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Covering the Campaign; Remembering Alistair Cooke

Aired October 31, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, your weekly look at the news and how the media covers it.
Coming up, the final stretch, the Democrats, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden. The Republicans, John McCain and Sarah Palin. How are the final days of the U.S. presidential campaign playing out in the press?

And later, he was best known for his letters from America. Ahead of what would have been his 100th birthday, we remember reporter Alistair Cooke.

First, to the U.S. campaign. In a matter of days, we'll know who will succeed George W. Bush as president of the United States. With nothing to chance, the candidates have both been out fighting in the past week, echoed in the tone of Democrat Barack Obama and his Republican rival John McCain.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama's measuring the drapes and he's planned his first address to the nation for before the election. You know, I guess I'm old fashioned about these things. I prefer to let the voters weigh in before ridiculous.


BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's spending these last weeks calling me every name in the book. Because that's how you play the game in Washington. If you can't beat your opponent's ideas, you distort those ideas and maybe make some up.


SWEENEY: Well, the fight, the polls and what the pundits have to say soon voters will decide. Let's get a sense of how the media is covering the final days of the campaign. And for that, we turn to radio talk show host and CNN contributor Roland Martin. He's in Chicago. And in Washington, Stephen Hayes, senior writer with "The Weekly Standard."

Roland Martin, in the final days of this campaign, how does it compare to other elections in your view?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's pretty interesting because obviously, you know, we're going to have a new president, whether it's McCain or Obama. And so, much of the coverage is focusing on can McCain somehow pull this out in terms of he's down in the polls. He's down in even red states that George W. Bush won in 2004. And so, in many ways, we have doom and gloom. Your have reports about Palin aides hating the McCain aides. McCain aides can't stand Palin. The whole in fighting there. And so it's really a matter of what is he going to do to try to pull this out?

SWEENEY: Stephen Hayes, in your opinion, what can McCain do, not only with his campaign, but also to combat this image that seems to be out there in the media now that he's losing and fighting Sarah Palin?

STEPHEN HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, I agree with Roland's assessment. I think one of the things John McCain can do is get his campaign to stop pointing fingers at each other. You know, you've got a week before. You've got days before the election. And you've got his campaign trading charges against one another anonymously in the press. That's never going to be helpful to a campaign.

Now the irony is, and I agree again with Roland's assessment of how this is being covered. I think we've spent a lot of time in the media covering the horse race aspects of it, looking at the difficulty that John McCain is having in these final weeks, in these final days of the campaign, closing in these battleground states.

The irony to me is that John McCain seems to be doing a much better job actually on the stump. He's giving speeches that have a coherent message. He seems to have settled on the final closing argument against Barack Obama. I think it's the kind of thing that if it were getting more airtime, would probably be persuasive to undecided voters.

It's getting crowded out, though. So I think that's going to be a challenge for McCain in these last couple days.

SWEENEY: I mean, Roland Martin, let me draw your attention to a recent survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which probably both of you are aware, saying that, "The media coverage of this race hasn't so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one."

Is that something with which you'd agree?

MARTIN: Well, actually, I think if - interesting. They've done a couple of surveys. You might recall back and July and August, there was also report that showed that the coverage of Obama, he got more than McCain, but it was far more negative than McCain. Something like 72 percent negative in terms of words and phrases used.

Campaigns go through these stages. As Steve said, you know, we have this horse race kind of thing in terms of who's up, who's down, who's doing good, who's doing bad. And so, at one point, there was a lot of, you know, negative towards Obama. Then it's negative towards McCain. And so, we see this throughout all the campaigns.

Every campaign, Obama, McCain, Hillary Clinton, you name it, they all complain. All the media's giving the other person too much credit or not going soft on them. We see that here they play every year. This is the ups and downs, the ebb and flow of media coverage in a campaign.

SWEENEY: But I'm wondering, Stephen Hayes, how much of this - the latest research has to do with the fact that reporters themselves maybe aren't as objective as they might like to be. Or the campaign success in getting their - what seems to be on the Obama team positive message out and this in fighting we hear with the McCain team.

HAYES: Yes, well, I think there are two points to make about this survey. The first is the facts of the matter in the past six weeks are that the McCain campaign has struggled. And it hasn't had a coherent message. And I think news reports have pointed that out again and again and again.

So you have on the one hand the media covering the story, and I think covering it in a reasonably objective fashion so far as it goes in that the McCain campaign hasn't been doing well. A separate question, I think, but related question is whether the media have been giving more favorable coverage to Barack Obama than John McCain. I think that's indisputable.

SWEENEY: I suppose I'm wondering, Roland Martin, just how important the media has been in this election campaign, and if Obama were to win and his different approach direct e-mailing supporters, etcetera, whether or not we could expect a change in the next administration and indeed how we cover the next election?

MARTIN: Well, I mean, absolutely. Firstly, there is no doubt in terms of how this next election is covered it will be different. The campaigns, trust me, the Republicans are studying. If Obama wins, they are studying, even if he loses, they are studying what he was able to do in terms of the text messaging, in terms of the video messaging. We're seeing it. We are seeing the Internet play a more critical role because let's just be honest, and I hate to say it, look, they have a much better day - effort to date to bypass me, to bypass Stephen. They can talk to millions directly. That's what these databases are huge.

And so we are going to see it differently, but I think the media also will get more aggressive, because you see a lot more fact checking from media outlets any time McCain or Obama says something. And they say wait a minute, here's the fact check. And so, we are still assuming the right role, frankly, of being able to hold the candidates accountable for what they say and do.

SWEENEY: Stephen Hayes, a final comment there. We are still holding the right role. I mean, has the media performed as well as you might expect in this election in terms of covering it?

HAYES: No, I don't think they have. I mean, I agree with Roland. I mean, the things that the Obama campaign has done in terms of reaching out directly to voters and bypassing us in the media have been extraordinary. And they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for that. I don't think that we've done as good a joy collectively as a media as we could have.

I mean, I think that there has been a discrepancy in the kind of scrutiny paid to John McCain's campaign when compared to Barack Obama's campaign on issue after issue. And I think one of the problems, and I think it'll be interesting to see scholars look back on this election campaign and study these things, is with these fact checks, which I think often are as misleading as the - an original claims by the candidates themselves.

So it will bear further scrutiny on us as well.

SWEENEY: All right, plenty of work ahead. And both of you, Stephen Hayes in D.C. and in Chicago, Roland Martin, thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

Well, it's not just the U.S. press that's fixated on this election. The world is watching, too. We hear from international reporters covering the campaign when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's an election that the world is watching. On Tuesday, U.S. voters will elect either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain as their president. Campaigns always generate wall to wall coverage in the U.S. But news outlets around the globe are also taking note.

So let's speak to international journalists following this election. And for that, we turn to Rudiger Lentz, the Washington bureau chief with Deutsche Welle, Ione Molinares, correspondent with our sister station CNN en Espanol, and Toby Harnden, U.S. editor with Britain's "Daily Telegraph."

Toby Harnden, how does coverage of this election do you think compare or contrast with national coverage in the U.S.?

TOBY HARNDEN, U.S. EDITOR, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH: Well, I think that we try to look at the broader picture. We don't get too bogged down in the minutiae of the health care plans of the different candidates. Clearly, we look at international issues a little bit more. Foreign policy.

But broadly speaking, there's still the same fascination I find in Britain with the U.S. election. Americans have - everybody is absolutely on the edge of their seats. And they're wondering whether the polls are somehow wrong, or whether Barack Obama is indeed going to become the president. And what we see this year, what I've noticed with the readership back home more than any other year, is this really affects people around the world. So although clearly it's the U.S. president, it's only Americans that vote, the world is watching. And the world feels it has a stake in this election.

SWEENEY: Ione Molinares, when you cover for a network like CNN en Espanol, who is your core audience? And what are you looking for in either of the candidates that you feel can relate to your audience?

IONE MOLINARES, CNN EN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have two. We have the Latin American audience and the U.S. Hispanic speaking audience. And basically target exactly to in a sense explain to the Hispanic that live here in the United States how is the process going, but also give a sense to the Latin American audience how is going to affect - and what are they proposing so they can get a better idea of what is going on in the United States.

And certainly is very important for Latin America since the United States, it has so much influence in terms of economical, cultural, and all sort of avenues. But in reality, it is a lot attention that they've been put in Latin America towards this election. Seems there's a lot in play, especially the foreign policy and economical issues.

SWEENEY: Rudiger Lentz, so and how do you think this election compares for German viewers, compared to previous ones?

RUDIGER LENTZ, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, DEUTSCHE WELLE: It's very different because I think the German population, as well as the Europeans at large, have been very (INAUDIBLE) over the last eight years with the American leadership. And they want to see some leadership. And I think they are now ready for change. So if you would held the election tomorrow in Germany or in another country, in France or in Britain, I think Obama would be leading overwhelmingly, would be voted into office by 70 or 80 percent.

So I think the Europeans and the Germans especially, they are waiting for change. They've put their hopes on Obama because they think he might be able to repair transatlantic relations to pull out of Iraq, which was one of the major obstacles between Europe and America. And that he would overcome the bad image of America, which was created under Bush.

SWEENEY: And do you think that that groundswell of support for Obama in Germany and perhaps elsewhere in Europe has been reflected at all in your reporting for your own audience?

LENTZ: I think we have to calm down expectations because I think first of all, one couldn't expect wonder if Obama is elected, he has to steer a very, very fragile economy. He has many problems at hand. Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, just to name a few. And I think one should let's say calm down expectations of Europe and in Germany. That's what we are doing.

I think because the next president has a lot of problems at hand and on the plate, and that's difficult to deal with.

SWEENEY: Toby Harnden, there are some research statistics that recently in the U.S. which suggest that the media in the States has not been doing mainly favorable, positive stories on the McCain camp. Do you think that the media in general has been fair or unfair to the McCain camp? Or is - has he been the author of his own coverage?

HARDEN: Well, I think both Hillary Clinton and for John McCain, blaming the media is never a great idea. It's never a sign of successful campaign. But I do think there was something in what Hillary said that Obama was not being scrutinized by the press early on. I think she ran, you know, mistakenly I think as a candidate with experience with being ready on day one. When we now know that very clearly, this is a change election.

But I think throughout this campaign, I've seen it even at rallies in very recent days, Obama is bordering on a cult of personality. He's running as the embodiment of change. His life stories about - is about change and hope and something different and a new kind of politics. And some of it is pretty hazy in its details. And I think that's the reason why there are still a fair number of pundits (INAUDIBLE).


HARNDEN: And there are some people who are saying well, we're just not quite sure. It sounds good, but what's the reality going to be?

SWEENEY: And what are Obama's handlers saying to you, Toby Harnden, first of all, as an international journalist about this cult of personality that you've taken note of in the last few days?

HARNDEN: Well, it's been a phenomenon for months. I mean, they that want to talk about anything like that, they totally shy away from that. They say they want to talk about the issues. They're also very focused on domestic journalists. And the time for international journalists is fairly limited, although they are polite to us.

I mean, what they say is that it's all about the issues. It's all about policies. And Obama has to detail policies. And indeed, they are. You can go to his website. They're all there. But he ends his speech with we - in some speech at the moment, we are not going to just win this election. We are going to change America. And we are going to change the world. And that's a very, very big ambition for a candidate to make.

SWEENEY: Ione Molinares, working for an effort like CNN but also CNN en Espanol, I'm wondering how much access you've had to the various McCain and Obama camps, given that obviously, there's a large number of Hispanics in the U.S. who will be voting in this election?

MOLINARES: We do. And the campaign, both they do have a big Spanish operation. It took a lot longer for the Obama campaign to put their team together to be able to be more accessible to the Hispanic media. But eventually, they'll be doing that. The Republicans were more aware early in the campaign. And they've been having a big operation, easy to access, easy information. And then in that month or two in the campaign, you have seen Obama opening up more to statements and reach out to the media in Spanish also.

SWEENEY: Rudiger Lentz, let me ask you. I mean, we saw Barack Obama earlier in the year make a huge speech in front of 200,000 people in Berlin. I'm just wondering how much interest has the Obama or McCain camps in a European German journalists are reporting on this election? How much access do you have?

LENTZ: As other international outlets, very little compared to the domestic networks. This is understandable. But on the other hand, I think the market has to so to speak the media is overwhelmed by information from all sides. I think there is no problem in getting down to the facts and the figures and reading into it.

But the problem here is to translate back to our countries that first of all, it's a race between two candidates. There is not only Obama. And secondly, that McCain is still strong in some Republican strongholds. We don't yet know the outcome of the youth vote. And the turnout of the vote is in total.

So I think I have to tone down some expectation that this race is already over, that Obama is by large margins the winner. That's what many of my country people are still thinking.

SWEENEY: All right, we must leave it there, but thank you, all of you. Rudiger Lentz, Ione Molinares, and Toby Harnden, all in D.C., thanks very much indeed for joining us.

From the world view of the U.S. presidential election, to a different view of America, reporter Alistair Cooke observed life in the country for more than five decades. Susan Cooke Kittredge shares memories about her father and his legacy in what would have been his centennial year.


SWEENEY: Images of Alistair Cooke, writer and broadcaster who observed and reported on life in America to the rest of the world until his death in 2004. Born in Britain, Alistair Cooke was "The Guardian's" U.S. correspondent between 1947 and 1972. He was best known for his weekly BBC "Letter from America" broadcast, which reached an audience of 20 million people.

Well, to coincide with the centennial of Alistair Cooke's birth, a volume of uncollected Cooke dispatches on social, cultural, and political events in post U.S. war history has been compiled in "Reporting America: The Life of the Nation: 1946 to 2004."

I recently spoke to Alistair Cooke's daughter Susan Cooke Kittredge, who introduces the memoir. I began by asking whether she had a sense growing up that her father was defining a nation.


SUSAN COOKE KITTREDGE DAUGHTER OF ALISTAIR COOKE: For most of my growing up, sort of coming to consciousness, he was not - he had no fame in America, because he hadn't done "Masterpiece Theater" or his series on the history of America had not come out. So he was just working. He was the chief American correspondent for "The Manchester Guardian." And he was a writer and a reporter. And that was sort of his work.

It was only really later when I realized the impact that he had had really on Great Britain through coming here and seeing the fame that he had here, that it sort of struck me that he had been doing this same thing for his whole life.

SWEENEY: And his whole life doing this great thing, he might not have been able to do, you believe, had he lived in Britain, where he was born.

KITTREDGE: I think he's a great mixture of both the cultures. He was sort of classically raised and educated at Cambridge. He certainly could speak Latin. But he had a feisty spirit. And some of the interviews with his past tutors and people going through his records at Cambridge will say that he was, you know, sometimes involved in other things like drama and directing plays. And he just was so excited about life and about the theater and about jazz, that coming to America seemed like a natural thing to do.

SWEENEY: I mean, he really did seem to be a man of his time. In the moment, that was involving America.

KITTREDGE: Only in America could he have sort of created himself and become this improvisational person that he was and to create the kind of career that he did.

SWEENEY: His style, how would you describe his writing style?

KITTREDGE: Really good. He had a respect and love for the English language that I think few people have today. He admired it, he loved it, he coddled it, he protected it.

SWEENEY: At your own expense, I think at the signing table.

KITTREDGE: Oh, my gracious. You know, I have said that I sometimes wonder why I can open my mouth because I was raised by what Brendan Gill, who was the theater critic for "The New Yorker," called the corrector. And he let no slight go uncorrected. No dangling participle ever hung from the ceiling. And no sentence ended in a preposition. And that's just the way he was.

SWEENEY: How do you think he would have felt about today's election or where America is at today?

KITTREDGE: He was raised in a very strict Methodist household. He held by the, you know, deadly sins. And I think that he thought that greed and avarice were very evil things, and that money was the root of all evil. And he would look to - at today's financial market and pretty much say you made the bed, now you lie in it.

SWEENEY: He was very upset when he began to make a lot of money, and kept his money in a currency.

KITTREDGE: For the first time, when he first started to make money, when the America series came out and he started doing Masterpiece Theater and was offered more than just the reporter's salary, he believes that interest was usury, and that to get something for nothing was immoral. And so he intentionally kept his money in his checking account.

And so if he was a man of his time, what do you think he would make of the state of the world in 2008? Has it changed very much since.

KITTREDGE: He'd be distressed. He would be very distressed. I think he would be, and this is a really subject sorry, subjective view, but I think he would be very intrigued by Barack Obama, because he is a man of such integrity. And from nothing else, for his facility with the English language.

SWEENEY: His own facility for memory was quite something, because.

KITTREDGE: He had a remark - Daddy had a phenomenal memory. He could recall a time that, you know, President Roosevelt was not feeling well and unable to attend this meeting, and how that affected whatever. And having that perspective, he was sort of the original Google in his brain. He held onto all history. And that allowed him to look at current events with some sage wisdom, I think, that many of us, certainly I don't have.


SWEENEY: Susan Cooke Kittredge speaking to me about her father Alistair Cooke

Well, don't forget to drop by our website. Log on to to see the show again, view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. It's all at

And 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.