The Egyptian revolution was an exhilarating experience for those of us who watched it unfold on television and on the Internet — which of course cannot compare to the experience of those who lived it firsthand. But among the many storylines to emerge from Cairo, a few brand new media stars stand out. Here are my six big media winners, in no particular order:
1. Al Jazeera English
Forget the stereotypes long nursed by the American right about the “netork of Osama bin Laden.” Al Jazeera English provided arguably the best overall coverage of the Egyptian uprising of any network. Their sister network (the one that broadcasts in Arabic and which terrifies some U.S. conservatives,) even got blamed by Hosni Mubarak and his cronies for “causing” the popular uprising. Despite the fact that it is not available on many cable carriers in the U.S., Al Jazeera English (AJE) piped out fantastic, on the ground coverage, which millions of viewers in the U.S. tuned in to online (your humble editor included.) Even when the Mubarak goons briefly shut down Jazeera’s Cairo bureau. Likewise, some of the best online coverage was to be found on the AJE website and on its Twitter feed. The coverage was so good, a kind of “I want my Al Jazeera” cable campaign has begun to spread across the U.S., among international news junkies. With the Arab/Muslim world taking center stage in world events, AJE seems poised to become a very important media player indeed.
2. Richard Engel
NBC’s chief foreign correspondent was the undisputed “American badass” reporter of the Egyptian uprising, staying in Cairo through the dramatic crescendo of 18 days of protests that brought down a 30-year dictator. Engel boasted several advantages over other U.S. correspondents: speaks several languages, including Spanish, Italian and “several Arabic dialects.” He lived in Egypt for years after graduating from Stanford, and he’s a terrific on-the-ground reporter who clearly loves to be in the middle of the action. His live translation of jubilant Egyptians on the night Mubarak finally resigned, and his continued reportage from a balcony (with Brian Williams beside him) during the most violent night of the uprising, while CNN’s Anderson Cooper was simultaneously broadcasting from inside a bunkered room in an “undisclosed location” (in fairness, he, along with other reporters, had faced threats from pro-Mubarak goons) was a split screen that will likely live in Cooper’s nightmares for a long time. But it’s Engel’s understanding of Arab culture and those language skills, that made him the top American reporter in Cairo. (Ron Allen of NBC and ABC’s Terry Moran get props for sticking it out in Egypt as well, long after Katie Couric, Williams, Cooper and others fled the scene.)
3. Christiane Amanpour
She got an exclusive interview with Hosni Mubarak in the days before he resigned. Really, that’s all Christiane Amanpour needs to land in the winner’s circle. She also interviewed Omar Suleiman, the designated Egyptian VP, and braved some pretty scary crowd action to get to the presidential palace. Amanpour’s international reporting experience and background give her the kind of cultural sensitivity and touch that makes her riveting to watch. ABC should get her out of that “This Week” chair and back into the field, covering international stories, because she’s really, really good.
4. Mona Eltahawy
The Egyptian commentator, award winning columnist and lecturer stood out and stood up as a voice of Egyptian and Arab dignity throughout the 18 day uprising, as she zigzagged from studio to studio doing on-air commentary for CNN, CBS, Al Jazeera, ABC and NBC/MSNBC. Eltahawy was a great resource for anyone seeking to understand the subtleties of what people in Egypt want and were demanding, and she provided a strong “voice of the people” narrative that successfully countered some of the more facile stereotypes American media can fall into when it comes to people of Arab and Muslim background. Eltahawy is widely credited with getting CNN to change its moniker for the uprising from “Egypt in Chaos” to a “revolution” narrative, and for steering coverage away from the typical “are these Islamists” meme toward a fuller exploration of Arab humanity.
5. The BBC
The Beeb is arguably the best television news operation in the western world, providing balanced, nuanced and thorough coverage that American cable and broadcast news outlets (who have to answer to ratings and shareholder value, unlike the publicly-owned BBC) simply don’t have the budgets, manpower or international bureau strength to match. The BBC provided great ongoing coverage and analysis on their website, and took full advantage of Britain’s proximity and historic ties to the region (which by the way, came via massive colonialism!) Now, if only BBC America would offer a bit more news, a bit less “Star Trek.”
6. Facebook and Twitter
Social media is not a “news outlet” — but Facebook and Twitter were undoubtedly major players in the Egyptian uprising, and demonstrated their usefulness both as a way for protesters to connect to one another (when the Egyptian government shut down Internet access, people switched to mobiles, where they could still connect via Facebook and Twitter, and it was a Facebook page started by a once anonymous Google executive named Wael Ghonim (who was later detained by the Mubarak government, then released) that was credited — along with the Tunisia uprising — with helping to launch the Egyptian revolution) and a way to disseminate news to the rest of the world. Throughout the crisis, there was often more instant news about what was going on in Cairo and Alexandria and in other parts of Egypt to be had on Twitter than via televised news. And whether in Iran or Tunisia or Egypt, social media have clearly become a key voice of the people. And how important is social networking? Ghonim is now being mentioned as a potential next president of Egypt.
And now a couple of honorable mentions:
It may not get the ratings Rachel is emerging as THE star on MSNBC’s primetime lineup, and her back and forth with Richard Engel provided some of the best live television during the Egyptian uprising. And Maddow has the ability to weave together complete, historical narratives that are as detailed and interesting as a good college lecture, but with a storytelling ability that comes from a former talk radio host. Actually, Rachel is much better now than she was on the radio, and she has more than filled the space left by Keith Olbermann on the network’s breaking news desk. MSNBC may not get the ratings, especially with Olbermann gone, but their primetime coverage is made considerably better with Maddow and Engel on staff.
Yes, Piers Morgan. For all the Twitter “snark” about him, Morgan actually provided some of the best, most nuanced Q&A for CNN during the crisis. He’s much more knowledgeable about the region than John King, is not Israel-biased like Wolf Blitzer, and doesn’t have the DC steeping that sometimes seems to limit Candy Crowley. And he didn’t have the disadvantage of becoming part of the story, in the way that Anderson Cooper became in in increasingly uncomfortable way. Morgan, it turns out, is quite a good interviewer. His Q&A with former British PM Tony Blair was actually really good, and he asked tough questions about the dichotomy between the Blair-George W. Bush version of “regime change” in Iraq, and people-powered regime removal in Egypt. Now, if CNN would just let Piers do more great, long form interviews and less Larry King-style showbiz, they might have something there.
**UPDATE: TRR Reader Nominations
There’s been a great reaction to this list from TRR readers, who have commented and emailed, mostly to let your humble editor have it for leaving people off the list. So here are three reader nominations for the Egypt “Media Winners.” Two are reporter/advocates for the anti-Mubarak cause, and the other is from CNN (but sorry, Anderson, it’s not you.) Along with the actual factuals, I note why these terrific folks didn’t make the list in the first place.
He began tweeting his observations immediately, though the Mubarak regime had turned off the Internet. Kouddous found a way around the blackout, making his tweets from Tehrir Square a rare and invaluable resource for up-to-date information from the center of the struggle. It didn’t take long for the Internet to notice. According to one analytics site, Kouddous has gained over 6,000 new followers in the 6 days since he landed in Cairo – small potatoes compared to Katy Perry, perhaps, but meteoric in the world of independent journalism. CNN highlighted one of Kouddous’ early tweets, and Rachel Maddow recently had him on to offer his first-hand analysis of the uprising.
New technologies allow people living under repressive regimes to tell their own story. And in the US – a country that offers virtually no access to Al Jazeera English and has almost no brown people on TV other than Fareed Zakaria – Kouddous and his fellow Egyptian and Arabic bloggers are ignored at this country’s peril.
I will admit to not being a Democracy Now! consumer, mostly because I’m not sure where to get it. But I did catch a couple of Kouddous’ reports on MSNBC. Any opportunity to recognize a person of color in media — particularly one who is from the culture being reported on — should not be missed.
While I maintain that CNN made a tremendous mistake pulling its highest profile anchor/reporter out of Egypt before the dramatic conclusion of the uprising, they did have a presence on the ground, including Ivan Watson and Ben Wedeman, CNN’s senior international correspondent (the equivalent of Richard Engel.) And indeed, Wedeman did an excellent job providing on the ground coverage. He also speaks several languages, including Arabic, Italian and French, and has even studied ancient Egyptian. The U.K.-born reporter has lived in the Middle East, mainly in Jordan, off and on since 1974, and has done Emmy-winning work for CNN in the region. I didn’t initially include him because I don’t think CNN overall stood out for its coverage, but Wedeman more than deserves to be on this list.
I’m a tad reluctant to include Kristof on a list of media “winners” in this case, and here’s why. My take on “winners” were those media personalities who emerged, either for the first time on a wide public scale, or in a way that made us take a second look at them. Kristoff, the brilliant New York Times columnist and human rights advocate, essentially remained who he was already known to be, though of course his writing is exceptional. Still, readers put him forward, so let’s take a look at what he accomplished. Kristoff arrived in Egypt on January 29th and began tweeting and posting to Facebook as the revolution gained steam. He also wrote a series of columns urging the Obama administration to state more forcefully that Mubarak should leave power, and examining what a post-revolution U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East should look like. Kristoff and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, are longtime advocates of human rights, with a special emphasis on Africa so kudos to him, even if he didn’t make my list this time.
This big miss was pointed out by a reader, and is absolutely on point. Should not have left of the Guardian of London, whose live blogs and online coverage during the Egypt uprising have been about as good as it gets. Big miss. Now rectified.