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Survival in Darfur; Palin as VP Choice; Weathering the Story

Aired September 5, 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, finding a bond. How a hurricane and another political storm filled the headlines from the start of the Republican National Convention. Later, weathering the story, reporters found themselves at the mercy of the elements. Also coming up, a memoir of survival in Darfur. We get the personal account from a victim of the crisis who dared to speak out.

We begin in the United States. Last week, the Democrats had their big party. This week, it was the turn of the Republicans. It was a subdued start to the convention, as celebrations made way for the impending arrival of Hurricane Gustav. That wasn't the only storm Republicans had to consider. Plenty of publicity was generated by revelations about the vice presidential choice Sarah Palin. Namely, that Palin's 17-year old daughter Bristol is pregnant. (INAUDIBLE) was big news, raising questions about the McCain campaign vetting process.

So while news on the sidelines filled the headlines at least early on in the week, let's look at the Republican Convention from the media's perspective. For that, we turn to CNN's Jonathan Mann. He's in St. Paul, Minnesota. And also, joining us from Washington, Daniel Libit, reporter with Politico.

Jonathan Mann, first of all, you were at the Democratic Convention last week. How does this compare?

JONATHAN MANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, very different and in some ways the same. You know, a lot of media people deride these conventions for being so predictable. Last week wasn't predictable. Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, we didn't know what they were going to say until they actually did it, but they did it on television. The event was very public. The drama was very public.

This week, especially at the start, was different because we didn't see Sarah Palin at the outset. She was named before all of us got to St. Paul. And for the first few days of the convention, the whole story here in St. Paul was what's going to happen when we do see her?

SWEENEY: And Daniel Libit, of course, a lot of the story that broke about Sarah Palin was by liberal bloggers on the Internet talking about the fact that they suspected her daughter was pregnant. How big is a departure is that in terms of American politics, particularly at a time like this when her candidacy had just been launched?

DANIEL LIBIT, POLITICO: Well, I guess in a certain way, it's sort of the modern permutation of what's gone on in politics for a number of election cycles now, there used to be magazines, maybe tabloid magazines that would pick up that mantle. Now it's becoming a little bit more partisan. It's moving on to the Web.

This is something that campaigns have contended with for some time. It's not completely out of left field. Perhaps it's heightening this year. Websites you mentioned, DailyKos had kind of led the rumor campaign against Sarah Palin. And you know, allegations about her teenage daughter. Did that force them, did that push their hand? It certainly suggested that it might have.

SWEENEY: And Jonathan, what are you picking up from the convention there about how and when John McCain knew about this? I mean, really, were the Republicans forced into reacting with a statement because of the bloggers as opposed to them announcing it themselves?

MANN: Well, that's what they're saying. They're saying that McCain knew about this ahead of time, and it was all the rumors circulating on the blogs, on the DailyKos in particular, that forced their hand. Some people are saying more cynically it just coincided with Hurricane Gustav. So the timing was good to release the information when the news media would be preoccupied elsewhere. So were they forced? Did they choose their timing? Hard to say.

One more point, just to add to what Daniel was saying. You know, one of the really interesting changes this time around is that though people have been printing rumors and falsehoods and the truth about political candidates for a long time, what's different this time is some of the rumors were printed, appeared on the Web under pseudonyms. The DailyKos said or said at the outset that it didn't really know who circulated the first rumors about Sarah Palin because that writer doesn't use their own name.

SWEENEY: And Daniel Libit, you know, in the advent of blogging, which has emerged over the last few years, how much do you think it has evolved? Certainly it's become very predominant in the news media as we've seen this week.

LIBIT: Well, certainly. I mean, in some ways, it gets more credibility from the news media, maybe even not more credibility. Certainly more attention. And I know DailyKos has been sensitive to this as well. And I - because you know, they don't want to be maligned as being nearly smear merchants. Even though at, you know, in certain corners, they are being maligned that way.

But the evolution has been more of a - in terms of fractilized. You see more niche media sites that are covering these things with partisan slants. But yes, I mean, and it's gained a kind of - it's gained a kind of resonance with the media.

Even still now we're talking about these sort of scurrilous rumors or rumors in general. But we're talking about them. Maybe a couple years ago, we wouldn't even be mentioning them at this point in the game.

SWEENEY: And I'm wondering, Daniel, at what point does Politico step in and say this is a real story for us, so do we report what the bloggers are saying about this, even if it's not confirmed by the Republicans?

LIBIT: Well, I mean, that's a question we're all grappling with. Certainly in the case of Senator John Edwards, not - this didn't involve necessarily on the web, but it involved a media group that was deemed kind of less than, you know, supremely scrupulous. And we kind of missed the story.

A lot of organizations, including ours, sort of didn't go after the John Edwards to the extent that they - that the truth seemed to be. So we're all sort of grappling with this. I think the media now, the mainstream media is now serving as the arbiters of rumors more - in some cases, more than the original reporters are themselves.

MANN: I want to jump in on that. Absolutely. Because what's interesting about the John Edwards case and about the Sarah Palin case is that ultimately, it was - it started on the Internet or it started in alternative media in the case of John Edwards. The mainstream media, the print media, television started asking a lot of questions, but didn't go with the story. And it was John Edwards ultimately who came forward and confirmed yes, he did have an affair. It was the McCain campaign ultimately that came forward and said yes, Sarah Palin's daughter is pregnant.

So what happens is the alternative media, the fringe media and some of the bloggers on the Internet are starting a dialogue, starting a debate. The mainstream media started asking questions, but don't actually commit to these stories or these rumors in print. What happened was it was the principles involved, the key people involved who ultimately put their stamp on the story, and allowed those of us in the mainstream press to go ahead with it. We might have been waiting too long, but we ultimately didn't make the decision. The people in question made the decision.

SWEENEY: I'm wondering, John, when we talk about this, at what point did you feel that you could go with it? It was when it was confirmed by the Republicans themselves that Sarah Palin's teenage daughter was pregnant?

MANN: We had heard the rumors, which we also were not going to talk about, though they seemed absurd to me personally that Sarah Palin had in fact faked her own pregnancy. The pregnancy of her four month old baby Trig was said to have been a fiction created to hide the real pregnancy, according to the rumor, of her daughter Bristol. Well, that rumor was circulating. People were talking about it. It seemed absurd. It seemed irresponsible to go with it. We weren't really debating much about it, just hearing a lot about it. And it was when the McCain campaign came out and said well, the truth is Bristol Palin is now pregnant that we went forward. We didn't do it until the McCain campaign actually issued a statement much to our surprise, much to my surprise anyway.

SWEENEY: Daniel Libit, a portent of things to come?

LIBIT: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, this is a challenge and struggle for all of us, particularly those of us whose business is on the web. And it's not just the rumors on DailyKos that we read. We get flooded with e-mails and links to these sites constantly. It's a bombardment. And now we are serving more as arbiters in addition to our own original reporting.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there, but Daniel Libit from and Jonathan Mann in the Republican National Convention and all the challenges and surprises it throws at us, thank you very much indeed, both of you, for joining us.

Now a personal account from a survivor of the crisis in Darfur. Helena Bashir is speaking out in "Tears of the Desert," a memoir she's co- written with reporter Damien Lewis. We speak to them both about the book and their global call for action when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The crisis in Darfur often makes the headlines, but rarely do we hear from victims who suffered as a result of the conflict. Halima Bashir is the exception. She's speaking out in the book "Tears of the Desert," a book co-written with reporter Damien Lewis.

It outlines Bashir's experiences growing up, how she became her village's first formal doctor, to the horrors of the conflict. Gang rape and brutality that Bashir witnessed and experienced first hand.

Now living in London, I recently caught up with Halima Bashir and Damien Lewis. I asked Halima Bashir, who's veiled during our interview for reasons including safety, whether it was difficult for her to recount her experiences.


HALIMA BASHIR, AUTHOR, "TEARS OF THE DESERT": My life, it's just like normal for - normal life for everybody for taking that living in peace, normal person with your own dreams, your also own hopes, and hoping to do something nice for yourself, future, better future, better everything. But the war just as if there in everything upside-down. And what had been happening to me personally just a different - I have been shocked or as if I am in nightmare or one of my vivid dreams.

This action I think just made me be strong enough to write the book and to speak out.

SWEENEY: Let me bring in Damien here, because - and I would like to ask how you both matched and what prompted you to work with Halima on this book? Was it your idea or was it hers?

DAMIEN LEWIS, AUTHOR, "TEARS OF THE DESERT": I suppose in a way, it was mine. I was in Darfur or a Darfur refugee camp in - at the end of 2006 is my first time in Darfur. And I interviewed a eight-year old girl who had been gang raped. And I said to the TV crew that I was there with, if we could get - tape that little girl and put her in Washington or New York or London in front of an international audience to tell her story, all these people who say Darfur is too complicated, I can't understand it, would finally see it's about the use of rape as a weapon of war against children. And that's not complicated. That's just horrific and unspeakable.

We couldn't take her to the international arena. And it would have probably morally unjustifiable to do so. But when I came back to London, the idea was lodged in my mind. And I read in the newspaper an article about rape as use in a weapon of war. And Halima was quoted in the article as being a woman in London who was speaking out, breaking the silence. And I thought this woman, maybe she could tell her story. And so I made my job to go meet her and put the idea to her.

SWEENEY: And Halima, when Damien first approached you, I mean, you had - you've been living in the U.K. now for two and a half years, but presumably the memories will always be with you of what happened to you. How did you feel when he approached you to write a book?

BASHIR: When Damien just explain everything for me and when I went back home and I think about what he told me. Really, I think the good idea to do - to write a book because by doing this, when I told the stories, and what's happened exactly in Darfur, especially for women and children, this is - will be - we'd have reaction to the people. And the people will understand more.

SWEENEY: I mean, how do you feel as a journalist? There have been several journalists who have highlighted Darfur and made it a kind of cause over the last few years. But how do you assess the world's reaction or lack of reaction to what is taking place there? It comes in waves.

LEWIS: It does. And I think it's a sticky plaster on a gaping, festering wound. That's all we've done. And you know, there are several present peacekeepers on the ground, but are they doing anything? No. Do they have any equipment? Nothing really to speak of. Are they an effective fighting force or war termination force, which is what you want. There no peace to keep. You need a war termination force. No, they're not up to the job. And so, we kind of made excuses. And we've made a few gestures, but there's nothing really happened to change the situation.

People like Halima, they want to go home. Darfur's their home. Halima would go home tomorrow if she could. And all of those refugees want to go home. Some of them have been in those camps for six years. You know?

SWEENEY: Halima, how do you feel about the world's reaction or perhaps as you might think inaction on Darfur?

BASHIR: I think what have been happened in Darfur and what have been told to (INAUDIBLE) and I think some very clear, but unfortunately, the reactions of the international community and for the world minimum or like nothing if we just we put the war in Darfur and the action of the people to this - no difference. And as if we are talking to this persons or people who can't listen or can't react carefully.

SWEENEY: You want to - you're a trained doctor and you want to practice now that you have been given asylum in Britain. How do you feel about how you've recovered? Do you - I mean, presumably, what happened always stay with you, but do you feel that you can move on with your life now?

BASHIR: I think it's difficult to work in this country as a doctor because really, what have been done to me has made me as if I am person who can't even help himself. How can I work and try to forget everything and live here and just trying to work and doing the normal life like the other people? I think very difficult for me.

And the other reason this country is known for doctors and health services. If I want to work, it's better for me to work in Darfur.

SWEENEY: So essentially, if the situation were more stable in Darfur, you would like to go back. I mean, how possible, Damien, is it for people to go back? How often does it happen? Presumably not a lot, if at all?

LEWIS: I mean, at the moment, it's completely impossible. There is no security at all across the whole of the region. But you know, look, this was Halima's home. This was the home to millions and millions of Darfuris. They lived happy lives with the same aspirations as you or I might have to go to school, to improve their lives, you know, to be with their parents, to grow up with their family, to have their own children, to grow their own crops, normal aspirations that all of us have. And they want to go home. That's their home. It's irreplaceable.

So whatever solution the international community does reach eventually in Darfur, it has to be one which allows the people to go back to where they're from. Crucial. But it's not there yet. It's a long - you know, there's - we're miles from that.

SWEENEY: Halima, what do you hope or what do you think realistically can be achieved by this book that you've written with Damien?

BASHIR: By this book, I just - I want to send a message to everybody who read this book, just encourage people to read the books and just try to - everybody to put himself in my position and think and react by their common humanity and trying to help us and try to support us.

SWEENEY: And Damien, if I may ask, what do you think can be concretely achieved with the book? I mean, you're going to the States. And hopefully, Halima will be going to publicize it as well. What do you think can be achieved?

LEWIS: For me, it's more about touching people emotionally. I think it was Stalin who once said that a million deaths is a statistic. One death is a tragedy. And one person's story told in all its intimate detail, which makes you or I or anybody else in the West feel that that could be them. It could be them. And how would they feel if that happened to them brings it home to on the personal human family level. What would you feel if it was your children or your father, or your grandparents, or your village? That's really what I wanted to try achieve with the story was actually bringing it home to people in a really personal, emotional way. So it doesn't feel like thousands of miles away in a different culture in a place we don't understand.

SWEENEY: That was Damien Lewis and Halima Bashir speaking to me there.

In the eye of the storm, working in adverse conditions. Television reporters find themselves at the mercy of the elements. We look at Hurricane Gustav and media coverage when we come back.



SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now most people head out of town when a dangerous hurricane approaches. But reporters are not most people. They head into town in the name of the story. Despite bringing all kinds of rain gear and their favorite trusty boots, some of them still end up being somewhat weather beaten. Jeanne Moos has the story.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: An ominous pulsating blob, jiggling drops on the lens, time once again for reporters to vie for the title of most weather beaten.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gustav is coming ashore right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was no sense in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The complete concern.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flooding where I am.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whoa, there's some debris starting to blow around. And we want to get out of the way.

MOOS: Out of the way, but not out of camera range.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not a lot of commercials.

MOOS: With so much danger and damage, weather man Al Roker was lucky to lose just his hat.

AL ROKER: And of course, right now, the - sorry, so much for that hat.

MOOS: CNN's Ali Velshi's very first hurricane.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's it feel like?

MOOS: He came back later to Ali's deserted position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We assure you that he did not blow away. MOOS: Actually, he couldn't blow away. He was tethered.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We heard Ali talking a little bit earlier, Chad, about.

MOOS: Ali wasn't the only one hanging on for dear life. Geraldo Rivera was out with his wind gauge.

GERALDO RIVERA: Over 56 gusts here. You can see into the eye of this coming storm. I don't want to get that lens too wet.

MOOS: All day, camera people were wiping, wiping, wiping. Geraldo spotted a guy in the water.

RIVERA: You see right there. Dammit, there's a person stranded. There's a person stranded. I'll tell the cops here. He's swimming. He's got a life line. He's got a life line. Oh, my God.

MOOS: Turns out the swimmer had intentionally gone in the water to attach a line to a propane tank to keep it from causing damage. Geraldo was fearless or foolhardy, take your pick, charging up to levees as water gushed over the top, eventually retreated.

RIVERA: We're trying to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Back to you. This is starting to hurt. This hurts a lot. OK, back to you guys.

MOOS: Some wind blown reporters.


MOOS: .pointed out other wind blown reporters in shorts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quite honestly, I'm having trouble standing up.

MOOS: Aware of unidentified flying cardboard.


MOOS: Oh. Better flying cardboard than flying reporters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I wasn't holding on to this pole, I'd probably be in the Mississippi River by now.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


SWEENEY: Reporters working in extreme weather conditions there.

Well, don't forget to check us out on the web, is the one stop shop for the show. You can also view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. The address again

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.