News outlets hold firm in Egypt despite dangers

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At the end of a wild week that saw more than 100 attacks on journalists and press facilities in Egypt, TV news executives were left shaking their heads at the volatility and violence, but vowing to continue to find ways to cover the tumult in days ahead.

"I think yesterday was as dangerous a day as I've known," Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International, said late Friday.

"I cannot recall a day in which that many TV crews and reporters got threatened, beaten up, had gear stolen and cars attacked," said Maddox, who has overseen coverage in such war zones as Iraq and Afghanistan. "I just can't recall a day when it was that widespread — when it happened to that many people that quickly. We've never been targeted as a press fraternity in such a systematic and concerted way over a relatively short period of time — and never Wphysically assaulted on such a scale like that."

Anderson Cooper and his CNN crew, one of eight teams the Maddox's cable operation has in Egypt, came under attack Wednesday from an angry group of supporters of embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Video of Cooper and his cameraman and producer being pushed, shoved and punched went viral as Cooper's crew went underground to undisclosed locations to keep broadcasting each night. And American viewers tuned in, doubling Cooper's audience from the previous week.

At ABC News, where Christiane Amanpour bagged the one interview with Mubarak last week, Kate O'Brian, senior vice president of news, said the greatest "challenge" in covering the protests was the utter "unpredictability" of events. A car carrying an ABC correspondent, photographer and producer was carjacked Thursday and driven to an out of the way place where the journalists were threatened with beheading.

"Any time our folks are out on a story in a war zone or any place of conflict, we are at a heightened level of awareness both on the ground and back at headquarters," O'Brian said. "But in this story, everything changed so quickly. Streets that looked safe weren't safe 10 minutes later. A square that had protesters protesting calmly turned ugly a minute later. That was the challenge."

O'Brian said that even though Tahrir Square seemed quieter with the military providing some sense of order Friday, no one at ABC News was ratcheting down. "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," which last Sunday scored a coup in broadcasting from Cairo, was scheduled to originate from there again on Sunday.

None of the U.S. TV and Internet operations were pulling back despite a lull in violence Friday. Mike Mosettig, senior producer foreign affairs at PBS's "NewsHour," said Friday that for journalists like him who had lived and worked in Egypt, one the most unsettling aspects of the violence against the press was how out of character it seemed. "NewsHour" has correspondent Margaret Warnerand a two-member crew with her in Egypt

"For this to become such a dangerous story is a surprise for Egypt, because those of us who have worked there in the past have always been used to a pretty nice, hospitable, really sweet people," Mosettig said.

"Now as to who's instigating the violence, who knows, but we all have a good idea," he said. "But to see this kind of physical violence from these folks is so out of character that it's scary — and then it actually gets downright dangerous. And every news organization faces that, but we're obviously a lot smaller. We're only in there with three people not an entourage, so we have to be ever more careful."

An outfit like CNN with its own experienced security personnel does have advantages, but Maddox says no member of the press "fraternity" is safe in a situation as fluid and unpredictable as the one in Egypt.

"What we saw with events turning so fast just goes to show what happens if a big group of people suddenly decide to target the media, because obviously we stand out, we're easy to see, we're easy to pick up," he said.

"And we might try to use smaller cameras, we might try to be discreet. But the fact is that if they're looking for you, they're going to find you. So yesterday was a learning curve for all of us. That was a new one. Yesterday was a tough day. But the key message is it didn't work. We're still there. We've still got people there. We still got Anderson's show on the air. We found a way around it."

Michael Clemente, senior vice president at Fox News, which saw its correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Olaf Wiig beaten, also took pride in the way the press has refused to be initimidated by thugs and goons.

"The more somebody tries to resist you filming or finding something out, the more we push to find out," said Clemente, who previously produced international coverage for ABC News. "When we start getting the cameras pushed away, not only does it make the journalists more curious, but I think the rest of the world says, 'Wait a second, what's going on?'"

Clemente, whose network once again had the largest prime-time cable news audience last week, sees a larger truth in the tenacity of the press — and the way in which attempts to shut down coverage seem to have backfired on the Mubarak regime.

"I think its shows what a mistake it is for anyone to think, with the technology being what it is today, that you can actually black out something or black out the words," Clemente said. "It doesn't really happen in China despite their best efforts. It doesn't entirely happen in North Korea either. It doesn't really happen anywhere any more. You can delay things and postpone and go to black briefly. But it's pretty hard to shut it off. And all it really does is make us want to find out more."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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