Jonathan Storm: Networks - except ABC - excel at covering violence in Egypt

Christiane Amanpour of ABC, above, interviewing Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei. At left, network anchor Diane Sawyer reporting from New York. CBS and NBC sent their anchors to Cairo.
Christiane Amanpour of ABC, above, interviewing Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei. At left, network anchor Diane Sawyer reporting from New York. CBS and NBC sent their anchors to Cairo.
Posted: February 03, 2011

As things turned violent in Cairo Wednesday afternoon, it became unsafe for all journalists to be on the streets. High- and low-priced talent headed for safety, but not before two of America's big three networks had made it clear that sending in the big guns could be more than just a marketing ploy.

CBS and Katie Couric, who waded into the crowd, delivered a masterpiece of a 22-minute evening news report Tuesday that did what television still does - and may forever do - better than any other medium in the instant-communication age: convey the emotion of events.

Avoiding the crowds, NBC's Brian Williams knocked on the door of diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei and got a personal interview with one of the main contenders to be Egypt's next leader. "The country's going down the drain," said ElBaradei, who later spoke on the phone with Williams, describing President Hosni Mubarak as a "dead man walking." (Couric caught up with ElBaradei Wednesday night.)

ABC World News' Diane Sawyer was in Egypt, too, the stiletto heel of her right shoe standing about 300 miles south of Cairo on a map in ABC's New York Studios. How embarrassing is that, to be left behind when your two big-shot competitors are on the scene and your shop sends its real newswoman, Christiane Amanpour, off to get the scoop?

Despite Amanpour's efforts, ABC News in general should be embarrassed about its Tuesday report: With the latest storm of the century ravaging the United States, and Egypt and perhaps the entire Middle East on a precipice, World News spent nearly a third of its broadcast on a canned story about the dangers that prescription drugs pose to the elderly.

Amanpour and Couric were back on the streets as they turned dangerous Wednesday. The CBS anchor was harassed but unharmed. Amanpour sent a video of a confrontation she and her crew had with some Mubarak supporters. "I hate Americans, and I hate you," said one before the news crew skedaddled back to their car, where, she reported but without video, the hooligans smashed the windshield.

CNN's Anderson Cooper was less fortunate. "We were set upon by pro-Mubarak supporters" and punched repeatedly, he reported, his handsome face looking little the worse for wear. "It was pandemonium." CNN's Hala Gorani had a scary-looking video of herself being eased past antagonistic protesters by a concerned Egyptian.

NBC's Richard Engel, whose reporting has stood out since the beginning of the crisis in Cairo, reported that several journalists had been pummeled before making it back to their hotels.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that seeks to safeguard press freedom worldwide, Wednesday listed more than a dozen reporters representing countries from Iceland to Israel, and many Egyptians as well, as beaten or detained. One, from the moderate Arab network Al Arabiya, had been kidnapped and was still missing late Wednesday, the committee said.

The chance to do great work and the opportunity for great marketing are real when anchors or star correspondents are sent overseas, but so are the risks.

With literally hundreds of stories and videos from scads of news organizations available instantly on the Web, the task of the cable TV channels, with their 24/7 imperative to stay relevant and interesting, becomes even more difficult.

Al Jazeera English, which has virtually no presence in the United States because of previous antipathy from the government and cable and satellite operators, has been picked up during the Egypt crisis by little Link TV, a noncommercial satellite network offering about a third of the total U.S. television audience of 116 million homes.

On its website, al Jazeera streamed its broadcast, which included phone reports not available anywhere else from non-journalist Egyptians in the middle of chaotic Tahrir Square. It also offered some stunning videos of Cairo clashes, including one of a pro-Mubarak protester being dragged from his horse and beaten. The Arab news network has been the target of special harassment from the Mubarak government.

When they weren't talking about the snow and ice storm - "life-threatening," blared CNN; "downright deadly," answered Fox - the cable newsers brought in the usual slew of "experts" to fill the time. Sometimes, they really were experts.

In the course of an hour Tuesday, Fox News had two former U.N. ambassadors - its hired gun, John Bolton, and Clinton administration envoy Bill Richardson - answering Megyn Kelly's pointed questions about the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The two were measured and authoritative, but how much more powerful was this comment from a man in the crowd in the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Alexandria, where CBS's Lara Logan also mixed with locals:

"[The Muslim Brotherhood] are not the most popular group, but they are the most organized group, and we are about to organize ourselves to face them in a fair and free election." The young man was passionately excited about the sudden opportunity for democracy in a country that has been a dictatorship all his life.

CBS's Mark Strassman provided similar insight, finding three demure Muslim sisters in Cairo who had come to the protest, saying, "It's now or never." He also cornered, side by side, two men - a young firebrand who said he didn't care who was president as long as it wasn't Mubarak, and a distinguished gentleman in a suit and tie quietly noting how happy he was to have lived long enough to see the first revolution in Egypt's history - seeming to forget the revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952. You got the idea, nonetheless, that he was familiar with all the high points in the country's 5,000-year existence.

Cable news gets most of the scrutiny, but the networks' evening newscasts regularly attract more than 20 million viewers, six or seven times the number for the most popular cable news show, The O'Reilly Factor.

CBS gets the smallest slice of that pie, but Tuesday night it forcefully demonstrated that all the facts and opinions and talking points in the world cannot replace the human understanding that comes from the ground, through dogged reporting on a wide-screen TV.

Jonathan Storm:

Networks capture Cairo chaos, except ABC. Jonathan Storm, D1.
Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or Read his recent work at jonathanstorm.

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