Lara Logan, Women Covering Conflict and the Myth of the Press as Observer

As a woman, I was disgusted and angry to hear about Lara Logan’s sexual assault and beating during the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo. I am also pretty disgusted by people who, albeit subtly, suggest that she was asking for it because she’s female, blonde and not wearing a head-covering.

Let me fess up to how I feel about Lara Logan: I have grave doubts about her basic understanding of the obligations of a free press. She was not just critical, but unprofessionally rude about Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone. I also found her reaction to the Wikileaks cables disingenuous and hyperbolic. Bottom line, I don’t have a lot of respect for her as a journalist, because I fundamentally differ with her on the subject of who the press is there to serve.

In 2010 alone, 94 journalists died pursuing their calling. However, there is nothing new about journalists being brutalized or murdered covering foreign conflicts and political upheavals. Over 1,000 journalists and media workers have been killed, worldwide, between 1992 – 2011. From the murder of Sean Flynn at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in 1971 to the kidnapping and execution of Daniel Pearl in 2002, and the Kremlin backed assassination of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, journalism is a hazardous profession.

One of the reasons for this is that the press plays a significant part forming the opinions and sculpting the policy of powerful people and states. They are not ‘JUST THERE’, covering the event. Media presence affects and often changes the way any given situation plays out purely because of its presence.

This is a truth about which very few journalists are as honest as they might be. Kim Barker, in her NYT Op Ed “Why We Need Women in War Zones” doesn’t acknowledge this. She complains about getting groped herself, about women journalists she knows who have been sexually molested, but fears that Logan’s rape will prevent editors and press bosses from sending women into areas of conflict.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t demand equality of assignments for women journalists and not accept that, in many parts of the world, women are targeted for sexual harassment and assault. It’s despicable and unfair, but it’s a reality.

Journalists and photographers often make their reputations and their careers covering extreme situations – war zones, political upheavals, etc. So, as much as this is a personal tragedy for Lara Logan, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of journalists who have been violently assaulted and killed have been men. It’s also worth considering that there were probably a considerable number of Egyptian women protesters who were also raped and beaten in and around Tahrir Square on the very same night, but they will get little sympathy from their family or their society, and certainly won’t garner support through the media. A study done in Egypt in 2005 found that 34% of women report having suffered violence or sexual assault.

If female journalists want to make their careers covering chaotic and violent situations (and I absolutely think they should), then they must be prepared to take the same risks as their male counterparts. They must accept that the societies they are reporting in have very different views of how women should be treated. And finally, they have to accept that their presence and their reportage does affect the way these situations play out, and that will make them unpopular with some of the participants.

It’s worth remembering, though, that journalism doesn’t even rate up in the top 20 most dangerous jobs. It’s a lot more hazardous to be a fisherman.

P.S. I just got a good deal of flack for not condemning Lara Logan’s rape enough. So, for the record, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, I condemn ALL rape and ALL physical violence. I condemn it as much against journalists as I condemn it when it occurs to normal people who don’t get coverage.