Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Media Privacy Twists Engel's Latest Angle

We've known it all along.

They're arrogant, with a swagger that says they're better than the rest of us.  And once again, they've proven it.

Who are they?  News networks and their personalities.

NBC's irrepressible foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel was kidnapped along with his crew last Thursday when they were traveling from Turkey into war-torn Syria.  But the network kept the news quiet - and asked other networks to do the same - until yesterday, when Engel and his crew were freed by their captors, who are believed to have been rogue fighters loyal to the Syrian government.

Fearful for the safety of all their personnel, and unsure of how publicity surrounding the capture of a legacy American network's staffers would affect their kidnappers, the news media brotherhood closed wagons around the story of Engel's kidnapping, protecting their own in a luxurious double-standard they never afford other victims of crimes.

Fortunately for Engel and his five co-workers, they were bounced around from safehouse to safehouse for five days, and never physically harmed, although the mind games their captors played on them were harrowing.  Engel says they were told to decide which of them should be executed first, but they refused to do so.  He said they were blindfolded the whole time, and that the sound of gunfire becomes far more scary when you can't see what's going on.

What a scoop!

For years, we've watched the handsome, tousled Engel cruise the world's hot spots, mostly in the Middle East, wading through violent mobs in Tahrir Square, flashing his cocky smirks from the bombed streets of Baghdad, and generally fashioning himself into NBC's poster boy of swashbuckling reporter-cum-Indiana-Jones, all in journalism's grand tradition of alpha-male war correspondents.  Indeed, he's straight out of central casting, but with a fluency in Arabic that allows him to coolly move about and communicate in communities whose violence any sane American would be fleeing.

And those locks!  Bald guys like me can't help but admire the 39-year-old's thick head of wavy hair, which looks impossibly good no matter the crisis. 

He's obviously an adrenaline junkie, and no doubt, this latest exploit of his - even though he didn't seek it - will only add to his staggering dossier of bona-fide "world's most fascinating man" credibility.  He's one of the few people who reported the entirety of the Iraq war, he's an expert on the conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan, he's won a couple of prestigious awards for his prolific reporting, and he's already written two memoirs.

NBC knows it has pure TV gold in Engle, and keeping him alive during his captivity - he simply vanished from everybody's radar screens for five days - was their paramount concern.

Yet how often to the networks rush in to scenarios where they jeopardize the lives of us mere mortals?  Those of us whose only worth to network news is the publicity we can bring them despite whatever misery of ours they think is newsworthy?  Sure, the networks love to trumpet the private travails of celebrities like the future queen of England's trip to the hospital, and we all saw how disastrous their coverage of that event turned out.  But they pick over every lunch date every presidential candidate has ever had, particularly if the candidate is a black Republican, like Herman Cain.  They pick and choose which celebrities they're going to use the flimsiest rumors to excoriate, particularly if their hapless victim has a trail of weird activities in their personal life, like former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine.

And what about all of that unnecessary fuss by they news media over the White House leaks earlier this year that could have jeopardized our national security?  Just because some eager beaver in the shadows of the West Wing wants to tempt reporters with news we don't need to know, why do the networks feel it's their duty to jump all over such ill-gotten, potentially harmful dirt?  Are slow news days that unprofitable to media outlets, that they're willing to sell out America's security to tattle-tailers?

To be fair, when it comes to your own people, it's understandable that NBC would want to squelch the news about one of their star reporters and his team being kidnapped, as it's understandable that other professionals in the same industry would want to reciprocate to protect everybody out in the field, at risk of capture themselves.  To the extent that news of Engel's disappearance does not impact daily life for you and me, and the general public did not need to know he was missing, it made sense for the news media to keep the story under wraps.  It would be pretty calloused of me to demand that NBC risk the safety of one of its employees just so I could know that he might be in mortal danger.

But hopefully, NBC and its media brethren will take a hint from the smatterings public disapproval of the obvious double-standard here.  Just as most of us respect the sensitivity of Engel's disappearance, we expect the media to apply the same level of care and vigilance when they report other stories that don't directly impact their employees.  In other words, networks should use the metrics they used to evaluate the implications of covering Engel's kidnapping when other stories break.  After all, the people whose privacy they violate are probably just as loved and cared about by somebody as Engel is by journalism's fraternity.

Is that too much to expect from the "fourth estate," as our media is considered to be?

And as far as Engel and his team are concerned, considering that most Americans had no idea you had been off the air for five days, why don't you take that into consideration the next time you want to push the safety envelope for a story?

There's a fine balance between understanding the news will happen whether you're there to report it or not, and being the news yourself.

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