The Egyptian Revolution was and still is a remarkable story. Thousands of people taking to the streets and squares of an autocratic country, standing up for the rights and freedoms we take for granted in Canada. For close to three weeks we watched and listened to world shaking events live as they happened half a world away. Once again the power of the people was too much for a dictator to deal with. We have seen similar scenarios play out in places like Berlin and Manila. We have also seen it go the other way most recently in Teheran and decades ago in Beijing. I suppose it is the failures in China and Iran that make the story so poignant in Egypt. It is the possibility of brutality, ugliness and doom that make one turn on Al Jazeera or CNN to witness what’s going on, all the while hoping and praying for the success of the brave folks who are standing up to their undemocratic leaders.
While musing on the events in Cairo it is impossible for me to not also think about the successes and failures of the journalistic coverage of those events. It was truly the best of times and the worst of times for 24 hour news stations.
Trying to cover and understand live events, especially massive events like a revolution is a daunting task for even the best minds in journalism. In Egypt it was the possibilities not the actual events that were so riveting. Let’s face it, except for the day when the protesters were attacked by Mubarak supporters on camels, there was not much to see. Tens of thousands of people milling about, sleeping, arguing and most of all, waiting don’t make for great pictures. What kept the story going was the speculation. What would the Mubarak government do? Would Mubarak call in the troops to force an end to the protest? Would Mubarak attempt to negotiate a peaceful end? Would he finally have to quit the leadership as the crowds were demanding?
It was truly exciting because we did not know how it would end. And this is where the networks failed. To be fair, I don’t know if it was possible to succeed, but for eighteen days and more viewers were bombarded not with facts but with speculation: one former ambassador to Egypt speculating that Mubarak could not be forced out; an academic who guessed that Mubarak had no choice but to leave. On and on the experts droned for hours that morphed into days and weeks. The poor viewer was left with a cornucopia of opinion. It’s too bad no two experts seemed to agree on anything. The facts were few and far between. The details did not add up to any real understanding of what was going to happen in the end. It was closer to sports play-by-play than it was to journalism. Between periods or innings we went back to the experts, the former players and managers to assess what they were seeing. Only when there is little or no action, what the heck were they basing their comments on?
The day before Mubarak left we were told that he was going to make a statement. All the so-called experts announced that he was quitting. Wrong again. Mubarak said he was staying until the next election and asked the people to go home and allow the economy to get back to normal. So that was it. The insiders and pundits quickly offered that the revolution was almost over. Mubarak would stay. He would change his style of government but he was not going anywhere. That speculation was still going strong when Mubarak abruptly left for a resort in the Sinai and his vice president, Suleiman, was left to announce that Mubarak had finally quit. Jubilation ensued, not just in Egypt, but all around the world. The experts were back and proclaiming the revolution over and won by the people of Egypt.
I hope they are right this time, but let’s face it, while Mubarak is gone, it is the army that has taken power. The generals are saying all the right things…new constitution, free elections in six months or more, but hey, from here it looks like another military dictatorship, at least for now.
In the last few days we have begun to read and hear about the root causes of the revolt. Soaring food prices and massive unemployment emboldened the people of Egypt. As Bob Dylan said, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you have nothin’ to lose.” There are even some questions beginning to trickle out about whether the military will readily give up power. Good. But where were these questions and background while the story was happening? If you believed CNN and Fox it was only the successful revolt in Tunisia that led to the Egyptian uprising. Al Jazeera English was better, but they too got caught up in the speculation to the sometimes exclusion of the facts.
24 Hour news once again had a great story to tell. As far as pictures and images were concerned, they did a great job, especially considering the pressure they were under from the Egyptian authorities. But as far as concrete information was concerned, all news was a wasteland of speculation, guesswork and boring interviews with out-of-touch experts that were sitting hundreds or thousands of miles from the action. Like I said earlier, I don’t know if there was any way around this problem. The longer a story lasts the more difficult it is to find new angles and new talkers, but I do know that some context about conditions in Egypt that allowed for all those people to spend 18 or more days in Tahrir Square would have helped me to understand the story.
Oh, and once again as a major story breaks, CBC NN and CTV News Channel become almost completely irrelevant. I have asked this question many times before and I ask it again: why would anyone who has access to Al Jazeera English or CNN watch a major international event on CBC NN or CTV News Channel? Unless Stephen Harper is in trouble, or Bev Oda is fudging the truth again, why would I watch a Canadian all news channel at all? It’s not the fault of the CBC and CTV news staffs that they are badly outgunned by the big international networks. But it is a fact and calls into question the ability and usefulness of Canadian all news networks unless Bell Media and the government of Canada are willing to properly fund such enterprises.