UN: News vs. Propaganda
December 8, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. At the United Nations this week, representatives from CNN, the New York Times, Al Jazeera and the BBC squared off in Conference Room 4 for a forum titled News Versus Propaganda - The Gatekeepers' Dilemma. As On the Media's Jad Abumrad reports, it's still a dilemma.
JAD ABUMRAD: From the start the media were on the defensive. The UN high commissioner on human rights, Mary Robinson, set the tone. She loomed large on a 30 foot high video screen over the four panelists and several hundred audience members. Conferenced in from London she lambasted coverage of an earlier event, the UN Conference on Racism.
MARY ROBINSON: I think it wasn't captured by a lot of the media how much it meant to those of African descent, migrants -- and that's what I mean when I say that in the rush to get the story, the media sometimes miss history.
JAD ABUMRAD: Robinson then asked the 5 media representatives to evaluate their coverage of the War on Afghanistan and it wasn't long before the discussion degenerated into accusations of bias, beginning with much-criticized Arab network Al Jazeera. Hafez Al Mirazi is the network's Washington bureau chief.
HAFEZ AL MIRAZI: Well first we shouldn't shoot the messenger if we hate the message.
JAD ABUMRAD: He defended Al Jazeera's decision to repeatedly run Osama bin Laden's video rants.
HAFEZ AL MIRAZI: And I think bin Laden or Taliban or others, regardless of our views of them, should have -should - we should hear their part of the story.
JAD ABUMRAD: CNN, too, had to defend itself against the charge of bias, but for not running the bin Laden tapes. They curtailed those broadcasts after a visit from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Here's CNN's Karen Curry.
KAREN CURRY: But the difference between a tape from bin Laden to whom no one is able to address questions, query, ask him to back up statements that he's making and a Bush press conference where he puts forward his point of view and then the press corps -- not just the U.S. press corps but the international press corps -- can query him and, and have him explain and justify what he's saying I think is quite a distinction. [APPLAUSE]
JAD ABUMRAD: The one organization that emerged unscathed was the BBC. Since 9/11 BBC television and radio has been pulling in a record number of American viewers. On hand for the Brits was World News editor Steve Williams. He attributes the BBC's success to its diverse work force.
STEVE WILLIAMS: In BBC World there's only about 20 percent of the, of the staff are actually white Caucasian British, and as I sat there on September 12th discussing what to do with my planning team, I had a Moroccan, a Lebanese, a German, an Australian and myself. That gave me a, a different perspective on it.
JAD ABUMRAD: Williams speculates that another reason for the BBC's new pull with American viewers is its decided neutrality on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians, a conflict that hung over the forum like a dark cloud. An audience member asked about the images broadcast on American TV of Palestinian children celebrating immediately after the World Trade Center collapsed. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper in Jerusalem expressed frustration at how often these images have been broadcast.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN: We have mel-- thinkers, we have journalists, we have belly dancers, we have everything in our society, and why do you generalize and pick up this incident in particular and say all the Palestinian are supporting Osama bin Laden?! [APPLAUSE]
JAD ABUMRAD: The giant video screen switched to show Lakdar Brahimi, a UN negotiator working in Bonn in the discussions towards a new Afghan government. Brahimi said objectivity frequently dies on the battlefield.
LAKDAR BRAHIMI: When a country is fighting a war, the interests related to fighting that war take precedence over high moral ground and high-sounding principles. This is a fact!
JAD ABUMRAD: But Brahimi did provide the forum's sole positive note. He observed that the balance between propaganda and news is slowly tilting towards fair reporting. In one week, he says, he has seen more in-depth reports about Afghanistan -- particularly Afghan women --than in the previous 5 years. For On the Media this is Jad Abumrad in New York.