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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired November 19, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Becky Anderson, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the week's top stories.
We start this week with the allegations over the U.S. military's use of white phosphorus in Iraq. Earlier in the week the Italian broadcaster Rai TV aired a documentary called "Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre." In that documentary, Rai TV claimed the U.S. military had used white phosphorus artillery shells against civilians during their siege on Fallujah in November 2004. They used as evidence pictures of badly burned bodies, including those of women and children.

The media leapt on the allegations and the blogosphere ran riot, bloggers citing as further evidence a firsthand account of the battle by an imbedded U.S. reporter, Darren Mortenson, of the "North County Times." He joins us now from San Diego. And with us from Rome is Mauricio Torrealta, who co-produced the Rai documentary.

Darren, I want to start with you. This is -- has become a very confusing story, propagated by the way I think the media has played this story. You were there. What happened?

DARREN MORTENSON, "NORTH COUNTY TIMES": We were there during the first assault on Fallujah in April 2004, and what we saw was a very, you know, isolated use of force at the edge of Fallujah, and Marines used white phosphorus in the course of their attacks on -- to root insurgents from a palm grove and a cluster of buildings.

ANDERSON: So effectively you're not suggesting that the military had used white phosphorus against civilians, as Rai had suggested.

MORTENSON: I never saw that at all. And also, we're talking about two different time periods. The November assault was a much larger use of force than the April, the first siege.

ANDERSON: Mauricio, you stand accused of being weak on sourcing and weak on attributions. Your reaction?

MAURICIO TORREALTA, RAI TV: Well, when we start our documentary, we had only pictures, pictures of dead people, younger kids, a woman and insurgents for sure. Pictures of people dressed with military clothes. And we couldn't really tell what killed them. We got those pictures by a member of a human rights organization in Fallujah who has been invited by the European Parliament, so for us it was a reliable source.

And as this man explained, there were a reign of light and huge smoke that provoked the death of a lot of people, and it was that kind of weapon that caused the body to be so much corrupted with clothes intact, which was something unusual, definitely unusual. But that was not enough for us to do anything. We need some more information, and we gathered people that had participated in that fight. We spotted some military soldier that has a Web site. We contacted them, and finally they accepted to meet with us and told us that in Fallujah in the month of November, not in April when the imbedded journalist was present during the fight -- in November, which was the second assault to the city, was using a massive way that were the words used by this American soldier -- there was a massive use of white phosphorus, and if you look at the video that has been shot during that attack, you can see it, and the video is shown in our documentary. You see a huge cloud that is covering a part of the city.


TORREALTA: So it is likely that some insurgents have been killed, but among the insurgents there were also civilians and animals. You can see a lot of animals that has been killed by that cloud.

ANDERSON: But you don't know what it was that had caused that cloud, nor do you know what it was that had caused the harm to the civilians. You said you couldn't tell what had happened. Were you responsible in you're reporting as far as you're concerned?

TORREALTA: Well, we got the interview with Jeff Engle (ph), the one (INAUDIBLE) who is a soldier, that told us that he was present during the fighting and he used the (INAUDIBLE) being used in a massive way.

ANDERSON: Darren, is not the problem here that once again the media is dealing with a story that it doesn't really understand and its responsibility as the fourth estate is overwhelming its responsibility to understand a story before it gets it out ultimately.

MORTENSON: I think it's one of those cases that we've seen lots of them recently, where the bloggers get a hold of something. And I've just seen what they've done to my reporting, taking, you know, one paragraph out of context without the preceding information, and using it with their own commentary, and then it just kind of grows from there. And bloggers quote bloggers, and it grows. So I think there has been a lot of irresponsible use of information on the Internet that has kind of fed this, but it's also a larger misunderstanding of the weapons themselves, you know, timeframes, different things like that.

So I think a lot of this, I think there -- you know, where there is smoke, there's fire. I'm sure there is fire, but it's -- a lot of it is just generated by Internet users.

ANDERSON: Right. Well, in the fog of war things do get difficult, things get confusing, but does it worry you, Darren, that Rai or any other broadcaster may have a certain agenda so far as the war in Iraq is concerned and that footage like this, a documentary like this, may feed into that agenda?

MORTENSON: Well, documentaries, by nature, you take a point of view, and you know, so this documentary has its point of view and there will be other points of view.

ANDERSON: Did you have an agenda -- Mauricio.

TORREALTA: Listen, I think it is kind of offensive toward a journalist to accuse him to have an agenda. We did a documentary starting by picture of people that were dead in Fallujah, and the place where we found those pictures were the European Parliament, and we did only our job as a journalist. How can you accuse a journalist who does his job to have an agenda? We don't have any other agenda than do our job correctly.

ANDERSON: I'm certainly not accusing you of anything. I'm just suggesting that it is out there, that there are accusations, that perhaps you had an agenda. It's not my view there at all.

Darren, last word to you. You were there. You may not have been there in November 2004, when this footage was shot. Did you see any damage to civilians? Did you see any civilians hurt as a result of the use.

TORREALTA: Of course.

ANDERSON: No, Mauricio, I'm asking Darren this. Did you see any injuries to civilians as a result of the use of white phosphorus?

MORTENSON: Not of white phosphorus. We could not tell what the white phosphorus did, but we did see civilians. There were a lot of civilians in the city at that time, so I do not doubt that there was extensive collateral damage and lots of civilians killed and hurt. But I can't say that it was from white phosphorus or not.

ANDERSON: Mauricio?

TORREALTA: Yes. If you go to look to the picture, which we have on our Web site, www.rainews24, you can clearly see how many young people and insurgents as well as women, as children, has been addressed by something that is not a conventional arm. And even the Pentagon has admitted that white phosphorus has been used as a weapon, but against insurgents.

I really think it's difficult to define during the night in a city who is insurgent, who is not, who is sympathizer, who is not, and therefore I think it is very likely that white phosphorus killed a huge amount of people living in that area.

ANDERSON: Darren Mortenson, of the "North County Times," and Mauricio Torrealta, who co-produced the Rai documentary, we thank you.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the confession of a would-be suicide bomber broadcast for all the world to see, but to what affect? We'll be taking a look at that in just a few moments.

Stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back.

Now, last Sunday Jordan's state-run television channel, Jordan TV, broadcast the chilling confession of a would-be suicide bomber.

Sajida al-Rishawi admitted on television that she had tried to detonate her own bomb belt at the Radisson Hotel in Amman and failed. Her husband and two fellow Iraqis who did manage to detonate their bombs killed dozens of people in one of Jordan's worst-ever terrorist atrocities, but what purpose did broadcasting this confession serve?

Joining me now from Amman is the Jordanian journalist Paul Hijazin, and here in the studio is the author and former "Sunday Times" journalist Nick Fielding, and Yosri Fouda, from Al-Jazeera.

Paul, let me start with you. What purpose was served by the transmitting, the showing, of this would-be suicide bomber?

PAUL HIJAZIN, JORDANIAN JOURNALIST: Well, Becky, I think that the showing of the suicide bomber served two reasons. One, first to channel the anger of the Jordanians towards one person. We do realize that many Jordanians lost loved ones or relatives that were killed or maimed in this attack, so they had a face, sort of, to put on the attackers that somebody could channel their anger towards.

And the second one was to raise the moral amongst Jordanians who witnessed sort of the second attack in three months. The first one wasn't that big, in Aqaba, but the second one, huge one, here in the capital of Amman, so sort of to raise the morale and say, you know, by the intelligence department, that we're still in control, we're still capturing and we're still able to maintain security in this country.

ANDERSON: Yosri, I wonder whether organizations like CNN and others who used that footage were used.

YOSRI FOUDA, AL-JAZEERA: Well, to tell you the truth, I still don't quite understand why the Jordanian authorities decided to parade this woman on television in the first place. I think al Qaeda and Iraq did the Jordanian authorities a great favor by announcing that it was three men and a woman, and that was actually the clue for the Jordanians to follow immediately after what happened in Amman and actually locate the missing woman.

And the Jordanian authorities actually returned the favor to al Qaeda and Iraq by parading this woman on telly. A, they told them exactly how much they know about what happened and intelligence-wise, you don't really want your enemy to know how much you know about that.

Secondly, by actually putting a human face to a would-be suicide bomber. Thirdly, by addressing the message primarily to the Western audience, more importantly, more particularly, Western governments, by trying to prove it primarily to the Americans that we are actually on the same side and we are trying to do our best by doing exactly this I don't think that they really achieved what they were hoping to achieve.

ANDERSON: Nick, the idea it seemed to me was to a certain extent, I felt slightly uncomfortable about this, that the Jordanians were potentially sort of whipping up nationalistic fervor, and trying to get everyday on side. Did it work.

NICK FIELDING, AUTHOR: Well, I think there was a very considerable swing, if you like, from passive supporters of al Qaeda to people who have now changed their position. There have been a number of opinion polls this week which show that a very substantial portion of the population is strongly opposed to the action and has possibly changed their views towards al Qaeda.

But still, I think it was, as Yosri and everybody has said so far, this was a very strange interview last week. The woman was remarkably calm and collected and that came across as very strange. And in fact the Jordanian authorities have had to sort of issue clarification since then and say that she was shell-shocked and this is why she seemed so calm and collected. I think it probably did do the counter-terrorism actions very much good by broadcasting this.

FOUDA: Many people in our part of the world would not really -- I mean, after the initial shock of seeing this woman being paraded on telly, they would actually immediately after seeing this, they would be thinking of what happened off camera. She was completely helpless. She would have had to be obedient and say whatever she would be told to say.

ANDERSON: Should the media be used by the authorities, like Jordan TV were, by the Jordanians?

HIJAZIN: Jordan television's role in this, I think -- it is a state run television -- it was informing people. It is an arm of the government in a sense. And I do think that it is its role to keep people informed of what is happened. I mean, that's what they've been doing all weekend and I think that's what they continue to do.

ANDERSON: Paul was suggesting there that given the opportunity, given a would-be suicide bomber, given a tape, that surely you would run it as the media. But that actually isn't true, is it, because if you look on the other side of this, and the (INAUDIBLE) of this world, the suicide bombers who have blown themselves up, we think long and hard about whether we run those tapes when we get our hands on them at CNN and as other media organizations. So ought we not be thinking as hard about whether we run a tape like this?

FIELDING: Of course, broadcasting a confession like this when somebody has survived is very different from broadcasting a video of a person who succeeded in blowing themselves up. There are obvious legal issues, for example. Was she represented? Have her rights been protected? All those questions have to be considered.

FOUDA: What the Jordanian TV, by showing this interview, approved, is perhaps after all suicide bombers are human beings and that when the belt did not explode, she ran away. That means life is worth something to those people. They managed to put a human face to a would-be suicide bomber, and now that we live in a very polarized world, those who would sympathize with al Qaeda would have any way sympathized with her. Those who are against al Qaeda would have enjoyed watching somebody being paraded.

What I'm worried about is people in the middle. If it was me, for instance, being offered some footage like this within my program on Al- Jazeera, I would think twice, to tell you the truth.

ANDERSON: Would you really?

FOUDA: Yes, I'll tell you why. Even though I know that footage like this will always sell, but I will always think, to start with, from a security point of view, what does it prove. You do this behind closed doors, to start with. Nobody would have expected this woman who had been, like Nick said, caught a few days earlier, to have gone into the bathroom wearing this belt, because this is how she was introduced.

So I think that many of Arab governments, indeed most of third world countries, are being intimidated into trying to prove to Washington every now and then that we're doing our best in this war on terror, to the point that they are actually shooting themselves in the foot.


HIJAZIN: Yes, I don't think the situation is the Jordanian government shooting itself in the foot. I mean, the attack took place. It's not proving to anybody. I think that this message was directed toward the people of Jordan, because the people of Jordan have been shocked by this and they've lost loved ones, and they wanted to see. One of my friends lost a cousin of hers, and she said I want to see the face of this woman that was going to perpetrate this attack, the one who her husband and cousin were killed in that also.

So a lot of people here wanted to see the face, they wanted to see, you know, I think the showing in the beginning of a belt, which seemed, you know, to all of us, when we saw -- when I saw the interview, I was like, that's it. But I think that we will hear more from her in the next couple of weeks if the government will release more and more, you know, according to our sources, they say more information on this attack.

And I think that it's to build the association. If you put this woman, she looks like a regular person, she looks like she's talking about a shopping trip and couldn't find tomatoes at the supermarket. They need to show her with the belt and they need to show her and say this is the association between this lady and the attacks that took place.

FOUDA: Paul is talking from an emotional point of view and the psychological point of view as some sort of rehab for the victims' families, and I take his point. Nick mentioned the ethical and the moral side of the issue, but again, I'm talking from a completely pragmatic and practical point of view, from the point of view of the war and the efficacy of this as to what is it -- did we really need to show this from a security point of view so that we can begin to learn why is it that America, who has managed to withhold far bigger fish, didn't do the same? Why is it that they did it here -- and Britain? They have far bigger fish.

This is something for security agencies to sit down, study every bit, but by sending a message to al Qaeda that this is how much we know about their operation, it will backfire.

ANDERSON: We're going to have to leave it there, guys. Thank you very much indeed, Paul, Yosri and Nick.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, breaking news, or rather "Broken News", a new spoof show which looks at the lighter side of news.

Stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back.

Now, if you thought 24 hour news was all about serious world issues and straight talking anchors, then feast your eyes on this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know (INAUDIBLE), don't you, Russ?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Indeed I do, Phil. It's one of my old stamping grounds as a lad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I bet it was, and I bet you did your fair share of stamping.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm saying nothing, Phil.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As they say, let's not go there.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't go there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More from Russ later.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, indeed. Thanks, Russ.


ANDERSON: That's a clip from a new BBC spoof show called "Broken News." What inspired the program? You might recognize this one.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have to say, Max, I think this next story, there is obviously a mistake. The fact you're not on this sexiest man list is obviously just wrong, isn't it. They've made an error.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just trying to make me feel as awkward as possible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I agree. No, I agree. Jenny, you know what, I think they really missed the big one here.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm sorry, but you know what, we'll show them who they did pick -- ladies, you may want to get ready for this one.


ANDERSON: Well, that from "CNN Today" just a few days ago. But "Broken News" does more than just highlight the awkward banter between anchors and weather reporters. The show pokes fun at every aspect of what we and every other roaming news channel does.

And joining me now is the show's director and creator John Morton.

John, are you having a lot of fun?

JOHN MORTON, "BROKEN NEWS": Yeah, we were having a lot of fun. We're finished now, but it was fun.

ANDERSON: The first episode was based on a tomato flu. That was sort of the major story that you -- your guys -- were covering as news presenters. Which happened to be very topical that week because it was a bird flu week. Was that on purpose?

MORTON: Yes. It was absolutely not on purpose. Because we try with all the news to make up news, to make up the people that are presenting it and to make up the news they were talking about, and we got blown towards topicality because -- and we came up with tomato flu back in March, just as something that was ridiculous but tapped into our general paranoia we all have about bad stuff happening. And then, blow me down, when we're already committed to that show being show one, we start getting a barrage of stuff about bird flu, and we suddenly become accidentally topical.

ANDERSON: Because I was wondering, when I was watching, I wondered whether -- I know we are a generation of news addicts, but I'm just wondering whether there is enough in news presenting that is funny enough or whether satirical news content shows have longevity because they are about news content rather than about news presenting.

MORTON: I think that's true to an extent. I am sure that news, like "The Daily Show," that feed on what is happening around us, have an almost limitless life, and I'm sure this one doesn't, although really what we're trying to do is probably quite different than what people thought we were trying to do, which is just be silly, which is quite a harmless and quite an unfashionable aspiration. We weren't trying to -- we're not angry about anything. We weren't trying to line up any targets and shoot them down. We were just trying to have fun with the dynamics of endless airtime and now quite enough things to fill it and what happens to people in the middle of that.

ANDERSON: There is always the possibility that a show like this becomes a media love in, but is it funny for everybody else?

MORTON: We've not written it from the point of view of the insiders. I'm not an insider to your world. But we hope that just the sheer harmless stupidity of a lot of what is happening with the straight face I was talking about will appeal to people who don't know any more about news than we do.

ANDERSON: We leave it there. We thank you.

MORTON: Thank you.

ANDERSON: And that's it for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Becky Anderson. We will see you next time.



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