Posted by: patenttranslator | January 30, 2011

Why Is CNN Sending Russian Speakers to Cairo to Cover Demonstrations?

I wrote a post a while ago titled Why Are There Only Monolingual Talking Heads on American TV? and in which I talked about weekly discussions in French of foreign correspondents in France (called Le Kiosque) and in German on German TV (called Quadriga). Among other things I said in that post that we have nothing like that here in US because unlike American correspondents, foreign correspondents may be kind of unpredictable and you can’t really control what they will say. One commenter corrected me and pointed out that Fareed Zakaria and Christiane Amanpour are multilingual and that they often have on their programs very interesting foreign guests. And he was right, up to a point – see my response to his comment if you are interested.

As the images of passionate young people protesting in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities were repeatedly flashing in front of my eyes on CNN, BBC America and other cable news stations, I remembered his comment and tuned in to Fareed Zakaria’s Sunday afternoon program on CNN called Global Public Square. I was curious about Fareed Zakaria because of what the commenter said on my blog and because I have not seen his program in many years, although I used to watch him and I also used to read his articles in Newsweek at one time.

A telling moment which, for me at least, set the atmosphere for the entire program prior to a discussion that was held between Fareed Zakaria, Martin Indyk (which means “a turkey” in Polish, for those who don’t speak Polish, Brookings Institution, former ambassador to Israel, sounds monolingual), Richard Haas (Council on Foreign Relations, sounds very monolingual), Steven Cook (Council on Foreign Relations, in spite of his American accent, apparently fluent in Arabic), and Tarek Massoud (Harvard University, Arabic speaker), was when Fareed Zakaria posed a question to CNN’s reporter Ivan Watson who was reporting on site from Cairo. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director of the International Atomic Energy, had returned to Cairo to participate in the protests and he just finished a speech delivered to the demonstrators. “So what did ElBaradei say in his speech?” asked Fareed Zakaria. He must have thought that Ivan Watson had a translator (or interpreter, if you insist) with him. It was obvious that Ivan Watson had absolutely no idea what Mohamed ElBaradei said because without missing a beat, the famed CNN correspondent launched into a prepared speech about something else, never once even mentioning Mohamed ElBaradei at all. I completely forgot what he said because I was laughing the whole time when I realized what was going on. If I were in Fareed Zakaria’s seat, I would definitely have said to Ivan Watson something like:”So you have no idea what he said, right? You don’t speak Arabic, do you?” But of course, Zakaria said no such thing. He could probably get fired for saying something like that and I am sure he needs his  job. We all need our jobs!!! And not all of us are freelance translators who can’t really get fired easily!!!

So anyway, I did I not find out what ElBaradei’s speech was about because CNN apparently did not know. It is also possible that CNN first needs to figure out what is in every speech before telling people like me what’s in it. That is how it used to work in Soviet Union while it was still around. Incidentally, I went to Ivan Watson’s CNN page and I found out that he speaks Russian (according to CNN), but not Arabic. Oh, well, he speaks English, so why not send him to Cairo, right?

After that, Fareed Zakaria discussed the situation in Egypt (in short segments interrupted with avalanches  of commercials) with Martin Indyk from Brookings Institution, Steven Cook and Richard Haas from the Council on Foreign Relations, and Tarek Massoud from from Harvard University. All the speakers, except for Tarek Massoud, emphasized how important it was to maintain “stability” and ensure a “peaceful transition”, while also saying that “legitimate grievances” of the demonstrators would have to to be addressed, or something like that. The only person on the panel who seemed genuinely excited by the fact that people were demonstrating and demanding democracy, end to corruption and accountability in the streets of Cairo was Tarek Massoud from Harvard University. He sounded oddly out of place on that panel.

I don’t want to know what experts from right wing “think tanks” like the Brookings Institution think about the situation in Egypt. I know what they will say before they open their mouth because I know what they are paid to think. I know they don’t believe in democracy because I have been listening to them for a while, before I turned them off for good.

So, as I said, I did not find out what Mohamed ElBaradei said in his speech from this CNN program.

I will probably have to find out tomorrow from blogs.


  1. Your description of the Ivan Watson episode made me laugh. I only caught the last part of Fareed Zakaria today, but the brunt of your post is accurate: the crisis on CNN is being covered by non-Arabic speakers. Only Ben Wedeman speaks it out of the correspondents, but one swallow, etc. There was another incident in which Nic Robertson was saying “this man is telling me that live rounds were fired at him.” But he was interrupted by his interpreter and added: “Oh, he’s saying that police fired tear gas inside the mosque.” Robertson is an experienced reporter on the Near and Middle East. It never occurred to me that he didn’t speak Arabic! It does make them look a little amateurish. I am now relying more on the English feed provided by Al-Jazeera. Which leads me to think how quickly things change: CNN was the vanguard of news 20 years ago and already it looks a little out of its depth.


  2. Is news in your country any better or does it look like the infotainment that we get from CNN, with what seems like hundreds of commercials every hour?

    And do you have an equivalent of Fox News? Or maybe people in other countries don’t know that Fox News is actually even worse than CNN, if that is possible.

    Every time when I go to my gym, Fox News is on and men and women on treadmills and stationary bikes are watching, and watching, and watching ….

    Fortunately, the sound is off.

    Just wondering.


  3. You may want to edit this one down… Ivan Watson is fluent in Russian, French, Turkish, hardly monolingual. He’s also won numerous awards, including the esteemed Edward R. Murrow Award for his coverage in Afghanistan. He’s the Istanbul Bureau Chief and has resided in and covered the Middle East for over a decade. He was with NPR for ten years as their Middle East Correspondent and has a reputation for excellent reporting. If you don’t know what El Baradei’s speech was about, then you probably shouldn’t be writing on the subject, because your comments kind of make you appear ignorant.


  4. I did not say that Ivan Watson is monolingual. I said that he ignored Zakaria’s question and I started to laugh because it was so obvious that he had no idea what was in the speech, but yet, he would not admit it. That is what happened. Apparently, CNN thinks that people who are watching them are morons. I guess many are. And CNN only lists Russian on Ivan Watson’s information page. Go see for yourself. Why would they not include French and Turkish if he were really fluent in those languages?

    I also said that I did not find out from that CNN broadcast what ElBaradei said in his speech, not that I don’t know what is in that speech.

    You have quite a talent for twisting other people’s words, don’t you?

    Maybe you could get a job with CNN or Fox News. Or at least with NPR.


  5. Hey, I have nothing against CNN’s Ivan Watson. He is a very brave and compassionate guy doing a difficult job. It’s just that the most important story of the year is being covered by people w/o local knowledge. How did some reporters learn that the pro-Mubarak thugs were government employees? Well, they asked them… Can you imagine a French or a Chinese network sending a non-English speaker to cover the 2012 elections? He would be the subject of endless jokes. Or a non-English speaker covering Martin Luther King’s speech? “Uhh, I think Rev. King said he was sleepy.”

    Cody’s defensiveness is indicative of very passé attitudes of an American media (whose standards were never that high to begin with) that is progressively falling behind in a world it doesn’t understand. I find that very worrisome. There’s a professor in a DeLillo novel who creates a “Hitler Studies” program in his college, notwithstanding the fact that he doesn’t speak German. Cody’s comment suggest that the realm of satire is slowly seeping into reality.

    Incidentaly, I found this quote from Timothy Garton Ash today, who lived through the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. He is bashing European media, but his point is equally applicable to American journalism:

    “What we need are people on the spot who speak the language, know the history, have been there repeatedly over a number of years, and can evaluate the main players and social forces. The fact that there are so few such correspondents and experts around is proof of Europe’s indifference to its own backyard. There are probably more European experts on the politics of California than there are on those of Egypt, let alone of Tunisia or Morocco.”


  6. I think that the coverage on cable networks here changed slightly after Anderson Cooper got beaten up. It’s OK to call thugs thugs now although these are thugs that we have been supporting with US taxpayers’ money for the last 30 years.
    It’s also clear that Mubarak is history.

    I watched CNN, ABC and BBC America yesterday and it was quite objective and well done, I thought.

    Yes, my main complaint is that these reporters don’t speak the language. I don’t really consider them qualified unless they speak the language and know the culture and history of the country, although I realize that this is not possible in every case.

    I watch AlJazeera on Internet and on my Roku and these guys are really well informed. Why can’t we have them on our cable news channels? They have them in Canada. I think that the cable news channels here are afraid of competition.

    I hope Mubarak will resign soon because I am working on a long Japanese patent, it’s a rush and I can’t concentrate. I had to turn down work yesterday. I don’t like doing that.


  7. […] I don’t really know what I should say about Ivan Watson, except that the only way he will be probably able to use Russian in Cairo is to have a talk with Mubarak who allegedly speaks Russian because he was trained as a bomber pilot in Soviet Union. But it may be that after so many years, Mubarak  does not speak much Russian anymore, in which case Ivan Watson’s Russian will remain totally useless in Cairo as I suggested in one of my blogs. […]


  8. You will be happy to know that CNN sent a French speaking reporter (Ivan Watson) to help Jim Bitterman cover the news in France. They also sent him to French speaking Haiti last year.

    You must know that they are numerous countries that speak Arabic that, starting in January of this year, would require Arabic speaking correspondents including Tunisia, multiple locations in Libya, multiple correspondents in Tahrir, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, multiple correspondents in Afghanistan and … and … and…. Thus, CNN would need a large number of Arabic speaking correspondents for the Arabic speaking world. CNN did send Arabic speaking anchor women to Egypt (Gorani and Sweeny.) So I really can’t fault CNN for the concern you raised.

    I can quibble, however, over CNN’s failure to have a translator present who could have told us the main points of El Baradei’s speech.

    By the way, I believe that Al Jazeera International is the only international news station that has only Arabic speaking correspondents (or virtually only.)


  9. “By the way, I believe that Al Jazeera International is the only international news station that has only Arabic speaking correspondents (or virtually only.)”

    I am not sure what you mean by that. Their emphasis is on Middle East, which is why they have reporters who speak English and Arabic. But they also cover quite well issues in Europe and US.

    If I want to know what is happening right now in Egypt or Tunisia, I go to Al Jazeera, of course, not to CNN or any of the other alphabet soup channels here in US. They have so many commercials on these channels anyway that you can’t really develop a train of thought if you watch these channels (but you get a lot of information about new medications for newly developed diseases that did not exist last year from them). This is one of the main reasons why I stopped watching them.

    Unlike in Canada, you can watch at this time Al Jazeera on TV only on Roku in US. I assume that most people in this country who are interested in what is happening now with the “Arab spring” watch it on Internet.


  10. I was a little unclear. I’m here in Egypt and we only get BBCW, CNN International (which is much better than CNN US) and Al Jazeera Int. on TV here.

    ALJ is the best of the 3 b/c of the experts they interview or on their panels.

    But the correspondents on CNN Int. have an interesting perspective on the ME and the Jasmine Revolutions. Different, but it fills in the blanks. Wedeman, for example, lives in the same town as I do and he would sometimes talk about what happened here. didn’t give me that at all — it was all aimed at the international audience who don’t give a damn about stolen guns in Maadi. So, they aren’t given that info.


  11. CNN is generally not that bad, especially compared to FOX which I am forced to watch in my gym, fortunately without the sound. CNN at least has a few interesting and smart reporters. Ivan Watson, for example, has a lot of fans (groupies?) in a number of countries such as Japan. I found a message that said “I love Ivan Watson” on my blog’s dashboard recently, and I was talking to a blogger in Japan several times who wrote several posts on her blogs in Japanese about Ivan Watson, which is how she found my blog.

    But the frequency of commercials on CNN and other news channels is so mind-numbing and mind-dumbing that I can’t watch them anymore.

    In general, I think that the quality of US news cable stations such as CNN is at this point really, really poor. I don’t know what I would call it (corporate infotainment?), but it is no longer news. That is probably why they don’t allow Al Jazeera English on TV here in US. They are afraid of the competition.


  12. Al Jazeera english is available in NY City via Time Warner cable. Great alternative to American “news”


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