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.
David Verdi, vice president of worldwide newsgathering for NBC, spoke Thursday with B&C executive editor Melissa Grego about covering Egypt, telling her the network is being forced to "lower its profile" in Egypt due to safety concerns and detailing how plans to move to a new broadcast set-up got scuttled at the last minute when a Cairo hotel refused to let them broadcast. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
Let's talk first about personnel decisions, how are you making decisions about your human assets on the ground in Egypt now, especially amid the violence that's been targeted toward journalists in the last day or so.
As you can imagine it's a very tense situation that's fluid that changes minute by minute. All our people we put there knew there was potential for trouble and eventually violence. So we have a group of people who are committed to covering the story.
The mood changed [Wednesday] when journalists started to become targets. We spent the last 24 hours dealing with security and how to keep our people safe while maintaining our ability to broadcast. It's been a difficult balance of safety and journalism but situations like this safety is always the number one priority.
We are lowering our profile. For instance where we were broadcasting from a balcony, we've come off the balconies, we've shut our lights, we've tried to have the lowest profile that we could possibly have right now. We were fortunate to have had a great vantage point where we were overlooking the square but we unfortunately will not be able to broadcast from there tonight.
I was struck last night by the sound in the background of those reports that accompanied the pictures taken over the balcony. Is that something you can still capture from the hotel?
That is totally dictated by our proximity. Tonight we're going to be a half-step back, as are all of our competitors. It's just not safe to be outside where you're visible. Today there were roving bands of pro-Mubarak protesters and while we were broadcasting off the balcony some 19 stories up they were shaking sticks at us and making threatening gestures. So we've had to step back.
Who is still there and who should we expect to see on NBC Nightly News tonight?
Brian Williams [went to] Amman, Jordan. Richard Engel, Lester Holt and Ron Allen remain in Cairo.
How often are you reviewing decisions about who goes where, is it on a moment-by-moment basis?
It truly is on a moment by moment basis. I'll give you a for instance. We were planning on going to one hotel tomorrow because it's a little further away from the square and we were going to set up to broadcast from there tomorrow night. After we booked our reservations, made our travel plans, and it's a very complicated process to travel now because you have to do it certain times during the day and certain profiles. So, after we made all those plans, we were talking to the hotel and they turned around and said, "You absolutely cannot broadcast now from this hotel." So all those plans to move there tomorrow now have to be scrapped and we have to find somewhere else.
Where you are now is not safe to broadcast from?
Where we are now is right on the square and the protesters have to walk right in front of our building. That's why it was such a great vantage point. Now that it's starting to get ugly, it just makes us such an easy target because that's where the protestors are gathered. We're right on top of them.
Richard, Lester and Ron are all in that hotel?
Richard and Lester are in the same area in Cairo; Ron in a different area but I don't want to reveal where.
Just the simple aspect of getting out of a building like that and getting supplies for that hotel, how do you manage that?
How you come in and out, we, like all of our competitors, have really terrific experience in covering and working in hostile working environments. And the war in Iraq really changed the way we do business. We had to become very knowledgeable in security, emergency medical treatment, riot control. So we have trained all of our people, like our competitors have, in how to work in a hostile environment, war environment and riot environment. So our people know how to conduct themselves. So the comings and goings at the bureau are done in a way that keeps our profile low, with sec assessments, we have security advisors on the ground working with us. So we're really pretty experienced in this.
That said, this appears to be pretty unique situation. Have you seen anything quite like this. Especially in terms of the real time reporting and changing nature of this story?
It reminds you of Tiananmen Square, but you can't be confused to compare it to a war zone. It's not Iraq and it's not Iran. And you're dealing with a regime that is in many ways more transparent than those types of totalitarian situations. So in that regard it's a little easier for us to operate safely because it's slightly more predictable. However, this one caught us by surprise because it went from a demonstration to a riot to roving gangs targeting journalists in 24 hours. That aspect of it caught us by surprise. But quite frankly we were all prepared for the possibility of some sort of violence.
Technically speaking there were issues with the Internet and the phone. Communications for part of this were compromised. How have the tech limitations impacted how cover story?
It's kind of an interesting situation because as new technology has emerged we have been very early adopters. So whereas we used to have big satellite dishes and broadcast by big satellites, which we still do, we now are equipped with smaller digital devices. Many of them rely on the Internet. So once the Internet goes down, we're blind. That is always a problem for us. A lot of our equipment relies on cell phone. We have one mode of transmission that relies on cell phone so the minute they pull the plug they pull the plug on us.
I saw Richard Engel tweet the other day saying he was using alternate tech to report but didn't want to divulge.
We try to never go to any story with one technology. We put different kinds of technology on these kinds of stories just for that scenario.
How and when did you first hear that journalists were being attacked and how did it impact your decisions about personnel on the ground?
I think that we got the first word was actually a tweet from someone on the ground. And it is very interesting in these types of stories now, we saw with the student protests in Iran, for instance. We now get information via internet and twitter and social media faster than we get information from more traditional sources like wire services and that type of thing. So I think the first time we heard a journalist had been roughed up was from tweet.
From the journalist themselves?
The journalist themselves or witnesses. How does that affect us? The minute we hear that we go into defensive mode, we take the precautions that we have put in place just for that kind of scenario.
As far as personnel decisions going forward for the next 24 hours, say, how can you characterize it going forward? The four people we talked about, the three in Cairo, Brian in Jordan, is that the plan going how far forward?
We're making the plans literally broadcast to broadcast. For us, we're a little different from our competitors in that we have 24 hour news and network news. Like CNN and Fox.
So we're making our decisions broadcast to broadcast. Imagine spending days and days and days devising a plan that works terrifically for 2 days and then you have to completely throw that out the window and start from scratch while you're still doing the work. That's what is happening to all of us.
What doesn't change is the goal, and that's that we're absolutely committed to not allowing the events in Egypt to occur without us broadcasting it to our audience. We feel it's vital that this information gets out. So we're as committed as we were 2 days ago to covering this story and broadcasting it. We have thrown out our original plan, we're coming up with a new plan.
We're not as visible as we were; we're not as mobile as we were; we're not as free to walk around as we were. But we're going to do as much reporting as we can do safely and we're going to bring that to our audience as quickly as we can.
Is there anything else you think is important about how this week has gone?
Whenever I get the opportunity I like to say this. When you look at what the men and women of the press corps are doing here, and making the sacrifices they're making you really have to pause to appreciate the fact that it's a vital part of our society and without it events take place that shape the future for millions of people and those people don't have a voice. We're just trying to give voice to those people. And we should just remember in order to do that there are people who risk their safety and well being to do that.