What a Year!

A foreign editor looks back in wonder at 2011

On a weekend last January I sent Alex Marquardt, our newly minted Mideast correspondent, to cover a protest in Egypt. Tunisia’s long-time dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fallen in stunningly fast fashion a week before, and together Alex and I had wondered whether something similar was stirring in the Egyptian capital.

I really didn’t think so—certainly we didn’t think Hosni Mubarak’s rule was in real danger. Tunisia’s uprising had been kindled (almost literally) by what seemed a local story: a produce vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi—enraged by a series of official abuses and indignities—had poured gasoline over his head, lit a match, and set himself on fire. He died two and a half weeks later.

The rest, as they say, was history. Bouazizi’s plight and story galvanized his nation, and the ensuing public anger and protests drove Ben Ali from power. Ten days later, the first protests flared in Cairo. Sending Alex Marquardt to Cairo proved a good thing; in short order, as the uprising spread, he was joined by several fellow ABC correspondents: Lama Hasan, Terry Moran, Aaron Katersky, Jim Sciutto, David Muir, and Christiane Amanpour. By February 11, Mubarak was gone. Then came Libya. Then Bahrain. Yemen, and Syria. And so on.

The world had not spun this way, revolution upon revolution, since 1989’s season of revolt across Eastern Europe. Hungary to Poland, East Germany to Czechoslovakia to Romania—that cascade had ultimately unraveled and doomed the Soviet Union. The “Arab Spring” was different, in that its uprisings and crackdowns were less clear-cut, and more violent; relatively few protestors died in the 1989 revolts, and the only European leader to meet a Gadhafi-like fate was Ceausescu of Romania. But from the perspective of the newsroom it was much the same. Bulletin after bulletin, and near-constant discussions which not long before would have boggled the mind: Will Mubarak step down tomorrow? Is Gadhafi dead? Where is Assad?

Those early months reminded me of a parlor game I used to play with friends, making New Year’s Eve predictions about global events. They almost never came true, of course, but 2011 was proving particularly prediction-proof. What on earth would come next?

We were in something of a quiet spell—it was early March, Bahrain bubbling, Benghazi in question—when I was awakened by a call at a little after one in the morning. “Huge,” the voice on the phone kept saying. “This quake is huge.”

Within the hour I was at the news desk. An earthquake of staggering strength—9.0 on the Richter scale—had struck Japan. A colossal tsunami (the adjectives fail, now that we know what happened) was ravaging the country’s northeast coastline. One of the world’s richest nations appeared to have been stopped dead in its tracks. Tsunami alerts were issued across the Pacific, including one for Hawaii.

It was bad enough, already an epic disaster, but then, as we roused our Tokyo staff and marshaled reporters, producers, and technical teams for travel to Japan, it got worse. This bulletin came via colleagues at the Japanese network NHK: “Japan has declared a nuclear emergency. Attempts to cool the reactor at a northern plant are not going as planned….”


Still trying to comprehend the humanitarian calamity, we turned to watch the reactors and learned to pronounce the word— Fukushima. And the mentions came like thunderbolts: The plant’s cooling system had failed; residents were told to evacuate; states of emergency were declared at all five reactors. “No Chernobyl is possible,” a University of Tokyo professor said that first day, but soon after he made that promise a radiation leak was detected at the Fukushima plant. Then came word of a “possible meltdown” and then—at about 2:30 in the morning New York time, a day after the quake—came the first explosion.

It is hard now to remember what it was like, the barrage of apocalyptic headlines coming, rapid-fire, each seemingly worse than the one before. Instead of worrying about correspondents caught in some Arab-Spring crossfire, we worried about dosimeters and radiation levels and evacuation plans for Tokyo and points north. It is hard to remember, too, that it was only one weekend later (another working weekend for most of us) that a little something called the NATO campaign over Libya began. As if Tunisia, Egypt, and Japan were not enough, we had a pseudo-war, the US and its allies flying bombing missions to protect civilians from a Mideast dictator. One more giant story. One more patch of uncharted territory.

On the following Monday, the ABC News President marveled aloud at our morning editorial meeting: “We could do our year-ender piece now,” Ben Sherwood said. “And we’re not even three months in.” Sherwood had it right; we’d had a year’s worth of material already, with three quarters of the year still to come.

It wasn’t just the volume of news that frayed nerves, and kept us up at all hours; it was also the nature of the stories and the anxieties they brought. I have been a reporter, producer, and editor for more than a quarter century, and I’ve never felt as hollow and helpless as I did on two occasions during the Egyptian protests, when a pair of ABC News teams vanished from our radar. Christiane Amanpour and producer Nasser Atta were en route to the Presidential Palace, and Nasser on the phone with me, when he began shouting, an obvious commotion all around, and then Nasser’s smooth, cool voice went shaky: “We must go, Tom,” he said. “Oh my God—we must go.” For a harrowing hour (it felt like three) we heard nothing. Then Nasser was on the line again, from the palace. “We are O.K.,” he said. “We got away.” The second incident proved worse—a crew ambushed and threatened on the ride in from the Cairo airport. Only the sober intelligence of our Lebanese-born cameraman, Akram Abi-Hana, saved the group. “You are a hospitable people,” he told the mob, in Arabic. “You cannot treat visitors to your country this way….”

We sent security guards to help in Egypt and Libya, but no security could soothe nerves in Japan, in the shadow of Fukushima. More than one ABC News staffer asked to leave—brave journalists who had handled dicey situations from Sarajevo to Somalia, but found the invisible dangers of nuclear fallout more than they could manage. Fair enough. We collected the advice of top physicians and radiation experts, but when colleagues asked to leave Japan, we brought them home.

Newsweek ran a cover story in early April that rang true to all of us in the newsroom. “Apocalypse Now,” the headline blared. “Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Nuclear Meltdowns. Revolutions. Economies on the Brink. What the #@%! Is Next?” Well put, I thought. What could come next?

On the first night of May I boarded a flight from New York to the Persian Gulf, the first leg en route to Pakistan. I was to spend the week visiting our Islamabad and Kabul bureaus. I settled in on the plane, and checked my BlackBerry.

The President is going to speak…

I must have been tired; the significance of that e-mail message escaped me. My news nerves should have kicked in; what was the president doing, addressing the nation at ten o’clock on a Sunday night?

It may be about Bin Laden…

There was no missing the significance of that one. And so it was that for the first time in my life I approached a flight attendant and asked to get off an airplane—before takeoff. It wasn’t an easy sell; the cabin crew had already shut the jet’s doors. Fortunately I had checked no bags, and when I said, in a whisper, “I’m in the news business and this is about Osama Bin Laden…”, the seas parted. I arrived back at my office, suitcase in tow, while Obama was speaking. Bin Laden was dead. Because, for good measure, 2011 needed one more global news bonanza.

For foreign desks everywhere, this has been the year of mind-bending bulletins and middle-of-the-night calls, of broken vacations and nights on office couches. It’s also been a riveting, challenging time. Our correspondents have been inside the Bin Laden compound and inside Libya’s rebellion; they have watched joy overpower fear in Tahrir Square, seen the terror visited on patients in Bahraini hospitals; they have watched soldiers fight heroically along the forbidding border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and—just the other day—seen American troops leave Iraq for the last time; they have come face to face with horror in northeast Japan, and face to face with Messrs. Gadhafi, Mubarak, and Assad. Four Arab dictators with more than a century in office between them (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh and Gadhafi) are gone, the Arab landscape seismically changed. Two men who shared top billing on the terror lists—Bin Laden and al-Awlaki—have breathed their last, famine has gripped huge swaths of Somalia, and Europe has flirted (still flirts) with financial disaster. And speaking of seismic, large-scale temblors have battered not only Japan but Christchurch, New Zealand and Van, Turkey as well.

Foolishly, I keep thinking tomorrow will be quiet; it has to stop. The other night I had just finished a game with my children when a call came from the ABC desk. It was a few minutes after ten, on a Sunday that had already seen those last Americans cross into the Kuwaiti desert. Cairo was burning again, and floods had taken nearly a thousand lives in the Philippines. Enough news, surely, for a single day.

But the day—and this wild year—had one more stunner left in store. One more banner headline. One more scramble to staff a huge global story.

“Kim Jong Il is dead,” the desk editor told me.

I suppose, in the last days of this wild year, no headlines or late-night calls should surprise us anymore. Not even the news that a twenty-something dictator-in-training is now in charge of a poor, dangerous, and unpredictable nuclear nation.

It’s enough to start me thinking again about that old parlor game, the New Years’ predictions. What might 2012 possibly bring, to match its predecessor? But then I think, Wait! Not so fast. 2011 probably isn’t finished with us yet.

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Thomas Nagorski is executive vice president of the Asia Society. Tags: , , , , , ,