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.