns -- Chris.


Let me first introduce to you Peter Klein, of RTL Television, the bureau chief here in Berlin, as well as Judy Dempsey, who is the head of the Berlin bureau of the "International Herald Tribune."

Let's start with the idea about how the candidates are trying to shape their image. Gerhard Schroeder, the media chancellor, but with a ball and chain of unemployment at 11.5 percent; Angela Merkel, who is more charisma- challenged but really trying to project a new image, the Merkel Makeover.

How is each one -- let's start with you, Peter -- how is each candidate trying to shape their media image?

PETER KLEIN, RTL TELEVISION: I would say Schroeder tried to play the card he can play best, meaning he is the media charmer. He is the television camera loving chancellor.

BURNS: He's a great performer.

KLEIN: He's an absolutely great performer. That's why he wanted desperately the TV debates. That's why he wanted to have two debates, as much as he could get, even --

BURNS: And that's why Merkel would only give him one.

KLEIN: Absolutely. Merkel just wanted to give him one, which at first looked like a mistake, because everybody was writing and thinking, oh, she's afraid of him. She tries to talk tough, she tries not to take up the fight. But at the end, it turned out probably to be a wise decision, because she couldn't win against the chancellor. And the polls said afterward that Schroeder did better, at least in the opinion of the broad public.

BURNS: But that is a good question, because in that performance, Judy, a lot of newspapers felt that she won, that Merkel won, because she was on her feet. She was coached by a former anchor, a top anchor in Germany. She was facing Schroeder. She was attacking him. And a lot of newspapers here said that she won. And yet the polls didn't say that.

JUDY DEMPSEY, "INTL. HERALD TRIBUNE": It's true. What we've seen in Germany over the past couple of months is a significant shift towards the Merkel camp. Big groups of newspapers have backed Merkel and "Spiegel", a very, very influential political weekly, has for the first time in many decades actually switched away from Schroeder and gone over to the Christian democratic camp. It's been actually fascinating.

BURN: They're riding the bandwagon. Why is this?

DEMPSEY: They're riding the bandwagon because there is this extraordinary (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ambiguity taking place in German polls at the moment. There is a feeling that Germany must reform, on the one hand, and on the other hand there is a feeling that the reluctant reformers, they're afraid, and there is this fight for the reformers. And the curious thing is that Merkel, she hasn't, as you say, she has a special kind of charisma.

But she has been consistent in not using the media, the cameras, the flashes, the razzmatazz, but being consistent in her message, running it home every single day. In some ways, this has stuck.

BURNS: And she did that well in the debates. And also the image, the Merkel Makeover. She has a new hairdo, she's sweeping it back, more makeup.

KLEIN: She's getting younger and younger the longer the campaign goes.

BURNS: Absolutely.

KLEIN: The last poster they put out here on the streets, like 10 days ago, she looked like 10 years younger than in the beginning of the campaign. That is for me the miracle of this campaign.

BURNS: And look at all of the young Christian Democrats with their Angie tee-shirts in orange, trying to tear a page out of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in a way, right?

DEMPSEY: That's true.

BURNS: I mean, they're really pushing. They're headed by a very powerful -- or they have hired a very powerful international PR agency to project this image. But at the same time, there is only so much that they can control of this image, and that's what is interesting too, is because Merkel, for instance, has been a victim of her own gaffs, of infighting with her own party, and easy attacks by Schroeder, hasn't she?

DEMPSEY: It's a really good point. I wonder sometimes, because Merkel is such an outsider -- she's Protestant, the Christian Democrats is largely Catholic. She has no children, the Christian Democrats have lots of families. She comes from the East, the Christian Democrats are generally from the old Bohn Republic, from the Rhineland. This is a kind of foreigner who has come in and challenged the young princes of the Christian Democrats.

And so on the one hand, they want to be back in power. And on the other hand, do they want to be led by an outsider and a woman?

KLEIN: That's the problem. She's not part of the old boys network. She comes from the outside. And she's a challenge. She is a challenge for all the heirs of --

BURNS: She'll be the first woman chancellor.

KLEIN: Absolutely. There was a whole generation in the CDU, like (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and so on, who had good hopes to become chancellor, because being next in line after (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But she made it to basically become after the scandal about the black money in the CDU, she made it to become the heir and the next probably chancellor.

BURNS: So there is all this history, all this baggage, and that's what is hurting her, because the PR campaign seems to be more of an American style. You spent time in the states as a reporter --

KLEIN: Absolutely.

BURNS: -- out of Washington. Very American, but at the same time, the old party politics.

KLEIN: It shows that public relations and advertising isn't all in public communication, you know. First, I think it's the content. Second, it's the form. But no question, this is the most Americanized campaign I have ever seen in Germany. Posters, people behind her on stage -- that's completely new in Germany, you know, from America, when all the children are behind the president. When they opened the campaign in Munich in September, she had audience behind herself, so all these little tricks.

BURNS: They're playing a Rolling Stones song.

KLEIN: They're playing Rolling Stones even though --

BURNS: Angie.

KLEIN: -- Angie. I think (UNINTELLIGIBLE) wrote that the song "Angie" fits to Angela Merkel as well as a bottle of Chateau Margaux goes well with Munich white sausage. You know, it does not have anything to do with each other, and if you listen to the lyrics, it says "It's time to say goodbye, Angie," so I think that's not a good campaign song for somebody who wants to come in.

BURNS: So is all this image really working? What do you think, Judy? In the media, is it working?

DEMPSEY: Her words stick more than the imaging, if you know what I mean. Somehow, there is a gap between Merkel is Angela Merkel from the east and Merkel in all these posters. She doesn't like them. She is sort of uncomfortable with them. She doesn't like television. She doesn't like going out on the streets. She is much better in the company of 20 or 30 people who she knows and she communicates and gets her point across.

And there is another factor, it's very strange, and the East Germans take no pride in the fact that an East German is making it --

BURNS: It's complete disconnect.

DEMPSEY: -- as a top German politician. And you ask them -- no, no, she has betrayed us. No, no, no, she's not one of us anymore. If she's not one of them, she's not one of the West Germans, what is she?

And so she has to battle so many fronts, and sometimes you just -- you know, her look, she throws her eyes up into the head and says I just want to get on with it.

BURNS: So it could come down to whether people will really turn on to her straight talk, plain talk, and maybe others mike like the packaging, but that's sort of icing on the cake.

What about foreign policy? What does this election mean to the rest of the world? What are the issues that are really very prominent in this campaign?

KLEIN: I think there were no real issues in this campaign.

BURNS: What about Turkey?

KLEIN: I was just going to say except Turkey. No means no debate, no dissent between Merkel and Schroeder in the Iraq-Iran question which was --

BURNS: No troops. They're not going to send any troops.

KLEIN: No troops. And this was the big issue in the 2002 campaign and the years after.

BURNS: That's what got Schroeder reelected. That and help for the floods.

KLEIN: And Merkel absolutely learned from the mistakes of 2002. When the Iran question popped out end of August/beginning of September, she immediately said we are the same opinion like the current administration, no dissent. So she stopped it. And then Schroeder said in a campaign speech in (UNINTELLIGIBLE), OK, I learned in Sunday school that the Lord loves every repentant sinner. But, OK, she had to take this gaff, this joke, but she didn't make a mistake.

The only thing is Turkey and on Turkey she rides on this undercurrent angst and worries about employment, about globalization --

BURNS: About immigration.

KLEIN: -- about having more immigrants, having more cheap labor in the country or jobs going abroad.

BURNS: We saw that in the constitution. We saw it in the European Constitution going down. So there is a lot of that fear. But isn't -- should also using the Iraq question kind of peripherally or in a related way, saying look, Merkel, the Middle East has to be stabilized, we need Turkey inside the European Union. You're making the same mistake as you made with Iraq, by supporting the war.

DEMPSEY: She has tried to do this. Merkel has actually tried to keep it separated out.

What is interesting about Merkel is she has listened to that public opinion which is out there about Iraq. If she touched Iraq, if she barely hints that she would send troops, she is finished.

BURNS: We'll see who faces and makes the music beginning next week.

Peter Klein, RTL, Judy Dempsey of the "International Herald Tribune," thank you very much.

DEMPSEY: Thank you.

KLEIN: Thank you.

BURNS: Back to you, Zain.

VERJEE: Thanks a lot, Chris.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a flood of tears. What happens when reporters get emotional on television?


VERJEE: Welcome back.

They laugh, they cry. Journalists are human beings too. This sounds obvious. Reporters, though, are often expected to remain cool, calm and collected, especially on television. But what happens when they're faced with tragic scenes, like those in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

CNN's Jeannie Moos finds out.


JEANNIE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): First came the flooding, followed by a flood of tears.


MOOS: We expect Oprah to cry.

WINFREY: I've been crying for two days here.

MOOS: We expect show biz types to get emotional.

CELINE DION, SINGER: I'm not thinking with my head. I'm talking with my heart.

MOOS: It's understandable. When overwhelmed officials break down, in this case recounting the story of a colleague who kept promising his mother help was on the way.

AARON BROUSSARD, JEFFERSON PARISH PRESIDENT: Somebody is coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody is coming to get you on Friday. And she drowned Friday night.

MOOS: But aren't news people supposed to keep a stiff upper lip, like Walter Cronkite did when breaking the news that JFK had died.

Cronkite's pause pales next to Geraldo's storm of emotion.

GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I've got a baby. You know, I have a baby. And there are so many babies here. It's just not -- I mean - - it's not -- you know -- it's not a question of objectivity. It's a question of reality. I don't know, man. Let them walk out of here. Let them walk the hell out of here.

MOOS: From the brashest of reporters to the more reserved, CNN's Jeanne Meserve --

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You can hear people yelling for help. You can hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded. But for tonight, they've had to suspend the rescue efforts.

I was trying to keep a handle on my emotions. I don't think I even realized how close they were to the surface until I began to hear them in my voice.

The cameraman has worked with a broken foot since 9:00 this morning.

MOOS: Meserve's report marked the moment when the story changed from hurricane to catastrophe. You'd choke up too listening to a man who watched his wife float away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She said take care of the kids. And the grandkids.

MESERVE: What is your wife's name, in case we can put this out there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonette Jackson (ph).

MESERVE: OK. And what is your name?

MOOS: CNN's Christiane Amanpour has seen horrors from Rwanda to Bosnia to New Orleans. She says reporters have to show humanity, but like ER doctors, can't afford to fall apart.

Not that viewers seem to mind reporters tears.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought it was very real and they're human.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I like it, kind of. It shows that they're, you know, feeling it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm glad that they're showing some sort of feeling. Maybe Mr. Bush will do something about it.

MOOS: Even media critics aren't criticizing.

(on camera): You don't think reporters should be embarrassed if they cried?

ERIC KLINEBERG, SOCIOLOGIST: I don't think so. Perhaps they even helped to make the nation understand just how grave a situation we had.

Some viewers draw the line at outright weeping.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My father told me, never let them see you cry. You can cry, but let God see you cry on your pillow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It makes you want to cry even more, you know. It makes watching tough news even harder to watch, I think.

MESERVE: We have very difficult situations.

In this case, I was a human more than I was a reporter and I just couldn't hold it back.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I mean, how could you not?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How could you not cry?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I mean, how could they hold that in? You would have to be a machine.

MOOS: So you don't mind when we cry?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, not at all. And I like to see you laugh too.

MOOS (voice-over): But laughter seems a long way off --


MOOS: -- when the levees that hold back tears threaten to break.

Jeannie Moos, CNN, New York.


VERJEE: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, we want to bring you more on the sensitivities of reporting death and destruction.

Stay with us.


VERJEE: Welcome back.

We've just been hearing about the emotional challenges of covering Hurricane Katrina, but journalists have also been faced with legal restrictions. The news media was banned from reporting the victim recovery process in New Orleans on the suggestion that it may offend viewers or victims' sensibilities.

Now, CNN filed a lawsuit in the federal court to prohibit any agency from restricting its ability to fully and fairly cover the story. The ban was overturned, but it begs the question as to who should be making the final decision about what images are broadcast.

To discuss this further, I'm joined now by CNN's editorial director, Richard Griffiths, and Howard Kurtz, of the "Washington Post."

Thanks so much for joining us.

Richard, if I can start with you. CNN reporters on the ground now, in the Gulf region, how are they able to cover the story? Are there any issues on the ground or can they do pretty much what they need to do?

RICHARD GRIFFITHS, CNN EDITORIAL DIRECTOR: Once we have resolved it with the federal court and in working with the military, we have had good access. And we're looking forward to that continuing.

It is a tricky thing, to tell the public that you are going to have to file suit because you need to have access to body recovery, and one of the things that I want to make clear here is that it's not so much that we want to take pictures of bodies in some ghoulish way and put them on television, but that we need to be able to show the public what is going on and how the recovery process is working.

On the same day that the government announced the ban on reporting, the authorities also said that the number of bodies expected to be recovered in New Orleans was down from the estimated 10,000 to some very much smaller number, and that would have raised all kinds of questions if we had not had the opportunity to independently look at the recovery effort and see what is going on.

VERJEE: Howard, do you agree with that? Do you think CNN did the right thing?

HOWARD KURTZ, "WASHINGTON POST": First of all, United States authorities would love to be able to ban pictures of dead bodies being recovered in New Orleans because it reminds people of the pathetically slow and inadequate government response to this disaster. But both legally and logistically, they can't do it. What they have done is to request that news organizations not show these pictures and to make it hard for journalists by not giving them space on patrol boats or rescue boats, where they could be in a position to take these pictures. But they don't have any legal authority under the First Amendment here to ban the use of such photographs or footage.

GRIFFITHS: And that's what the court affirmed.

VERJEE: When reporters from CNN, Richard, go, you know, on the ground and cover this, what are the boundaries that CNN either asks the reporters to respect or at least be aware about? What are some of the internal issues that are debated?

GRIFFITHS: I think the key word is what you just used, respect. Obviously, we need to be respectful of the people we're reporting on all of the time. We need to hold people in government accountable. We need to hold officials we talk to and ask the tough questions.

But when it comes to body recovery, it is respect and showing respect for that process, and we have been able to do that traditionally throughout all the major stories we have covered, whether it has been the stuff in Iraq, it's been the tsunami or whether it's been Katrina.

We make independent decisions in the newsroom in Atlanta about what we want to show and we look at the video, we look at what is identifiable. Do we really want to show identifiable pictures of bodies? Absolutely not. But do we want to show the horror of what has happened? Sometimes it is important to show bodies in order to convey that.

VERJEE: Howard?

KURTZ: Newspapers grapple with the same decisions although not necessarily in the same real time nature of a cable network. But, you know, the most dramatic pictures are going to be the ones of dead bodies, but you have questions of taste. Do you put it on the front page, where children could see it at a newsstand? I think there has been a tendency, particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq war, not to show too many dead bodies, and a lot of people feel, myself among them, that news organizations are sanitizing the horrible pictures in wartime and in disasters, like hurricanes, by not showing more.

But Richard of course is right, that you don't want to be the one that shows a picture where a body can somehow be identified and a relative who has not been notified that their loved one has passed away sees it on the front page or sees it on CNN.

VERJEE: Richard, is there anything different in the way that the internal process is being debated about, what to show, what not to show, say as compared to the tsunami? You brought up Iraq and Afghanistan as well, but are the principles generally the same? Or is there anything that is strikingly different?

GRIFFITHS: The principles are the same. The principles are the same. We are making individual decisions based on the pictures brought in by our field crews. We ask our field crews to be respectful in the gathering of the news, but that doesn't mean to say that they can't be aggressive in making sure that we see what is going on in the ground. And we owe it to our viewers to understand what is going on on the ground, bring those pictures into Atlanta or New York or Washington, wherever the editorial decisions are being made for that particular program, and make that decision.

Those are sometimes very tough calls, but we have taken some pride in being careful and reporting without blinking what we are seeing.

VERJEE: Howard, is there a danger of a reporter being too aggressive?

KURTZ: Not on a story like this, in my view. In fact, there has been a lot of criticism here in America that journalists have not been aggressive enough in covering the run up to the Iraq war and covering the Bush administration.

I think that what we have seen and I think viewers around the world have seen, with journalists openly challenging politicians at a time when they were making reassuring statements about how everything was under control in New Orleans when everything obviously was not under control.

I think that's what journalists are supposed to do. We're not supposed to be popular. We're supposed to ask the tough questions. Now, sometimes that can alienate viewers, but that's a risk I think that we have to take, particularly on a dramatic life and death story, whether it's Iraq or Louisiana.

VERJEE: Richard, who should make the final decision on issues on a story like this, on what to broadcast, what not to broadcast? The media? The courts? The government?

GRIFFITHS: Absolutely the media. This is a longtime tradition based on the First Amendment in our country, that you do not have prior restraint, that you cannot tell a news organization in advance what to broadcast or what not to broadcast, and we have to make those calls. They are tough calls and ultimately the viewers will hold us accountable for our bad ones, bad calls.

VERJEE: Howard, do you agree?

KURTZ: I do agree. And fortunately for news organizations, they've rented their own boats to get around the still-flooded parts of New Orleans and they don't have to rely on the government. The government can make it hard, believe me, and there have been a number of instances reported where soldiers have basically threatened, sometimes at gunpoint, journalists who are trying to take pictures, but that's not supposed to be the policy. We need to complain and complain loudly when that happens because, as Richards says, ultimately -- and we sometimes make bad decisions -- but these decisions should be made by journalists, not by government authorities.

VERJEE: Howard Kurtz, of the "Washington Post," as well as CNN's editorial director Richard Griffiths, joining us there from Atlanta. Thanks so much.

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 Zain Verjee. Thank you.



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