For female war reporters, a fight on multiple fronts

February 21, 2011|By Susan Reimer

As a young reporter for the Associated Press, I was told by a supervising editor that he would be willing to send me on an assignment where I could be killed — but not one where I could be raped.

It is a story I have told often to illustrate the bizarre patronizing that women face in the workplace.

But it is a story that takes on new meaning with reports that CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan suffered "a brutal and sustained sexual assault" while covering celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square following the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

CBS issued this disturbingly vague description of what happened to Ms. Logan only after the Associated Press advised that it planned to run with the story. And because what happened to Ms. Logan might have been anything from gang rape to violent groping, the statement seems to have only inflamed imaginations and ratcheted up the rhetoric.

Ms. Logan and her crew had been detained, blindfolded, cuffed and beaten the week before. But this new incident involved sex, in some form, and that made all the difference.

Almost immediately, I noticed that the public commentary about Ms. Logan was very different from when ABC's Bob Woodruff sustained a traumatic head wound while on assignment in Iraq in January 2006. The reporter had become the story. But while Mr. Woodruff was cast as an intrepid anchorman, Ms. Logan, according to observers, should have known better than to have immersed herself in a crowd of volatile men.

"When someone gets shot in the field," said Judith Matloff, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, who has written about sexual assault on female journalists, "there are public tributes. But when it is sexual, it is such an intimate thing that you can't extend sympathy in the same way."

Not only that, she said, but the Internet comments about Ms. Logan, before they were taken down, were "inhuman and salacious."

Lara Logan, a 39-year-old beauty from South Africa, credits her rise to the top of CBS' war coverage to her unquenchable desire to be at the center of the news. As a result of both her beauty and her ambition, she seems to arouse a toxic combination of envy and lasciviousness in her rivals.

Commentator Nir Rosen, for example, Tweeted that he was "rolling his eyes at the attention she will get" and that what happened to Ms. Logan "happened to quite a few women, foreign and Egyptian" in the square that day and that she was trying to "outdo Anderson" Cooper, the CNN anchor who reported that he'd been roughed up by an Egyptian mob. (Mr. Rosen resigned from the New York University Center for Law and Security as a result of the uproar his Tweets caused.)

Mr. Woodruff's good looks and the nature of his climb to the anchor desk at ABC were not part of the reporting after his injury — like Ms. Logan's assault — made him news. He was just a newsman whose jeep ran over a roadside bomb. By contrast, some have wondered: Did Ms. Logan's blonde mane invite trouble?

Ms. Logan was the subject of tabloid gossip for supposedly breaking up a marriage and causing fisticuffs between two suitors, and she has complained about the unprofessional nature of that coverage.

Interestingly, it was female editors at Slate.com who were discussing whether Ms. Logan looked more like Nicole Kidman or Naomi Watts, raising the question of who would play her in the movie version of this story. Would we be having this conversation if she looked like Helen Thomas?

Ms. Logan has been asked repeatedly by interviewers about leaving two young children behind in order to cover war zones, and she has been candid about the irreconcilable conflict her work presents to her motherhood. But I don't recall anyone asking Mr. Woodruff what business he had riding the deadly roads of Iraq when he had a wife and four children at home. Instead, much was made of the support of his loving family during his recuperation.

Mr. Woodruff's head wounds and his recovery became the subject of his eventual reporting and of a foundation he began, and he is heralded as one of the reasons why soldiers with head wounds now receive better care and treatment.

Ms. Logan has told friends that she intends to return to work and not let this "destroy her." It is possible she will demonstrate her professional toughness by frankly sharing what happened to her.

But it will be difficult for her to report on the progress of other women journalists who have been raped or sexually assaulted because a study by Ms. Matloff says they frequently don't report it out of fear their assignments will be curtailed and their careers stunted.

And finally, ABC immediately aired audio of reporter Miguel Marquez being beaten by protesters in Bahrain, but it took CBS five days to report on what happened to Ms. Logan. What was the reason for the delay? Was it some vestigial concern about identifying victims of sexual assault?

Of course, much is still unclear about this story. Are we talking about the use of sexual violence to intimidate women journalists? Or are we talking about a woman who was caught up by a mob the way she might have been caught in the wheels of a chariot?

And, as I asked that long ago AP supervisor, can you explain the difference? And should a woman reporter be allowed to choose between them?

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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