This is hardly AM fare–waking up is hard enough these days without downing a shot of awful news–but I, like a lot of people, have been sort of obsessively distressed about the news that CBS correspondent Lara Logan “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating”, as CBS reported, in Tahrir Square last Friday.
It seems best to leave so much about Logan and this attack undiscussed. There’s not a lot to add to the fine job Mary Elizabeth Williams did at Salon pointing out how quickly the blame-the-victim machine kicked in. I think it’s brave of Logan to have CBS report that this happened at all (assuming the choice was theirs to make; it’s always possible they had to release the statement to preempt someone else’s reporting). Logan has had a carefully balanced career between the sort of tough androgyny that women in combat zones often seem to project and her camera-ready beauty, which must be both a reporting asset and obstacle. By exposing this crime, she loses control of that hard-won balance to some degree. Her vulnerability becomes the story in a way that it hasn’t before (though there have been typically sexist “investigations” into her love life, which I won’t link to, in the past). I wonder–though I have no idea–if she feels her personal privacy is less important than the reminder that this kind of violence still happens, even to women who happen to be tough war correspondents. Either way, I think it’s courageous, and I hope that the outrage boiling everywhere at this can be even a little transformative.
Logan’s ordeal is the worst that’s been reported, but she’s not been alone. These crimes also happen in the States, of course, but Egypt does have some deep and specific problems with sexual harassment. I heard secondhand from the husband of one female CNN producer that when the Tahrir crowd was in a bad mood, they tried to beat her up; when they were in a good mood they just groped her. I haven’t heard anything specific about the experiences of the women who have been covering Egypt for Time–Vivienne Walt and Abigail Hauslohner (who lives in Cairo fulltime)–but I can imagine that the great work they’ve been doing has come with added dangers just because of their gender.
But this has been a rough fortnight for people who care about journalism in general. You saw the intent to attack journalists throughout the events in Egypt, a threat that I can’t help but see as part of a continuum of increasing risks to reporters everywhere. In part, it’s because the west is waging a global war against natural propagandists who see journalists as part of the battlefield. That explains what happened to Danny Pearl, a noncombatant killed by combatants. But even civilians, it seems, have taken to seeing journalists as responsible for whatever ails them. In Egypt, it seems, if the world wasn’t hustling Mubarak out quickly enough, it was the media’s fault. If it was hustling Mubarak out too quickly, that was also the media’s fault.
Egypt does have a sorry history of state-run media, but it’s fascinating how much that same media blame-game is en vogue in the United States. Here you have an entire political movement, the Tea Party, dedicated now to the notion that the press not only actively misunderstands them, but is in dark and cynical alliance with the enemies of America. One of my first Tea Party events featured a retiree whom I’d just met warning me not to “write anything stupid,” an aside that was as casual as it was presumptuous. It’s not much better on the left: if you listened only to the shouty media critic Glenn Greenwald, you’d imagine that most of what is wrong with this country can be hung on the lapdog media.
Critics on both sides have their moments of truth. The right is correct that the media is largely–and increasingly–an east coast, big city creation, and there are cultural biases that come with that. The left is correct that a certain corrosive coziness has defined the media’s relationship to power. All sides are diminished when partisan hacks and ambush artists pose as journalists. But both extremes vastly overestimate the influence that journalists and pundits have. Not even the mighty AC360 builds empires or tears them down. Neither, by the way, does the edu-clown Glenn Beck. Overstating the power of the media lays the groundwork for the long, permanent attack they’ve been under.
I say this, of course, out of self-interest. I travel and report and I have an interest in my own safety and the ability to do my job without fear. But the ability for journalists to report safely is important. I’ve been detained overseas (though in much less threatening circumstances). I’ve been at massive pro-Kremlin rallies where the foreign media was singled out for ridicule and scorn. But the United States is still a place where I can travel to almost any neighborhood, walk into almost any gathering, and not fear for my safety as a journalist. I am extremely thankful that even people who know from my reporting that I don’t agree with them on certain issues continue to treat me with civility. I won’t always get access, I won’t necessarily get bearhugs. But I won’t have to take a beating, or be kidnapped or killed.
Just realize that this isn’t true in a lot of the world. And it won’t be true here either in the future if we keep inflating and demonizing the media. Let us work. Fight what we say, if you have cause, but not who we are. Best wishes to Lara for a whole recovery.