Yesterday, a new story line emerged from Egypt. It wasn’t the chaotic protests, or counter-protesters on camels, or even the last gasps of a 30-year-old dictatorial regime.
It was that somebody punched Anderson Cooper in the face.
More and more of the television journalists who rushed to Egypt last weekend are under attack. CBS’s Katie Couric was frighteningly swarmed by protesters. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour was chased into a car. Cooper was punched several times and run out of a Cairo square. Fox News foreign correspondent Greg Palkot and producer Olaf Wiig suffered “severe injuries” and wound up in the hospital after a beating on Thursday. And now Time is reporting that CBS’s Lara Logan and her crew have been detained by police in Cairo. ABC News is compiling a running tally of all types of journalists who have been harassed, and it is already a long list.
Whenever there is a conflict of major proportions, our A-list anchors are quick to fly to the scene. Often it’s hard to tell if this is really necessary for news storytelling, or if it’s an exercise in self-indulgence (and ratings). On the one hand, the footage of this week’s scuffles has been riveting, with an immediacy that no crowd shot, no matter how vivid, could convey. Although Couric was not harmed, watching her surrounded and drowned out by angry men was frightening and incredibly real. Viewers know Katie. She’s not an anonymous stranger caught up in a fracas that Americans don’t understand. Similarly, as Anderson ran through a gauntlet of attackers, filming on a FlipCam the whole time, the hostile chaos on the streets became scarily clear.
As Anderson fled, his tape caught Egyptians chanting “America bad!” In response, he cried out “Insha’Allah” and “calm down,” a sort of English/Arabic plea to leave him out of it, for the love of God. Could there be a better metaphor for the United States’s role in Egypt’s current troubles? When Amanpour, who is Iranian, was confronted by Mubarak supporters, an English-speaking protester asked her to leave, telling her, “We don’t want you … We all hate you, we hate Americans. You are not good person. You are not with us.”
But while watching these scuffles has been both evocative and educational, it seems pretty clear the time for putting a flashy news anchor in the middle of a chaotic crowd is over. Now Cairo residents are fighting with whatever sticks and rocks they can get their hands on. The idea that CBS would send Katie Couric with a camera crew out into that just seems irresponsible and even ridiculous. (Remember the last emergency she had a hand in?) Journalists, even ones with extensive experience covering armed conflicts, are getting hurt. Western news channels could have taken a cue from Al Jazeera English. Along with its Arabic sister channel, it has played a pivotal role in the Middle East uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond. But AJE has rarely attempted to shoot live video from within the crowd, preferring to run feeds shot from a distance while receiving phoned-in dispatches from correspondents on the ground. (Not that it has escaped danger: Its offices were attacked and its journalists have been arrested.) This way of getting information, augmented with shocking Flipcam footage when possible, is effective enough for television. And safer.
Of course these attention-grabbing anchor scuffles are a part of the larger story in Egypt, even as they threaten to distract from it. The journalists are physical representations of America. Many Egyptians are angry at Western governments, and foreign reporters are attracting a lot of notice. America bolstered Hosni Mubarak for three decades, and then this week Obama told him to resign. And now here we are peering in, fascinated. Is it any wonder rioters react aggressively when they see a Western journalist surrounded by expensive-looking cameras?
Additionally, Britain’s Channel 4 reported that some foreign journalists may be under attack because Egyptians are being told they are Israeli spies, which could set the stage for even more on-camera confrontations. At this point, it looks like some authority is sending mobs of rioters to find the press. The government has blocked broadcasting from Tahrir Square, reports the Times, and appears to be trying very hard to keep anyone from reporting from the center of the action.
As attacks against journalists begin to seem more and more coordinated, news-gathering tactics are almost certain to change. This isn’t Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, or New Orleans after Katrina, where part of the allure of watching CNN wasn’t just to survey a country in ruin, but to watch Anderson Cooper reacting to a country in ruin. In Egypt, it’s not worth putting a reporter or a flashy anchor in front of a camera if they could be in harm’s way.