The media baron, the reporter and the dictator

TV/RADIO COLUMN

November 19, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Rupert Murdoch, the media baron whose News Corp. owns the Weekly Standard, the New York Post and the Fox News Channel, is a lightning rod for debates about whether news outlets reflect their owners' politics or their quest for profits.

Murdoch does little to disguise his political tilt to the right. In the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly, however, liberal media critic James Fallows makes a forceful case that Murdoch's influence stems from his willingness to please governments whose good graces are important to his corporate well-being. In China, for example, television broadcasting has made for strange bedfellows.

Consider a letter, written last spring and recently obtained by The Sun.

In it, a journalist who works for a Murdoch television venture and a newspaper owned by the Chinese government requested an interview with Col. Muammar el Kadafi of Libya.

"The program is designed to systematically and comprehensively track your life and achievements so far both as an individual and as a great world-class leader," Yeeli Hua Zheng wrote to Kadafi in an April 9 letter sent care of a Libyan diplomat. "Your great courage and undaunted spirit continue to serve as source of inspiration for the world people to seek righteousness and justice."

Zheng is the chief senior correspondent for Phoenix Satellite Television, a joint enterprise of Murdoch's Star Television and Today's Asia Ltd., a company led by a Chinese Army veteran who serves as Phoenix's CEO. In addition to her duties for Phoenix, Zheng serves as a special reporter for Global Times of People's Daily, a publication of the Chinese government. Zheng, a former press aide for the Chinese Foreign Ministry who goes by the name Zhao Yeeli on the air, physically works at a cubicle within the Washington bureau of the Fox News Channel.

If granted, the interview would air on Phoenix Satellite TV and be printed in full in Global Times of the People's Daily, she wrote Kadafi. Zheng then promised Kadafi, a military strongman who has ruled Libya since 1969, the chance to review and censor anything he said.

"We would be very happy to provide you with the option to approve the edited version before the show is aired and the interview printed," Zheng wrote.

In an interview for this column, Zheng says that leaders such as Kadafi and Cuba's Fidel Castro are heroes to her viewers in mainland China. "They have had such experience of being repressed, of suffering a lot," she says. While Kadafi has not to date granted the desired audience, she says she was acting appropriately in giving him the right to review and alter the interview before broadcast and publication.

"We don't want to make any trouble with high-level people who have big influence," Zheng says. "We don't want to make any inconvenience." Zheng, who has interviewed leading figures such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President Jimmy Carter, says she received approval from editors in Hong Kong to offer Kadafi the right to review and edit the interview.

But Roger Uren, an official with Phoenix, says any such promise to allow Kadafi to review an interview would break with the news service's standard practices. Typically the broadcaster promises to air interviews in their entirety, he says.

Credible American reporters typically don't grant interview subjects the right of approval for news reports or stories. Doing so compromises the independence of the news organization by substituting the judgment of the person being interviewed for that of the journalist.

Not everyone takes such a hard-line approach. Tom Bettag, executive producer of This Week and ABC's Nightline, argues that broadcast journalists can submit to any rules they're willing to disclose to the viewing public. But, he says, envisioning the backlash to such agreements often rightly serves to prevent objectionable compromises of principle.

In some instances, journalists agree to limit what questions they pose in interviews. NBC's Katie Couric, for example, promised not to ask Elizabeth Smart much about her abduction before conducting the interview, which aired last month. But this is a much starker case.

While Kadafi may get high marks in China, he remains a controversial figure, to say the least, in many countries. He is considered the sponsor of deadly acts of international terrorism, such as the bombing of the Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. Amnesty International routinely documents his suppression of political dissidents.

Giving Kadafi the right to review and alter his own interview is an abdication of journalistic responsibility that effectively gives him editorial control over the newscast.

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