On Media: Reviewing the Coverage of the Egyptian Election Results

MSNBC correspondent reporting from Egypt this morning.

In which I deliver exactly what is in the title.

This morning I woke up and as usual turned on the TV, awaiting my typical ritual of cruising through the Sunday chat shows, soaking up the conventional wisdom and political dogfighting.  Then, as I was watching, I remembered that an election was to come to a conclusion. The Egyptian election commission, after several days of tension, was finally to announce their results.

The coverage of these results is interesting to look at because it shows how long an attention span various media outlets have to the beginning of the next phase of the “Arab Spring”, the story that captured the world for the first half of last year.

I was first watching MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, the network’s recent attempt to emulate a Morning Joe style chat show with a left wing bent. Anyhows, the program, just before 9 in the morning ET, went to the NBC News correspondent in Tahrir Square, Ayman Mohyeldin. The correspondent, a transplant from Al Jazeera’s English operation, delivered a competent and insightful report. The one part that stuck out at me was when the guests on the program’s panel also questioned the correspondent. One of the guests, an Occupy Wall Street activist, asked whether the more established groups in Egypt were able to take advantage of new political environment at the expense of smaller grassroots groups, similar to the disadvantage OWS faced. Considering the strange analogy the question drew, the correspondent answered it well.

I switched at 9 to CNN to see what they were doing. State of the Union with Candy Crowley had just started, and the program, thankfully led with the Egyptian election news, though it did not devote the whole hour to it. Egypt correspondent Ben Wedeman and Christiane Amanpour reported from Tahrir Square, while a former Egypt ambassador and CNN’s “Foreign Affairs” reporter (likely someone working out of the State Department) gave analysis out of the studio. The on-scene correspondents provided good analysis, while the in-studio talking heads reminded me of a complaint I heard about CNN’s coverage of the original protests in Egypt—“like watching the revolution from inside the White House,” as one commenter on Reddit put it.

A representative screencap of CNN International’s coverage, The shot of the square on the left was attributed to Reuters. Notice the feed from Egypt state TV for the announcement itself on the right.

CNN’s hour, of course, shifted back to typical Sunday show fare of politics and partisanship. After taking a break from the television to attend to other things, I shifted to Al Jazeera English, which I manage to get on my TV system thanks to a local channel in New York that simulcasts it on a digital subchannel. Anyways I came back partway through the press conference where election commission head Farouq Sultan was announcing the result. AJE stuck with the conference audio longer than CNN and the BBC, even once it was clear he was going to go through some bureaucratic house clearing before actually giving the result. Back on CNN, the 10 AM hour, normally filled by Fareed Zakaria’s program, was rightly preempted by a simulcast of CNN International’s coverage of the election returns. In addition to Wedeman and Amanpour, they now had Dan Rivers reporting from the headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate with closer ties to the Mubarak regime and, in the minds of voters, the current military junta.

Al Jazeera, unsurprisingly, had the best coverage of the proceedings. Their translator of the results conference was excellent, and clear. I make this note because CNN’s translator was awful and not really intelligible. In fariness, it is hard to know whether or not this is because CNN’s translator is bad, or Al Jazeera simply has access to much better translators by virtue of its fully fledged Arabic operation (the Arabic channel probably has people translating speeches from English, after all). While I am at it, AJE clearly had more resources in the region—they had their own camera angles on the square and more camera shots in general. BBC World News also had more cameras in the square. Meanwhile, CNN, even though they had several correspondents on the ground, also was relying on video from Reuters and Egypt’s state television feed for the wide shots of the square.

Al Jazeera correspondent from Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the result’s announcement.

Some other notes here on American channels: what (negatively) surprised me was that, especially since the actual announcement of the results came in the middle of the Sunday show slots on the east coast, none of the network news divisions broke into their programs to deliver the result—ABC was talking the upcoming Supreme Court rulings, Fox (main network, not cable) had their panel, NBC had Marco Rubio, and CBS had Rick Perry, which made me flip the channel the other way as fast as possible. Even if the programs were revised for west coast airings, this is a major oversight, considering the likely far-reaching effects of Egypt’s leadership on American middle eastern policy.

Meanwhile in the cableverse, MSNBC had intermittent coverage of the results, and  Fox News—which I turned to briefly to get a sample, did have a correspondent at Tahir Square who floated as a plausible possibility that Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood winner, would turn Egypt into an Iran style theocracy. I shudder to think who they had giving analysis in studio.

So that is that. I will be back later this week with a piece on criticism of NPR from a surprising part of the political spectrum, and whatever stuff I think of.

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