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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 25, 2006 - 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 for covering the big stories of the moment.

Ahead in the show, a holy mess. The author of "The Da Vinci Code" is sued for ripping off the work of other writers. Is his multi-million dollar fortune at stake?

Plus, Iraq in pictures. A photographic look behind the U.S. military scenes.

First, though, we go to South America, a region often sidelined, at least by the Western media. But now it's got a new 24-hour satellite news station. Launched recently, Telesur pitched itself as a home-grown service for local people. But critics fear it will simply become a mouth piece for the political forces that fund it.

CNN's Lucia Newman reports.


LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Say hello to Telesur, the newest edition to 24-hour satellite television, beamed all over Latin America as an alternative to CNN and other Western networks.

It's the brainchild of Venezuela's fiery leftist leader Hugo Chavez, who claims the network represents the awakening of Latin America.

Shortly before moving to larger more glamorous studios in Caracas, Telesur's president gave us a tour of a network whose slogan is, "Our north star is the south."

ANDRES IZARRA, TELESUR PRESIDENT: We're going to do stories out of Latin America that are not -- that you cannot find in other news services. And we are against one single message. We are a new voice that's going to diversify the messages.

NEWMAN: It's dubbed the Spanish language Al Jazeera. And, like Al Jazeera, it's financed with oil money, bankrolled by Venezuela to counter what it calls U.S. cultural imperialism.

The governments of Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba also have a stake in the new network although its staff comes from all over the region.

"I directed and presented a program at a regional TV station in Columbia before Telesur recruited me," says Patricia Viega (ph).

While one editor puts together a story on a plane crash in Peru, another combs through a mountain of Latin American documentary offerings. The majority have never seen the light of day in a region where nearly 70 percent of programs on commercial channels are made in the United States.

Telesur intends to be the antidote by showcasing homegrown music, documentaries and news. A lot of which is aggressively anti-capitalist and anti-American.

Critics in the U.S. State Department and at home call it divisive outright propaganda.

JOSE TORO JARDI, POLITICAL ANALYST (through translator): The idea is to influence other countries. Telesur has been totally financed by Venezuela, but it would seem its editorial line comes from Cuba.

NEWMAN: Florida Congressman Connie Mack sees it as such a threat that on his initiative Congress passed a bill this summer authorizing U.S. radio and TV broadcasts to Venezuela to counter Telesur's alleged anti- Americanism. The broadcasts have yet to begin.

Telesur's president denies that the station's economic dependence on Venezuela's government compromises its credibility.

IZARRA: We are a voice independent of the government. We're trying to -- again, this is a project for the integration of Latin America. That's our real -- the strategy objective.

NEWMAN: Telesur is currently available in 15 countries on more than 50 cable systems. And its success or failure will ultimately be measured by the number of eyeballs it attracts to its distinctive brand of left-wing journalism.

Lucia Newman, CNN, Caracas.


SWEENEY: Well, Moscow also has a new 24-hour news channel. Called Russia Today, the English language station aims to improve the countries image abroad. Its launch comes at a time when President Vladimir Putin has faced criticism in the West for reverting to Soviet-style leadership.

Many fear the channel will be just another media mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined by the network's London correspondent Dariya Pushova; and Andrey Cherkasov, correspondent for another Russian station, NTV.

Now, Dariya, you work for this new station. And I gather that even though it's only been on air a short amount of time, it has actually not been branded the Putin mouthpiece that many thought it would be.

DARIYA PUSHOVA, RUSSIA TODAY: Well, the idea of creating such a channel has been up in the air for a very long time. Russia did need its own channel, its voice outside the country. And, therefore, this English speaking channel was always there, sort of.

But this is the first time that it was actually implemented. And it is true that the channel turned out to be a lot of surprise to the people who expected it to be a mouthpiece of Kremlin.

SWEENEY: Does the network see itself needing to perhaps change what it might regard as some misperceptions on the part of international viewers about Russia?

PUSHOVA: Many people who live outside of Russia don't really know what's going on inside of the country. And Russians are telling the world what they have to tell about their lives. And there are quite a lot of misconceptions. There are quite a lot of beliefs in the West and all over the world about Russia which are not quite true.

So with the help of our programs and our reports, we're just trying to tell a bit more. That doesn't mean we're just showing we're a great country and this is how positive we all look. We're telling the real stories of real people, and because we know this country, because we have good contacts, because we're just on top of it, we can actually give a deeper insight than any foreign correspondent that doesn't speak the language, who would come to Russia and see things from their own perspective.

SWEENEY: Andrey, a deeper insight into Russia, how it really is? Or a mouthpiece of the Kremlin?

ANDREY CHERKASOV, NTV: Well, I agree totally with Dariya that a 24- hour news service in Russia has been long overdue and it's a great thing that this channel exists.

But I think that the only channel is not enough. If the Russian government wants their voice to be heard worldwide, besides the channel they need to work with international media, with the foreign broadcasters as well.

I believe that the only way that you can spread your word is actually working with the journalists. Journalists who come to Russia as reporters or Moscow-based correspondents, I think that foreign media must have greater access to Russian politicians, to Russian leaders for interviews, and I think it will be good for both.

SWEENEY: NTV used to be an independent station, now owned by Gasprom (ph). How independent is it in reality?

CHERKASOV: Well, compared to others, we try to be as much an objective source of information, Russian and independent. Of course, there are compromises. That's part of everyday life, reality, in Russia.

SWEENEY: Can you give me an example, perhaps, generally speaking, of the compromises?

CHERKASOV: Well, I mean, there are some -- we can -- there are a few stories that we try to be -- let's say on the question of Chechnya. We're still trying to be objective and trying to -- but if something happens in Chechnya, we try to talk about it. Maybe not on as great a scale as it was before, but we still mention the problem and we're saying that this problem is not going to go away by itself.

SWEENEY: How much, or how often, does Chechnya make the agenda in Russia Today?

PUSHOVA: It does make the agenda on Russia Today, and we're not avoiding on air the problems that exist in our country. And that was a big surprise to many people who expected Russia Today to go and tell all the fairy tales about Russia to the world.

SWEENEY: So on the wider question, how would you assess the state of journalism today?

PUSHOVA: Well, I think there is now Russia is coming to an understanding that if journalism becomes totally biased or if it becomes propaganda like, nobody is going to watch it, nobody is going to read it. And in order to keep competitive, in order to actually go out there and offer something that would interest the people, there has to be professional and the level of journalism that everybody would sort of trust and be interested in.

SWEENEY: Briefly, I must finish on this, Andrey, if I may ask you, Russia as undergone a huge transition over the last 15, 16 years or so, and journalism along with it. Do you see that evolving? Do you see journalism becoming really free and independent ultimately in Russia?

CHERKASOV: Yes, I do, and there has been a great change in what we had even 10 or 15 years ago and what we have now. One would talk about the freedom of press. There is a freedom of press in Russia. There is a lot of radio stations and newspapers.

Of course, for television it's become more difficult, I would say, but, still, you can't say there is censorship. I think there is more responsibility on the side of the journalist. You know, you have to take responsibility for what you're saying and how you're presenting the news. And that's, I think that's been a great change over the last new years. And for the future I have very good hopes.

SWEENEY: OK, Andrey Cherkasov and Dariya Pushova, thank you both very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, writer verses writer. We look at the high-profile "Da Vinci Code" trial. That's ahead. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

It's one of the most popular books in history. Nearly 40 million copies of "The Da Vinci Code" have been sold worldwide. Author Dan Brown was hailed as a literary genius. Now, though, he's been sued by two writers who claim he stole the idea from a nonfiction book they published in 1982, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail."

Is this a clear case of plagiarism or creative license? How tightly should novels be sourced? And what is a truly original idea?

Well, to discuss this further I'm joined by David Barratt, a senior editor at "Phenomena" magazine, and Maev Kennedy, a journalist whose been covering the trial for Britain's "Guardian" newspaper.

Maev Kennedy, it's often said that you're not a journalist until you've been down at the courts, no matter how many stories you've covered.

What was it like for you going in?

MAEV KENNEDY, "GUARDIAN": I've been a journalist for an awful long time and I've done an awful lot of court reporting. Rainy courtrooms in the backwoods of Ireland. I've never had an experience quite like this.

I mean, we literally practically had to fight our way into the courts every morning. The first day I was there, I ended up sitting between journalists from the "Fortier Times" (ph), which is the wilder showers (ph) of parapsychology and other phenomenon.

SWEENEY: What is the attraction -- David.

DAVID BARRATT, "PHENOMENA": It's a fast-paced airport thriller. I would say fairly third-rate fast-paced airport thriller. It's a page- turner. It does really keep you turning pages. It's full of excitement and full of thrills. But it's incredibly light-weight. There is no real virtue to it at all as literature.

SWEENEY: And did you make any link at all with any other books you may have read?

BARRATT: I was ticking every point off as I read through it. This is from "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail." This is from "Templar Revelations." This is from somewhere else. Practically page for page there was something taken from books that I'd read 10, 15, 20 years ago.

KENNEDY: I had read "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" when it came out, and I was a bit of a baby goth, and I was just young enough still when it came out to be entranced. And if you're brought up as a traditional Catholic in Ireland, there was this feeling of doors opening and peeks behind them.

And I remember about 2/3 of the way through the book I shook myself and I thought, this is great fun, but it's not actually true. And once that thought came into your mind, the whole book just fell to pieces completely.

And I didn't find "The Da Vinci Code" a rip-roaring read at all. I found it like running through treacle (ph). I legally found it very hard to read.

SWEENEY: I understand that your issue is with mainly how it has been covered in the mainstream media. There is a sense that people have taken it --

BARRATT: Part of it, yes. I do get the feeling quite a few of the journalists who have reported on it -- obviously not yourself -- didn't have any background for it, didn't know anything about it, were just sent out to cover it.

And I've got to be careful how I say this, but I think people (UNINTELLIGIBLE) took one side at the beginning and thought we're going to stay with Dan Brown. It's a silly court case. They should never have brought it.

But to my mind, the very fact that it's got to court, the very fact that two of Britain's leading copyright barristers are fighting each side and a very, very significant judge is presiding over it shows there was a case to be answered. How the verdict goes in the end, who knows, but there was definitely a case to be discussed and fought through in the courtroom. And I think a lot of the press just decided there wasn't and came down on the Dan Brown Random House side without really considering it.

SWEENEY: Do you think this is not only a significant court case, Maev, but perhaps a rather unusual court case?

KENNEDY: I find it very unusual. I find it gripping as a human drama, I have to say, which I hadn't expected, because these are three authors, Baigent and Leigh, who could not be more different. Baigent is a thin, white American, except he's actually from New Zealand. He's very thin, very silvery, very athletic looking. And Leigh looks like a rock and roll roadie, which I believe he was. I believe he was in a band at one stage. They look utterly different and their demeanor was completely different.

And Dan Brown once described himself as a preppy geek from New Hampshire. He's an extremely courteous man and I wouldn't have been so rude to him, but it is absolutely what he looks like.

And they, each of them in their way, you could see that they really suffered on the witness stand. They'd never been through anything like this before. Baigent lacks as if he might actually collapse during it. He was just in anguish. And there were these excruciating silences that lasted up to two minutes at one stage. And he would just say "That's true," when somebody but a point to him that just ripped his case to shreds.

I got really fascinated by it. Dan Brown, on the last day of it, was twisting sheets of paper like that, because the paper was piling up on all sides, crates and crates of paper and books all over the court. And he just couldn't get the letters to focus. And at one point he starts to laugh. And he says I'm laughing because the line I'm reading is, "I've got pretty good eyesight," and after this case, I haven't.

So there was a kind of human tragedy being played out there as well.

SWEENEY: A human tragedy being played out, but what about the wider and very serious issue of the copyright?

KENNEDY: I had a day of real terror when they were going through one of the documents which had been pulled together from the Internet. And I thought this is exactly how journalists work now. You've got to mug up on something really quickly. You do a quick Google. You pull in lines and half lines. You don't need to know where they come from so you don't make note of it. I mean, we might all have to. And I did have this moment where I thought this could get all of us. This could change the way we have to work.

SWEENEY: What are the implications for copyright law after this, or indeed for future authors writing future books?

BARRATT: I think authors are going to have to be a lot more careful if they take information from another source. Not just factual information, but if they take what Baigent and Leigh were talking about, the architecture of their book, the whole structure, the whole concept of their book and base enough on it, then what they really should do is go to the authors initially and say, look, do you mind if I do this. Do you mind if I write a fictionalized version of your book.

SWEENEY: Well, there we must leave it. Maev Kennedy, David Barratt, thank you both very much for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, through the eyes of a soldier. A story of war by those serving in Iraq.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Chucking a bit of snow around. Giving your mate a haircut. And even celebrating Christmas. These images offer a glimpse into the after-hours life of a U.S. soldier in Iraq. They've been published in a book titled "This is Our War," to mark the third anniversary of the conflict.

Well, the idea stemmed from a trip made to Iraq by Devin Friedman, a senior writer at "GQ" magazine. He joins me now from New York to discuss the project.

The subject of Iraq has been covered in very many ways. When you set out to do this project, did you deliberately want to try to do something differently?

DEVIN FRIEDMAN, "GQ": It wasn't as premeditated as that.

I just had been over there for "GQ" magazine doing a story, and I met a bunch of guys who were downloading pictures onto their computers, a bunch of people from the Florida National Guard. And I saw the pictures. They were just amazing, really intimate shots. And it just seemed to me that it's something that hadn't been done before. And so that was sort of the idea behind it.

SWEENEY: And how cooperative were the U.S. servicemen with you and how cooperative were the authorities with you in terms of getting access to these pictures and then publishing them?

FRIEDMAN: Luckily, they were both, you know, really into the idea.

The project sort of took on a life of its own once we got the word out through some military publications and some veterans' Web sites. Basically, it was a word of mouth project. And these guys who had come back home after serving over there were really eager to share their experience with someone, because you have this really intense experience and then you come back home and it's sort of, you know, you go back and work at your regular job if you're a Guardsman or something.

So they were, you know, 15,000 or 20,000 pictures poured into the offices when the word got out.

SWEENEY: And how did you begin to choose?

FRIEDMAN: Well, we had a meeting every week, and it was just very clear, the pictures that sort of were above and beyond anything that we had expected. And those sort of were the ones that we set aside each week. Whether it was the one of these guys having a snowball fight in their army fatigues. I mean, who even knew there was snow in Iraq.

SWEENEY: What do you think in general these pictures convey? What kind of story do you think they tell the viewers?

FRIEDMAN: The best thing for me as a journalist was I didn't have to decide what story they were telling. They sort of told their own story. And that's the story of the full spectrum of experience of a soldier in Iraq, everything from total boredom to complete fear to loneliness. And it was really nice to get out of the way of the story and just sort of let the people whose pictures were in the book tell their own story.

SWEENEY: Have you been surprised in a sense that this hadn't been done before in this conflict?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, I mean, in general, I think the best ideas are the ones that seem totally obvious but that haven't been done.

SWEENEY: You've set quite a benchmark for yourself and for the magazine in terms of coverage of the war in Iraq because we often get somewhat jaded, unfortunately, by reading word after word in the newspapers and seeing the same images of television. I mean, do you think that you have set yourself a benchmark that you'll be able to, you know, reach again?

FRIEDMAN: I hope so. But the war is so dynamic and the situation over there is so dynamic, that there are constantly new ways to cover it. And this was just, you know, you said that there is word after word that's been written about the war, and there is a little bit of fatigue out among readers, and viewers probably too, about the war.

And we were really happy to be able to do something that was totally apolitical, that, you know, there is no shortage of books out there arguing for and against the war. And this was just more of a documentary project, sort of showing what it felt like to be there.

SWEENEY: There we have to leave it. Devin Friedman, thank you very much for joining us from New York.

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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