Thursday, February 3, 2011

ARE THEY JOURNALISTS OR WARRIORS?

Living in New Orleans, I remember in 2005 when a number of news and weather reporters were stationed around the Gulf Coast to do remote reports about the impending storms. At the time, I wondered: Why are all of us who live in the area evacuating, but the reporters are just arriving? Who will protect them when a metal roof goes flying through the air or the wind trumps their own human strength? And I couldn’t help asking, why is it necessary for them to be put in harm’s way simply to communicate about something everyone already knew about?

Fast forward to this week: The societal unrest in Egypt reached a fever pitch, and who was right in the middle of the violent street fights? Reporters. By now, you have probably seen or heard about CNN’s Anderson Cooper being attacked, along with his film crew. And then there was the unsettling footage of Christine Amanpour being verbally harassed by demonstrators and subtly threatened. All of this was disturbing enough, but then came word that two New York Times reporters were taken into “protective custody” by the Egyptian military. This comes right on the heels of reports that a Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television reporter suffered a concussion after being beaten by demonstrators. There were reported assaults on journalists for the BBC, Danish TV2 News and Swiss television. Two Associated Press correspondents were assaulted. And what in the world was CBS thinking when they allowed Katie Couric to be on the ground in the middle of the chaos? That has never been her forte. Footage showed her being swallowed up by an angry, mostly male crowd. Watch Anderson Cooper in Cairo yesterday:

The journalist’s job is to convey information. Sometimes that means being in places they would rather not be. But sometimes the risks are unacceptable. Consider Daniel Pearl,(below, right) the Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief who was kidnapped and beheaded by Al-Quaida in 2002. That was to be the wakeup call for news organizations. The moment it was revealed (on video) that Pearl had been executed, media companies should have taken a giant step back and reassessed their risk/benefit ratio. They did not.

Now, it is nine years later and digital communication and online news have progressed at breakneck speed. The competition among media organizations is much more intense now than it was back then. Everyone wants to be first with breaking news, and that translates into more journalists being placed in high risk areas and dangerous situations. One is not surprised to see Christine Amanpour (below, left) on the ground in the middle of the Egyptian violence. But Katie Couric? Come on. One is not surprised to see Anderson Cooper surrounded by enraged militants as he has been so many times in his career. But now that he has experienced being punched in the head multiple times, does CNN perhaps see a reason for some guidelines related to reporting from violent locations? My guess is that nothing will change.

Not convinced? As I am writing this piece, the Washington Post just reported this:
“We have heard from multiple witnesses that Leila Fadel, our Cairo bureau chief, and Linda Davidson, a photographer, were among two dozen journalists arrested this morning by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. We understand that they are safe but in custody and we have made urgent protests to Egyptian authorities in Cairo and Washington. We've advised the state department as well.”
It is also reported the Sufian Taha, a translator working with Fadel and Davidson has been detained.

Fadel, Taha and Davidson are not human rights workers. They are not political activists. They are not soldiers. They are communicators who the Post feels confident enough in to place them in highly responsible positions. Those positions should never compromise their lives. Never.

And there’s more: Also while I am writing this blog post, it is reported that Anderson Cooper was attacked again. He tweeted: "Situation on ground in #egypt very tense. Vehicle I was in attacked. My window smashed. All ok." And yet CNN sees fit to allow him to remain in the danger zone. Unacceptable. And how interesting that a visit to CNN’s web site reveals nothing about Anderson Cooper being attacked yesterday or today. Could it be that CNN is embarrassed that is allowed one of its own to be put in harm’s way?

I see it this way: There is no nobility in deliberately placing strong, competent communicators in harm’s way. Reportage and video footage should never be life and death situations. I believe the Wall Street Journal, for example, has blood on its hands over the Pearl execution. As much as I respect Anderson Cooper’s courage, I believe CNN needs to reign him in a bit, for the sake of his life. In my gut, I just know that some years from now we are all going to look back on these pioneer days of online journalism and see how truly chaotic it was. These things have a way of balancing out over time, but right now we’re deep in the wild, wild west mode of reporting, and lives have already been sacrificed.

What will it really take for news organizations to place emphasis on the safety of reporters? If an Al-Queda operative holding Daniel Pearl’s head up for the cameras in 2002 did not cause any significant change in the industry, I am not optimistic about the near future of reporting. Once news reporting becomes as life-altering as police work or soldiering, the very essence of journalism has been sullied. I’m sorry to see it.

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