Egypt’s uprising has put the country in an unusual place—the front pages of American newspapers and all over television news. In many cases, journalists were caught flat-footed as they scrambled to find suitable experts to discuss the chaos. Former CBS Middle East correspondent Lawrence Pintak talks about some of the worst cable news coverage he saw, including a segment he participated in.
BOB GARFIELD: Egypt’s uprising has put the country in an unusual place, on the front page of U.S. newspapers. So the past two weeks have seen American journalists rushing to find themselves resident Egypt experts, not always a pretty sight, when the cable news channels’, in particular, guest pundits of questionable credentials and less than sterling bona fides fielded questions that didn't do much to clarify, for the viewers, what was going on in Cairo. Lawrence Pintak is Dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and author of The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil. He’s been watching the dumb expert parade on U.S. news and mostly slapping his forehead. Lawrence [LAUGHS], welcome back to OTM.
LAWRENCE PINTAK: Thank you. I'm just kind of pressing that wound on my forehead.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay, so first thing I want to do here is establish your bona fides. You have spent a good part of your career in the Middle East, especially in Cairo. Just give me the brief resume.
LAWRENCE PINTAK: Sure. I went to the Middle East first in 1980 as CBS Middle East Correspondent, and most recently, before this gig, I ran the only graduate journalism program in the Arab world.
BOB GARFIELD: So that’s you. And before we get to the specific examples of bad coverage, in the general narrative what misperceptions are being foisted upon us about this story?
LAWRENCE PINTAK: The Muslim bogeyman, this whole idea that Egypt is a potential Iran, that the Muslim Brotherhood’s going to come to the fore and Islamist extremism is going to sweep across the region. They are an opposition force in Egypt, no doubt. They do not represent the majority of Egyptians, and they are not a radical force. They are a relatively moderate conservative political force. Subtleties are very difficult to convey in a 15, 20-second sound bite. We love oversimplification in the American media. And I say that as a former CBS correspondent.
BOB GARFIELD: That said, comes January 25th, the Day of Rage, and the cable news doesn't have a lot of time for nuance-gathering; they've got to get some talking heads. How have they done?
LAWRENCE PINTAK: Not very well. In their defense, the first couple of days it was hard to get anybody in Egypt where, you know, the majority of experts were. The problem was that basically people who knew nothing about the topic were analyzing it to each other, pulling ideas out of thin air.
BOB GARFIELD: Got an example for me?
LAWRENCE PINTAK: One quick example. I did a CNN segment a few days ago, and it was me, it was somebody who does a digital website, knows something about digital media, but nothing about the Middle East, and a comedian.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING]
LAWRENCE PINTAK: And that, to me, just kind of summed up the whole thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Was it an Egyptian comedian? [LAUGHS]
LAWRENCE PINTAK: [LAUGHING] No, no, no. Pete Dominick.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay. Let's hear what that sounded like.
DREW GRIFFIN: Pete, let me ask you this: Could this uprising have happened before the Internet?
PETE DOMINICK: Absolutely, Drew Griffin. I actually think Facebook and Twitter have really been integral in these revolutions, not only in Egypt, but - I shouldn't call them revolutions…
BOB GARFIELD: Do you know how you got yourself in a situation where you’re - playing Frick to Pete Dominick’s Frack?
LAWRENCE PINTAK: I got a call from a booker at CNN and said, we have thing they call the Stream Team. We want to do it on social media and the Egyptian revolution. It made sense to me at the time.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Uh-huh. I’m going to play another piece of tape as evidence of what happens when bookers get desperate. This is from MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell Show, where to discuss the subject of the turmoil in Egypt they found:
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: - Cleo Brock-Abraham, who taught at an American school in Cairo for a year. Cleo, you taught fifth-graders in Egypt. What kind of access do they have to Facebook?
CLEO BROCK-ABRAHAM: They’re all on Facebook.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: Addicted to Facebook?
CLEO BROCK-ABRAHAM: I would definitely say addicted to Facebook.
LAWRENCE PINTAK: The other piece of this is that she’s teaching at an American school in Egypt.
[BOB LAUGHS] We're not talking about fifth graders of the Egyptian masses. We're talking about either American kids or the Egyptian elite.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so it’s easy to scoff and be jocular. That said, the stakes are extraordinarily high here. The future of a large important country hangs in the balance. Is there any harm, actual harm being perpetrated by cable news’ casual approach to getting it right?
LAWRENCE PINTAK: Absolutely. If American public opinion drives policy at a certain level, and if Americans, in general, comes away with the idea that actions by the Obama administration are setting up another Islamist dictatorship, that is going to make it that much harder for the U.S. to put an intelligent policy in place. The fact that Anderson Cooper got punched the other day, which was the news on CNN, is not the news. The fact that thousands of people have been injured over the last couple of weeks and quite a few dead, that is important news. BOB GARFIELD: Thank you, Lawrence.
LAWRENCE PINTAK: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Pintak is the author of The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.