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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 7, 2006 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to this special edition of CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.
It has been a momentous year as far as news goes, from the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami to Saddam's war crimes trial, the death of a pope to terror attacks across the globe.

This program has gone behind the scenes, examining how the media has reported the major events.

The year started with these devastating scenes, from when the killer wave struck South Asia. Editors were faced with the tough decision of what exactly they should show.


ROGER MOSEY, FMR. HEAD OF BBC TV NEWS: I think we have to be enormously careful about taste issues. We have to be absolutely clear we're not intruding unnecessarily or improperly into grief, against which you have to show the scale of this disaster. And if you look at the response there has been from countries across the world to the disaster, that's partly because the reporting has been showing them the unvarnished truth about what's happened.


SWEENEY: We debated similar issues throughout the year.

In February, Britain's Channel Four News broadcast an interview with the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayef in which he promised more terror. The network defended its decision after heavy criticism from the Russian government.


MARTIN FEWELL, CHANNEL FOUR NEWS: I think it depends very much on the conditions in which the material is broadcast. Yes, I can see that if terrorists or people who espouse political violence were given an unchallenged platform to air whatever views they had, there might be some truth in your argument.

In this particular context, Basayef was indeed responding to questions that we had sent to him by an intermediary. Our report made very clear his own history of violence, not just in Beslan, but in the Moscow theater siege and in Chechnya.


SWEENEY: Back in March, the media went mad over Michael Jackson's sex abuse trial.


RAY BENNETT, "HOLLYWOOD REPORTER": Michael Jackson has been, if not now, the biggest pop star in the world. He's sold more records than just about anybody. Certainly his career in the last dozen years has faded and diminished, largely because of all of the allegations that have surrounded him and his increasing, well, weirdness.


SWEENEY: The pop star was cleared of all charges, but there was much debate about whether the trial could ever be fair.

Another court case that's been labelled little more than a circus is that of Saddam Hussein, currently on trial in Iraq for war crimes against humanity. Media interest in that case is intense, but we're yet to see how it plays out.

Earlier in the year, the "New York Times" columnist Nicholas Kristof published these gory images from Darfur. His aim, to make all of us look squarely at the victims of the world's indifference.


NICHOLAS KRISTOF, "NEW YORK TIMES": What we're not good at is covering things that happen day after day after day and especially public health concerns that affect, you know, millions and millions of people, but affect them every day. And that's where our weakness is and is one of the reasons why we have not done a better job in covering Darfur.


SWEENEY: By all accounts, little has changed in Sudan, but many journalists strive to keep Africa and its problems on the media agenda.

In March the McCartney sisters burst onto the media stage campaigning for justice over the murder of their brother, Robert, in a Belfast bar. They blame the IRA for the killing and took their case all the way to the White House.


CAROLE COLEMAN, WTE NEWS: The McCartney sisters have definitely dominated the scene. Theirs is the message that people want to hear. They're the people that George Bush met. I think it is a very big story and fairly big here, and very big back in Ireland.


SWEENEY: One man has been charged with Robert McCartney's murder.

In August we reported on Project Klebnikov, set up to investigate the murder of Paul Klebnikov, editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine.


RICHARD BEHAR, PROJECT KLEBNIKOV: It's a global alliance of news outlets and seasoned investigative reporters who are committed to shedding light on the murder case and trying to unravel some of the stories that Paul was working on at the time, as well as try to lend a helping hand to Russian journalists today who are in a very difficult and sometimes lethal environment.


SWEENEY: Many journalists are idealistic, wanting to make the world a better place. ITN's Chris Rogers is no exception.

The young reporter went undercover into several jails in the Philippines where he found this. Thousands of children caged in squalor alongside murderers and rapists, beaten and sexually assaulted. His report prompted a high-level investigation currently underway.

In October we heard from the former ABC correspondent Richard Gisbert (ph). He sued the network which he says fired him for refusing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. ABC disputed his claim, saying all war zone assignments were voluntary. Mr. Gisbert (ph) won his case in December.

And, finally, we also covered the allegations that President Bush discussed bombing al-Jazeera's Doha headquarters. The news was supposedly contained in a leaked British government memo. Newspapers were threatened with an injunction if they reported further details from the document.

Al-Jazeera is demanding answers from both the U.S. and British governments, but so far has no answers.


WADAH KHANFAR, AL-JAZEERA: I would like to know the facts. I think, first of all, we need to know exactly did that discussion take place or not. Did the American administration have in mind to bomb al-Jazeera? We know that the Americans -- some American officials, not all of them, some of them actually understand al-Jazeera and the role of al-Jazeera -- but some of them have criticized al-Jazeera. And two of our bureaus were bombed, one in Kabul and the other one in Baghdad. And two of our colleagues were killed. And one of them has been arrested in Guantanamo, Samuel Haj (ph).

So there was a sort of environment, but to bomb al-Jazeera headquarters, this is something that we need to know exactly what was the fact about it.


SWEENEY: We'll update you here on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS with any developments on these stories and other industry issues.

Coming up on the show, a picture tells a thousand words, or so the saying goes. We hear from an editorial cartoonist.

That's after this short break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

"This is breaking news" and "These are the top stories." Both are fairly common phrases uttered by an anchor. Along with reporters, we tell you about the pictures.

Newspaper journalists use prose to describe what's happening. But words are secondary to an editorial cartoonist.

Well, to discuss how they go about their work, I'm joined now by one of the world's best, Mike Luckovich, of the "Atlanta Journal Constitution."

Mike, thanks very much for joining us.

When did you know you wanted to be a cartoonist? And is it at all possible to be a cartoonist if you can't really draw?


You know, I've wanted to be a cartoonist all my life. When I was in elementary school, my dad was transferred around a lot in his job. And the first thing I would do is I would sit down and I would draw a caricature of the teacher. And I would pass it around to my classmates and I would have 30 new friends. So I've been a cartoonist all my life.

SWEENEY: Let's take a look at some of the cartoons that you have for us.


SWEENEY: Do they always have to have a political bent and a certain ironic twist to them?

LUCKOVICH: You know, I try, because I'm an editorial cartoonist, I try and make my cartoons based on the politics of the day, international, national, local events.

SWEENEY: All right, let's have a look at this cartoon you're holding up.

LUCKOVICH: All right, yes. This is the judge in the Saddam Hussein trial. And the judge is staying to Saddam, "For your crimes, you get Iraq back." That's like the ultimate punishment, to have that mess back.

SWEENEY: And Saddam Hussein not looking very happy.

LUCKOVICH: No. He's quite panicked about that prospect.

SWEENEY: And you do these cartoons, obviously, for the "Atlanta Journal Constitution," which is a major newspaper in Atlanta.


SWEENEY: Which is a major newspaper in Atlanta, in the state of Georgia.


SWEENEY: And you were saying earlier that you started a blog. What kind of reaction do you get to cartoons like that?

LUCKOVICH: Well, you know, on that one, that's more of an international type cartoon, so it's a little bit milder than some of the things I do nationally.

I'm not a big fan of President Bush, and I live in a red state. And so when I hit President Bush, which I do often, people on my blog get very offended. But then I also have my defenders too, so it becomes a very spirited debate.

SWEENEY: Let's have a look at one of the more controversial cartoons, then, that would draw a lot of debate.

LUCKOVICH: All right. Well, now, this one drew perhaps the most debate this year. What I did was, once there had been 2,000 American soldiers had died in the Iraq War, I took -- I wrote "Why" using each of their names. I just wrote very, very small. Because I wanted to honor the troops but still question what the heck this war is all about.

SWEENEY: One assumes normally that a cartoonist is perhaps against the establishment of the day or questioning the decisions of the establishment of the day --


SWEENEY: -- which begs the question, do you know of any Republican cartoonist who are very pro-President Bush and his policies, particularly, in the Middle East?

LUCKOVICH: Most cartoonist I think are being artistic, maybe, I don't know. Really following the news. Most cartoonists in America are anti- George Bush.

SWEENEY: Let's have a look at some more cartoons -- Mike.

LUCKOVICH: All right. This I did just this past Friday. This is based on the domestic eavesdropping that Bush has been doing without obtaining a warrant. He's just been spying on Americans, basically.

So it's a two-panel. I drew a couple of elephants, which represent the Republican Party, Republican elephants. And the first elephant is saying to the next, he's saying, "How do we spin this? Bush has eavesdropping on hundreds of Americans without a warrant?"

So in the second panel you see they're at a podium and they're saying "George W. Bush is a president who listening."

SWEENEY: So in a sense, there is a certain sarcastic streak to your average, or better than average, cartoonist, would you say?

LUCKOVICH: Yeah, well, I know I'm very sarcastic, and editorial cartooning is a negative art form, basically. You don't see too many cartoons that are based on positive news. It's easier to do a cartoon, a negative type cartoon, and there's plenty of negative stuff going on in this country and in the world for a cartoonist to focus on.

SWEENEY: Mike Luckovich, thank you very much, indeed, for coming in and showing up some of your favorite cartoons from the year.

LUCKOVICH: Thank you for having me.

SWEENEY: And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, what's on next year's news agenda?

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

2005 has been a tumultuous year for news. Some we could plan for, but most stories, like the wrath of natural disasters, we merely react to. Without a crystal ball, it's difficult to predict next year's news agenda, so we're drafting in some experts.

I'm joined here in London by Sheila MacVicar, of CBS; from Washington, former CNN correspondent Walt Rodgers; and from Beirut, Zaki Chehab, the political editor of "al-Hayat" and author of many books, including "Iraq Ablaze."

Zaki, let's begin with you. You've actually just come out of Iraq, where the elections, of course, were recently held. Looking back on the year, it ended pretty much as it began, with ballots and violence. How do you predict 2006?

ZAKI CHEHAB, "AL-HAYAT": In fact, comparing the last election in Iraq with the election which Iraq has experienced in January 2005, it's really big difference. In terms of violence, instead of, you know, January 2005, more than 40 killed. This December election, only two people killed, which is in a way, if you want to compare it to the election in Egypt, it was, in terms of security, much better.

Definitely, the political situation and the political atmosphere have changed a lot. I think for one single reason. The way the American administration have dealt with the Sunnis, who are really the main source where violence is coming from, have made this big difference, for one single reason, that Sunnis, they felt after the approach made by the administration towards them, that they have a chance to play a role in the political situation and the political dialogue which is taking place in Iraq today.

SWEENEY: Do you think that is a turning point, then?

CHEHAB: Definitely. The kind of statements we have seen from different insurgent groups, saying that they are not going to attack polling stations that day, even though they did not approve of the election, it's a sign that these different insurgency groups are listening to the masses which have supported them the last three years.

I am sure the violence which Iraq has experienced since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein has proved for both parties, Americans and insurgents, that the political process is the only way to get out of this mess Iraq is experiencing these days.

SWEENEY: Walter Rodgers, what do you believe will be the watershed from Iraq, looking ahead into 2006?

WALTER RODGERS, FMR. CNN CORRESPONDENT: I suspect the trend, despite what the president has been saying, is going to be a greater slide towards civil war. He's never defined what victory is there.

I think the successful elections which we saw most recently, particularly the Sunni turnout, merely were a manifestation of the fact that the Iraqis, particularly the Sunnis, want the American occupation to end. Again, what kind of Iraq are we looking at? Are we looking at three federated states within the country? A Sunni state, a Kurdish state? Certainly the Kurds want -- already have -- quasi-independence. The Sunnis are wary of the Shias. The Shias have kept turning out for these elections because they want political independence of a sort of their own where they want to dominate the country.

Then you have to determine who gets the oil. I don't see much other than a big mess for Iraq in the future.

SWEENEY: Sheila MacVicar, would you agree?

SHEILA MACVICAR, CBS CORRESPONDENT: Zaki's point is well taken. The elections did pass off relatively peacefully, but in large measure it was because insurgents in Sunni areas guaranteed the safety and security of those going to the polls.

We have to see what the composition of this government is. Either this works or, as I heard in my most recent travels to the Middle East, in three or four months we see an increased level of violence and an even deeper slide towards civil war.

SWEENEY: And, of course, the neighbors, Iran, very much involved in the scene throughout the Middle East, and we have seen the election toward the latter part of this year of a president that perhaps nobody could have predicted at the beginning of the year. And he certainly made some statements, as we all know, that have been deemed pretty inflammatory by many.

Who is he playing to? And how much trouble do you think he's going to get into next year, in 2006? And will the West or Washington particularly be able to do anything about him?

MACVICAR: Well, I think the other country we're going to be spending a lot of time watching in 2006 is the other Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad plays to different audiences. He has a domestic audience which is receptive to the kinds of statements we have heard from him.

He also perhaps doesn't understand how those statements play out internationally. Now, that's being generous. There are other people who say that he is deliberately courting confrontation, he is deliberately seeking conflict, that perhaps it even plays into his own ideology, his religious ideology.

Impossible to say at this point, but it is clear the West is going to have to continue to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. There are other issues in Iran. And as we have seen and as we have heard from Jordan's King Abdullah, the growth of what he has called the Shia crescent, where we are seeing Iranian medaling now in Iraq, particularly in the south and elsewhere, and we're likely to continue to see that.

SWEENEY: Walter, if you were sitting in the president's chair in Washington in the White House, we know you're sitting in D.C. at the moment, who would you be most concerned about in terms of influencing the Middle East in the coming year?

RODGERS: Certainly the Iranians, because the insurgency in Iraq is only going to -- it has the capability of making the Americans uncomfortable.

Still, if you look at this year, and let's imagine we were sitting in these places a year ago, who would have imagined a major terror attack in London, the subways, two attacks, in July? We have to ask ourselves that very same question again this year. Will the big news event of the coming year be a repeat performance in some fashion of a 9/11 attack?

The Islamist militants have declared war on the United States. Few think that an election in Iraq or anywhere else is going to change that. So if you look into the future, if you look into the Middle East, Iraq may ultimately be a sideshow, as Sheila pointed out, to a growing possible confrontation with Iran. But more importantly, you have to keep your eyes on the Islamist militants, because as they threatened London, they remain a threat to the United States.

SWEENEY: And, of course, where you're sitting, Zaki, at the moment, in Lebanon, has seen its share of trouble and strife this past year. A year ago it would have been difficult to predict that Lebanon would be in the position it is now. What is the mood in Lebanon as it heads into 2006?

CHEHAB: Definitely people here are watching the developments, the U.N. report and U.N. investigation into the death of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. We have experienced so many incidents, tragic incidents, where many journalists, many politicians, have been assassinated in this country. And the Lebanese for sure are looking for the new year with a lot of fear about what the future is hiding for them.

SWEENEY: Walter Rodgers, if you were to plan your budget for 2006 in terms of news gathering costs, where would you be putting your money right now?

RODGERS: On Mother Nature. Mother Nature was the big story of this past year, the tsunami in South Asia and then subsequently the destruction by Hurricane Katrina of an American city. It's this wild card factor that you don't know where it's going to jump up and hit you next.

SWEENEY: Sheila, is it the nature, though, of the news business that we tend to rather react to these events of Mother Nature rather than put perhaps money or investment or resources into more long term programs or articles about Mother Nature and the long-term dangers and consequences of the environment?

MACVICAR: Environmental change, as Walt has said, is a huge story and one that is in large measure underreported. In part because we have seen the terrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina this year and seen an unusual hurricane season in the United States, we have started to focus a little bit more. But Mother Nature, those stories, unless they are dramatic natural disasters, have tended in the past to make our editors' eyes glaze over.

We know that people are interested in those stories. They are interested in what's happening to their environment. They join all kinds of movements and research into ecology. We have to find a way of making climate change and what's happening in our environment a story that people want to watch and editors want to invest in.

SWEENEY: And, Walter, just let me go back to you briefly. I would like to talk to you about something that we haven't broached on yet, which is the emergence of China. Long been forecast, it's there as a factor. Are we paying enough attention to what is happening in that part of the world?

RODGERS: I don't think in the United States anyone is focusing on that save perhaps the Pentagon, but I think Europe was, as I recall, beginning to focus on that. But that story too has a conjoined twin. It is the souring of the American presidency under George Bush and the tarnishing of the American image in the world and the goodwill or the admiration which used to be directed towards the United States, particularly in Europe and the developing countries, is now being harvested by the Chinese.

China is the future, absent major civil strife there.

SWEENEY: And President Bush a year ago just elected with what he spoke about many times at the beginning of 2005 as political capital. He truly believed that this time there could be no question about his legitimacy as president of the United States. He has spent that capital. Some would say he misspent it. What has happened this year?

RODGERS: If you're asking me, let me tell you this. George Bush hinged his -- he bet his entire presidency on Iraq. He bet it all. He bet the farm on Iraq. And it hasn't gone well, even despite this election.

He talks about victory in Iraq. OK, who's going to surrender? Do you see anybody surrendering? I think most Iraqis want the Americans out. Iraq was, I think now, a bad bet. And I think Bush will ultimately pay the price. We see that here in the United States with what I call the souring of his presidency.

SWEENEY: A brief final word to you, Sheila MacVicar?

MACVICAR: I have to agree with Walt. China is a big story that we're not paying enough attention to. But also, as Walt has rightly pointed out, because of the continuing importance of the United States, because we're going into a midterm election cycle, we're going to be hearing a lot more about the president's woes, and we're going to be hearing a lot more about certain scandals in Washington. Those scandals are going to be -- will unfold. Some of them may go to court. We'll be spending a lot of time listening to what's happening there.

SWEENEY: Sheila MacVicar, here in London; Zaki Chehab, in Lebanon; and Walter Rodgers, in Washington, D.C., thank you all very much indeed.

And that is 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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