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Angelina's Twins; Myanmar Recovery; Obama Cartoon

Aired July 18, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: 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, cartoon controversy. "The New Yorker" is criticized from both campaigns in the race to the White House. Did the magazine cross the line? Reporting from Myanmar, despite a ban on journalists, CNN returns to the country two and a half months after Cyclone Nargis. And double exposure, the arrival of twins to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Why the world's press has gone ga ga.

First this week, headlines about a cover story. This week's edition of "The New Yorker" magazine shows U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in traditional Muslim attire and his wife Michelle with an AK- 47. Obama's campaign and that of his Republican rival John McCain call it tasteless and defenseless. The magazine says it was satire.


DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR, THE NEW YORKER: The idea is to attack lies and misconceptions and distortions about the Obamas and their background and their politics. We've heard all of this nonsense about how they're supposedly insufficiently patriotic or soft on terrorism. That somehow the fist (INAUDIBLE) is something that it's not.

And we try to put all of these images in one cover and to satirize and shine a really harsh light on something that's incredibly damaging.


SWEENEY: So tasteless and offensive or satire and caricature? And is Barack Obama off limits when it comes to the latter? To help answer those questions, I'm joined from New York by Rachel Sklar, media editor with the Huffington Post. And from Washington, Toby Harnden, U.S. editor with Britain's "Daily Telegraph."

Thank you both very much for joining us. Toby Harnden, judging from some of your writings of late, you find it hard to believe what all the fuss is about?

TOBY HARNDEN, U.S. EDITOR, DAILY TELEGRAPH: Yeah, I think it was an obvious satire. I think the Obama campaign does have a genuine problem about these Muslim smears. But I think the joke was on the right wing extremists and the ignorant, who believe that Obama's a Muslim. I think they - the Obama campaign overreacted. And that gave the hook to the media to take it and run with it.

I mean, I was covering since Obama's foreign policy speech this week. Very serious speech, very substantive. And then there was a Spanish language reporter standing in front of him during the speech, holding up a cover of "The New Yorker." So it all got a bit distorted, I think.

SWEENEY: Rachel Sklar, all of it distorted do you think?

RACHEL SKLAR, MEDIA EDITOR, THE HUFFINGTON POST: There's no question this was one of the big stories of the week. And really, it's the cover of a magazine. It's a cartoon. But it, you know, what it represents is, I guess this is what art is meant to do is really get us talking. And it certainly has.

What it did do was overshadowed just a huge piece in "The New Yorker," a 15,000 word piece by Ryan Lizza about Obama's early years as a politician rising in Chicago, which I thought was really interesting because this was a giant piece and pretty significant for the light that it threw on Obama's early years. And yet, it's really been overshadowed.

But you know what? It's a lot easier to look at a cover and form an opinion, than it is to read a 15,000 word article and form an opinion. So there you go.

SWEENEY: Toby Harnden, at the risk of being cynical, and who would say journalists are cynical, I mean, do you think it was to the Obama campaign's advantage to react so vociferously about the cover knowing what was inside?

HARNDEN: Well, I think they thought that it would be. And I think that initially, it was because the Obama campaign, I think rightly in this Internet age, has decided to sort of take these smears on head on. And they've got a website called, which they do that. They're not just going to ignore this and just sort of hope that it goes away. And clearly, it's not going to go away.

So it did get everybody talking about it. And everybody has to preface their comments with, you know, since Obama is a Christian, has always been a Christian, he is not a Muslim. So I think it works for them to that extent.

But what it then did is it fed into this narrative, which is that Obama is slightly humorless. He's a bit prissy and (INAUDIBLE) faced, which of course is part of the bigger narrative, which is something the McCain campaign's trying to get to, which is that he's elitist and he's condescending and he takes himself too seriously.

So ultimately, I think it actually didn't do them too much good in Obama's broader image.

SWEENEY: Well, let me ask you, Toby, first of all, we know we know about the campaign's reaction, but his own individual reaction, I mean, did that differ in any way? He sort of seemed to take the moral high ground?

HARNDEN: Yeah, he did, he did. I think they realized that the initial spokesman's comment was a little bit over the top. And then the media coverage got a bit out of hand. So when Obama went on "LARRY KING," he pretty much shrugged it off and said listen, it's just a cartoon. The American people have got a lot more serious things to worry about, which I think was the right tone to take.

But that wasn't what the Obama campaign did initially. And that just meant that the media ran with it. If they just said no comment, I don't think it would have been much of a story, frankly.

SWEENEY: Rachel?

SKLAR: Right. I think it probably would have been a story because, you know, this - these rumors are prevalent. And it's a big deal in the campaign. It just is. The fact that, you know, 12 percent of the population really does think that he's a Muslim. A similar number thinks he was sworn in on the Koran. This is misinformation that will not die, no matter how many newscasts, you know, or newspapers or magazines make the point of saying that he's not Muslim. He's a Christian. He goes to church.

On the cover of "Newsweek" this week, you know, he's shown praying. But the cover of "Newsweek" didn't get a lot of attention because the cover of "The New Yorker."

SWEENEY: Let me ask you then, Rachel, do you think in the end of the day "The New Yorker" cover helped or hindered Barack Obama?

SKLAR: You know, I actually think it helped. The country was talking about the fact that there are these vicious smears out there. And this misinformation out there. And the fact that, you know, that there's a lot of ignorance. So to the extent that it's shined a light on it, and brought it up for discussion, I do think that it helped.

I also think that it gave Obama an opportunity to say, you know, very explicitly that one of the bad things about this was the fact that Muslim Americans are sort of being smeared as well by this with the implications that there's something wrong with being Muslim. And even, you know, George Bush has made clear that Muslims are not the enemy, terrorists are the enemy. And it's very unfortunate that a very small minority has come to take the impression of the whole.

SWEENEY: But it raises a wider issue, does it not, the cover and the reaction to it on the part of the Obama campaign, Toby Harnden, about something you touched on there, his own character himself, his personality, that he's becoming sort of poor faced. And there was one article in "The New York Times," which actually more or less said that late night talk show hosts don't even try to land a punch on Obama, that he's caught in somewhere in a pensive movement between being politically correct and also trying to not make race an issue?

HARNDEN: Yeah, I think that's right. I think the comedians are having a few problems with Obama. And there's a few factors that play into this. One of them is that I think a lot of the late night comedians and the producers and the people associated with them and the audiences actually want Barack Obama to be elected. So they're kind of reluctant to kind of paint a portrayal that's going to really damage him.

And I think this feeling at some point is that maybe Al Gore and John Kerry were kind of lampooned. And that was one of the things that led to their defeat at the hands of George W. Bush.

Also, there's clearly the racial angle. I mean, most of the people involved in these programs are white. They're very, very sensitive about doing anything that could be seen as racist. "Saturday Night Live" Fred Armison (ph) is a character who played Barack Obama quite well, I thought, sort of portrayed him as very sort of serious...

SKLAR: I agree with that. I thought he was good.

HARNDEN: ...and ponderous and kind of in the tank part of trail of Obama, the media being in the tank for Obama. And Armison is part white and part Asian. And so, he was kind of blacked up for this role. And that - and they got a lot of flack for that.

SKLAR: Actually, the make-up was honey. It was honey hued.

HARNDEN: Was it...

SKLAR: That's what they (INAUDIBLE).

HARNDEN: ...or caramel maybe?

SWEENEY: Toby Harnden in Washington and Rachel Sklar in New York, thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

SKLAR: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Moving under the cover of darkness, evading military checkpoints, it's a tough assignment reporting in a country where foreign journalists aren't allowed in. CNN's Betty Nguyen goes inside Myanmar two and a half months after Cyclone Nargus struck.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's been two and a half months since Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar. Reporting the extent of the disaster and aid effort has been difficult given foreign journalists aren't allowed access. Well, despite the danger, CNN's Betty Nguyen and her team ventured into the country and the worst hit Irrawaddy Delta. She filed this report.


BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just getting into the country was half the battle. Little did I know the rest would be near impossible. We had to devise a plan to bypass multiple military checkpoints and get down to the cyclone devastation.

The only way out of Yangong is through this checkpoint.

That's a problem because if we're caught, our team face deportation, even prison time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a difficult job to do. It's one of the harder places to shoot and actually tell a story because you live in fear of yourself being kicked out, but you live in more fear of the people that work for you being arrested and put away for 20 years.

NGUYEN: That was my photographer. I can't show you his face because he still works in the region. So after days of pouring over maps and scouting out routes, we were finally on the move.

(on camera): To get down to the Irrawaddy Delta, we have to leave under the cover of darkness. The last thing we need right now is to be stopped.

(voice-over): We hopped from different modes of transportation, all the while feeling like fugitives on the run.

(on camera): It's really the only way to get down there and bypass the checkpoint. Going to be a long ride.

(voice-over): And a rough one. We slept in stifling conditions and lived off of little more than bottled water and power bars. Once daylight broke through, it was clear this journey was far from over.

(on camera): We're waiting right now for a second boat, a smaller one that we're told will be able to make it through the canals a lot easier.

(voice-over): After 21 hours, we finally made it, though it normally takes only four hours to get here. And judging from the devastation, it doesn't look like much has changed in the two months since the cyclone struck. Debris still littered villages. We had to work quickly, capturing what we could, never knowing when we'd get caught. Trekking through muddy fields, over makeshift bridges, and right into rice paddies. We came across an eerie discovery. Bodies still rotting in the delta. I knew we would find them, I just didn't know how haunting it would be.

Yet just a few feet away, the living press on. It's a place where slivers of hope can be found in the eyes of the young. So happy and full of life. And for a brief moment, you almost forget they've seen more pain than most people can imagine.


SWEENEY: That was CNN's Betty Nguyen on the difficulties of reporting from Myanmar. She's now in neighboring Thailand and joins me from Bangkok to talk about her assignment.

Quite an assignment and quite dangerous. Just how dangerous was it?

NGUYEN: Well, it was really dangerous, especially for the locals who were helping as first of all, foreign journalists are banned from Myanmar, which is one of the reasons why I pushed for this assignment, especially seeing the devastation, the pictures right after the cyclone hit, and all the stories about the government possibly hoarding aid and the aid not getting down, I wanted to go and see two months after if aid was really getting to the people who needed it the most.

So we planned it out very carefully, got in the country, and worked with locals to help us get down to the Irrawaddy Delta. Fionnuala, that's where it got really difficult, because once you're in country, that's half the battle. But getting down to the Irrawaddy Delta is almost impossible. The junta government has set up military checkpoints in just about every city leading down to the delta. So we had to find a way to bypass that.

And the problem was if we got caught, one, there would be no story. Two, we could be deported if not worse. And the locals helping us face prison time and who knows what else. So we had to be very careful.

SWEENEY: Were you aware of any other journalists working undercover there?

NGUYEN: Did not see any other journalists working undercover in country. We looked around. We were hoping maybe there might be someone because perhaps they could provide us with some information, but we did not see a single one in country.

SWEENEY: So it seems from your experiences that little or no aid is getting into that part of Myanmar at all? And the description of dead bodies floating in the delta is surely something that two and a half months after Cyclone Nargus would gall even the most hardened reporter?

NGUYEN: It was a really tough assignment on many levels. Mentally, it was exhausting trying to figure out how do we tell this story? One, how do we get down there to find the story? And two, emotionally, once you get down there, and you see these rotting bodies two months after the cyclone, I mean, these were people. They deserve better.

And to see them just sitting there out in the hot sun. And the sad thing about it is when you talk to the villagers down there who are in great need themselves, they'll tell you there were just too many bodies to bury. And they're just trying to get on with their lives and trying to struggle to survive because many of them, they need food, they need shelter, they need aid, they need help to harvest their crops. They need to help to rebuild their schools and their monasteries. And a little bit of aid is tricking in, but of the villagers that we were able to visit, we saw just a tiny bit. Maybe some bags of rice, some roofing material, some tarp, but not much more than that.

SWEENEY: And on a very practical pragmatic note, Betty, you've obviously filed from Myanmar now two and a half months after Cyclone Nargus. Say in another two and a half months if you decide to try and go back, do you think you'll be able to take the risk?

NGUYEN: I don't know. I'm afraid after these reports, obviously, the government will see them. And they will know my face. And if I try to cross into the country, I'll be denied. I'm not sure I'll be able to get back in the country, but I would love to. I would love to continue reporting, because this is a story that needs to stay in the spotlight because some 2.4 million people are affected. And I know aid groups are working their best to get much needed supplies to the people in the villages around the Irrawaddy Delta. We didn't see a lot of that aid. So it's proof that's not being distributed evenly.

Why is that? Well, we couldn't ask the government, obviously, because we would have been caught. We couldn't get to the sites where the aid groups had set up their camps because the government has minders and officials that are always with them pretty much at all times. So those are the questions we weren't able to answer. And hopefully within time, we will see more aid come into the villages and it be distributed evenly because again, people are suffering and they are in great need.

SWEENEY: Betty Nguyen, thanks very much indeed.

Now the baby buzz in the French Riviera. The world welcomes the arrival of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's twins. We look at the media frenzy and the phenomenon that is branded Brangelina when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's being described as the celebrity birth of the year, the arrival of twins to Hollywood A-listers Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. It sparked a media frenzy in Nice and the French Riviera, where Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline were born.

Local newspaper "Nice Matin" broke the story about the twins arrival last Sunday. The paper estimated the value of their first pictures at more than $11 million. And reporters said the rights had been sold to a U.S. publication with proceeds going to charity.

So the Brangelina clan expands by two. To discuss more of the phenomenon behind the brand, I'm joined in the studio by celebrity PR Max Clifford. And from Paris, Sandra Salazar of France's "Voici" magazine.

Sandra, you clearly had a reporter in Nice covering the story. How much really can you get on a story like this down at the hospital?

SANDRA SALAZAR, VOICI MAGAZINE: It's very difficult because it's handled very professionally by Brad Pitt and Angelina really. They have a very efficient PR team and security team. And they're really have to think - they have really thought the whole thing over on how to manage the news and how to keep secrecy and how to launch false rumors. And everything was all rumors and mix-ups since the beginning. So it was really difficult for us to actually choose what was true or not in all the information that we got it was a lot. And most of it was conflicting.

SWEENEY: Max Clifford, have we ever seen anything like it?

MAX CLIFFORD, CELEBRITY PR: Yes, there's been lots like it, but this is the biggest.


CLIFFORD: Well, because they're such big stars, both of them. And two of the biggest stars in the world. And there's a huge interest for stars and babies.

SWEENEY: But how much have they contributed to that themselves by going to such great lengths to manage the story?

CLIFFORD: What they've done is what every star wants to do, to have as much control as possible of anything of those in the media.

SWEENEY: And are they better at it than anybody else has been? And is that why it's so big?

CLIFFORD: I wouldn't say they're better at it than anybody else, but they're very good at it. And obviously, they've got good people around them. And so, that you know, as the money appears, one, they get the maximum money. They have the maximum control over what pictures come out. So the only pictures the world will see will be pictures they're happy with. And of course, buy bringing in a charity, which we're told a vast amount of the money is going to, is a good public relations exercise for them as well. So...

SWEENEY: But didn't they take a decision some time ago that if they were going to have the paparazzi follow them around, then it might as well be of benefit for their charity work? So for example, when Angelina Jolie goes on a UNICEF trip, the paparazzi showed her on that trip. And then the rest of the time, they're pretty private.

CLIFFORD: Yeah, I think - I mean, you know, obviously, they know how to work the media. It's good for them. It's good for the media. But the point I'm making is that if they hadn't been given a large amount of the vast sums which appear to be they're getting for these pictures, people would criticize them. People (INAUDIBLE) you're greedy. And they don't need the money.

So by doing this, it's a very good PR move for them and everybody wins.

SWEENEY: Sandra Salazar in Paris, did Voici magazine bid for the pictures?

SALAZAR: No, we didn't, no.

SWEENEY: Because?

SALAZAR: Absolutely not. Because we would never done that before. And I would be curious to see actually the face of my editor when I ask for $11 million for the cover story. I'm not sure he would agree.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you, do Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, if they're on the cover of your magazine, increase your sales?

SALAZAR: Well, yeah, actually they do. They do. You just put them on a cover of any magazine, not just Voici and all of a sudden, flies - sells quite high. I mean, they raise immediately because their personal lives, glamour. They're very young. They're successful. Everything they do is good. You know, their personal lives so many good things about human race, that everybody wants to identify and everybody wants to know, everybody wants to do the same basically. Or does any certain amount of respect and admiration for them that makes them extremely appealing.

SWEENEY: Max Clifford, you obviously are an old hand when it comes to celebrities. To what do you attribute the growth and the evolvement of the celebrity status over the last few years? Do you think we could be witnessing something like this perhaps 10, 15 years ago?

CLIFFORD: Well, I think there's always been a huge interest in stars. And every year, more and more people seem to be influenced by stars and celebrities. And of course, the media feeds off them. And they feed off the media. So as long as it sells newspapers, magazines, and television programs, there's a great appetite for stars and celebrities.

SWEENEY: It's a symbiotic relationship.

CLIFFORD: Of course it is.

SWEENEY: Because it's almost like Angelina Jolie and Brat Pitt even bigger in Hollywood with the agents and within the movie industry that kind of hype in celebrities.

CLIFFORD: Well, of course, the bigger they are, the more attention, the more publicity. Then obviously the more attention to any movies they might be doing. But of course, the fact of the matter is that any publishing group that is paying vast sums of money has done so after very, very careful market research that we're paying this out, but get this back from syndication. But our circulation and what we get back would justify it.

SWEENEY: How long do you think it can continue? I'm talking not only about the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolie's of this world, but this huge growth in paying for photographs, paying for film rights, etcetera, by magazines and individual television companies.

CLIFFORD: As long as the democratic world has a huge appetite for stars and everything about them, then it will continue to grow, because the media thrives off it. And the stars thrive off the media.

SWEENEY: So in a time of perhaps a downturn in the economy, it's still a growth industry?

CLIFFORD: Yes, it's one of the few growth industries right now around the world.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there. Max Clifford in London, Sandra Salazar in Paris, thank you both very much indeed.

SALAZAR: Thank you.

SWEENEY: And don't forget to check out our website. Log on to to see the program again. You can also view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. That'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.