News Networks Trying to Get Journalists to Israel

From a Washington Post story by Jeremy Barr headlined “News networks ‘scrambling’ to get journalists to Israel”:

Not long after arriving at Israel’s main airport Saturday night, CNN’s Nic Robertson and his fellow passengers hit the tarmac as alarms sounded.

“We literally just got off the plane here at Ben Gurion Airport,” Robertson told viewers. “The sirens have gone off, people are taking cover.”

Robertson, international diplomatic editor for CNN, is among the many television journalists who flew in to cover the deadly attacks, which represent one of the most serious escalations in a long-running conflict in the region. But it was “really remarkable” he had even made it into the country, as his colleague Dana Bash noted on-air, considering that many airlines had canceled flights into Israel.

Since Saturday, networks have been “scrambling” — in the words of one veteran television journalist — to get correspondents and producers to Israel, to augment existing personnel or, in some cases, serve as lone representatives. Although most television networks still maintain a presence in Israel, staffing levels have broadly declined in the past two decades.

Kirit Radia, director of international news for ABC, said “there are significant logistical challenges” getting into the country, which has closed some land borders.

In light of the flight cancellations, journalists for NBC News and MSNBC drove to Israel from Jordan, said a network employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. NBC and MSNBC have seven correspondents in the country, including chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi.

By Monday, the anchors of the nation’s three biggest evening newscasts — NBC’s Lester Holt, ABC’s David Muir and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell — were all based in the country.

“That’s our mission: to be able to be on the ground, to document what we see, to be able to report it,” CBS News President Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews said in an interview. “We take that responsibility seriously.”

NBC News waited until Holt had crossed the border into Israel before announcing that he would anchor a special edition of “Nightly News” on Monday, the network employee said.

CNN has a team of approximately 35 people on the ground in Israel, including eight reporters.

Fox News Channel’s coverage has been led by correspondent Trey Yingst, who is based in Jerusalem, along with veteran correspondent Greg Palkot. (A network spokesperson said security concerns prohibit revealing how many employees Fox has in the country.)

For NewsNation, the upstart cable-news channel, anchor Chris Cuomo — a veteran of CNN’s prime-time lineup — is in Jordan, while correspondent Robert Sherman is in Israel.

Despite the significance of the conflict, networks must balance coverage of Israel with other major international news priorities, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“When a story like this breaks, and it’s urgent, sometimes that means we have to make decisions in real time,” Ciprian-Matthews said. “That doesn’t mean we abandon one story; it just means sometimes we have to redirect. But it’s real-time decision-making.”

Like in Ukraine, which has seen at least 17 journalists killed since Russia invaded in February 2022, correspondents in Israel have already faced security challenges in the days-old conflict.

On Monday morning, MSNBC viewers saw Engel hugging a wall while reporting in the Israeli city of Sderot, which has been bombarded with incoming fire. “They’ve been coming in quite close,” he said on air. “That is why we’re on the ground right now.”

CNN’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, took cover in a ditch about five minutes away from the Gaza border after a “massive barrage of rockets” hit. A minute into her live appearance, Ward was given the all-clear to stand up and finish her segment. But, she acknowledged to viewers, “it’s a little difficult after being crouched in a ditch to know exactly what’s been going on.”

A BBC broadcast was halted after an explosion landed “very close,” a correspondent said. “Are you okay to stay where you are or would you like to move?” the network’s presenter asked.

During a staff-wide editorial meeting Monday morning, Mark Thompson, on his first day as CNN’s chief executive, praised the network’s coverage: “CNN at its best, moving very quickly, with great — in some cases, really courageous, as well — front-line coverage and really smart people,” Thompson said, according to a copy of his comments reviewed by The Washington Post.

But it has been a long time since the conflict in Israel has been the top story in the American media, which explains why some bureaus have thinned out and some — like the Boston Globe — have shuttered entirely.

“Israel became kind of a marginal story,” said Stanford University lecturer Janine Zacharia, who served as The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2009 to 2011. “You still had someone on the ground generally, but there weren’t as many fully operational bureaus for the TV,” and the presence of print media had been “decimated.”

Instead of maintaining large bureaus in Jerusalem, news companies now send reinforcements when fighting breaks out on a large scale, using network infrastructure that has remained in place for moments such as the Hamas attacks.

“When there’s blowups, they parachute in,” Zacharia said. “But before that, you had people on the ground. I imagine everyone is understaffed right now. [The siege] was unexpected.”

Ibrahim Hazboun spent 20 years as a producer for Fox News in Israel before being laid off in June. He said that staffing and coverage of the region have been on the decline for most of that time.

American journalists “were coming when there was an escalation of the violence, focusing on the moment without going deep and seeing the reasons why this was happening,” he said in an interview.

Although Hazboun said the war between Hamas and Israel will certainly capture the attention of the world, he believes that gaps in coverage in recent years make it difficult for viewers to understand the roots of the current conflagration. “It’s a big event happening right now, but there were a lot of events that were happening before that were not covered that would give the perspective of why it happened.”

Hazboun pointed to advances in broadcasting technologies and mobile streaming capacities that have lowered the costs of international reporting. Another veteran television correspondent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said this has allowed networks to cut back on staffing.

But at least one massive logistical challenge remains: getting into Gaza.

CBS News foreign correspondent Holly Williams has been reporting from the Israeli border town of Sderot, which is only a few miles from Gaza. Williams reported from Gaza in 2014 and 2021, but said it’s not possible right now to get there. “Even in normal times — and right now it is not a normal time — it is very difficult logistically to get into Gaza, because you need permission from the Israeli side,” she said. “I think a lot of journalists would like to be covering what’s happening in Gaza right now, but it comes with some very obvious dangers.”

“Gaza is impossible to reach right now,” said Fox’s Yingst, though he argued that the “logistics are easier than in other conflict zones I’ve reported from.”

Jeremy Barr covers the media industry for The Washington Post.

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