On the Media: A front-row seat to Libyan rebellion


Too bad a little shaky ground on the East Coast seized the better part of the news cycle Tuesday, because the real earthquake had already hit half a world away. And as Libyan rebels pushed into Moammar Kadafi’s compound, cable television provided a riveting, front-row seat.

If you didn’t get enough sense of moment seeing Alex Crawford of Britain’s Sky News or Sara Sidner of CNN marching into Kadafi’s once-seemingly invulnerable stronghold, then surely the danger and stakes came through as CNN’s Matthew Chance told of being held hostage — short on power, food and water — with a group of journalists inside Tripoli’s most luxurious hotel, the Rixos.

Satellite communication has become so commonplace, journalists so routinely intrepid and our attention so distracted by the roar of other events that it’s easy to overlook when real journalism, and a bit of heroism, breaks out right before out eyes. This is the real reality TV.


Photos: Battle for Kadafi’s compound

Among the riveting moments from the last couple of days in Tripoli: Crawford riding into Tripoli in the back of a pickup, declaring there was nothing to fear from the teeming, raucous crowd all around her; Chance glancing furtively and pacing the hall of the Rixos, with the agitated shouts of a Kadafi minder/gunman in the background; Sidner stepping a few paces off the road of the ruler’s Bab Al Azizia compound, as shell casings from “celebratory” gunfire flicked off her body.

A skinny young man stood inside the Kadafi stronghold wearing what appeared to be one of the dictator’s garish, heavily embroidered military hats. Another one of the rebels held back tears as he told the British correspondent: “From now on we will have a new Libya, a new Libya, you understand what that means?” Bearded, frenetic, often dressed in little more than shorts and flip-flops, the insurgents constituted a madly telegenic “army.”

This was one of those quintessential cable TV moments — the correspondents on the ground delivering the sense of urgency and tumult, while a platoon of talking heads from around the world provided the cautionary context about the many challenges that will confront the fractious society now.

One of the most memorable moments from this conflict — the equal of Peter Arnett watching anti-aircraft fire from a hotel rooftop in the first Gulf War or the fall of the giant statue of Saddam Hussein more than a decade later — could well come from Crawford’s improbable Sunday-night charge into the Libyan capitol.

A little more than five years ago, Crawford, a mother of four, was just getting herself off the night desk and into the foreign assignments she had long desired at Sky News. By this spring she had won her third Journalist of the Year award from Britain’s Royal Television Society. Last May, she was abducted while returning from a four-day trip with Afghan fighters in a remote region near the Pakistan border.

When she rode into Tripoli amid the invading masses her face was lit mostly by a laptop computer, which her cameraman had connected to a satellite dish, powered via the truck’s cigarette lighter.

Crawford, 47, declared the situation “absolutely safe,” practically apologizing for wearing a helmet and flak jacket, even as gunfire continued to pop all around and the crowd roared. “It’s an absolutely amazing sight,” she declared. “This will be the biggest party Tripoli has ever seen.”

By Tuesday, inside the Kadafi stronghold, Crawford interviewed a skinny young man who had purloined the dictator’s elaborate hat. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I am in Kadafi’s room,’” the scrawny rebel said. “Oh my God!” He promised to bring the trophy hat to his father, who he said had suffered for years under the regime.

American audiences have caught some of Crawford’s dispatches on Fox News, like Sky News a part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. global media empire.

CNN’s Sidner, meanwhile, showed scores of men streaming out of the missing president’s headquarters, arms filled with automatic weapons and other contraband. One showed her what purported to be medical records for Kadafi’s son, Saif. Another told of finding still-warm tea left behind by the defenders. Still another boasted the rebels would swim in Brother Leader’s pool.

A TV journalist for 15 years, the New Delhi-based Sidner previously covered the Sri Lankan tsunami and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Before CNN, she worked as a reporter and weekend anchor at KTVU-TV in Oakland.

If the coverage from the compound represented Libya’s high future hopes, CNN’s return visits to the Rixos demonstrated its fragile present.

The hotel has for months been the headquarters of Western journalists who are guests of the Kadafi regime. Even before this week’s assault on the capitol, reporters at the Rixos had been treated to a tense and bizarre sort of hospitality — some of them tossed out on a moment’s notice, all awakened at all hours of the night for sudden “briefings.” The foreign press has routinely been chastised by the government for coverage deemed to be unfair. One scribe described the setting as “North Korea with palm trees,” according to an account in the British newspaper the Guardian.

But as the rebels began to push toward Tripoli Sunday, the treatment escalated from unpleasant to menacing. When most of the official minders suddenly fled, the agitated few left behind began to shout dictates at the remaining reporters.

Electric power at the Rixos failed and the roughly three dozen journalists and others, including a onetime District of Columbia representative to Congress, Walter Fauntroy, found themselves increasingly isolated — less aware of what was happening in Tripoli than TV audiences worldwide.

Chance, communicating by phone, told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer that one of the armed attendants had shouted to journalists holed up in the hotel’s top floor, “Hey, are you happy now?,” about the apparent fall of the government. Earlier in the day he had returned to his room, according to his Twitter feed (@mchancecnn) and found the door kicked in, his possessions rifled. Around midnight Tuesday in Tripoli, Chance sent a Twitter message: “Everyone frightened & concerned — doesn’t feel like a 5 star hotel. Some water left but food at risk of ruin.”

Tony Maddox, managing director of CNN International, understandably declined to go into detail about how CNN was trying to resolve the situation. He said the cable giant continued to provide updates from the Rixos as “a vignette of the wider story.”

Indeed, the scenes of grim-faced journalists inside the hotel told volumes about the danger still at hand — ample reason for journalists to ignore the standard admonition against making themselves the story.

Photos: Battle for Kadafi’s compound

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