The Public Eye Chat With...Elizabeth Palmer

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

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: You've spent a lot of time in Baghdad – I believe you've been there something like 12 times for CBS. Do you think the media has been able to give Americans an accurate sense of what it's really like?

Elizabeth Palmer: Wars are always really complicated, and you can only really understand them if you consume a huge amount of information about them that shows them from all sides. Americans who worked hard at it would have been able to get a good idea of what's going on, but they would have had to have read a lot – read a lot of blogs, read a lot of newspapers, listened to interviews, watched television pictures. And somehow the composite would have given them a good composite view. But there's no way anything as complex as a war can be comprehensively covered by one network or one newspaper.

Brian Montopoli: Is Iraq the most dangerous place you've ever worked in your career as a journalist?

Elizabeth Palmer: That and Chechnya. Chechnya was the other place where there was an equally high risk of kidnapping and random violence. Places can be dangerous, and yet the danger can be controllable. In other words, we can evaluate the risk often in conflict zones. Places that are most dangerous for journalists are places where you can't evaluate the risk, and certainly the risk of kidnapping and random car bombings, which were both problems in Baghdad and Chechnya, were the things that made it, and do make it, so terribly dangerous for us.

Brian Montopoli: Do you think people in the Middle East…think of you as an independent journalist or do they think of you as an agent for the West?

Elizabeth Palmer: I don't think you can talk about people, just the way you can't talk about Americans as if they all have an opinion. I think there's a whole range. And some people certainly do see me and my colleagues as agents of imperialistic Western media.

My experience in Baghdad, particularly with our Iraqi colleagues, is that they have enormous respect for us. They were brought up and lived for a long time in a culture where rumors were the only thing they had to go on – there was no such thing as a fact in Saddam's Iraq. And they were very interested in and respectful of the way we treated stories, which was to ask for evidence, to try and tell both sides, to strive for objectivity, which was very difficult sometimes, but we made the attempt. They thought that was terrific, and they learned a lot, and I'm still corresponding with a lot of them, and it's the one thing they mention all the time as sort of a legacy, if you like, of the American media.

Brian Montopoli: Has it been harder to get non-Iraq international stories on the air because of the war?

Elizabeth Palmer: I would say probably, because Iraq – and rightly, it's one of America's preoccupations for all the right reasons at the moment. It's American foreign policy that started it, and it's costing America a great deal in money and in lives. And so it's occupying a large proportion of the broadcast.

Unfortunately, there are areas we don't cover at all. I would say Asia we cover minimally. We don't really do much out of Africa, and nothing out of Latin America. And that's a great shame.

Brian Montopoli: Talk to me a little bit about Russia. I know you've spent a lot of time in that area. A number of journalists have died recently, "under suspicious circumstances," I guess is how one might put it. What effect has that had on the press?

Elizabeth Palmer: Enormous self-censorship. I was just there a couple of weeks ago, and talked to some of my journalist friends, and they're really afraid. They don't publish things now that they think will get them into trouble, and that's not just with the Kremlin, but with the powerful business interests as well.

Russia has become lawless. And that means that any killers can get away with it. So journalists are operating in a situation in which they don't feel there's any protection for them, in the first instance, and in the second there's no justice. It's made for an extremely watered down and toothless press in which the party line, and the line of the rich and powerful, is the only line at the moment that people have access to in the mainstream media, and certainly on television. There's a little bit more dissent in print, if you like, but it's not a very happy situation.

Brian Montopoli: I read a New Yorker profile of Anna Politkovskaya, and it talked about how the strategy in Russia was sort of, on television, not to allow views like hers, and let them be these little niche views that elites were aware of but could never have much of an impact on the greater population. But, then again, she was ultimately murdered, so I guess there was a decision made – well, we don't know who did it.

Elizabeth Palmer: we don't know who did it. She was operating in Chechnya, which, as I mentioned earlier, is one of the most dangerous places I've ever worked. And in Chechnya, when you make enemies, they're often enemies with guns. She could have, and certainly did, make a lot of people angry. So there's a lot of motive and a lot of suspects there, if the police cared to get to really get to the bottom of it. The fact is, I think they don't.

The other problem with Russia is the prosecutor's office, and the whole legal infrastructure, is so weak that even if the Kremlin wanted to get to the bottom of some of these crimes, it couldn't, because it doesn't have the tools. And that's another very sad statement on the state of Russia in 2007.