A mammoth explosion, tears, and resilient journalism in Beirut

August 5, 2020

Yesterday, unforgettable videos of a cataclysmic blast in Beirut, Lebanon, roared around the internet. They showed black-tinged fumes from an initial, smaller explosion rising from the city’s port area, followed by an almighty eruption that belched a huge, bloodred cloud into the air and expelled a veil of detritus that formed a sort of dome, then billowed rapidly across town. By this point, the videos were shaky, as the force of the blast knocked the people filming them off their feet and sent them scrambling for safety. Apocalyptic images of the aftermath quickly started to circulate. As time progressed, a grim drumbeat of push notifications kept readers around the world updated on the damage: “At least 10 dead, officials say.” “At least 30 people died and thousands were hurt, officials said.” “At least 50 people were killed.” “The death toll has risen to at least 100, according to the Red Cross, with 4,000 people wounded.”

The cause of the blast was not initially clear. During a TV interview, Marwan Abboud, the governor of Beirut, found himself at a loss for an explanation, and broke down crying. Later, Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s prime minister, said that nearly 3,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored at the blast site, without adequate safety precautions. The explosion shattered windows and mangled infrastructure for at least six miles from the epicenter, and its tremors were felt as far away as Cyprus, a European island nation that lies more than a hundred miles from Lebanon. Jamal Itani, Beirut’s mayor, went as far as to compare the scene to Hiroshima. Many questions remain unanswered. Today, Lebanon began three days of national mourning.

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The explosion affected journalists from Lebanese news organizations and from international outlets, many of which use Beirut as a base for reporting on the wider region, including Syria. Maryam Toumi, a journalist with BBC News Arabic, was filming a live interview when the blast tore through the building she was in. Her cries can be heard on the video; the BBC has since reported her safe. The AP’s office in Beirut was wrecked. It was empty at the time of the blast; Dalal Mawad, an AP staffer, noted grimly that “the coronavirus saved us.” The offices of the Daily Star, a local English-language paper, were damaged, too. At the time, they were occupied by employees finishing off an evening edition; miraculously, no one was badly hurt. Hanna Anbar, the paper’s executive editor, told Canada’s CBC that the glass walls of his office cracked and rained shards down upon him. “I have covered the wars in this part of the world since 1965,” he said. “But this was the most—well, it made the whole country panic.”

Amid the carnage, many reporters on the ground got to work. The French broadcaster RTL patched in one of its journalists, Monique Younès, who is currently on vacation in Beirut. “At first, I thought it was a car bomb,” Younès, who is Lebanese, recalled. “I said to myself, ‘That’s it, the war is starting again.’ ” Some journalists sought treatment for their injuries while taking in the scene around them. Vivian Yee, a reporter for the New York Times, suffered cuts to her face after the explosion ripped through her apartment. After a hospital turned her away, passersby attended to her wounds. “The Lebanese who would help me in the hours to come had the heartbreaking steadiness that comes from having lived through countless previous disasters,” Yee wrote, in a first-person piece about her experience. “Nearly all of them were strangers, yet they treated me like a friend.” After night fell, Sarah Dadouch, of the Washington Post, tweeted a photo of a single candle illuminating her devastated street. “I cannot explain how much calm its small light keeps lending me,” she wrote.

For Lebanon—and the reporters who cover it—the explosion is a crisis on top of a crisis on top of a crisis on top of a crisis. The country is living through a crippling economic downturn. It recently defaulted on its debts; since then, its currency has nosedived, and talks surrounding an international aid package have stalled. Late last year, the worsening economic picture helped fuel mass protests that, in turn, nourished a longer-term cycle of political chaos, and forced the resignation of Saad Hariri, then the prime minister. Hariri is the son of another former prime minister, Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005; a verdict in that highly sensitive case was slated for this week. Roughly a fifth of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees, many of whom fled the war in neighboring Syria. They have proved especially vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the pandemic. Overall, Lebanon’s official covid-19 case and death counts remain relatively low, but they have spiked recently, putting severe strain on hospitals that now must also deal with the fallout from the blast. Compounding everything, the port that the explosion destroyed was a crucial conduit for grain imports, on which Lebanon is heavily reliant.

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My newsletter yesterday dealt with coverage of overlapping crises in America right now. They’re preoccupying and—when it comes to the pandemic and race relations, in particular—bad by any international metric. As The Atlantic’s Ed Yong has noted, fixing America’s many problems will require “radical introspection.” Introspection is a dominant mood in the US news cycle right now, and it’s mostly welcome. But we must avoid falling into the trap of exceptionalism, the philosophy—common among columnists and cable pundits—that conceives of America as the natural center of world affairs, and has recently been preoccupied with Trump’s subversion of that norm. In recent weeks, we’ve heard many variations on the lament that the rest of the world is agog at America’s inept pandemic response. It’s partly true. But the rest of the world has big problems of its own. (Some of them are a direct legacy of American exceptionalism.) There’s still a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The virus remains a mass killer in countries as varied as India, Brazil, and Iran. Even countries that have handled covid much better than the US face fresh spikes and lockdowns.

A great many journalists—including those braving the destruction in Beirut right now—are doing a fantastic job of chronicling such crises. In general, though, their reporting often gets lost in a US news cycle that can feel, at times, relentlessly inward-looking. The videos of the Beirut explosion were a jarring reminder of tragedies beyond American borders. Such massive blasts are rare. But covid deaths and economic misery are routine—including in Lebanon.

Below, more on Lebanon:

Other notable stories:

  • As you will likely have seen if you’re on Twitter, Jonathan Swan’s interview with Trump, for Axios on HBO, made a big splash yesterday. (If you haven’t seen the paper-shuffling clip yet, you should watch it, then pick the Swan face that best matches your mood.) “For years well-compensated professional television news anchors have failed to execute interviews half as effective as Swan’s,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy writes. “It took Swan—a print journalist—to meaningfully question the president and not let misinformation and nonsensical statements slide into the interview unchecked.”
  • This week, Trump partially walked back his threats to ban TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, from the US, giving it a little over a month to find an American buyer. Microsoft is very interested. Trump also said that the Treasury Department should receive a cut of the deal—a legally baseless demand that one investor described, to CNN, as “a shakedown.” (Even the Wall Street Journal editorial board disapproves.) ICYMI last week, Emily Bell explored newsrooms’ relationship with TikTok for CJR.
  • Amid the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Condé Nast is looking to renegotiate—or even break—the lease on its offices in 1 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Condé’s owners have been “quietly touring possible space in more affordable neighborhoods in New York City,” Variety’s Brent Lang and Ramin Setoodeh report. The company deems that it “will need much less office space moving forward.”
  • In other Condé news, Vanity Fair said yesterday that Ta-Nehisi Coates will guest-edit its September issue, which will focus on art, activism, and power. “There’s no one better suited than Ta-Nehisi to illuminate this urgent moment in American history—to answer the question, why is this time different?” Radhika Jones, the magazine’s top editor, said. Contributors to the issue will include Ava DuVernay, Jesmyn Ward, and Eve L. Ewing.
  • Prism, a nonprofit news outlet led by Black, Indigenous, and other journalists of color, is launching this week, Sara Fischer reports for Axios. All of Prism’s full-time staffers—including its editor in chief, Ashton Lattimore, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review—are women of color. Per Fischer, the new site will primarily cover “electoral justice, gender justice, workers’ rights, criminal justice, racial justice and immigration.”
  • Fischer also reported yesterday that Bloomberg is launching a subscription bundle with The Athletic, a sports site; as part of the deal, Athletic journalists will appear on QuickTake, Bloomberg’s video news service. Bloomberg already announced a bundle with The Information this year. Amid heightened competition, “news companies banding together to sell joint subscription packages may be the next big trend,” Fischer writes.
  • In December, CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported on a shadowy network of 450 partisan websites masquerading as local news outlets. Since then, Tow’s Priyanjana Bengani reports, the network has expanded to over 1,200 such sites. “It is becoming an increasingly common campaign strategy for pacs and single-interest lobbyists to fund websites that borrow credibility from news design,” Bengani writes.
  • With the election fast approaching, Silicon Valley is losing the battle to stop online misinformation, an analysis by Politico’s Mark Scott and Steven Overly concludes. The problem mirrors Russia’s tactics from 2016, except “the attacks this time around are far more insidious and sophisticated—with harder-to-detect fakes, more countries pushing covert agendas and a flood of American groups copying their methods.”
  • And as was expected, a bankruptcy judge yesterday approved McClatchy’s sale to Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund. Also yesterday, a federal pensions agency said it would assume McClatchy’s pension plan. McClatchy’s Kevin G. Hall has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.