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.