By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 9:08 PM
It's now a given that we all have a basic human right to have our revolutions televised.
We also have the right to plug in and participate, even if it's not technically our revolution or technically anywhere near us. We use that word - revolution - so much now that it was good to turn on our TVs and/or boot up and be reminded what that sort of populist ebullience can look like.
As seen on TV Friday, the Egyptian revolution that brought the end of Hosni Mubarak's long rule was mesmerizing but at times difficult to fathom in its magnitude, with most of the screen shots panning from balconies and rooftops above Cairo's Tahrir Square. Seen that way, it looked like a New Year's Eve with cut-rate fireworks.
But on the ground in Tahrir Square, NBC's Richard Engel, who has devoted his career to reporting in the Middle East, was enveloped in a jubilant mosh pit where he tried his best to translate the shouted remarks of the young revolutionaries in Egyptian flag headbands, each of them yelling and waving to the world. It felt like any minute someone would dump a cooler of Gatorade onto Engel's happy head.
"That man has a rooster!" MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer observed from the MSNBC studio, watching the crowd surround Engel. "You can't celebrate without the rooster."
You really can't. The end of Mubarak set the news channels into a frenzied if admirably nimble race to find the right experts, pundits and eyewitnesses to illuminate, speculate and otherwise fret about the ramifications of all this to the Middle East and the rest of the world. But about an hour into it, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, recognizing momentousness, simply asked his on-the-ground reporters to stop talking and let the noise take over. Let us experience the roaring of hundreds of thousands of people.
"I want to hear a little bit of the crowd," Blitzer begged. "Yes - just open the sound and listen to it."
Exactly. It was a moment to savor, come what may, and television was best when it did. On it went, into the Cairo night and the American broadcast day. (The main networks quickly reverted to "The Price Is Right" and "The View" and the usual midday churn, but the cable channels reveled in it.)
Minutes turned into hours of cable coverage, encompassing the afternoon. By then we'd seen a lot of orange street lamps and heard a lot about the impact of Facebook. It certainly was a fast 18 days.
All the talking heads convened to caution us, the viewers who were watching half a world away, not to get too excited. A lot of questions left unanswered . . . Where will this all go . . . How this shakes out . . . "My friend Richard Engel never gets to smile from ear to ear," NBC anchor Brian Williams remarked, but then turned to a grimace about the "work ahead."
But look at the happiness! We like happiness. Americans, with our sometimes hazy fix on the specifics of international events and geopolitics, witnessed the end of the Mubarak regime as if on a mental-realization tape delay, even though it was happening live. Ours is still a culture where al-Jazeera English can be the most talked-about (and really exceptional) coverage, and yet it still dwells in the upper reaches of your digital dial, as if placing it next to Nancy Grace would be akin to building a mosque in Lower Manhattan. We need better access to al-Jazeera's journalism, expertise - and, on Friday, its feel for emotion. (In my house, that's Channel 275.)
Fox News Channel reporter Leland Vittert was in the middle of a "waiting for word" update from a vantage point above the Cairo streets at the moment Mubarak's vice president, Omar Suleiman, gave his curt (Williams would soon refer to it as "comically brief") statement that Mubarak had left Cairo and turned the country over to the military.
A roar went up, and back in the Fox studio, Jon Scott and Harris Faulkner asked Vittert what was happening. He didn't know.
"No idea, huh?"
"That's quite a roar."
"Clearly something has changed."
"Okay," the Fox anchors started stuttering, "getting word now, from our group of journalists here in the newsroom . . . "
On CNN, Blitzer talked by phone to Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian-born Google executive who has become a celebrated figure during the overthrow. "What's next?" Blitzer asked Ghonim.
"Ask Facebook," Ghonim replied.
"What?" Blitzer said, unable to hear.
"Ask Facebook," Ghonim repeated. Indeed, the day was one long salute to youth and tech culture. Once again, the tweets told us as much as the tube or more. Someone retweeted someone else's tweet of someone else's tweet of a New York Times reporter's tweet that Fox News's Megyn Kelly had just announced that this is the biggest moment in the Middle East since victory in Iraq. (Snort!)
My favorite piece of video from the day arrived via a Facebook update, via YouTube. It shows a bunch of men and women children in a living room, presumably in Egypt, dancing and singing songs of victory and the Egyptian anthem. Half of the people in the room record the other half with smartphone video cameras. A woman twirls around with a baby. A man kneels over a laptop on a sofa, simultaneously transfixed by the wired world, the televised world and, at last, the real world.
The video, which at that point had been viewed only 277 times, shows Ghonim, surrounded by family and friends, celebrating the news that Mubarak was gone. This is a "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" moment. Everyone knows what that feels like, and some people are lucky enough to live in one.
It's times like this that you both appreciate and pity ABC's Christiane Amanpour, who has patiently described the intricate nature of the Arab world to television audiences for how many years now. In return, most of us still pronounce "Iraq" like the Aflac duck. We love revolutions and giant parties, but will we have the patience to pay close attention to what happens next?