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Mubarak: US cable jumps gun, Al Jazeera shines

Thursday was one of those crazed and maddening days in the world of cable TV when a historic moment was anticipated, and some in the world of cable TV news covered the event as a done deal whether or not they had any verified information that it was indeed a certainty.

If you were watching MSNBC at 1:21 p.m. (EST), for example, you would have seen this headline: "NBC: Egyptian President Will Step Down Tonight."

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I no longer expect journalism from a cable channel that features the likes of Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell and Ed Schultz, but this was a new low in making any effort to actually report a story: just walking next door and asking its sister operation, NBC News -- and then laying the headline off on them.

I didn't see any such definitive statement about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigning on NBC News Thursday. But if it did report that Mubarak was stepping down Thursday night, as MSNBC said in its headline, then shame on NBC news, too. If not, then NBC should ask MSNBC to correct the record and stop tarnishing the brand.

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But I have to say even on channels where more care was taken, viewers were definitely led to believe for most of the afternoon that Mubarak was about to go on Egyptian State TV any minute and announce he was going to step down. And who wouldn't stay glued to the tube all afternoon to see that -- even if you were on vacation like I was.

Only, of course, it didn't happen. Mubarak delegated some powers to his vice president, but said he was NOT stepping down until September as he has previously announced. And the channel that showed the most care in reporting the story responsibly from the beginning to the end of the afternoon was Al Jazeera, the very channel some in the U.S. try to depict as reckless in its Mideast coverage.

(Al Jazeera picture with headline: "Defiant Mubarak refuses to resign.")

Here was the key statement that should have slowed the runaway horses of cable madness at places like MSNBC: Anas el-Fekky, Egypt's minister of information, saying Mubarak was definitely not going to resign. He said it about 1:20 p.m. (EST) Thursday afternoon.

It was stunning to see the way in which the U.S. cable channels downplayed or ignored the information altogether most of the day.

Representative of the way in which this statement was treated by many in the U.S. media was a tweet from one prominent American journalist comparing the Egyptian minister of information's words to those of Baghdad Bob, the laughably unreliable minister of information in Irag who trumpeted the "glorious victory" of Iraq's armies even as American tanks whizzed past on CNN.

Al Jazeera, on the other hand, brought informed analysis to its reporting of the statement from the minister of information. One of its correspondents in Cairo explained that the statement should be taken seriously, because Mubarak's speech was going to be recorded: "And if there is anyone in government who has actually seen the recording at this point, it would be the minister of information."

That's when I stopped U.S. channel-hopping and settled in with the authoritative coverage from Al Jazeera for a while.

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As the wait for the speech went on and on, an Al Jazeera anchor explained that Mubarak's speech would appear during the late news in Cairo. And once the newscast started, he told viewers that Mubarak's speech was not topping the newscast -- rather sports and weather were coming first.

No U.S. channel came close to offering that -- or anything as informed as the anchorman's analysis that if Mubarak was going to announce that he was stepping down, it probably would be leading the news, not following weather and sports.

Al Jazeera had another huge plus over the U.S. channels, during the speech -- good audio from the throngs in Tahrir Square. Once Mubarak started talking about how he had always fought for the country and he was going to continue fighting through to September, the angry chanting started.

As the noise built, an anchorman helped viewers understand that the long sticks and poles being held above the crowd and pointed toward the screen were not placards, but rather sticks and poles with shoes on them -- they were pointing the soles of their shoes at the image of Mubarak onscreen as a sign of disrespect. What a perfect media moment in the global village.

In fairness to U.S, cable, I should point out that Hala Gorani of CNN International was a voice of caution all afternoon during the time she co-anchored with Wolf Blitzer. She consistently qualified any statements about Mubarak stepping down with terms like "reportedly." She talked about the event as an "if" not a done deal.

At one point, Blitzer asked her how she thought the crowd would react if Mubarak didn't step down.

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"I have stopped making predictions," she said, "because so many we have made have not materialized." Thank you, Ms. Gorani.

By the way, the combining of CNN and CNN International via correspondents on the ground in Egypt and anchors like Blitzer and Gorani has made for strong coverage throughout the past two weeks.

Some praise should also go to CNN's State Department correspondent Jill Dougherty for not trying to fake it when asked what the State Department was saying early in the afternoon when it looked like Mubarak was a goner elsewhere on cable and the Web.

"Well, the State Department is not saying much of anything," she said at 1:20 p.m. "Until we hear what Mubarak says, we won't know." Thank you for that honesty, Ms. Dougherty. I can't tell you how many correspondents I saw faking it Thursday.

Over at Fox News, Megyn Kelly was asked to do a lot of heavy lifting as solo anchor, and I have to say, she generally used such words as "reportedly" and "likely" when talking about Mubarak stepping down. Good for her.

The Fox News headlines, meanwhile, attributed the promise of Mubarak stepping down to "senior Egyptian officials," rather than making it seem like a signed, sealed and delivered deal they had somehow nailed down. And there was some evidence that such officials had suggested he would step down -- though not nearly with the tone of certainty that some cable news accounts held Thursday.

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And let's be fair, the online newspaper headlines I saw Thursday were also full of the promise that Mubarak would be gone by the end of the day -- with a lot of skinning back during the afternoon from "Mubarak out," to "Mubarak likely out," to "Officials say Mubarak out," to "Mubarak not stepping down." Thank goodness for the ease with which online headlines can be changed.

Let's not miss the lesson: Many of us in the U.S. press could have learned something about informed analysis and restraint from Al Jazerra Thursday. And that's a sobering thought as to where our American journalistic standards have gone in the mania for moments of instant history -- and the page views and cable audience spikes they can deliver.

(UPDATE 7:30 p.m. -- I'll keep watching for coverage of the impossible-to-predict Egyptian reaction to the speech. Please stop back. And how long is it going to take tonight for CNN to figure out that the Egyptian ambassador is lying when he says "Mubarak has no power"? Perhaps, he is trying to use CNN as a propaganda tool to tell American viewers the lie the Mubarak regime wants us to believe.

Al Jazeera's translation of Mubarak's speech was different and more fluid than the one I heard on CNN, and Al Jazeera is not saying Mubarak has "no power." This is not a matter of confusion over the translation as some analysts on CNN have suggested. Mubarak handed off some power, but the statement about him having "no power" needs to be seriously questioned, because that is not what the Egyptians in the street seemed to have heard in his speech either. And there was no translation involved in what they heard.

Mostly what we have is more and more confusion on U.S. cable TV tonight -- especially with CNN sticking to this "no power" theme. It is very frustrating to see. Maybe they can't nail it down, but they should seriously question a statement like that -- not keep reporting it because they think they have a scoop.

UPDATE 8:50 p.m. If Mubarak has "no power," it is also news to the New York Times whose homepage carries the banner headline: "Rage in Egypt as Mubarak keeps power." Which part of that headline would suggest the Egyptian ambassador should be taken as his word that Mubarak has "no power"? I think I'll stick with Al Jazeera, the New York Times, the people in the streets of Egypt and what I heard on Al Jazeera for now.)


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