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'This Is Not Science, This Is Art'

CNN's lead anchor on the network's coverage of the anti-war movement, the media's sanitization of the invasion of Iraq and why he believes this is an inappropriate time for reporters to ask questions about war.

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'This Is Not Science, This Is Art'
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, April 4, 2003

Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!: You're listening to Democracy Now: The War and Peace Report, I'm Amy Goodman.

With more than 25 years of journalism experience, Aaron Brown is CNN's lead anchor during breaking news and special events as well as anchor of Newsnight. Before that, Aaron Brown was anchor of ABC's World News Tonight Saturday and reported for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. Even before that, he was in Seattle with KIRO TV. He is a native of Hopkins, Minnesota. Thank you very much for joining us, Aaron Brown.

Aaron Brown, CNN: Thanks for asking.

Amy Goodman: I'm here in the studio with my co-host, Jeremy Scahill, who is our correspondent who has just returned from Baghdad, and a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), Steve Rendall. But first, I just wanted to start off with Aaron Brown by asking: Where are you speaking from right now?

Aaron Brown: I'm sitting in my temporary office at CNN in Atlanta.

Amy Goodman: Do you wish you were embedded with the troops on the front lines?

Aaron Brown: There have been times I've wished that, sure, but that's not my job, and I'm honored to have the job I do have. That's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. There are often times that you wish you were closer to the ground, but this is where I am in my life and I'm happy to be here.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about what you see your job as right now as the anchor of Newsnight and leading the news coverage at CNN of the invasion of Iraq?

Aaron Brown: I think the essential thing for me to do in this unique coverage is to make sure that no single picture, no single moment, overwhelms the broader picture- and I say this literally to viewers a lot; that we show you a piece of a puzzle. Because the power of pictures is the power of pictures, that individual puzzle piece can become the entire puzzle- and it's not. It's just a piece of the puzzle. So, while an embed here or an embed there or an embed over there, delivers to us extraordinary coverage of a puzzle piece, my job is to make sure that I fit it into the broader picture of what is going on. It is no more complicated than that and it is, honestly, no more simple than that; it is what it is.

Amy Goodman: Steve Rendall, you're with Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, you are a media critic who watches the media very closely. What is your assessment, your report card, of, well, let's talk about CNN?

Steve Rendall, FAIR: I want to start off by saying thanks for having me on, Amy and Jeremy. Thanks to Aaron Brown, for coming on here to face the music. But let me say that we at FAIR we think that a healthy journalism culture would offer broad debate, independent, accurate information, and journalists asking very tough questions -- especially tough questions of people in power. I'd have to say that what we are seeing is media falling well short of this mark, especially television news, and I think CNN fits in there. I was on this show a few weeks ago to point out that on three commercial news networks, ABC, NBC, CBS and the News Hour with Jim Lehrer- on the four flagship shows on each of these four networks, that less than 1 percent of the guests they had speaking on stories about Iraq over a two week period in February, when a ferocious debate was going on about an Iraq war, less than 1 percent anti-war voices were heard there.

Now I didn't study CNN, but even if CNN were five times better than ABC or the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, which were the best of the four networks, and I don't think it is, they still would be selling short those people who are skeptical and who are outright opposed to this war. The question I would like to ask is; whenever the question is war, what we see is the networks and the cable news channels running out and hiring ex-generals, former Pentagon officials, national security types- people to a man and woman who think in terms of military solutions. We ask: Why aren't people hired who would serve as a counter weight to all those militarist voices? People who've spent, decades in some cases studying international law, human rights, or conflict resolution- traditions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. What I'd like to ask Aaron Brown is: why don't you consider hiring these types of people as a counter weight?

Aaron Brown: Wow, that's a long windup to a question. When, would be my response; at what point, would be my response? I don't and I won't talk about anything other than work that I, and that we as an organization do. Other people in other organizations are fully capable of discussing their own business, I know because I keep records of things like this and I sit in meetings where I say 'in the lead up to the war, are all the relevant voices being heard?' I am really comfortable that when the history of that period is written, Newsnight will do just fine. But I've also said that I thought all of us in this organization were a little late in coming to see an anti-war movement develop and I think there are reasons for that, and you may disagree with them, it's your right.

I think the Democratic Party just rolled over- there was no congressional debate. Secondly, I think for a long time, until honestly the die was well cast, the movement as best I could see it, had no center to cover. There was no clear focus to it, it was a mish mash in many ways. I think that changed in the endgame. I'm not saying that there weren't people who felt strongly, because I knew there were. I lived a long time in Seattle and I know there are very strong feelings in Seattle. I just don't think it had coalesced in a way that made it easy to cover, and I think we were slow to get there. I think that once we got there, we handled it just fine, but I have never argued that we were not slow to get there.

I think the generals question, respectfully, is a colossal red herring. For one thing, and I'll just speak about the generals that I deal with, in particular one I deal with a lot, General Clark. I don't know one of them who is eager or was eager to engage in this war and probably any war. They know much better than you know and I know the cost of war. Political leadership is something else, but military leadership, because I've been around them and have some feel for how they think, I'm confident in them.

We don't bring generals in to engage in a debate over whether or whether not the war should or should not be fought -- and that's why the question is a red herring. We bring generals in to explain what is happening on the ground and why. That's an enormous difference, and I think it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that an explanation of the tactical moment needs to be offset by someone who doesn't believe there ought to be a tactical moment at all. It's happening, it needs explanation. Viewers are entitled to explanation, they need to know whether or not it is effective or why. They need to understand where it's going, they need to understand the costs of it all. And that is how we use generals or military people. We don't use them ever -- well, we have not used them in the course of the war itself to discuss the appropriateness of this war, as opposed to the execution of the war

Amy Goodman: We're talking with Aaron Brown of CNN, before that ABC. We will be spending the hour with him, along with Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting talking about the coverage of the US invasion of Iraq.

Steve Rendall: : Well, I'd like to say first that I think it's a fairly weak argument to say you didn't cover the anti-war movement because it had no strong Democratic Party spokesperson against that. In fact, the anti-war movement was well organized as early as September and was having demonstrations that were drawing hundreds of thousands.

And what I would like to ask you is now that the war is under way -- fine, you say that you use generals in the way that you do -- I would like to ask you why you don't invite people who understand the larger picture of war? You guys may do a very good job of covering the war from the battlefields with your embeds and with your generals back in the studio who know about war, but you say that generals know more than you or I about the cost of war, I totally disagree with that.

War is a much bigger story than what happens on the battlefield. It's a story of human rights, of international law, it's a story of politics happening in the Middle East, happening in Europe, and happening all around the world. War is far too important a story to be left to ex-generals. Where are your analysts that are on the payroll that are discussing these larger pictures of war? That is a very fair question. It comes down to a matter of balance.

Aaron Brown: Wait. Stop- do you want to ask a question or make an argument?

Steve Rendall: : I am making an argument. I'm a guest here like you.

Aaron Brown: I know you're making an argument. If you want to listen; please I have neither the time nor inclinations to make argument with you. If you want to field questions, I'll be happy to answer them, I'm willing to do that. But these are really long polemical windups that I'm not -- if you want me to listen, I'll do that too. It's your 15 minutes, but wow.

Amy Goodman: I just want to clarify, Aaron Brown, Steve Rendall is our guest here, as you are, and he's posing his arguments in terms of a question.

Aaron Brown: Fine Go Ahead.

Amy Goodman: So, why don't you respond to what he's put forward about war being too important to be left to ex-generals.

Aaron Brown: I would simply say 'watch the program'. I don't feel like I ever need to sit around and throw this stuff around, because what I do, and what we do as an organization, Newsnight speaks for itself. In the course of the last 2 and a half weeks, we've spent considerable time, and appropriate time, talking about the broader impact of this moment in history.

Steve Rendall: : I'm going to stress that I'm glad Aaron Brown came on here, and I meant what I said - to face the music. And it just so happens that I have looked at some of the transcripts, and frankly what I see is gross imbalance. Some of the conversations you had with retired General Wesley Clark are downright gushing. I've heard Clark on there saying, 'Don't those troops look great?' Quote, 'Now I'm looking at the troops, they're all in uniform, they've got their gear,

Aaron Brown: He absolutely said that

Steve Rendall: : 'they've got their stuff together, you look at those men, they're physically fit, they're ready- that's a great Army'. And a few minutes later you say, 'They are, they are, in many respects, marvelous things to see'

Contrast that with a few nights ago you had on Daniel Ellsberg, it was one of the rare times we were actually hearing articulate anti-war voices on the television and I'm grateful for that and it's good that you put these voices on. But, one of the questions you asked him was that if he didn't think because part of the Iraq strategy was to play on the anti-war movement around the world, you asked Ellsberg if he wasn't 'playing into the hands of what even you would acknowledge is a bad regime'.

Two things about that; one thing -- a legitimate anti-war movement -- maybe that's just a tough question coming from a devil's advocate journalist. But the second implication there, is that Ellsberg, a member of the anti-war movement, would be soft on Saddam Hussein.

Aaron Brown: Whoa, whoa, whoa - quote the question respectfully. Quote the question correctly. 'Because of what even you would say is a terrible regime.

Steve Rendall: : The implication in that wording was that even someone in the anti-war movement would agree that Saddam Hussein is bad. The left- especially the western left - has nothing to apologize for with Saddam Hussein. I'd just like to flip that scenario and ask that if you had Rumsfeld on, would you have shown the picture of Donald Rumsfeld smiling and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983 when Saddam Hussein was using poison gas on the Iranian troops with the help of DIA intelligence? These are ironic, compelling stories that you could be putting on and we're not seeing. So I'm asking -- and again it's a matter of balance -- ask tough questions of Ellsberg, yes, but ask tough questions of those in power, and don't sit there with a former member of the military -

Aaron Brown: Tell me what your question is, I'd like to respond.

Steve Rendall: : I'd like you to respond to these charges of imbalance. This is gross imbalance.

Aaron Brown: OK, then let me do that. We have talked on the program about the irony of an American administration that 20 years ago sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iranian war. Helped arm Saddam Hussein and had relationships with Saddam Hussein. This is not something we have ignored, number one.

Number two, I find the Ellsberg moment particularly interesting because I think it says a lot about the times in which we live and how people view the role of journalists. I don't know you and I don't know how old you are, but Dr. Ellsberg, in my view, is a true hero, he was very courageous in what he did during Vietnam. Courageous. I've had him on the air on more than one occasion. I have always, and consistently since this began, not only put anti-war demonstrations on the air, but acknowledge the appropriateness of them in this time and how it speaks to the democracy and the utter joy of a democracy. But, if I am going to be allowed to ask, as I did, people who were proponents of the war, 'what is wrong with giving the inspectors another month, or two months, or whatever they need?'. Why is that such a horrible thing. Or am I allowed to ask proponents of the war why we, as a country, stand so singularly-with the exception of the Prime Minister of the British government-singularly, apart from the international community on this -- if I'm going to be allowed to ask those kinds of questions of those people, then I as a reporter -- that is what I do. I have to be allowed to ask the people who you like, who you support, and who you believe are correct- questions that are equally uncomfortable.

These are the times in which we live and these times are such that passions are so hot right now that there are people out there -- and you may or may not be one of them -- but there are people who only want hard questions, difficult questions, uncomfortable questions, asked of the people they disagree with. And what they want from their guys, their side, is a hanging curve ball. That's not my job. That's not the kind of job I have, and frankly, that's not the kind of job I'm interested in.

The kind of job I have and the kind of job I'm interested in is to make sure that each side has to defend its position so that the people I actually care about in this, who are viewers, have enough information on their plate that they can make a cogent decision about what they honestly think is right. But I don't think either side, your side or the other side, wants me to do that. I think you want me to say, 'Aren't those demonstrations cool?' to Mr. Ellsberg. The fact is that the only strategy the Iraqi regime has, ever had, is to hope that international public opinion will be such that pressure is brought to bear on the American government to stop. That is the only strategy; there is no effective military strategy in place, only this political strategy is in place.

Amy Goodman: We're talking to CNN's Aaron Brown and Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

Steve Rendall: : I'd like to say, and I've already said very clearly twice at the top of the show, I think it's important to ask questions during a time of war of both sides. I think I just gave you an example of you asking a tough question of Daniel Ellsberg, who is a one or two shot guest in the studio, and throwing hanging curve balls to General Wesley Clark.

Aaron Brown: It wasn't a hanging curveball, it was a discussion of something we saw. There was no question -- we weren't saying, 'Aren't those wonderful looking troops', we were looking at something, and you might have seen it differently. That's how I saw it. That's not to say they should be going in killing anybody.

Amy Goodman: Aaron Brown, I just wanted to bring in my co-host, Jeremy Scahill, who's just recently returned from Baghdad. Jeremy?

Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now!: Yes, I'd just like to bring it into practical terms; give me an example of some of the tough questioning that you've done of one of the generals on your show on the issue of the killing of civilians, on the use of cluster bombs, the issue of the use of depleted uranium munitions. Just give us an example of some of the tough questioning you've done of a general that was on Newsnight or any of the shows clearly you are involved with that shows clearly that you are looking at those issues and how this is impacting the civilian population and the legality or illegality of this invasion.

Aaron Brown: Well, a question of the legality or illegality of the invasion is not an appropriate question to ask any of the generals, it's just not their wheelhouse, and it would be unfair to do that. Those are questions leading up to the war itself. And clearly, in my view, those questions were asked during the UN debate and the inspections debate that went on and whether a second resolution was necessary-

Jeremy Scahill: : But I'm not .


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