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Election Reporting; Differing Views of the Middle East Conflict.

Aired March 9, 2008 - 18:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, U.S. presidential politics, who's in, who's out, and why are the candidates focusing on one thing? Strategy (INAUDIBLE). Americans aren't the only ones watching the campaign. The world is taking stock of the democratic process, questioning who would be the best leader of the free world.

And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, killing, bloodshed and promised peace talks are playing out in very different narratives in the press.

We begin this week with Hillary Clinton staying alive. Winning three of four state contests, but the victories failed to put much of a dent in Barack Obama's delegate lead. While in the Republican battle, it was a clean sweep in all four states for John McCain, enough to put him over the top and win his party's nomination.

Well, for more on winning strategies and what comes next in this long haul race, I'm joined by Michelle Henry from "The Times" of London, Jeffrey Stinson, the London bureau chief for "USA Today" and CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider in Washington, D.C.

Bill, in the run up to last Tuesday, it was widely predicted - it was expected that unless Hillary Clinton did so well, that she'd be out the race altogether. Did she do better than the media expected?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, she did. A lot of people - the media were ready to dismiss her. They were telling her get out. You know, you're finished. You can't win these races. Her obituary was being written. There were columns being written by noted pundits, saying that she ought to gracefully withdraw. And I think the expectation was at best she might win Ohio, but certainly not both states.

Expectations matter. Maybe they shouldn't, but they do. And the press helped set those expectations.

SWEENEY: Remember before New Hampshire as well, the media, and I remember but the British media were showing pictures of her in the snow campaign, tripping.


SWEENEY: You know, this was her last stand and.

STINSON: You're absolutely correct about that. The media was ready to write her off. They thought that Obama had the big mo, and that he was going to win there, and it's over for her.

SWEENEY: Michelle Henry, what's your view of this? Is there a disconnect, do you think, between the media in the U.S. particularly and the voters?

MICHELLE HENRY, THE TIMES: Oh, there's been a disconnect between the media and the voters since this whole thing started, because from the get go, you know, there was - no one was paying attention to Obama. No one was paying attention to McCain.

Look, all of a sudden, McCain's won the Republican nomination. Obama and Hillary have - you know, they've been going neck and neck since they're going all along.

And I think that the media, they - even - they're starting to guard themselves because they're saying whatever we say has backfired on us. It's always, you know, gone wrong. And I think that, you know, we're still out there. We keep writing. We keep punditing as they (INAUDIBLE).

SWEENEY: Well, I suppose it's the question, Bill Schneider, of who sets the agenda. I know you deal in facts and figures and polls an awful lot, but in your opinion, who sets the agenda? The politicians obviously want to, and the media also has a story, a news story to come up with, a new angle?

SCHNEIDER: Right. The media loves a story. And every twist and turn makes it more exciting. I call Hillary Clinton, not the comeback kid, but the comeback of the month kid. She - in January, she came back in New Hampshire. Then in February, she came back on Super Tuesday. And now in March, she's come back in Ohio and Texas.

Look, in every race, at least in the United States, there is a phantom candidate I call expected. It's not enough to win. You have to do better than expected. If you win but you do worse than expected, you lose. So that's always the test.

Who sets those expectations? Well, frankly, the press has a lot to do with it, as do the pundits and the strategists. They go into a race and they say here's what expected to happen. If a candidate does better than that, as Hillary Clinton did in Ohio and Texas, it's a big victory.

SWEENEY: Well, also, there's a situation where she went on - Michelle Henry, I think it was "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart and also "Saturday Night Live," which is a huge show in the U.S. How much does that help or hinder a candidacy?

HENRY: That really helps them. I think that it was back in '91, when Bill Clinton - I think he's the one that really got the ball rolling. He appeared on "Arsenio Hall," a very famous late night talk show.


HENRY: And he played his saxophone. And everyone thought, whoa, these political people in office can actually have a sense of humor and do something that's really offbeat. And that really appealed to young people. If you look back, a lot of young people voted in that year. And that's what they're trying to do again by going at these alternate way.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you, if I may, Jeffrey, about this 3:00 a.m. ad that she made, that was in my mind, and I could be wrong, but in my opinion, it seemed to be lampooned by the media and beyond the media, beyond the mainstream media. But now it seems that this owes - this is what she owes a lot of her success on Tuesday?

STINSON: Yes, it's funny. The - what you see immediately coming out of a debate, or what you might see at the moment on a clip within the first 12 hours you may think it's awful. Then all of a sudden when the public's had it for a while and digested it, and it plays out on reruns over the course of two days or three days, the public reaction all of a sudden turns it the other way.

It was, you know, the question about her tears, for instance. Oh, no, this will hurt her. And in fact, it ended up helping her with the voters.

SWEENEY: Michelle Henry, the last time we spoke when you were on this program, you figured that Barack Obama had best chance of beating John McCain. But again, you know, obviously, it's very hard to be objective in this whole election campaign. Where are you thinking at the moment? What are thinking of right now?

HENRY: Well, looking at the polls, it still looks that way. Still looks - when you put McCain up against Hillary Clinton that he would win. But then John McCain versus Barack Obama, that Barack Obama would win.

But now that we've just come through this super duper Tuesday 2, Mach 2, seeing how Hillary's done so well, we're getting to wonder, well, what are these next seven or 12 weeks hold for us? Between the Democrats, there could be a lot of in fighting. It could get kind of really, really dirty.

So then, it could really change our perspective because, you know, Hillary Clinton was running both a negative and a positive campaign versus Barack Obama, just positive. And we might see him getting negative. And that might totally turn his image of being the new - a new politician on the (INAUDIBLE).

SWEENEY: Well, (INAUDIBLE). There we must leave it. Michelle Henry, Jeffrey Stinson, and Bill Schneider in D.C., thank you very much.

Up next, while the possible tides of change in the presidential race keep Americans gripped, the world is also hooked on the very close election battle, one in which they know may matter as much to them as well.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The U.S. election story is generated worldwide interest. It's a made in America drama that the audience in the Middle East seems to be eating up. Even in Lebanon, where the anti-Syrian governing coalition has been locked in a 16 month old power struggle, with an opposition led by Hezbollah.

And in Pakistan, where political uncertainty also reigns. President Pervez Musharraf's party suffered losses in last month's election and faces pressure to step down.

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined by Hisham Melham, a Lebanese journalist from al Arabiyah and Anwar Iqbal from Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper.

First of all, Hisham Melham, how is the race playing out in the Lebanese media first and foremost?

HISHAM MELHAM, AL ARABIYA: There's a tremendous interest in the race in the United States for obvious reasons. It is, after all, an historic race. First, viable African-American candidate. First viable woman candidate. And because the United States plays such an important role in Lebanon, people are very interested in knowing who's going to be the leader in the White House come November.

SWEENEY: Yes, so I'm wondering how much do you think foreign policy of the individual candidates, particularly in relation to Lebanon, has been learned by the Lebanese media?

MELHAM: Well, we told them details about their views on Iraq, for instance, on combating terrorism, on relationship with powerful countries in the region, such as Iran, how they view development in Iraq. So there is a tremendous interest.

And also in the last few days, last few weeks, because Hillary Clinton's been focusing on foreign policy issues, and on her own credentials as a better candidate, and that may have played a role in the recent tests in Ohio and Texas, obviously, foreign policy issues are important. And because in November, we may have a new president that would - could end the Republican control of the White House over the last eight years, people are interested in the Democratic candidate's views on Middle Eastern issues in particular.

SWEENEY: Anwar Iqbal from Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, Pakistan obviously very pivotal in the foreign policy of the current Bush administration. What is the appetite for the race that's on now, the presidential race in your country?

ANWAR IQBAL, DAWN: Well, Pakistanis in general are very interested. As you know, as you said at the close, Americans have close days (INAUDIBLE) in Afghanistan. And those troops actually use Pakistan as a transit through. And also, the - from time to time, they target suspected terrorist hideouts inside Pakistan. And of course, they close the relation between Musharraf and the Bush administration.

You might have heard that Musharraf described this alliance. And President Bush being the dominant partner, he comes first. It was a major issue in the - (INAUDIBLE) in Pakistan. So the Pakistanis, of course, are very interested in what is happening in United States.

SWEENEY: And how is this reflected in the media in terms of preferences for candidates? I mean, Barack Obama has been quoted as saying that if Pakistan was unwilling to go after al Qaeda militants in its own country, that perhaps the United States should do so. How has that gone down?

IQBAL: People are not very happy with what he said. But I won't say that that really turned people against 10 people are - interested in knowing that a non white is running for the highest office in America. They want to see whether he succeeds or not. And then, him having a Muslim background, which has probably has had a negative impact in the United States, so people are definitely interested in the race.

As far as John McCain is concerned, Pakistani people may not know a lot about him, but there is a general feeling in Pakistan that a Republican administration has been more friendly to the country than the Democrats.

SWEENEY: Hisham Melham, the appetite on al Arabiyah for this election, I mean, in your experience, have you ever seen anything like the interest in it this year?

MELHAM: Absolutely not. This is truly historic. There is a tremendous interest in Barack Obama's candidacy. People asking us is the United States ready to elect an African-American candidate? And we've been telling them that the United States has changed a lot, that Barack Obama's receiving the kind of support from different social strata in the United States that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, for instance, or 25 years ago, or 15 years ago.

There's also interest in Hillary Clinton. And people wondering whether this is going to be third Clinton term at the White House. They are interested also in the details of their views on how extricate the United States from Iraq, which candidate has the best views and proposals as to how to deal with Iran, the rising super power in the Middle East.

So there is a fascination also with the details. I mean, we found ourselves producing reports about the super delegates and the regular delegates, for instance.

SWEENEY: All right, there we must leave it. Thank you very much indeed for your time. Hisham Melham and Anwar Iqbal, both in the United States.

Coming up, a deadly cycle of attack and counter attack. Rockets are fired from Gaza and the Israelis fire back. Covering the conflict is anything but black and white. We discuss the headlines.


SWEENEY: In the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday said Israeli and Palestinian leaders will get back to peace negotiations. This comes despite fierce fighting in Gaza. Israel responding to rocket attacks, launches air strikes that have killed more than 100 Palestinians, some of them civilians. Several Israelis have also died.

On Friday, a gunman from East Jerusalem opened fire at a Jewish seminary school, killing eight students. Several others were wounded before an off duty Israeli military officer shot the gunman dead.

Before that attack, I spoke to CNN's Ben Wedeman in Gaza and an Israeli journalist. We looked at the media coverage before Friday's incident.

Commentators across the Middle East are unanimous in their condemnation of the Israeli attacks on Gaza. But how are events playing out in the Israeli media? The opinion headlines read, "In Mariv, the hot winter of allusions," saying that a member of the Knesset (ph) call for a change of the Israeli government are empty words, as "if all we have to do is change one side of the equation, so that the other side will also change. Our soldiers will not be killed and our civilians will not be hurt."

Another paper, "If Hamas sends a quarter of a million Israelis to the shelters - it feels it has won; and if we fire at Hamas and children and civilians are killed, it is won again; and finally in the commission of inquiry that will be for formed - we will lose for the third time."

While Akiva Eldar of Ha'aretz writes, "If the Israelis are retreating into what he calls an "inner logic of `our' conflict, as if Israel and Hamas were the only actors on the regional stage."

Well, Akiva Eldar joins me now form Tel Aviv. Now is it fair to say that the media in Israel is focused on what's happening in Sterot (ph) and Echkelon (ph) more so than what's taking place on the ground in Gaza?

AKIVA ELDAR, "HA'ARETZ: I think that the problem with the media, and this has been also the problem in the recent war in summer 2006, that we're too busy with scoring points. It's like, you know, a soccer game. And who's scoring more goals, and who is punching harder? And who is going to lie on the ground at the end of this - of the coming round?

And the problem is that we don't look at the day after. What is going to happen to our relationship with the press? It's like, you know, a wall that is going on. Even I hope that the British media is more busy with following and covering Afghanistan than the way the Israeli media is covering Gaza and the West Bank.

And Gaza and the West Bank are just across the street. So even if you win this round, and you hit the Hamas very hard, the media has to think about the implications it will have, not even in the long run, in the short run. On our Palestinian policies with whom we are trying to conduct political negotiations right now.

And a few days ago, President Abbas decided to stop. And he decided to come back to the talks. But this is accumulating. And at the end of the day, the media has also to talk about the price that Israel is going to pay in the long run. And we are not learning from previous mistakes.

SWEENEY: Well, am I right in thinking that there has been a change in the Israeli media, because my experience of it has been that it has been very concerned with what happened in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship and beyond in terms of other regional relations with Lebanon and Iran, Syria, etcetera. You're saying that's not the case now?

ELDAR: No. You know, the Israeli media was busy was criticizing al Jazeera. That al Jazeera is not covering properly or they're not balanced enough, covering what's happening in Israel in Sterot (ph) and in Echkelon (ph) with the kassam rockets. And they're just focusing on what's happening in Gaza.

The other problem, to be honest, is the fact that the Israeli media is not allowed to go into Gaza and cover it. My own newspaper is using the wires and is using foreign press to cover what's going on one hour away from where I'm sitting right now in the studio in Tel Aviv. And this is also not helping us, the Israeli media and the Israeli public to understand what's happening there and to turn from this or make duo or not with what Israel is doing in Gaza right now.


ELDAR: So there are some also objective problems. And of course, the idea - spokesmen will tell you that they are doing it only, you know, to make sure that we will not get hurt.

SWEENEY: Well, am I right, though, in thinking that the Israeli media keeps a very close eye on the Palestinian press and what's being said there, as well as the reports from international journalists and wire services?

ELDAR: The mainstream Israeli media and of course the right wing Israeli media is very interested in the radical reports and the radical analysis that you get from the Palestinian and from the Arab media to show, to prove that Israel is now the victim.

The media is playing the same game as the government. And it's - on the one hand, Israeli media against the Palestinian media, who is the victim. This is the name of the game. And we are playing right into the hands of our government. Because you know, we are both victims, the Israeli public and the Palestinian public. And I think that both the Israeli and the Palestinian media is not doing enough to get this message across.

SWEENEY: Akiva Eldar, there we must leave it in Tel Aviv. Thank you very much indeed for joining us.


SWEENEY: For more about the conflict and how it's being covered in Gaza, CNN's senior correspondent Ben Wedeman joins me now.

Ben, to pick up on a point Akiva Eldar was making toward the end of his interview, is that Palestinians and Israelis both equally feel they are victims in this situation, and that he believes that neither public is being served well by either press on either side of this conflict.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes. In fact, Fionnuala, there tends to be a real focus by each side, by the media on each side on the suffering of their side. If you look at the Palestinian media, certainly after a week like this when there's been so much bloodshed, it really completely focuses on the suffering of the Palestinians. And the same applies to the Israeli side.

You rarely get discussions in the Israeli press, or rather in the Palestinian press about the implications of the rocket attacks, for instance, that are being launched from Gaza into Israel. It's very much - both sides are very one sided in that respect.

SWEENEY: The Israeli press is considered by many to be largely Western. There's a lot of debate that goes on. And it's side by side with an Arab Palestinian media. Is it a very different media? What are the distinctions?

WEDEMAN: Well, on the Palestinian side, there's very much a focus on the national cause, the Palestinian cause. There are differences of opinion within that perspective.

I mean, for instance here, I'm in Gaza. You have a Hamas run newspaper, which very much mirrors the Hamas viewpoint. In the West Bank, it's different. It's the Fatah viewpoint. And you don't get sort of the range of opinion that you do in the Israeli media. In the Israeli newspapers, you will find opinions, for instance, very much against the occupation of the West Bank, very much against and critical of the policies of the Olmert government, suggesting or accusing. They're just making things worse.

In the same newspaper, you will have other people who say the Israeli forces have to go into Gaza and really rip the place apart to stop the rocket attacks. The Palestinian press doesn't have that broad range of opinion that the Israeli press does. And certainly, in difficult times, like we've had in the last week in Gaza where you've had a major Israeli military operation, leaving more than 100 people dead, the instinct is to join ranks and not to be critical of one faction or the other, and really focus on, as I said before, the suffering, the human suffering of people on the ground in places like Gaza.

SWEENEY: And a final question, Ben. How much attention do Hamas and Fatah pay to the Palestinian media, what's written there, what's broadcast?

WEDEMAN: Well, they obviously keep an eye on it. But it's not unlike many of the - sort of the media in other Arab countries. In the West Bank, you have a variety of newspapers published there, that do to a large extent, mirror the opinion of the regime in Ramallah.

In Gaza, there is a Hamas run newspaper that's very much a mouthpiece for Hamas. But of course, people don't depend solely on the newspapers here. There are some very good websites, which have very reliable information about the situation that are run by Palestinians. And then, of course, everybody here is addicted to things like Jazeera and other Arabic sounding like news networks. So they oftentimes, when people want to know what's going on, they go beyond the newspapers. They spend a lot of time listening, for instance, to the BBC Arabic service, which is a very reliable source of information.

SWEENEY: Ben Wedeman in Gaza, thanks very much indeed for joining us.

Well, don't forget to check out INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS online. Log on to to see all or part of this week's show again. You can also view our archives, take part in the quick vote, and read the weekly blog. It's all at

That's all for this edition of the program. 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.