At Gate A3 at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, waiting to board a connecting flight home to Washington, D.C., one of our star former students from Georgetown University, Erin Delmore, shared with us a disturbing email that related the awful news that CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan, 38, "suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers."
The subject line of the email: "This feels like a kick in the gut."
Indeed, as co-directors of the Pearl Project, a faculty-student investigative reporting project at Georgetown University that has mostly included young women students, reporting on journalists targeted and killed in the line of duty, we were stunned by the news.
The sexual brutality that Logan suffered casts a pall upon all of us in the journalism industry, but also upon us, as educators, as we send enterprising women journalists into the world. From Nepal to the Democratic Republic of Congo, women journalists are increasingly being targeted as they take the lead in reporting important investigative stories, according to reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists. That includes sexual attacks, says CPJ, and we have to do whatever we can to protect them, in body and in spirit.
In nations such as India and Pakistan, sexual harassment and public fondling and groping of women is known as "Eve teasing," and it's used as a way to keep women indoors. In places such as the Congo, rape is being used as a weapon of war, and we see now from Logan's fate that sexual assault is being turned against journalists, too.
In transit in Atlanta, we were returning from a pilgrimage to Oklahoma City, the hometown of a daughter of an Oklahoma newspaper family, Edith Kinney Gaylord, a woman who set off in the summer of 1942 for New York City, becoming the first female employee on the general news staff off the Associated Press, covering Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. Gaylord, who died in 2001, was the benefactor of the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, a nonprofit organization, that began funding the Pearl Project in 2007, when we began investigating the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan.
Our "fairy godmother," as we call her, is Marian Cromley, 83, a contemporary of Gaylord's and a retired journalist now on the advisory committee of the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. They are among the bold, courageous women who walked into the men's club of traditional American journalism and made it so there was room for the next generations of women, from us to Logan and our students.
With us on this pilgrimage: Delmore, 24, and Jessica Rettig, 23, two of the 32 students we had in the Pearl Project. Of those students, so many--22--were women that we sometimes called ourselves "the Nancy Drew Detective Agency." In the Huffington Post, Marie Claire's editor-at-large Abigail Pesta wrote about our students as "the women who chase terrorists." Many of our former students, including these two young women, have followed in Gaylord's steps, launching successful careers at national media outlets, setting their sights on lives as foreign correspondents.
In Oklahoma City, our former students shared with students at Oklahoma University's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication how they had reported on Pearl's murder. Last month, we released a report, "The Truth Left Behind," chronicling the web of militants who trapped Danny, kidnapping him off the streets of Karachi. A sea of enterprising journalists, about half of them women, asked us probing questions.
We ventured the next day to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, where a member of a rescue team, "Team 5" from the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building had written on the wall of the museum, "We search for truth." There, we met a group of mostly female students from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Ok., who had left their homes at dawn to come to our 9:30 a.m. talk. Delmore and Rettig told them about their tales from trenches of reporting about international terrorism.
One of the recurring themes during our two days in Oklahoma City was the question of whether our students were in harm's way as they reported the story of Pearl's murder. Rettig recollected knocking on the Orlando, Fla., door of a brother to the man who was allegedly the courier in Karachi, delivering to an FBI agent the video documenting Pearl's murders. One woman in the audience asked, given the nature of the project, whether we, as journalism educators worried about our students' safety. We answered that we had taken precautions such as excluding the course's location on the registrar's online schedule of classes , alerting campus security about the class and trying to protect our students as they navigated the mostly men's club of law enforcement and intelligence.
The classroom is a controlled environment. Tahrir Square isn't. Can we in good faith encourage our students to go out into a world in which Anderson Cooper gets beaten up or Lara Logan is assaulted?
It's chilling as we come back from this experience, so proud of our young students, but reminded, with this news headline, about the reality of the world. There are no easy answers, but there is one path we must take: we must take these sorts of attacks seriously, and we must not allow them to be a laughing matter. We don't need to retreat to a cavalier "man up" posture that has so marked newsrooms for so many decades, in the face of trauma.
In Oklahoma City, Sue Hale, an advisor to the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the former assistant managing editor of The Daily Oklahoman during the Oklahoma City bombing (later becoming the paper's executive editor), told us that she thought she was handling the trauma from the bombing with great aplomb. When she told her husband, he said, "Is that why you cry in your sleep?" From this awareness, she supported the incredible work of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, a nonprofit organization for journalists.
We brought Joe Hight, a news executive at The Daily Oklahoman, to our students--and to us--to awaken our senses to the reality of our humanity--and limitations--as journalists. After the Oklahoma City bombing, he spent much of his time educating others in the news business on how to deal with this sort of trauma, telling our students, for example, that there was no shame in acknowledging that a story with violence, unrest and tragedy can traumatize the storyteller herself.
There is a culture of insensitivity that we have to call unacceptable, as Carolyn Castiglia, a blogger, did on a parenting website, Babble, noting that there are some who "heartlessly mock" Logan, a mother of two young children, Lola and Joseph.
Among those writers, LA Weekly's Simone Wilson wrote, "Egyptian protesters apparently consummated their newfound independence by sexually assaulting the blonde reporter." In a piece headlined, "Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and Warzone 'It Girl,' Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration," Wilson included a detailed narrative of Logan's former career as a swimsuit model and an intimate accounting of her personal life. A reader commented, "Absolutely, unforgivably disgusting way to frame this terrible news," and that is true.
Daniel Pearl wasn't to blame for being kidnapped and killed. Logan isn't to blame for the violence committed against her. Nothing about Logan's life--or anyone's life--is relevant to this kind of brutality. Nothing justifies violence against journalists.
Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New York University Center for Law and Security, has appropriately quit after his callous Twitter comments, including a statement, "i'm rolling my eyes at all the attention she will get," and another one stating that she was trying to "outdo" CNN's Anderson Cooper, who was beaten up on the streets of Cairo.
At Salon, reporter Mary Elizabeth Williams correctly points out that, in a serious injustice, the "victim-blaming machine kicked in."
There should be indignation at not only the alleged crime against Logan but the response that blames her. "Lara Logan was (and still is) a journalist," wrote a blogger in a piece headlined, "Lara Logan is not an 'It' girl."
"When she went to Tahrir Square, she was doing her job," the writer said. "Had nothing to do with her looks, had nothing to do with her sex. She knew the risks, and she took them. She didn't sit at home and play arm-chair quarterback or spin ridiculous conspiracy theories--she went to the source to report her impressions, because that's what she is paid to do." Media Matters, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that usually focuses on critiquing conservative journalism, ran a headline, "Logan's Sexual Assault Brings Wave Of Blaming The Victim And Other Ugliness."
Not long ago, Logan was detained in Egypt and she later told TV host Charlie Rose she felt that she had "failed" as a journalist, leaving Egypt because of threats to her safety. She returned and was reporting on Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak's demise when she was assaulted. Inside our community, we need to recognize that assessing threat realistically doesn't mean we've "failed."
Touching down in Washington, D.C., where they would be returning to their careers in journalism, Delmore and Rettig, our young former students, admitted that news of Logan's horrific attack gave them pause. Who could blame them?
Even the most seasoned and hardened foreign correspondents are recognizing that journalists are increasingly walking around with targets on their backs, vulnerable to kidnapping, beatings, rape or murder. We have to declare clearly that this is unacceptable. And we must seek prosecution of alleged perpetrators. To all those who are cavalier we can only gently suggest that they too pause to reflect on their own humanity.
Our second Pearl Project, started last semester, is the targeting of journalists, including women who face the threat of rape, in the Congo. The stories were chilling to our students, 13 women and one man. But, beyond anything, we must work hard to keep journalists safe--from young Erin Delmore and Jessica Rettig to Lara Logan and all the women who follow in the footsteps of the great feminine pioneers of journalism.
Follow Asra Q. Nomani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AsraNomani