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The Public Eye Chat With…Allen Pizzey

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is Rome-based CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey. You can read excerpts, and listen to the full interview, below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: You've got a lot of experience covering Africa, even before you came to CBS. Are Africa's stories getting told in Western media?

Allen Pizzey: No, I don't think they are – I think we ignore Africa to a large extent. The only crisis that really gets any attention is the crisis in Darfur, and I don't think we have enough people going there. It's all basically a lot of second hand information.

Somalia – you can't cover Somalia. It's simply too dangerous for somebody to go. But there are a lot of stories in Africa that ought to be covered. Zimbabwe is a catastrophe in the making, and no one's paying a lot of attention, partly because Mugabe won't let people in there. But also because people simply say, "well, you can't go," so we don't go, so we ignore it.

And then there's the whole West Africa Nigeria crisis. For example, the Niger delta supplies a fairly large percentage of America's imported oil. We're not covering that at all. I think Africa is being ignored in many ways. There was the AIDS crisis, we all followed that, people got bored with AIDS, people get bored with famines, but they forget that it's a massive continent with many diverse cultures, many diverse stories, and a lot of people -- their stories need to be told. I don't think we're covering it properly at all, frankly.

Brian Montopoli: Do you think that it's due, primarily, to lack of interest from news consumers? Or is it also an issue of news organizations not having a lot of people out there? Or both?

Allen Pizzey: I think it's a combination of both, although news organizations will tell you "Oh, people don't want to read about it, people don't want to see it on television." Well, how do you know that if they don't?

I think that part of our job as journalists, as news organizations, is to go out and say to people, "this is an important news story. This is something you should know about. This is something that cannot be ignored. This is something that affects you. We've gone and found it for you. Here it is." If you don't want to read it, don't want to look at it, OK fine. But we have a certain responsibility to go out and tell people about things that are happening.

You can't get away not spending money by saying, "Oh, well, people don't want to know about anyway." Well, they may not want to know because they don't know. So maybe we ought to tell them. And that's probably the biggest problem of all.

We don't have enough people there – news budgets have been crunched, and so you spend your money where it needs to go. I've just come from Baghdad, which is a great, sucking black hole for money as far as newspapers and television stations are concerned. So it is an excuse, because you have to cover Iraq. But I think that more effort could be and should be put into covering places like Africa.

Brian Montopoli: Did the deaths of Paul Douglas and James Brolan and the injury to Kimberly Dozier, who were friends and colleagues of yours, give you any second thoughts about whether it's worth it to keep entering areas like Baghdad?

Allen Pizzey: Yes, very much so. I was very good friends with Paul. We covered Bosnia and Sarajevo together. We'd been in a lot of bad places together. And, yeah, it gave me a lot of second thoughts. I was asked to go back in August, and I said no. That was the first time in my entire life I've said no to an assignment. I just didn't want to be there so soon after they were killed.

You think about it, yeah, because Paul and James were the kind of guys who weren't crazy. They had the same philosophy that I do. I mean, we're all crazy to go to war zones, you take that as a definition, but they had the same philosophy that I do, which is that there are certain risks that aren't worth it. They were doing something that any one of us would have done, 'cause it was within the zone of what we consider acceptable. It makes you think, yeah.

I wrote it the time – I wrote a eulogy to them – something that I've believed for a long time: that if you cover war zones, luck is like a blind trust fund. You can't make deposits, only withdrawals, and you have no idea how much is left until it's gone.

Brian Montopoli: It seems that some reporters, including yourself and CNN's Michael Ware, have really taken umbrage at John McCain's recent comments, essentially saying that there are a lot of neighborhoods where you can walk around relatively safely. Is it fair to say that that really sort of bothered reporters?

Allen Pizzey: Yes. It's disgraceful for a man seeking highest office, I think, to talk utter rubbish. And that is utter rubbish. It's electoral propaganda. It is simply not true. No one in his right mind who has been to Baghdad believes that story.

Now, McCain and some other senators were there on Sunday, and they claimed, "Oh, we walked around for a whole hour…and we drove in from the airport. Gosh, aren't we great, we drove in from the airport." Excuse me, Mr. McCain, you drove in in a large convoy of heavily armed vehicles. The last one had a sign on it saying "Keep back 100 yards. Deadly force authorized." Every single car that they approached or passed pulled over and stopped, because that's the way it is. When one of those security details goes by, every ordinary person gets the hell out of the way, in case they get shot.

If he did walk around that market, and I didn't see him do it, and he didn't announce he was going to do it, you can bet your life there were an awful lot of soldiers deployed to make sure that nobody came near that place. He's talking rubbish. And he should not get away with it.

Brian Montopoli: There used to be a pretty vigorous debate about whether the media is reporting the war through an anti-administration liberal bias lens, though that has died down a little bit of late. How do you feel about that argument?

Allen Pizzey: I dismiss that. Because I think the Bush administration in particular thinks that anything that doesn't wholly support everything they say is against them. And you don't have to support one side or the other. If the administration makes idiotic claims, or claims that are patently, to us on the ground, wrong, why should we not report that they're wrong? All we're doing is reporting what we can see and understand.

Now, no reporter is as objective as we'd like to be. Objectivity is a principle to which we strive to adhere, but we all have our own little biases – our upbringing, our personal political beliefs, whatever touches us in a human way. All of that affects our reporting. But I don't think that we have a particular administration bias. I don't care one way or another. I'm not even American. I just happen to work for Americans. I just do my job.

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