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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired October 1, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


MONITA RAJPAL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello there. I'm Monita Rajpal, in London. Welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
Prominent Lebanese journalist May Chidiac is recovering this week after a bomb exploded in her car. The attack followed a series of bombings targeting people viewed as supporting the opposition and rejecting Syrian influence in the country, and that raises questions about whether they should receive some protection.

CNN Beirut bureau chief Brent Sadler reports.


BRENT SADLER, CNN BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): A solemn vigil in Beirut for the latest victim in a merciless campaign of violence, paying tribute to May Chidiac, a face known to millions in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.

A television news star, survivor of a bomb attack Sunday, the explosion wrecking her car. She has undergone life-saving surgery but suffered grievous injuries.

MIREILLE HALI, CHIDIAC'S SISTER: She lost an arm. She lost a leg. But May is a big survivor.

SADLER: A survivor they hope here in a battle for meaningful Lebanese independence after decades of control by neighboring Syria.

Sarios Naqum who writes for a newspaper often critical of Syria, was May Chidiac's last chat show guest, appearing just hours before the attempt on her life. Syria and Lebanon their topics of debate.

SARIOS NAQUM, JOURNALIST: I talked to her after the program. I said I you taking precautions, because everybody is threatened in this country and we are all threatened. She said no.

SADLER (on camera): Parts of Lebanon's media and many of its pro- independence politicians, some of who have sought temporary refuge in Europe, say they are no strangers to threats or intimidation.

(voice-over): Unknown assailants fired rockets into Lebanon's future TV station some two years ago, a station owned by former five-time Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri, the victim of a Valentine's Day bomb attack that killed him and 20 others, sparking an international probe to find the murderers. An inquiry that is nearing its end, stoking tension and uncertainly.

Front page columnist Samir Kassir fell victim to a blast some four months ago, a bomb similar to the one that almost killed Chidiac.

And it's almost a year since Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamade, a strong critic of Syria, also fell victim to a failed assassination attempt. Nine surgeries later, he is still recovering from injuries and claims there's a clear motive for the media onslaught.

MARWAN HAMADE, LEBANESE TELECOMMUNICATIONS MINISTER: This was aimed at terrorizing and stopping these media from taking over any subject related to dictatorship.

SADLER: May Chidiac is not the first and perhaps not the last in a long line of victims singled out by persons unknown.

HALI: She represents the beauty in this country. She represents the intelligence of this country. She is the perfect woman.

SADLER: And for whoever planted the bomb that maimed her, a valuable target.


RAJPAL: Joining us now to discuss the dangers of reporting in Lebanon is CNN's Beirut bureau chief, Brent Sadler, who filed that report; and leading Lebanese journalist Zaki Chebab, joining us now here in London. He has worked with May Chidiac.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

Brent, I want to start off with you. Let's start off with the investigation. How is that going? Where does it stand right now?

SADLER: Well, Monita, there are a number of investigations going on, but primarily we need to focus on what the United Nations International Commission is doing, an inquiry into the assassination Valentine's Day this year, February 14, of former five-time Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a massive bomb blast along with 22 others.

That triggered the massive political upheavals here that eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces. That international probe, that's being led by German investigator Detlif Mellas (ph), reaches its dramatic conclusion on or round about October 21. Already as a result of that inquiry, four of Lebanon's top security chiefs are now in jail, charged with offenses directly associated with that Hariri assassination.

Also, other investigations going on linked into the Hariri case and the other assassinations here, and that's brought in the FBI most recently of late after the attempt on the life of journalist May Chidiac as well as French investigators looking into the June assassination of Samir Kassir, a front page columnist for the "Al-Nahar" (ph) newspaper.

RAJPAL: We're talking about the targeting of journalists here. The modus operandi has been having a car bomb planted in their cars. That said, is there a sense that journalists are in danger in Lebanon right now?

ZAKI CHEBAB, JOURNALIST: Definitely. Far from the attacks which have targeted May Chidiac and before that Samir Kassir, there are like a load of threats being made to journalists in Lebanon. Some of them have reported this to the police. Some of them have taken measurements, some of them even they have been forced to leave the country or disappear from time to time. Or even if they decided to stay in Lebanon, they have took the challenge of trying not to use the same car every day, to move from their houses, to take the precautions they need to take.

But yesterday solidarity with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) through the meeting which was held in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) showed how Lebanese journalists are determined not to allow these elements to deter them from writing what they are writing at the moment.

RAJPAL: Brent, what kind of impact has this had on the way you go about and do your reporting?

SADLER: Well, certainly every single journalist, local and international, now has to take the issue of security very, very seriously. There have been a string of bomb attacks since the first attack against now Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamade. That was almost a year ago to the day. Since then, 14 bomb attacks. Not one single person other than the four security chiefs now in jail for the Hariri probe, have been actually brought to justice. This after decades of the establishment of the fact that people here could simply get away with murder.

There is, say many ministers here, in effect a security vacuum. Not only journalists live under a deepening climate of fear here, but also the population at large. You're seeing more and more overt security precautions taking place in public places where people convene, like shopping malls, cinemas, public events, so on and so forth, and really this is deepening the sense of anxiety here, that there could be more attacks, perhaps deadlier, than what we have seen, and even amidst this it is the media, and particularly May Chidiac -- many people point out here that whoever attacked May Chidiac was trying to strike not just at the journalistic community here but also at the Lebanese. May Chidiac appeared on people's TV screens in their homes many, many times a week for 20 years here. It's touched many hundreds of thousands of Lebanese in this country.

RAJPAL: And that said, Zaki, is there a sense when you're on the outside looking in, within those living in Lebanon when we're talking about the public as well, is there a sense of outrage that those who do dare to question the establishment, the authority, are indeed being targeted. Is there a sense of outrage?

CHEBAB: Definitely. You know, what Brent mentioned earlier, that to choose may Chidiac and target here, the intention was also to shaken the Lebanese society. As he mentioned earlier, for the last 20 years, May's face has been familiar in every single household. So, to, you know, other journalists, if you write for a newspaper, definitely you won't have the influence of that kind of connection with the households all over the place.

But the idea of May Chidiac appearing through television screens will just leave this impression that Lebanon today is not like Lebanon before the 14th of March. That's why the intention now -- such element, to have carried out the attack against May Chidiac, definitely they are using the same techniques when they killed Samir Kassir a few months ago. What really helped May to survive this attack is maybe, as some experts said, because she was driving a Range Rover, and the impact of the bomb was like taken by the space between the ground and the car, the height of the car. So luckily May Chidiac has survived, but definitely the impression they try to leave is whatever politics you are going to follow in the future is going to be targeted and we still are working on that.

RAJPAL: And, Brent, what has been the response from the government of this town, with this public outrage as well and even journalists coming out and saying that they are indeed being targeted and that they are the ones who are feeling this sense of insecurity. What has been the response from the government?

SADLER: Well, the government is struggling to overcome a system which still has remnants of the former Syrian influenced regime still in place in some key positions, despite the detentions of those security chiefs. So you have the old and the new still competing in some critical parts of the security system here.

What perhaps is absolutely amazing to understand, Monita, is that even though these assassinations have taken place, even though there is a full international inquiry going on, very little specifics are known about what is going on behind the scenes. There are no general briefings from, like district attorneys, from prosecutors, from the investigators involved in these inquiries. People just know there are bombings, people have died, the media is targeted and people don't know enough about what is going on behind the scenes, nor do they know enough about how the bombers operate, their modus operandi.

So you're now seeing public awareness campaigns being televised on local television to make people more aware, to report suspicious packages, to watch out what goes on, if they can see something under their cars. This is also adding to the climate here.

RAJPAL: All right, CNN's Beirut bureau chief, Brent Sadler, thank you so much. Zaki Chebab, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate both of your time.

Coming up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, safeguarding a free press. A "New York Times" reporter jailed for refusing to reveal a confidential source is released, but only after she agreed to testify on the source. What that means for investigative journalism, after this break.


RAJPAL: Welcome back.

Pursuing justice versus safeguarding a free press. Both are important in a democracy, but can lead to conflict as they did in the case of Judith Miller.

The "New York Times" reporter was jailed in July for refusing to disclose a confidential source. On Thursday, she was released, but only after she agreed to testify in a federal probe into how a covert CIA officer's identity was leaked to the press.

Miller made her decision after she received permission from her source to provide the evidence to a federal grand jury.

Well, what are the implications of the Miller case for investigative reporting? Joining us now from Washington is Howard Kurtz. He is host of CNN's "Reliable Source" and the "Washington Post's" media reporter.

Howard, thank you very much for being with us.

Let's talk about this case and what it actually meant for reporters in general. We're talking about how important it is to really keep sources confidential when warranted.

HOWARD KURTZ, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, you can't get a more high- stakes case than somebody going to jail, as Judy Miller did, for three long months. On the other hand, her whole situation and that of the "New York Times" has been controversial because rather than protecting a source who was blowing the whistle on government corruption, as we all know she was protecting a source who turns out now to be the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney who was involved in spreading around the name of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative who was married to a Bush administration critic, and letting the world know that Ms. Plame was a CIA operative.

So that in and of itself has made this case pretty explosive and has not generated the sympathy that one might ordinarily expect for a journalist who pays a very high price of going to jail in order to protect a source.

RAJPAL: Would the prosecutors, would the Bush administration, would they think of this as a success for them, a win?

KURTZ: They can't really be popping any champagne corks until we find out whether this special prosector in the case delivers any indictments. He is, after all, investigating whether there is an illegal leak. It's a crime in the United States to out a CIA operative whose identity is covert.

On the other hand, this Dick Cheney aide has maintained that he has nothing to hide, and the odd thing about this case, Monita, is that Judy Miller could have had this deal three months ago. Other journalists for NBC, my news paper, the "Washington Post," and "Time" magazine have testified under what is called a waiver, which means that the source, the confidential source, says I am releasing you, you don't have to keep your promise to me to protect my identity. You can go to that grand jury and talk about our conversations.

Judy Miller took the position that that wasn't good enough, that it couldn't really be voluntary coming from a Bush administration official. Now after three months in jail, she has changed her mind about that, and that is what led to her release and her testimony.

RAJPAL: Why was she such a central role in this case when she never really even reported on the CIA operative and the name of this operative?

KURTZ: I must tell you, that's the central mystery here. It is very hard to figure out.

You had the syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who was the one who actually was the first to publish Valerie Plame's name and thereby setoff this huge scandal and ultimately a federal investigation. You had "Time" magazine and others who wrote about the case. And Judy Miller, who was a controversial reporter to begin with because she did a lot of stories about weapons of mass destruction, whether Iraq had them before the war. Some of those stories turned out to be wrong, some of those sources either misled her or gave her bad information.

She never wrote a story about this, as you just pointed out, so why the prosecutor was so interested in her is hard for me to fathom and the reason that she became such a high profile figure in this case was simply because she, after everybody else had made their deals and agreed to testify, refused. And she is the one who ended up spending time in jail.

RAJPAL: All right, Howard Kurtz, thank you so much for your time.

KURTZ: Thank you.

RAJPAL: Coming up next, Yahoo! hires an interactive war correspondent to report on conflicts around the world for the next year, but how can online observations compete with more traditional media?

We'll have that right after the break.


RAJPAL: Welcome back.

Yahoo! has hired a TV correspondent to produce a multimedia Web site that will report on conflict around the world with original online video programming. The site is called "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone." It will feature his travels as a war correspondent using any format the Internet allows. But can Yahoo! really set new standards in delivering the news against more established media?

I'm joined now from Neil Budde, general manager of Yahoo! News, and here in London is James Mates, a reporter for ITN, who has covered the war in Iraq.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Mr. Buddy, I want to start off with you first. How different do you think this is going to be, when you're talking about setting new standards? How competitive do you think it's really going to be?

NEIL BUDDE, YAHOO!: I think what we're trying to do is something that is not being done, so we're not going up against direct competitors. We're trying to fill in the gaps around a lot of the other media that is reporting from around the world.

RAJPAL: What kind of gaps?

BUDDE: Well, I think there are areas of the world that just don't get as much coverage, particularly in media that are much more time constrained and don't have the ability that we have on the Internet to provide a vast range of content, so we were able to tell a story in multiple forms, through text, through video, through photos and slide shows, through audio, and give people multiple perspectives of the story in much greater depth.

RAJPAL: Your views, James, on that.

JAMES MATES, ITN CORRESPONDENT: I think it's great that new media companies are getting into developing their own journalism rather than just sort of collecting other peoples' and distributing it through their Web sites. I mean, if Yahoo! can do that, I think that's terrific.

My slight reservation is going straight for the conflict angle and the war correspondent angle. War correspondent isn't a term I like at the best of times. But I am slightly concerned with the idea that people are only interested in uncovered parts of the world if in that part of the world people are killing one another. But to broaden coverage, and as Neil Budde points out, there are lots of parts of the world where major media companies simply don't have the budget, the time or the inclination, to be quite frank, to go out and cover. And if other experienced journalists, like Kevin Sites, who is a great guy, if they can go and do that, that's terrific.

RAJPAL: Neil, Kevin Sites, he's going to essentially be a one-man show, a one-man band, where he's going to be going out shooting, editing and covering these stories. Why focus then on conflict zones?

BUDDE: I should clarify. While we are going to conflict zones and areas with war, a lot of what we're trying to do is tell the human side of the story, tell people about what the impact of these conflicts are on the people who live there, and give a multifaceted view, not simply -- we're not going to have him chasing down the street with guns firing. That's not going to happen very often.

RAJPAL: James, what do you think some of the dangers are of producing news stories that way?

MATES: There are obvious dangers that are faced in covering any conflict zone. I'm very glad to hear Neil say that the idea isn't really for this to be competitive, because competitive coverage of conflict is very, very dangerous indeed for those who get involved in it. And by and large, we in the established old media, if I can call it that, refrain from hard-nosed competition with each other when in difficult and dangerous places.

But getting together old media and new media is terrific. There is much more new media coming into the established networks in terms of using stuff that is sent to us online, using blogs, using that sort of thing, and I think if we can see more sort of, if you can call it that, old media style journalism now appearing on new media Web sites and things like Yahoo!, that's terrific too, because there is a difference between coverage and journalism. There is a difference between putting sort of unfiltered material out there in large quantities, which I'm not saying that's not useful, but there is a difference between that and journalism, if I can call it that, where there are agendas, there are filters, there are limitations, and all of those, to my mind, are there for a good reason.

RAJPAL: That said, then, Neil, what about transparency?

BUDDE: There is transparency in the sense that a lot of what Kevin is doing, he is revealing to the readers of the site more of the detail. You see him interviewing, you hear him asking the questions, so it is not simply a snippet of what the person said. You get to hear the tone and the manner in which he asks the questions and you can draw your own conclusions, for instance, from that and how that goes.

We do run all of his material through a news desk before it is published, so it is much more like a traditional news organization in that sense. The other form of transparency is that every one of his pieces that appear on the Internet have the ability for users to comment. This week we have had more than 1,000 people comment on various aspects. Some of that is opinion. Occasionally they'll point out something that -- you know, call into question a fact.

We have in fact corrected two minor points in the stories that people pointed out to us, so there is a form of transparency there as well.

RAJPAL: All right, Neil Budde, of Yahoo!, and James Mates, from ITN, thank you both so much for your time.

And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how journalists cover the major stories that are on the air.

I'm Monita Rajpal. Thank you for watching.



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