Of Tahrir Square, The Berlin Wall, Journalism, Risk/Reward, and Eye Catching TV

I’ve been hesitant to write this entry, even though the subject has been buzzing in my head all week, because too often when tragedy strikes someone you have to be very careful how you approach the story because third rails pop up all over the place. Already it’s claimed two victims; Nir Rosen and just this afternoon Hollywood Life jumped on a land mine of its own creation.

But does that mean we can’t talk about the dangers and risks journalists – especially TV journalists – put themselves in, sometimes perhaps needlessly? I would hope not.

For me this isn’t even about Laura Logan in particular but what happened en masse on my TV last Friday. The day began with cable news reporters on the ground in Egypt sequestered in their various “safe zones”. On MSNBC, I watched Ron Allen and Richard Engel doing live reports from balconies overlooking Tahrir Square. Others were taking similar precautions. Apparently few if any were willing to risk doing a live report from the scene. Who would blame them after what happened to Anderson Cooper, Greg Palkot, and others earlier in the crisis? Reporters, especially foreign reporters, weren’t safe. Then the word came down that Mubarak had stepped down.

Now, all of a sudden, what was up until that point a too hostile environment for journalists to broadcast live from was now deemed okay? Apparently so. I first saw Ron Allen reporting live from Tahrir. Allen seemed to have a pretty easy time of it. But when Engel took his turn in the crowd things became more tense. Watch this video of Engel reporting live from Tahrir during on MSNBC. That’s the tame version. There was a later segment where Engel was getting knocked around pretty good as a group of (I assume) security people tried in vain to form a buffer around him. They and he were overwhelmed. Unfortunately that version is not available online.

It was at this point that I started asking myself “What on earth is he doing down there? It looks too out of control to safely report from there.” I was actually worried for Engel’s safety now. Remember, this was Friday – four days before we heard what happened to Logan.

Engel’s situation at the time raised lots of questions for me. Chief among these was why what up until a few hours earlier was an area too unsafe for reporters to broadcast from, was now suddenly deemed safe enough? The idea that the counter-protesters, Mubarak supporters, paid thugs, and other malcontents just picked up their toys and went home seems an insane one to contemplate. They had to still be there. And they had to be pissed at this development (Mubarak’s ouster). And yet, Engel, Allen, and everyone else just descended on Tahrir in apparent disregard to the facts on the ground. Were they driven down to Tahrir by the ghost of the Berlin Wall coming down?

Numerous journalists/outlets had already drawn parallels between Tahrir in 2011 and Berlin in 1989 so the stage had been set for a Tahrir = Berlin storyline. But the situations, while appearing similar on the surface have two big differences. With the Berlin Wall, the East German government had already announced that the East German border would be opened to West Germany. The crowd that gathered in Berlin after this announcement consisted almost entirely of people who wanted to facilitate its now guaranteed demise. The second difference was that all the reporters who reported to the West on the demise of the Wall – immortalized forever by Tom Brokaw – were on the West German side of Berlin…which was friendly territory. Tahrir had neither of these things going for it. Berlin was a policy change by the East German government. Tahrir was ground zero for a revolution…a revolution whose outcome is still far from certain. This is not an insignificant distinction because the underlying causes and results of the two situations have a direct impact upon how turbulent the they are. Tom Brokaw never had to worry about his safety. Engel did. Cooper did. Palkot did. Logan did.

The point of this article is not to assign blame. I hide behind a keyboard in the safety of my home. I wasn’t there. I’m in no position to judge. But I am concerned that there may be lessons to be learned from Tahrir and that questions should be asked; questions like at what point does the drive for getting that obligatory “money shot” of a Berlin Wall falling or a Tahrir Square “celebration” give TV reporters tunnel vision which blinds them, or at the very least distracts them, from adequately judging the scene on the ground? It’s a serious question that deserves serious thought. After all, it’s not like Egypt only became unsafe for reporters the day Mubarak was forced out.

TV journalism stands apart from all other forms of journalism because it’s a visual medium. If you’re a print reporter or a blogger you could in theory get your Tahrir story from the periphery, where you are in more control of your environment, and still get the whole story. But TV news has that obligation to be in the thick of the action if it can get there. There is no visual substitute for being smack dab in the middle of that square and the pressure must be incredible to get that shot.

At the same time, the idea that journalists can possibly protect themselves from harm at all times is a preposterous one. The only way they could do so is to not be there on the scene. And what good are they then? It is in living in a world that strives to strike a balance between risk and reward that journalists exist. That’s not going to change. Was Tahrir an example of an imbalance in that risk/reward mechanism? I don’t know because I wasn’t there. Will Tahrir cause some reporters to recalibrate their internal risk/reward gauges? Probably.

25 Responses to “Of Tahrir Square, The Berlin Wall, Journalism, Risk/Reward, and Eye Catching TV”

  1. Well said, Spud. Unlike you, I saw Allen and Engel’s reports..and bought the hype. In spite of the preceding weeks’ events, despite the massively chaotic swarm around the reporters, it never crossed my mind that they we’re in danger. I had the same “Berlin Wall” blinders on they apparently had.

    In retrospect, there still should have been a reasonable sense of danger. And – to dig my own hole – the history of the treatment of women in crowds in Cairo should have alerted somebody at CBS that Logan’s zeal to be on scene may have been a little shortsighted.

  2. They had her out there, she was unprotected, and they put out the info for any freak-@ss-commenter to discuss. Hard to see the upside.

  3. Good segment on Hannity at about 48 minutes after the hour.

  4. The press was invested in the idea that this was the Berlin Wall 2.0, and there was probably some stuff there that no one heard about. It’s a wonder none of the reporters were killed. You have anti-Americanism and a general attitude toward women that says if they’re raped it’s their fault. It’s ugly waiting to happen. I also think that there’s an element of ‘liberal press’ that wants to deny certain aspects of Middle East ‘culture’.

  5. Spud you have to separate foreign war correspondents from regular journalists and news anchors dropped into a war zone either to use the revolution as a backdrop or learn on the job.

    Someone like Engel or Ben Wedeman speak Arabic, have lived on and off in Egypt for years, and have numerous local contacts to keep them informed and safe.

    Others like Cooper have some experience in war zones and make their reputations on reporting from them.

    Still others like Katie Couric should never have left NYC and her bosses should be fired for letting her go there solely so she could have an interesting backdrop for her show.

    I have no problem with Engel Logan or even Cooper reporting from a dangerous spot. It’s their job. Couric or Brian William are a different matter. They never should have been sent to Egypt and after what happened to Bob Woodruff the networks should have learned a lesson. ABC did seem to learn as their anchor didn’t go; as far as I can tell.

    The fall of the Berlin wall is not really the right analogy try the Iranian election of 2009.
    BTW Richard Engel is in Bahrain tonight.

  6. Laura a reporter was killed but he wasn’t American so you probably missed it.

    “I also think that there’s an element of ‘liberal press’ that wants to deny certain aspects of Middle East ‘culture’.”

    Ah yes, when in doubt blame the ‘liberal press’. Are you quoting Hannity or is it Rush?

  7. Foreign TV correspondents report from war zones but they could count on one hand, with fingers to spare, when they’re in a situation like Tahrir. Granted, there’s a lot of Tahrirs going on right now in the Middle East…but up until recently they have been few and far between. You could even make the case that Tahrir stands alone as there hasn’t been anything really like it in the modern TV age to compare. Iran 2009 doesn’t count since it 1) wasn’t covered live like this, and 2) failed to achieve anything other than a crackdown that’s still going on.

    And if you think I have a problem with them reporting from a dangerous spot based on my article, then you are reading more into it than I wrote. But again, Tahrir would be different from anything Cooper, Logan, or Engel have covered previously with new and different scenarios than they had to previously deal with.

  8. Actually, I had heard about the one who was killed. Thought of it after writing, but no idea who it was.

    I believe that political correctness colors how these things are handled. Believe it or not, I’m capable of having that opinion without ‘quoting’ someone else.

  9. Reporters have no sense of danger. If they’re allowed closer, they’ll get there..especially Lara Logan. She’s dodged death several times. As Willie Geist said, she’s fearless, and CBS knows it.

    It’s the responsibility of their bosses to provide limits and security, but too often they let the reporters make the decision they know they’re gonna make because it gets the picture they want. There wasn’t enough security in the world to protect Allen, Engel and Logan in that crowd, and they shouldn’t have been there.

  10. Reporter – Who ‘he’ was. Sorry.

  11. If individuals are placed into potentially obvious danger (demonstration into riot into military/police reaction) they should have a vest and receive protection. Engel is now in Bahrain and the situation there is that the police and army are very well armed and of the opposite religious bent of the demonstrators. This can explode on the turn of a dime. The risk of gunfire directed into the crowd is much higher than it was in Egypt. If reporters are to mingle with the crowd, they must have some protection.
    Do hope that I am wrong about this, though, the volatile environment warrants caution.

  12. Having said that, she’s more than capable of making her own decision, and we don’t know if CBS might have wanted her out of there. I’m more upset about them reporting what happened, and am pretty much piling-on at this point. Shoot me.

  13. Come on Spud. Afghanistan and Iraq are/were much more dangerous than Egypt. There was one or two day of street battles in Cairo. The thing that made Egypt dangerous was the unpredictability not the massive violence of the revolution. I think there has been more actual violence in Bahrain or Iran than there was in Egypt. We just don’t have the video

    The Logan attack happened in the post uprising celebrations and was not part of the attacks by the Mubarak thugs. Read the Toronto Star article I linked to in an earlier post today.

  14. “I’m more upset about them reporting what happened,’

    Laura CBS may have had no choice. The story was most likely going to come out and they just wanted to get ahead of the story to put their own spin (leave her alone) on it before the NY post or some other paper did it for them.

  15. The Logan attack happened in the post uprising celebrations and was not part of the attacks by the Mubarak thugs.

    No one is debating that. The point is that the post uprising celebration was chaotic, with a mix of pissed off people in it.

    Per Laura’s comment about Logan: That’s a good point. CBS may not have had much control over where she moved that day. That bothers me, but the reality is Lara Logan is famously and fiercely independent..easily one of the baddest badasses in journalism..and probably doesn’t take “no” well. And yes, I’m sill pissed at them for detailing the attack. It wasn’t necessary.

  16. Laura CBS may have had no choice. The story was most likely going to come out and they just wanted to get ahead of the story to put their own spin (leave her alone) on it before the NY post or some other paper did it for them.

    That’s a very difficult position for me to take, but I have to admit it may have been how they saw it: “We’ll quash the whisper campaign by stating outright it was a brutal sexual assault.” Considering what I know about Lara Logan, I could see her choosing to “own it” that way. Thanks for posting this, I’ll have to think about it.

  17. Afghanistan and Iraq are/were much more dangerous than Egypt.

    Straw man argument. I wasn’t arguing or making any point about which situation is more dangerous and I wouldn’t argue that Tahrir was.

    The thing that made Egypt dangerous was the unpredictability not the massive violence of the revolution

    Which is why I raised the question about why a (unpredictable) situation like what was going on in Tahrir suddenly became safe in just a few short hours. What changed? It was still unpredictable. Yet everyone went down there.

    The Logan attack happened in the post uprising celebrations and was not part of the attacks by the Mubarak thugs.

    No kidding. I knew that. Seriously Fritz, I really don’t think you read my article very well…or if you did…you didn’t get what I was driving at…because you keep trying to counter points I haven’t made.

    To repeat: This article concerned how safe the square was after the news that Murbarak was out when in the hours before it wasn’t safe and whether the rush to get that “money shot” in the crowd may have played a role in going into a situation that was still as unpredictable as it was before Mubarak stepped down.

  18. I don’t think the square was all that unsafe after the Mubarak exit. Tens of thousands of people celebrating; it was more like Times Square at New Years Eve. Maybe even safer than TS on NYE. You couldn’t drag me to either event.

    Aside from the Logan attack I saw no real violence just a lot of over exuberant happy people. The streets around the square were probably more dangerous but so are the streets around Times Square at times

    It was still unpredictable but not to the same extent as before Mubarak was overthrown.

  19. It was still unpredictable but not to the same extent as before Mubarak was overthrown.

    That’s a Monday morning assessment. The fact that a woman was assaulted by a huge crowd of men tells me there was no way to assess the danger level at the time. The crowd Spud described around Engel was scary, and could have overwhelmed him in an instant. We’re lucky no one else got hurt, and it’s a f****** miracle Ms. Logan lived.

  20. fritz you’re seriously romanticizing the event and you’re missing the point of Spud’s article (great article by the way). Yes there was people celebrating in the Engel video but there was absolutely no certainty from anyone that the tiniest mishap could have turned that scene into a mob. Why put the lives and well being of journalists without any kind of proof or satisfaction that they will be safe?

    I understand that this is their job and they are always going to get the story, but to blindly think that just because the protests stop hours before that it is safe is a serious lapse in judgment (I am not blaming anyone just telling it like it is). Something needs to change.

  21. I’m sorry guys but I think Richard Engel, Lara Logan and other experienced reporters, at the scene, have a much better feel for the danger than a bunch of media blog commenters sitting behind computer screens back here in the US.

    We may be “telling it like it is” but we’re just speculating on what video on a TV means and really don’t know what the hell were talking about. They do, That’s why they’re there we’re here.

  22. Spud, thanks for this solid piece. Some thoughtful stuff in there.

    Good comments too; this place is the Algonquin Round Table compared to Mediaite or just about any other cable news/media site out there.

  23. “Algonquin Round Table”

    Bonus points for excellent obscure reference steve. I had to look it up. 🙂

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