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Inside China; U.S. Election Coverage; The Financial Crisis

Aired October 3, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, your weekly look at the news and how the media covers it.
Coming up, the financial meltdown dominates the headlines as the economy takes center stage in the U.S. presidential elections. Plus, over four weeks to go until voter day. We examine how the campaign could play out in the press. And later, a rare snapshot into life in China. We speak to renowned photographer Liu Heung Shing.

Our top story, the financial crisis. It's been a turbulent few weeks on global markets with bank collapses, mergers, and bailouts. Just over four weeks from the U.S. presidential election, the crisis has eclipsed the campaign in terms of news coverage.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism found in the week until September 28th the financial meltdown generated 40 percent of news coverage, while the election campaign made up 33 percent. It's the second consecutive week that the financial situation has generated more stories than the election campaign itself.

For more on this, we turn to Tom Rosenstiel, the director with the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He is in Washington.

Thank you for joining us. Is this any surprise that financial news is dominating the news agenda over the election?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM: Well, it's a surprise in the sense that no other story all year long has been able to push the election from center stage. And it changes the election on another sense, which is that throughout this year, we've seen really no master narrative that has framed our presidential election. We've bounced from episode to episode, whether it's Jeremiah Wright, or Sarah Palin. And there hasn't been a kind of central question around which this election is going to turn.

Now suddenly, the financial crisis dominating not only the election, but also the news in general looks as if it may finally provide a kind of central narrative through which Americans will decide their next president.

SWEENEY: Though it would seem part and parcel that the economy is part of the presidential campaign, any presidential campaign. And we've always heard it's the economy, stupid and the number one concern among voters. So what does it say about the presidential candidates and their grasp on the subject that is actually hasn't dominated the news more?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, first of all, it's important for people to understand that the American media hasn't really focused on the economic crisis in a consistent way. Our tracking of media coverage, which we do every day and issue weekly reports on, has found that the economy sort of spikes up as the story, and then disappears. And so, it's quite possible that in any given week, it will be a gaffe by a candidate or their convention speech or some comment that they've made or a fighting or tactics of their advertising will actually be a much bigger story than the economy.

And that was really true all year long until two weeks ago in the United States.

SWEENEY: The economy, as we know, in this particular financial crises, very complicated subject. And a few weeks ago, it was reported that financial journalists weren't able to keep up with the public appetite for this kind of news. Is financial journalism becoming more and more mainstream, the longer this crisis continues?

ROSENSTIEL: Yes. What we've seen in the last two weeks is that the financial journalists in the United States, who have a firmer grasp of this situation, who are quite sophisticated about it, have gone from the financial pages to the front pages. They've moved from the financial cable channels to the mainstream news channels. And this is changing the way that the public sees the event. They're getting an education that they weren't getting.

In general, and this is true of all media, the press are better at covering news that breaks, a discreet episode, an event, than continuing phenomena, or what I call news that bends. The economy is a story that is complex. It's news that bends and isn't necessarily right in front of us in a visual way.

In the last two weeks, with the economic crisis reaching a crisis stage, and it entering the political realm with the package to create some support for our credit markets in the United States, that's changed. It's become a discreet event.

But as markets calm down, and the package is resolved, there's no guarantee that the media might not migrate to another subject, if that might pop up, whether it's the debates or something else.

Even if the economy remains the most important issue on voters minds, it may not be the number one topic in a week or two in the election campaign.

SWEENEY: Very interesting. Tom Rosenstiel, we have to leave it there. But thank you very much indeed for joining us. The financial crisis aside, in the final weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign, there's nothing left to chance. Reporters share their thoughts on the election and how this story might play out in the media. When we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. McCain and Palin, Obama and Biden, it's the tight race leading up to November 4, election day in the United States. As we've been discussing, the economy has become the top issue in the campaign certainly in the way of news coverage in the U.S.

Well, with a new administration to inherit a troubled economy, let's assess the candidates' strategies and the media treatment of them going forward. For that, we turn to Dana Milbank, political reporter with "The Washington Post". Also in Washington, Stephen Hayes, senior writer with "The Weekly Standard."

Stephen Hayes, with the dominance of the economic crisis in the media particularly, how much do you think that has affected or rather warranted the need of the campaign managers to change how they run their campaigns?

STEPHEN HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, I think entirely, frankly. I think John McCain had hoped to spend really part of the last six weeks or a good part of the last six weeks talking about national security, talking about the fact that the United States hasn't been subject to another catastrophic attack like the one on 9/11.

But frankly, if he spent time talking about that right now, it would just feel discordant. It doesn't seem to fit with the crisis that's going on here economically. And I think they've really had to change. And you've seen the McCain campaign since really the beginning of this crisis to stumble a bit. I don't think they've really quite understood how best to talk about this and what kinds of things to say.

SWEENEY: And Dana Milbank, what do you make of how the Democrats have handled this financial crisis?

DANA MILBANK, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, the whole thing has really thrown the whole election upside down. Everybody's waiting for the October surprise. In fact, it came in September and it wasn't terrorism. It was market turmoil. And I think like McCain, Obama was caught somewhat flat footed here on how to respond to the bailout. And he's sort of feeling his way as he goes along.

Now this issue will naturally benefit Obama simply because voters are more likely to blame the incumbent party. So if neither of them does anything, it benefits Obama, although he hasn't necessarily turned it to his advantage by the actions he's taken.

SWEENEY: Sure, Dana Milbank, but if both candidates have been flat footed by this, something which they saw coming, it does suggest that they're more concerned if this is the case about the media, how they're going to be portrayed in the media and among the American public. They probably do have a very clear idea of what they would like to do, but there's something here very, very sensitive about how they choose to present themselves, right?

MILBANK: Well, they - it's hard to tell whether they're acting this way because of how they're going to be perceived in the media, or whether they're acting this way because that is - they're leading in a fairly timid way. But either way, the result is the same. And both are being very cautious, where originally very cautious about how to get behind the bailout bill, how hard to push members of their own party.

So there was a lot of waiting and looking at polls, and seeing how this was all playing out. And so it's hard to tell whether that was driven by media concern, or whether that was just their own innate concerns.

SWEENEY: Well, I'm just wondering, Stephen Hayes, if it was driven by maybe more a question, more accurately of presentation, because more and more people are getting their information we find via the Internet, rather than through the mainstream media. And I'm wondering, has that changed your role as a professional journalist compared to previous elections?

HAYES: Well, I'd say in some ways it has. I mean, you know certainly there's so many more information sources out there, and so many more things, frankly, that we read. You know, I think as I go about doing my day to day job covering the campaigns, I check on so many different kinds of websites. There are the mainstream newspapers that we read everyday, of course. There's CNN, there are other networks that we watch. But there are lots of blogs on each side that, you know, that I read as part of my daily preparation just to find out, sort of what news might be coming. A lot of times, the news sort of trickles up from these blogs, these partisan blogs often. And you'll find a story on a conservative blog three days earlier than you find it suddenly being reported in the mainstream press or vice versa on a liberal blog.

So I think it's good to keep track of sort of all these different sources, and you know, do your best to figure out what is actual news and what bears paying attention to and what doesn't.

SWEENEY: And Dana Milbank, I'm wondering if the Internet has affected journalists and - because of the advent of the blogger, particularly in this election cycle, whether or not the campaigns themselves have been affected by it. I mean, do you think that in some ways, they prefer - would prefer to talk to their partisan bloggers with information, rather than mainstream journalists?

MILBANK: There's no question that's how it's being done over and over again with reaching out to sympathetic radio, talk shows, television talk shows, bloggers, columnists. The idea is to sort of get the echo chamber going on your side. And then it filters into the mainstream.

So it can work against the candidate as well as for the candidate, because there's really no sort of mainstream media that really controls the debate anymore. It's just a wide open space out there.

SWEENEY: Well, just to pick up on that, Stephen Hayes in D.C. also, I mean, I'm quoting here from an article recently in "Businessweek," which quotes the executive vice president for Digital Media at MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which runs "The Daily Show" site, which is of course hosted by Jon Stewart. And he says, Eric Flanagan (ph) says, "This is an election without any (INAUDIBLE)." And when it comes down to the figures in one week in September, "The Daily Show" has something like almost 2,000 viewers who on the Internet watching their shows, they do on mainstream TV. Do you care to comment on that?

HAYES: Yes, it's pretty remarkable. I think we're seeing that on a lot of these websites. I know CNN's website does extraordinarily well. And part of it's because of the video component that we're seeing a lot of news organizations do. My magazine, "The Weekly Standard," has a relatively small subscriber base, but we are now in the video game. We're starting to do more web based videos. It's just an abundance of information. And I think what voters are doing, or trying to do, is figure out, you know, where to get their information. There's so much of it, you really have to sort of set aside a certain amount of time almost every day and say, okay, I'm going to do my 10 websites, or I'm going to watch the five thins I need to watch everyday.

SWEENEY: Dana Milbank, you referred to the October surprise that usually comes before an election, and said that this might have happened actually in September with the downturn on Wall Street and its global impact. I mean, does it surprise you by how flat footed the candidates appear to have been in this election on that issue?

MILBANK: It really does, because this whole election's been about leadership and strength of leadership and who's prepared to answer the 3:00 a.m. phone call. And here we had a real live 3:00 a.m. phone call. And they were all sort of letting the thing ring and go to voicemail. So I think belatedly, they're catching up to it. If this was sort of a trial run at presidential leadership, neither of them can be terribly proud of it, but of course, they've still got a little bit of time.

SWEENEY: Indeed, they do. They have about a month or so as we do, too. But I'd like thank both of you. Dana Milbank and Stephen Hayes, both in D.C., thanks very much indeed for joining us.

A portrait of life in China through the lens. Photojournalist Liu Heung Shing speaks to us about some of his images capturing day to day events in the Peoples Republic over the years.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now a glimpse inside a country that we rarely get to see. Every day life in China. Pulitzer Prize winner Liu Heung Shing has delved into the archives of 88 Chinese photographers to collect "China: Portrait of a Country." It looks at the events and experiences that have unfolded since the creation of the Peoples Republic in 1949.

Recently, I spoke to Liu Heung Shing about his work as a photographer and foreign correspondent. He shared some of his images featured in the book and the stories behind them.


SWEENEY: Let's start straight away with the photograph that you took. When was this?

LIU HEUNG SHING, PHOTOGRAPHER: This is 1977. It's right after the fall Gang of Four. And Mao died in 1976. And I visited Shanghai, went to the high school. And the student put on this skit and denouncing Mao.

SWEENEY: And this would have been fairly typical of schools across China?

SHING: This would be very, very typical, yes. But the image is really, I think, the lighting and so on makes that, you know, the two person, there's something parallel to them.

SWEENEY: Just before we move on, is it the kind of photo you might be able to capture today? Or has China changed?

SHING: Oh, China has changed dramatically from that moment. I think after - when I first became the resident correspondent in '79, January 1st, and then Xio Ping (ph) became the economic reform. And since then, I think the reform really began to take off in mid 1980. And I think China never looked back.

SWEENEY: Never looked back. Well, let's have a look at the next photograph, which is really a fabulous photograph, partly because it's kind of almost two dimensional.

SHING: Right.

SWEENEY: Do you think it's just this and then you see the scale of it.


SWEENEY: Because of the passerby who's dwarfed.

SHING: Yes. I - this picture actually, the area has changed dramatically now. This is on the (INAUDIBLE) of Shanghai. And again, this is a photograph taken in 1977. When Mao died, he wasn't sure he wanted to give the power to Dung Xio Ping (ph) because he's a moderate economic person, who made, you know, do to Mao what Krushev do to Stalin.


SHING: So instead, he pick somebody, you know, this person out of nowhere. His name was Hua Go Fong (ph), who died last month. And this is the famous mural paintings that with you in charge, I'm at ease. This is what Mao said to him. And then, this bureau signified the transition of power to Hua Go Fong. And this - also the photograph shows, you know, the weights of the state versus, you know, ordinary citizens.

SWEENEY: The ordinary citizen indeed.

Let's move on to the next photograph. Now this is clearly some kind of student demonstration?

SHING: Yes. This is a demonstration in 1979. And when Dung Xio Ping began his reform, he allowed a moment of democracy movement. We had these democracy wall, which was a bus depot on the west side of Beijing city. But these were the students from People University, because their campuses were occupied by the - second artillery army people. Those are the army - Chinese army in charge of the missile and defense of China.


SHING: And they occupied their campus. So the students just took the street.


SHING: .to protest, said get out of our campus. You know, return the campus to us. We are the students.

SWEENEY: And eventually, what happened?

SHING: It took many more years they eventually leave.





SWEENEY: Now this is a lovely photo, this next photograph. Again, I mean, I think it almost says it all.


SWEENEY: Someone standing very stoic, the leadership, the weight of the state. And then someone sailing by.

SHING: Yes. This photograph was taken in 1980 in the northeastern town - city called Dalian (ph) at the Technical Institute. And that morning, I was actually just took up - went out for a walk. And I saw these students, you know, he was rollerskating around the square. I thought it was very momentous image that Mao is facing one direction. And he was - he's heading to another direction. You know, China - he also said about China began to relax and seeking new direction, and that sort of things.

SWEENEY: Very quickly, I mean, as someone who is born in Hong Kong, studied in the U.S., and has spent most of your life in Beijing, did you have any difficulties at all taking photographs for the authorities?

SHING: I have, you know, no more or no less interference as - if I were in India, you know, or in Pakistan covering a demonstration or riots. You can often get in trouble.

In China as an accredited correspondent, I can go to any city that's open, and do, you know, what I wanted to do. I would say I am at, you know, remarkably few restriction than I - than one would imagine.

SWEENEY: Right. This photograph, Tiananmen Square?

SHING: Tiananmen Square. Again, this after the - after, you know, Mao died, the students have been, you know, the education was just simply shut down during the Cultural Revolution. There was no exam for university, high school, and so on. So at that year, in 1980, everything begins again. But these students themselves have no light at home, no electricity at home. So they went to study in Tiananmen for their exam.

And it was so dark in Tiananmen Square, I had to take this photograph, I have to - I had to lie in front of them, and open my lighter for 20 seconds to expose for this frame.

SWEENEY: Wow, and they didn't move at all during this?

SHING: They didn't move, yes.

SWEENEY: Extraordinary. This photograph is wonderful. Have a Coke, have a smile.

SHING: Yes. Again, this is in early, earliest period of reform. You know, of course, Coca-Cola was in China long before anyone was in China, even in the KMT period. But at that time, the - it was the first plan for Coca-Cola reopen in Beijing. So in order to illustrate the story and so on, I would - I went to the opening of the plan. And then one day, I was in the forbidden city and saw this man with a bottle of Coke.

SWEENEY: Yes, it's wonderful. I'm very happy to have this photograph taken. Let's have a look at the final picture that we've selected from your book. And this is Tiananmen Square in and around that time.

SHING: In the - this 1989, June 5th. At that time, you know, China already have declared martial law. And I was trying to office in New York ask if we can see the - a photograph of what Tiananmen Square looked like. But before that, you know, I get a phone call from my journalist colleague, the Beijing Hotel. They said tens were moving your side. And we were working out of diplomatic quarters in the east side of the - of Beijing.

And so, I was very familiar with the Kumpang (ph). So I went to the building and to the roof. As soon as I get to the roof, another tank swings by. And I look underneath this young couple of lovers.


SHING: And again, it's a photograph sort of individual versus the weight of the state I thought was quite symbolic.

SWEENEY: I know, and quite fearful, too, this couple. What prompted you to compile this wonderful mass of tome on China?

SHING: Yes, well, next year is Peoples Republic 60 anniversary. You know, people just finished looking at - in the wake of Beijing Olympic. You know, a lot of viewers, including this generation of young Chinese, when I was going to in this book editing, they asked me names as if a British student would ask you who is Winston Churchill? They would ask me questions like that.

And I certainly felt there was a rupture of history even in the 60 years. So I decided, you know, perhaps I'm the best person to do this, to track the journey the Chinese people have traveled to arrive at this position today.


SWEENEY: Liu Heung Shing and some of his striking images of life in China.

Well, don't forget to drop our website. Log on to to see the show again. You can also view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. The address

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.