Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egypt: The impact of surprise

It’s been something of an article of faith among the punditburo now weighing the fate of Egypt, the Middle East and the geopolitical posture of the wider region, Israel and the United States: The Obama administration was flat-footed, slow off the mark, slow to the punch — pick your cliché for being surprised. But the best way to answer these scribes’ main question — How could the White House not see this coming? — is to ask another one: How is it they, the journalists, didn’t see it coming?

The fact is that, when it all blew up in Egypt on or about Jan. 24, the mainstream journalism establishment was also caught by surprise by the speed and intensity with which events unfolded in Tahrir Square and Liberation Square in Cairo, and in Alexandria.

On Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program, an exchange between host Howard Kurtz and Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent of The Atlantic, as they discuss the relative absence of an organic MSM focus on events in Egypt and its implications for the wider region:

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It's actually unbelievable, because long term, everyone knew that this regime wasn't viable, and yet -- 

KURTZ: But I didn't see that reflected in the coverage. 

GOLDBERG: It's interesting, isn't it? I think part of it goes to your point about not having a -- the numbers of reporters that we used to have in the Arab world in the Arab world. And also, by the way, because of that, and partially because of that, you don't have the same amount of coverage on the nightly news, you don't have the same amount of coverage in newspapers anymore. So, I mean, most things are going to come to us as surprises these days.

That’s the engine powering the rise and force of social media options like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and alternate programming sources like al Jazeera and al-Arabiya. They’re filling the vacuum created by the relative absence of the larger, less nimble, more economically beholden mainstream American media players.

The Pew report on the State of the Media 2010 took note of how ABC News had learned to adapt:

None of the networks had a bureau in Tehran when protests erupted over disputed Iran’s presidential elections [in June 2009]. With no correspondents in the country, and with the government barring their entry, the networks turned to nonjournalistic sources, including cellphone video and social networking websites. An ABC News’ digital correspondent, Lara Setrakian, covered the protests by monitoring Twitter from her base in the Persian Gulf.

(Setrakian’s also, or now, with Bloomberg.)

Kurtz described it on CNN as a “boots on the ground” matter, and it is, but it doesn’t just apply to matters beyond our water’s edge.

Domestic bureaus of newspapers and magazines and major Web sites have taken a huge hit. For years now, in the United States and abroad, major news orgs have been closing bureaus outright, or priding themselves on having converted full-fledged bureaus into mini-bureaus, consisting of nothing more than a reporter with a laptop and a notepad, in a drive to hitting the numbers on the bottom line.

That drive got stronger for ABC. In February 2010 the network announced plans to close all of its physical bureaus around the country except Washington. ABC News President David Westin confirmed in an interview with Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times that the number of network correspondents, which Gold said at that time “number several dozen,” would be cut in half.

ABC planned to shutter bricks-and-mortar bureaus in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Boston, and ask remaining staff to work out of local affiliates, the Times reported.

In June 2010, USA Today, owned by Gannett, announced plans to closed down its bureau in Washington, the nation’s capital, and replace it with a more economical space. Most of USA Today’s editorial staff now work at offices in Tyson’s Corner, Va.

And in November 2009, at his day gig as a reporter for The Washington Post, Kurtz himself wrote about the closure of all of the last of the physical news bureaus of the paper he works for — in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Over the previous decade, he reported, The Post had already closed bureaus in Austin, Denver and Miami.

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All these surgeries may well be fully defensible on the basis of economics (and fealty to shareholders), and are entirely justifiable actions from a purely journalistic perspective. Ultimately, a reporter, a pen and a camera are the indispensable tools that journalism comes down to anyway.

"The fact is we can effectively cover the rest of the country from Washington," Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli told Kurtz. "We have for years been able to cover issues around the country for our readers with a corps of traveling reporters. It's more possible than it's ever been to cover the issues that matter to our readers from a Washington perspective."

One suspects that Brauchli might like to revisit that grand think. It may well work at the domestic level, within the friendly confines of the United States. As a global newsgathering strategy, however, the idea of a troupe of “traveling reporters” has vulnerabilities built into it. There's a price to be paid when the news happens where you’re not, or where there’s not as much of your presence as there was before. Surprises  happen.

Even for the best journalist in the field, the support, the respect that flows from having a solid bricks-and-mortar presence in a given city, however marginal, is inescapably enabling. Being part of a city or a region in a foreign country, a fixture people recognize, must have its newsgathering advantages over being someone who parachutes in from nowhere with swagger and bright lights and questions about the government’s affairs.

That’s when journalists look like foreigners. Like outsiders. Because to the locals, and in point of fact, that’s exactly what they are.

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CNN’s Anderson Cooper knows the impact of surprise, literally. Much of the CNN broadcast between 7 and 10 p.m. ET tonight included replays of an incredible video document, already one of the best news videotapes of this young year. Shooting with a Flip video camera, which you can get at Best Buy for $200 or less, Cooper shakily records his movements in the fractious, volatile streets of Cairo in the moments before, and the moments after, he and his camera crew are attacked by supporters of Egyptian President and Pharaoh manqué Hosni Mubarak on their way back to their hotel. Shouts, outrage, more than a few blows to Cooper's blond dome.

It wasn't just Cooper. Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, someone whose gravitas in the Middle East is deeper than most other journalists out there, was also accosted yesterday in a crowd in Cairo; she and her camera crew were bundled off in another direction at the insistence of the protesters. CBS News' Mark Strassmann got jacked on camera too.

Those riveting images have been bouncing around the globe for more than a day now. They may well signal the arrival of new terms of engagement between the electronic media and a Middle East in the midst of transforming itself while we watch.

But they certainly point to the ways surprise is an equal opportunity deployer — and how it’s possible for everyone, from the President of the United States to a journalist clawing through a Cairo crowd to save his own life, to get blindsided by the wholly unexpected.

Image credits: Anderson Cooper in Cairo: Huffington Post via Getty Images via CNN. Mubarak: Nile TV via CNN. Twitter sign: via The Huffington Post. ABC logo: © 2011 ABC. Washington Post logo: © 2011 The Washington Post Company. Amanpour in Egypt: ABC News via The Huffington Post. 

1 comment:

  1. I think Romney is going to have problems in Egyt just like he has
    Bin Laden problems


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