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Journalists recall the allure of Beirut.

Journalists recall the allure of Beirut

American colleagues recount the times in Lebanon prior to the kidnapping of Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson

In the 1980s, Beirut was exciting, it was intoxicating, it was a "journalistic paradise."

It also was very dangerous and quickly became more so, until it was clear it was time for American journalists to leave.

The abduction of Associated Press chief Middle East correspondent Terry Anderson on March 16, 1985, was a turning point for many of the Western journalists then in Beirut who previously had not necessarily seen themselves as targets.

"You have to put what we went through and what Terry went through in perspective," explained Larry Pintak, CBS News correspondent in Beirut from 1980 to 1985. "It had been the most important story for quite a while . . . . It was a very hot story.

"Then all of a sudden it fell off the front page. Once the Marines left, the story fell off the front page. Americans weren't involved any more, nobody cared anymore," explained Pintak, now of the D.C. media relations firm Pintak/Brown International.

"The place was still a cauldron, but Americans weren't dying, so nobody cared anymore," he said, "and then the kidnappings started.

"When [CNN correspondent] Jeremy [Levin] was taken [in March 1984]," Pintak continued, "that was written off to being an inside job, so we didn't concern ourselves that suddenly they were targeting journalists.

"Then the other Americans were systematically taken, and we all kept telling ourselves, |Well, we'll be the last they'll take. They want us around to report on what they are doing. They want us to report on the kidnappings. They want us to report on the bombings, etc., so we're OK.

"We held onto that belief through the autumn and then, as we approached the [U.S. presidential] election in '84, the Embassy was blown up again, tension was heightened, everybody expected something more before the election, and a lot of us started to have second thoughts. We looked around and there were very few Americans left.

"But then, something happened that forced everybody to stay," he continued. "The U.S. government tried to frighten us out. We all got phone calls from the Embassy saying, |Just wanted to remind you that it's dangerous. We're worried about you over there. We really think you ought to get out."

Steve Hagey was in Beirut with United Press International for about 13 months, from late 1983, after the Marine bombing, to just after Jan. 1, 1985, when he was released by the militiamen who abducted him.

"We all probably overstayed our welcome in terms of news coverage and impact of the story," said Hagey, now a vice president at the public relations firm Fleishman Hillard Inc. in Washington, D.C.

"It was really weird when he called -- because we all compared what he said," Hagey noted of the call from the Embassy press officer. "He said, |We just wanted to advise you that you're at risk in Beirut and if you travel outside the city.' And we said, |Well, do you have any specific intelligence to tell us, has the risk changed or what?' because it was always risky, and they said, |No.'

"This was right before the election. I think they were trying to scare us out," Hagey said. "At least the assumption was they didn't want anything to happen that would disrupt or have an unfavorable impact on the election in the states. I don't think anything the Moslems could have done was going to change the fact that Reagan was going to win on a landslide."

As Pintak explained: "Either they could hit us, and it would be bad news for Reagan, or they could hit some other American target and we would be there to report it. But if we weren't there, it's the old tree crashing in the woods. So we all kind of dug in our heels.

"We had dug in our heels because of this perceived attempt to get us out. We'd been there through the Israeli invasion, we'd been there through various wars, and the State Department wasn't going to drive us out, the administration wasn't going to drive us out," said Pintak.

"I remember in the days leading up to the election having long go-arounds with Terry about this, what we should do, because we looked around and realized that the odds weren't there anymore. There were a handful of American males left in West Beirut.

"If, in fact, in the beginning of the year we were no longer a target, it had gotten to the point where there virtually was no one else there to be a target."

Tod Robberson, assistant foreign editor at the Washington Post, was abducted in Beirut on the night of Oct. 1, 1984. He was later released after his captors staged a mock execution, complete with an AK47 stuck in his ribs. He left the country after that, after spending about a year in Beirut. At the time he was abducted, he had been working for Reuters since the spring, and prior to that he had worked at the English-language Daily Star.

Robberson remembers a "very, very lively discussion" between himself, Anderson and some fellow Associated Press and Reuters staffers about whether they should stay or leave.

After his release, Robberson said he had "decided I was in danger and needed to leave."

About a week before Anderson was kidnapped, the two of them and others were having dinner in Amman, Jordan, when they got into an argument. Anderson, Robberson recalled, told him his leaving was premature.

"I'm not saying in retrospect he was wrong," Robberson said. I wanted very badly to be there. This [kidnapping] convinced me they did not want us there anymore."

He described the tendency "to be lulled into this false sense of security" in the "journalistic paradise" of Beirut.

"The context of living in Lebanon is important to keep in mind," Robberson added. When Anderson was abducted he had just come from playing tennis. Beirut was "like a playground," with a "combination of thrilling work and thrilling social life and recreation. That was part of the allure."

Up until the point of his abduction, Robberson described the "adrenaline rush" of stepping "a little closer to the edge each time," which more and more gave reporters in Beirut a feeling of invulnerability.

Robin Wright, who served in Beirut for the Sunday Times of London from 1981 to 1985 and is now national security correspondent in Washington for the Los Angeles Times, noted that "None of us looked at the hostage abduction problem as the greatest threat to our survival . . . . We were talking about mass violence."

Among other things, Wright had a rib broken after being thrown in the air by the explosion from a 1,000-pound bomb, had the windows of her apartment blown out when a car bomb went off in the street in front of her apartment building, had death threats against her by the Syrians after an article she wrote in 1982, lost friends in the bombings at the U.S. embassies and Marine barracks, and had pieces of body land on her balcony after a car bomb detonated prematurely on a side street near her building.

"It was a horrifying atmosphere," she said, pointing out, however, that it also was "one of the most fascinating moments in history."

As a woman, Wright said she felt less vulnerable than her male colleagues, as most of the hostages taken had been men.

After Anderson was taken, however, it became clear it was not safe.

Wright was out of Beirut and had been planning to return in May when Anderson was kidnapped in March. She never went back, but said she would like to one day.

"No one's stupid, that's why when Terry was abducted we all left," she explained. "There was a pattern of rules, and if you knew the rules you could survive. Once he was taken, it was clear it wasn't safe to be there. No one was going to invite that kind of trouble."

Wright pointed out that "In most parts of the world, the Western press has been allowed in, sometimes selectively, but usually in sufficient numbers to report a story. That rule broke down in Beirut."

As Pintak explained, compounding the journalists' feelings of invulnerability was that they could pretty much go where they wanted, when they wanted.

"We'd be in the bunkers with Amal or Hezbollah or the Druze, then we'd get out of the bunkers and drive around and get in the bunkers with the Marines shooting at the guys we were just with, and everybody welcomed us," he said.

"They all loved American culture," Hagey noted, "regardless of what their leaders would say about the infidel West and all that.

"They got all these tv shows piped in, like |Dallas' and |Dynasty,' and I used to go through checkpoints and they'd say, |What is your name?' And I'd say, Steve. They'd say |Steve? Col. Steve Austin, $6 Million Man? Oh, we love you, we love you, go, go.'"

"That's why," Pintak said, "it was such a shock to all of us when that happened. There was always danger in Lebanon, but the shelling and the shooting and all that, you got street-smart and you learned your way around. That wasn't a factor, as long as everybody welcomed us and everybody protected us.

"That's why it was such a shock to us and so hard for us to believe that suddenly they were gunning for us."

As Pintak said, Anderson "had dug in his heels. He adamantly believed that as a journalist he should be there. There was a valid story to be covered in South Lebanon, and if we all pulled out nobody would be there to report on what was going on, what was happening to the Shiites, ironically."

"Terry was taking a risk and he knew it," commented David Ignatius, Washington Post foreign editor, who worked alongside Anderson in Beirut while covering the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal from November 1980 until October 1983.

"He believed the risk was worth taking for the benefit that he gave subscribers and readers. I think every correspondent in Beirut made that kind of rough calculus mentally every week, or sometimes every day, but I think Terry had an unusually clear sense of what he was doing as a journalist."

Aside from the reluctance to leave what Hagey called "the Casablanca, the center of the universe for Middle East correspondents," Pintak noted that reporting from Beirut had its practical side as well.

"It was the only place where you felt all of the currents of the Middle East," Pintak explained. "Everybody had their people on the ground in Lebanon. In fact, Lebanon's wars and minor clashes were all often a direct response to what was going on elsewhere in the Arab world. If the Iraqis and the Syrians wanted to bang each other up a little bit, they'd do it in Lebanon.

"There was no other place we could go where we would get all of those crosscurrents . . . so nobody could figure out where the hell we were supposed to go, and I think that was another reason we stayed so long."

However, by mid-1984, "as the kidnapping were getting hot and heavy, that invulnerability . . . started to dissipate a bit, started to get a little ragged around the edges," Pintak said. "We'd still go out and cover what we could, but suddenly we were watching our backs, and we'd never had to do that before. That got uncomfortable and that took the fun out of it."

Pintak said that suddenly he was in a situation where he was relieved to be living in a building where he had Druze bodyguards.

"I'd come down in the morning, and it became a joke. They'd say, |No Hezbollah around this morning,' and I'd get in the car and we'd try and take a different route when we could.

"It was nonsense," Pintak said. "I'm not a diplomat, I'm not a military guy -- I shouldn't worry about people trying to kidnap, potentially trying to kidnap me or shoot me or something -- and that took the fun out of it.

"I remember when I discovered my driver was carrying a gun," he continued. "I was so torn. Part of me was bent out of shape. That's just something a journalist does not do and people around a journalist do not do. You do not carry a gun. You are not a combatant. You have no stake in a war and you don't make believe that you do. When I was in Rhodesia, some reporters carried guns, and I just couldn't. So I was absolutely bent out of shape to find out he was carrying a gun.

"And I said, |Wait a minute, this is very wrong. We are not functioning. We are no longer covering the story. We have become the story.' That's when it was over."

Hagey recalled seeing Beirut correspondents from the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer on television the day after Anderson was taken.

"They looked so bad on tv, so drained, so depressed, so shocked," Hagey said. "They left immediately, and I think that was it. I think Terry's kidnapping closed the door."

Ironically, the first person Hagey saw when he was returned to his apartment after having been kidnapped had been Terry Anderson, who told him he should leave Beirut right away.

"The first person I saw upon returning to my apartment was Terry Anderson at 7:30 on a Sunday morning pouring me a martini saying, |You've got to get out of here. I have arranged everything. I'm taking care of it,'" Hagey said. "I didn't have to put myself in the position of asking to leave. It was all taken care of . . . and I was out of there, and Terry stayed around another few months."

Anderson's concern for Hagey after he had been returned was indicative of the spirit of camaraderie among the Western press corps in Beirut.

In fact, Anderson's former colleagues said he would be appalled at the behavior of many of the correspondents who covered the Persian Gulf war.

"What will shock Terry when he hears about covering the Persian Gulf war most of all -- there will probably be many things that will shock him -- but what will really shock him will be how little fun the press corps seems to have had in Saudi Arabia," commented the Post's Ignatius.

"By all accounts this was a very competitive, elbows-out, screw-your-buddy kind of press corps, and I think he will be appalled," Ignatius added.

"The dirty little secret about Beirut is what fun it was. It was often scary and creepy, but it was also absolutely hilarious fun. I can't remember anything that was as much fun or as exhilarating. Terry was very brave to stay on, but he also was having a helluva good time."

"I don't want to romanticize, but certainly there was an esprit de corps there," Pintak said of journalists in Beirut.

"Everybody was always watching everybody else's backs. You'd be competing in the field, but you'd also be watching out for each other in the field. You'd be watching out for each other when you got back to the hotel."

"You'd think," Hagey said, "a UPI and an AP bureau chief in that kind of situation would be really competitive -- and we were in a lot of ways -- but we shared information quite frequently, and at the same time we would try to beat the socks off each other."

Since the U.S. cease-fire in the Persian Gulf, numerous reports have been coming out of the Middle East concerning moves toward release of the hostages. A key demand of the kidnappers, the release of 17 comrades imprisoned in Kuwait for the bombings of the U.S. and French embassies there, was rendered moot during the Iraqi invasion and subsequent liberation of Kuwait.

This is not the first time it has looked as though the hostages might be coming home.

"The problem is that it's been such a roller coaster," Pintak said. "A number of times things have looked favorable, but so many little things can blow the whole thing out of the water.

"All right, again we're back at a point where all the factors are converging and it looks good, but, God knows, the Salman Rushdie affair blew it out of the water, the downing of the Iranian airjet blew it out of the water. Each of those times things were looking good."

"I think the one thing that I've continued to feel strongly," Ignatius said, "is that the outrage here lies entirely in the cruelty of the people who kidnapped him.

"You can talk all you want about what this administration could have done or what that one should have done," he said. "I'm sure anybody who knows Terry has thought, |Gosh, I should do more, I should write more about it, talk more about it,' but the fundamental truth is that this is just an appalling act.

"I think that we in the news business have not said clearly enough to the people who are holding him and to others who haven't done anything about it. This is just unacceptable," Ignatius added.

At the ceremony in Washington marking the start of Anderson's seventh year in captivity, Pintak stated, "Someone said, |It's a shame that we as reporters and journalists can't use the media more for the issues we want.' I disagree. I think we can, and I think we do when we feel it's going to achieve something, and while our short attention span remains on it.

"We certainly did it in the case of the CBS guys, we certainly did it in the case of the 40 other journalists who were grabbed [in Iraq], but that was a short-term thing," Pintak added.

"With Terry and the others, as we all know, the media have a very short attention span, even when it comes to our own. Out of guilt, once a year or twice a year we all write op-ed pieces and do what little we can, but that's few and far between. We go off and cover other stories and forget about their story.

"I think if the media really were serious about it, more emphasis could have been put on it. We closed the CBS Evening News counting off the days when we had hostages in Iran, why couldn't we do it in Lebanon?"

PHOTO : Aerial view of Beirut, which was described as a "journalistic paradise" prior to the kidnapping of Terry Anderson.
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Author:Gersh, Debra
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 6, 1991
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