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McClellelan Tell-All; Further Myanmar Disaster Criticism; Encouraging Young Photographers

Aired May 30, 2008 - 20:30:00   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, his job was to defend the U.S. president. Now former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan is turning the tables on his old boss. Report in Myanmar, the ruling junta faces renewed criticism over the continued confinement of pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And an eye for talent. One news agency's efforts to nurture, promising photographers in Latin America.

We begin in the United States from the political firestorm over former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's explosive tell all. The book, "What Happened Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Cultural Deception" hasn't even hit the shelves, but already it's hit number one on's U.S. bestseller list. The White House is calling the memoir "self serving sour grapes." And some of McClellan's former colleagues have criticized his assertion the Bush administration used deceit to persuade Americans to go to war in Iraq.


ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That's the allegation that is the most troubling, because Scott never thought it was propaganda at the time that he was involved in it, either as my deputy advising me and helping me to brief the press, or when he was the deputy, or even after - or when he was the press secretary, or even after he left the White House when he himself continued to justify the war up `til about a year ago.


SWEENEY: Scott McClellan says he stands behind the accuracy of his book. On Thursday, he spoke to NBC's "Today Show."


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Everything is centered on trying to shape and manipulate the narrative to one's advantage. Each party or each side is trying to do that. That's what Washington has become today.


SWEENEY: Well, the memoir also levels criticism at the reporters who's questions Scott McClellan fielded during his tenure at the White House. He described them as "complicit enablers" for focusing more on the lead-up to the war instead of the need for it.

Well, for more on the storm surrounding it all, we turn to Howard Kurtz, media correspondent with "The Washington Post" and host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES."

Quite a firestorm in Washington this past few days, I guess?

HOWARD KURTZ: People are utterly stunned. I mean, this is the last guy on the planet you would think would write a stridently anti-Bush book. I mean, I've interviewed Scott McClellan dozens of times. I've never gotten him to say anything remotely as interesting as what he has in this book, really breaking quite publicly with the president he so loyally, so doggedly supported for several years from that White House podium.

SWEENEY: Well, presumably, he was just doing his job, but he was never quite a Rottweiler when he was press secretary. Do you think he harbors resentment or sour grapes like the White House says?

KURTZ: I think there's a little bit of that. Scott McClellan was dumped in a White House shake-up. And his reputation was in tatters because he was sent out on several stories to tow the administration line and said things that later turned out not to be true.

So I think there's a little bit of him trying to restore part of his reputation and perhaps some anger. But I think also, you know, there's no great market in America these days for a book talking about what a great job George W. Bush has done by playing to the president's critics and by joining the liberal critique of this president as out of touch and isolated and having mislead the country into the Iraq War. McClellan has gotten quite a reception from the media and I think is going to sell a lot of books.

SWEENEY: Well, I was about to ask, you know, he describes them, as we said in introduction, the journalists that he was briefing during his days as press secretary as complicit enablers. How is that going down with the journalists in Washington?

KURTZ: Well, I never quite understood why McClellan, you know, wanted us to beat up on him harder. I mean, I watched many of those White House briefings, where he was stonewalling. He even acknowledges that in the book, where he was refusing to give answers and relations got very tense.

But on this point that Scott McClellan makes about the media having fallen down on the job during that time when the Bush administration was mobilizing the country to gear up, to go after Saddam and those non- existent weapons of mass destruction, he's right. I don't think that we could have prevented this war. It was a very difficult case to prove or disprove. But in retrospect, most major news organizations, including mine, have acknowledged that we weren't aggressive enough, we weren't skeptical enough, we gave too much air time to the administration's case for, and not enough to the skeptics and the critics.

SWEENEY: But surely that must have been to any press secretary's delight of the White House at that time. And I'm wondering do you think that the White House itself, even if they don't admit it, were well aware of this?

KURTZ: Look, the White - this White House did what every White House has done. And that is to try to use all the media tools at its disposal to build a case for what it wanted to do, whether it's going to war, or whether it's passing a domestic program. The Clinton White House did this. Other administrations have done it as well.

The fascinating thing for me is to watch the parade of White House and former White House officials, people who work very closely with Scott McClellan, come out and talk about him almost as if his body had been inhabited by aliens. They say this is not the Scott we knew. He doesn't sound like the Scott we knew.

And the thing is, you know, a lot of people understand they are asking. If you were so deeply troubled, Scott, by the way the.

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm.

KURTZ: .president handled the war, by the response - the non response to Hurricane Katrina, and other things, why didn't you voice those views at least internally within the administration. There's on evidence they did that. He doesn't claim to have done that. And if things were simply intolerable, why didn't you resign? Why didn't you step down in conscience?

He didn't do any of those things. Now two years after he left the administration, we're hearing all the criticism he has of the president, who he worked for so closely.

SWEENEY: But is anything really shocking when he says in that NBC/"Today" clip for everything is centered on trying to shape the narrative to your advantage. I mean, it's hardly earth shattering news.

KURTZ: I find that not surprising at all. I think that every political party and every president does this, tries to work the media, and tries to win this story line, and win the news cycle.

But McClellan did acknowledge in that television interview that he was disillusioned and disappointed in Bush. And so that gets a little bit more to the heart of his motivation. Yes, of course, he's trying to sell a book. And nobody should have any illusions about that. But I think he came away with a great sense of disappointment that the president was an inflexible and isolated leader in his portrait.

And the reason that this has, you know, in addition to the fact that we're in the middle of a presidential campaign and this could hurt John McCain, the Republican, as he tries to distance himself from President Bush. The reason this has created so much buzz and so much talk is because Scott McClellan was there. Scott McClellan was a friend of George Bush from their days together in Texas. No one's expecting McClellan to sound like one of the president's worst liberal critics in listing the indictment that he does in this book.

SWEENEY: Well, I'm wondering about the timing of the book - of the publication. I mean, it's now end of May/June, election is in November. McCain trying to distance himself from the Bush White House. Surely, it will have blown over by the time November comes along?

KURTZ: Yes, I don't think Scott McClellan publishes book in order to hurt John McCain's campaign. But to the extent that, you know, we've all been talking about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John McCain, and not very much about George W. Bush.

To the extent that this pushes the spotlight back on the failings and shortcomings of the Bush administration, and you have John McCain using the president to help him raise money, but they don't seem to want to be seen on camera together. He's keeping the president at arm's length. That can't be helpful to McCain.

Now from McClellan's point of view, obviously, he wanted to publish this book while George W. Bush was still in office. It'd be a lot more interest now than there will be next year when we're into a new administration.

SWEENEY: Oh, it's all in the planning and timing. Thanks very much indeed. Howard Kurtz as always.

KURTZ: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Myanmar in the headlines. First, for the country's response to Cyclone Nargus. And now, it's facing criticism for the continuing confinement of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. We asked whether international news coverage is balanced when certain reporters are unable to report freely from Myanmar.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Myanmar this week finally opened its doors to the outside world. Almost a month after Cyclone Nargus devastated parts of the country, aid workers now being allowed in to help.

But military rulers are not bowing to international pressure over the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They've extended her house arrest, despite widespread calls to release her.

It's unclear if Su Chi's confinement has been extended for six months or a year, because of conflicting reports from exile groups. The government of Myanmar or Burma as it's also known, exercises tight control of news within the country.

It also bans most international reporters from working inside. So first, it was international pressure over its handling of the Cyclone Nargus relief effort, and now the ongoing confinement of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Let's discuss Myanmar and the media's coverage of the country now. For that, we turn to Colin Freeman, the chief foreign correspondent with Britain's "Sunday Telegraph." He's just returned from Myanmar.

And also with us, Justin Wintel, journalist and author of "Perfect Hostage: Life of Aung San Suu Kyi."

First of all, what was it like being in Myanmar so relatively late in the day after the cyclone?

COLIN FREEMAN, CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH: Well, like most of the members of the press, I went in there as a tourist. It's really the only way you can do it. Myanmar's government doesn't allow Western journalists in.

It was, however, surprising how much access you were able to get. Most people were able to go into the delta areas and effectively nose around.

SWEENEY: But surely the authorities must have noticed a plethora of, you know, we were discussing 25 to 40 something men with laptops. There's huge interest in tourism in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargus.

FREEMAN: You wonder if they just thought a particularly large group of rather ghoulish tourists had turned up. But I have to say a few people were stopped occasionally if they went into a school or some official building or had some sort of brush with officialdom and asked what they were doing. But in most cases, all that would then happen is that they'd be told to go to - go back to Rangoon or wherever it was they came from, or alternatively have their name and passport number taken.

But that would be it. There were no deportations, no arrests in general anyway of the sort that most people feared.

SWEENEY: CNN's Dan Rivers, who was in Myanmar a few weeks ago, was on this program recently because the authorities really went after him because he was seen on television. And since then, we haven't named our correspondents going in there. Do you think it must be relatively easier for print journalists?

FREEMAN: I think it is relatively easy to move around under the radar much more - in a much more straightforward manner.

One of the main problems is, though, is giving information. It's still hard. You cannot go to official sources and announce your presence and ask them for any kind of information. And also, people working with you do run some risk, local Burmese.

SWEENEY: You know, as we've mentioned, obviously, Banki Moon, the U.N. Secretary General there just recently. And then it was announced recently as well that Aung San Suu Kyi, her house detention had been extended.

Was there any kind of discussion about that all? Or people just so concerned about the cyclone and its after effects?

FREEMAN: There was some discussion about Aung San Suu Kyi, although it was notable when we were there that there wasn't really much discussion about big street protests or any kind of demonstrations that were the sort that we saw back in September. The general feeling was that until the aftermath of the cyclone is dealt with, people have too much of a job just living hand to mouth really to start worrying about politics.

SWEENEY: Justin Wintle, we were talking to Colin about his experiences with journalists in Myanmar. You've written a book about Aung San Suu Kyi without being able to interview her.

JUSTIN WINTLE, AUTHOR, PERFECT HOSTAGE: A LIFE OF AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Well, I mean, that's why I wrote the book, because she is such a well known prisoner of conscience. I endorse Colin's remarks about the relative freedom of a person like myself, or a journalist like Colin being able to operate discreetly within Burma.

And in fact, the regime has been very careful how it handles foreigners. And deportation is the stark response. It's - as a totalitarian regimes go, it's kind of piecemeal. Where they notice you, they will go after you. But it's not wall to wall. It's mothy and it's patchy. It's a patchwork dictatorship.

SWEENEY: It's been through though in the sense that foreign journalists en masse shouldn't be deported too loudly because it might create a bit of problem for the military junta internationally.

WINTLE: Well, I think that the junta is obviously nervous about its international reputation. So the - they're just a little careful how they handle foreigners who they may assume are working for their governments anyway because all licensed Burmese journalists, of course, are working for either government organizations or organizations which have the approval of the government.

And therefore, from the general's point of view, there's not necessarily much of a distinction between a journalist and the government supporter.

SWEENEY: Banki Moon obviously having been in Myanmar recently, and then a few days later it was announced about Aung San Suu Kyi's house detention being extended. Do you think in the West, because he's received some criticism for this, that in the media in the West that we generally simplify the complexities or the subtleties of Myanmar?

WINTLE: I think that is certainly true. I think above Banki Moon, I think he's not wowed everybody in the first part of his term of office as U.N. Secretary General. And I think that this has come along as great opportunity for him to prove himself.

And clearly, he's made good progress. He's got U.N. aid workers in. Whether they will really be able to go to all parts of the delta remains to be seen. But what I would say is this, that there's a culture out in East Asian of face saving. And of course, Banki Moon as a Korean is an East Asian person. So you never quite known how much of what's up between him and the Burmese government or the ASEAN member states is window dressing and face saving, and how much is real. We just have to wait and see the next few months how it pans out.

SWEENEY: Do you think the international community may have let Myanmar down in the wake of this cyclone, and the media perhaps are making too much, if too much at all is correct, of the linkage between Aung San Suu Kyi and aid and pressure on the junta?

FREEMAN: Well, certainly when Banki Moon went to Myanmar last week, I think he was very careful to compartmentalize the issues if he had turned up and said we need to get more aid in, and also what are you going to do about Aung San Suu Chi, he would have pulled a - the wrong reaction. And he would have then risked jeopardizing the aid mission, which was seen as a priority for the - over the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, which is a long term - much longer term issue.

There was also Ibrahim Giambari (ph), the other U.N. envoy to Myanmar, who was there back in September. It may be that he is possibly going to be the one who will continue on that issue of political reform and so on, although a number of people in Myanmar who I spoke to recently said that his mission didn't really seem to have been leading anywhere very much.

SWEENEY: So finally, do you think that the military junta really care about what international correspondents write for their respective outlets?

WINTLE: Not a great deal. No.

SWEENEY: So in terms of journalists being able to bring any kind of influence to bear on the situation in Myanmar, you don't think there's.

WINTLE: I don't think so. I mean, if you look at the last 10 years, every - and the fact there's been a bit different in this respect, because it's the first time that there's been a flood of newsprint stories, where - which haven't necessarily invoked Aung San Suu Kyi's name.

Back in September, nearly every big piece, press piece, on the monks uprising as it was called, Saffron uprising, her name was invoked. So - and journalists have been quite rightly, of course, crying for her release and her integration into the so-called national reconciliation program. And the regime has paid not a blind bit of notice.

SWEENEY: We're out of time. We have to leave it there, but Justin Wintle and Colin Freeman, thank you both very much indeed.

Iconic images highlighting conflict, culture, and celebration in Latin America. The exhibition and workshop aimed at fostering the growth of promising photographers in Cuba. How it's come about and the purpose behind this when we come back.


SWEENEY: February 2006, then Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks during a ceremony at Havana's Revolution Plaza. In this picture, a supporter of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez points a pistol toward opponents of the president during clashes in Caracas in November 2007.

While in this shot from June of last year, Andean women fight for the bull during a farmer's football match during the National Community's Championship in Calo (ph), Peru.

Well, they're a selection of images from the Associated Press Latin America Photo Report that have gone on display in Havana. The three month exhibition comes as the news agency hosted a workshop for 16 promising local photographers. Its aim? To foster equality and ethical news imagery in Cuba.

Well, for more on the AP's exhibition in Havana and that workshop held this past week, I'm joined by Santiago Lyon, the director of photography with the Associated Press. He's just returned from Havana and joins us from our New York studios.

Where did the idea come from to set up this kind of exhibition and workshop in Cuba?

SANTIAGO LYON, DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Well, it suddenly occurred to us that doing something in Cuba, a country where we've had a bureau for the last 10 years, and a country that's going through a transition from Fidel Castro to Raul, it seemed that it would be a good idea to show the Cuban public and the Cuban fellow journalistic community the breadth and the quality of the work that the Associated Press does in photography every day all over the world.

SWEENEY: And were there any difficulties politically trying to set it up?

LYON: Well, it took a long time. They're probably about a year in between when we proposed the idea first to the Cuban authorities and through when it was approved, and then the preparations of getting the pictures in, and the logistics and finding a location. So it took quite a while, but I'm very glad to report that we inaugurated it on Saturday. And about 200 people showed up for the inauguration. And by all accounts, it was quite a success.

SWEENEY: What is your sense of the appetite for Cuban people for photographs around the world, if - not only South America?

LYON: Well, I think that they don't often get to see these - this type of imagery. And they certainly don't often get to see this type of imagery displayed in, you know, big prints hung on an exhibition wall. We did this in a 17th century convent or an 18th century convent, excuse me, in Havana. And you know, it's quite impressive to see these photographs printed very large and hang from a wall where the viewer has time to look at them, and ponder them, and engage with them. And that's something that doesn't happen very often in Cuba.

SWEENEY: And - I think one of the more iconic photographs is the Iwo Jima one, which many people might not associate automatically with the Associated Press. But nonetheless, is very much in the memory of people, particularly those who would still survive the second World War.

LYON: Yes, indeed. That's arguably one of the most widely reproduced images in the - in history. And as you say, I think for that image and a number of these images, to make that connection between iconic images of that nature and a news organization like the Associated Press, which continues to work and continues to gather photo journalism from all over the world on a daily basis, I think those are connections that are not always obvious to the viewer.

SWEENEY: If I could draw your attention to the photograph that was taken in the West Bank settlement at Herskovomona (ph), where we see a Jewish settler struggling with an Israeli security officer, who's clearly surrounded by plenty of other Israeli security officers. I mean, that very much tells the story within a story of the struggle within Israeli society over the whole issue of settlements.

LYON: That picture and the pictures from that story are quite dramatic. And as you say, it's a very effective and powerful way of telling a story from a particular part of the world, and drawing, you know, one's conclusions from what goes on there.

SWEENEY: And final question, I'm wondering whether any implications for Associated Press by having this exhibition in Cuba? Were there, first of all, you see it as anything to do with the relative opening up that we may or may or not be witnessing in Cuba at the moment or the change of regime and whether or not in - the U.S., that the there were any implications for you?

LYON: No. We've had an operation or a bureau in Cuba for the last 10 years. We have a stuff of, you know, maybe a dozen people all in. WE operate there regularly. We're allowed to do that under the rules set by the U.S. government. And you know, we don't really see any problem with that.

As to whether the ability to set up this exhibition was as a result of the change in power, or was as a result of changes that are happening anyway in Cuba, it's quite hard to tell.

But we really welcome the opportunity to be able to show our work there, and to hold the workshop for the 16 Cuban photographers, and show them and explain to them how we work, and through practical exercises, assign them stories and critique, and work on their stories with the aim of improving the state of Cuban photojournalism.

And it's not limited to Cuba. These are things that we do periodically all over the world. So it just happened to be Cuba at this time.

SWEENEY: Santiago Lyon, thank you very much indeed.

And don't forget to check out INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS online. You can do that by logging 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

Well, 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.