As the situation in Egypt shows no signs of settling down and the focus on Thursday turned to journalists being targeted, B&C has been in constant touch with executives from the major television news outlets to talk about how to cover the exploding situation while trying to keep their staffers safe.
Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing editor of CNN International, spoke Thursday with B&C's Andrea Morabito about covering Egypt. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
What did you tell your team about the combative situations journalists have faced over there?
So it started off as a mass demonstration and clearly a story of major interest which very early on we had the advantage of having a bureau in Cairo. And actually having that bureau in Cairo with the local staff... who have decades of experience on these types of stories, we were really well prepped when we went in, in terms of the right kinds of things for us to do, the right kinds of places for us to be, a good cultural understanding and a good cultural awareness. As the story got bigger, we drafted in more and more teams. They were going into what was already a smoothly running operation.
Anderson Cooper has had multiple run-ins. Tell me exactly how you found out Anderson got punched Wednesday.
I was at the international desk and word came through that Anderson and his team had been roughed up, but they were safe and the injuries were not serious, bumps and bruises. But obviously a very, very scary situation. Now Anderson to his enormous credit when straight on the air, talking about what happened in what I thought a very measured and composed kind of a way, and setting it very much in the context of why the struggle and what was happening there... So I thought it was a particularly compelling piece of television. Anderson's a very good guy in the field, he's been on many field assignments for us and long before he joined CNN he was regularly in hostile environments.
And he knows how to look out for his team as well. The situation they found themselves in yesterday was one those awful situations which you can prepare and train for as much as you'd like, but if you're in the middle of a crowd which relatively benign and suddenly gets nasty, then that's a very difficult situation to contain. We had been doing crowd shots and working amongst the crowd for a couple of days before this incident and it was only after the rival supporters arrived that the mood changed completely, that we suddenly found ourselves under attack. And if you've seen the Anderson piece, you'll have some sense of how it played out, there was this group in the crowd, the crowd turned on them, and they then set about walking purposefully to a place of safety. Ignoring the [taunts] that were raining down upon them and the provocation they were receiving and resisting the very understandable urge to make a run for it which would have made the situation worse. But Anderson and the team and the safety advisor that we assign to that team I think were able to get them out relatively unscathed in what could have been a very dangerous situation.
So do you find out when Anderson tweets about this or before that? Is someone placing a call to the bureau?
No, we find out before that. There are other people in the team, we've got a safety advisor there as well. If something goes on on one of our teams, we find out very quickly here on the desk.
How do you decide if and when to release that video?
Well I think it is full disclosure really. Obviously if releasing it in some way we were to compromise someone else's safety, or inhibit our ability to do something we'd discuss it, but with that one, that was not the case. A big problem we had with the video, we had a problem with this all day yesterday, is we were OK getting video out, but that's basically...for live shots, so that would be a like a satellite phone being used for live shots. But the Internet had been closed down and we couldn't get a regular satellite uplink, we couldn't get access to that because that was at the other side of the square from where we were based. So we had a difficult time getting the material into the building but there was no discussion about what we would or wouldn't see we were talking about what had happened very early on. And we were also very quick to contextualize it, we weren't the only news organization that was facing that yesterday. Other organizations got attacked, had stuff stolen, other people were in the thick of this as well, they had gear stolen, the two fellows at Fox got a really good hiding and were clearly very badly hurt, that was an awful incident. And others throughout the day were reporting that they'd had stuff stolen, that they'd been pushed around, they'd been barged around. There was a lot of issues today and the decision to broadcast it was quite straightforward.
How have you adjusted now it seems journalists are being targeted?
We're avoiding going onto the streets in an open way, we're trying to avoid being seen out with cameras and stuff, we've avoided some live shots today in locations where people that have seen it have attacked us. Today we have focused very much on a situation which appeared to be exploiting in terms of journalist safety and what we do about keeping that in a manageable way.
I don't know if you know this, but during the war in Iraq, particularly when we go to the Baghdad operations, all the U.S. nets - Fox news, and ourselves and a couple of the news agencies - instituted a regular safety call where each week we would share information on what the threats were, what the risks were, what we were doing to keep safe, what we were doing in terms of logistics, getting in and out. And we all came into it from a position that we were not going to compete on safety advice, if we could share information, which would make life safer for our colleagues than we would do so. That group of people have also been speaking to each other in the past day or two as well, discussing our shared experiences and any observations we have on how we can work effectively from a safety perspective, to reduce the risk for all of us.
How long do you plan to keep a presence in the region covering this story, Anderson especially?
Don't know yet, we got to sort of take it on a day-by-day basis, which is what we always do with these things. We need contingencies of course that of we need to leave or move out, this is clearly a very fluid situation. And we want to make sure there are a lot of people there who are properly reflecting the story. But also it's a tough story for people to do as well. We've made it abundantly clear to our folks that if they want out, we'll do all we can to help get them out as well. By and large, you'd be surprised at how many of these horrible looking stories people want to be in them, they get a sense of mission, a sense of purpose, they want to be in the thick of it. Makes you proud to work with people like that. But also some of our very bravest people are the ones that say, you know what, I've done all I can with this story, now I need a break from it and move on. Whenever anyone's like that, we're always very supportive and very quick to be able to facilitate it.
What have you learned from how the coverage went this week?
Well there's an interest among U.S. viewers that's for sure. We've been doing a lot of coverage on it, a lot of special programming on it, we've done a lot of co-anchoring between CNN International and CNN domestic and we like doing that, that worked very well on this story. And we've seen a significant increase across all day parts really in terms of the audiences tuning in for this. So clearly it's an encouraging sign that a story like this with major international themes being played out, being covered as we have done it, with crews on the ground, expertise, the fine talent assembled on it, it's the kind of story that can really generate and appeal to an audience, that's very encouraging.
Do you see the amount of coverage and resources committed to this remaining the same if this continues to be a big story into the coming weeks?
At some point we'll make the judgment that maybe we should pull a few more people back on this if this story's going to run for a long time, we need to start giving people breaks, rotating teams in or around, pacing ourselves for the long haul. And we literally, I cannot over emphasize this, we're making decisions on an hour-by-hour basis at the moment, we've got key priorities which is staff safety, doing the story properly, doing the story responsibly and making sure that the welfare of our staff comes first and we're just sort of weighing that up as the challenges change on an hourly basis to be honest.