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The ’60 Minutes’ as-Sisi Interview as Media Event

January 29, 2019

untitled design(1)“What was he thinking?” is the question people keep asking about General as-Sisi’s Jan. 6 interview on 60 Minutes.

It was interesting to watch the interview, which was heavily edited and used strong anti-regime voices to contextualize as-Sisi’s comments, but even more interesting to look at how the metadiscourses generated by the interview turned it into a media event.

The term “media event” is most commonly used as a synonym for Daniel Boorstin’s “pseudo-event” an event or activity conducted for the purpose of media publicity, that is, something that wouldn’t really be an event if the media were not present. I prefer to use Boorstin’s term and to reserve media event for news stories that become events by virtue of their mediated impact.

In the largest sense, of course, all news stories are communicative acts in which someone says something to someone through some medium with some effect, and these communicative acts take place within communicative events–recognition of which is the basis of the ethnography of communication. But communicative acts and events are governed by sets of norms and genre rules that give them a sense of standardization and regularity. For a news story, one of these norms is that news is a flow of information about something. News is usually understood as a channel through which information flows, rather than an event in itself.

Except when the publication of the information itself becomes news, becomes something that must itself be reported. This can happen because an investigative story explodes into the mediascape and into public discourse, becoming the basis for other news stories, rebuttals, investigations, dinner conversations, web page trolling, memes, and so forth.

But it isn’t always serendipitous. Media producers often actively seek to create conditions for stories break out into the public sphere.

So in using media event to refer to the as-Sisi interview, I am writing about how the news interview, itself a performance with specific genre characteristics, became itself the basis of news stories and commentaries, before fading into relative obscurity as most media events eventually do. In this sense, the news interview with as-Sisi became a media event as it became reframed by 60 Minutes, CBS News and others as “the story Egypt didn’t want you to see”, and as its real or purported effect in the world becomes a story in itself.

There are multiple overlapping levels of mediated political performances taking place here. As a heuristic, I’ll identify four:

  1. The 60 Minutes interview itself
  2. CBS’s account of the attempted spiking of the story
  3. Mediated commentaries on both the above, and
  4. Mediated commentaries and analysis of all the above

1. The Interview

The prerecorded interview was conducted at the Palace Hotel in New York at some point in September 2018 when as-Sisi was attending the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly. CBS correspondent Scott Pelley was the interviewer.

According to producer Rachel Morehouse, 60 Minutes persuaded as-Sisi to do the interview by telling him that this is the show major players on the world stage appear. The Egyptians wanted the questions in advance but were told they could not have them, she said.

The interview itself seems to have been brief because the 60 Minutes episode lasted less than 14 minutes, and half of it consists of commentary by Andrew Miller, former director for Egypt and Israel Military Issues on President Obama’s National Security Council (now a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), and Mohamed Solatan, Egyptian-American Human Rights Advocate imprisoned for 21 months 2003-2005, and former Parliamentarian and Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Abdul Mawgoud Dardery.

Most of what as-Sisi said was utterly predictable: Egypt has no political prisoners and supports freedom of speech. It is fighting a war against a small number of violent Islamic extremists who threaten national stability.

“Mr. President, the organization Human Rights Watch says that there are 60,000 political prisoners that you’re holding today as we sit here,” said Pelley.

“I don’t know where they got that figure. I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt. Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology, we have to intervene, regardless of their numbers,” Sisi said

But as many people have noted, the paralanguage was more interesting than the verbal discourse. As-Sisi was visibly uncomfortable, apparently not expecting the kinds of questions he received. The very first question was whether he knew how many political prisoners he was holding. Then he was asked whether he was, as his opponents claim, a military dictator.

Pelley acknowledged that his purpose was to ask questions no one in Egypt would be able to ask the President.

2. The Spike Story

On as-Sisi’s return to Egypt last Fall after the interview, Egypt’s State Information Service released a statement saying,

“During the interview, the president reviewed the Egyptian vision on various regional and international issues as well as counter-terrorism efforts and the economic reform adopted by the Egyptian state.”

According to CBS, the Egyptian embassy requested that the interview not be aired within hours of the interview. This handed 60 Minutes a lovely tag through which to advertise the piece as “The interview Egypt’s government doesn’t want you to see” As part of this infotainment, CBS News did a segment interviewing Pelley and Morehouse and turning it into a five and a half minute segment on “How Egypt tried to kill a 60 minutes interview.”

The attempted spike was reported by everybody from the New York Times to Al-Jazeera to the Daily Mail, ensuring a much larger viewing audience than the story might otherwise have captured.

Given the three months that elapsed between taping and airing the segment, one wonders whether the spike request influenced the choices made at 60 Minutes to locate three articulate anti–as-Sisi voices so as to play up the contrasts between his discourse and theirs, and give it a sense of the interview being more damning than it actually is.

In Egypt the program was not aired, not did any major media outlets report on it. According to Mada Masr,

“two separate media sources within the intelligence-controlled Egyptian Media Group (EMG) say that they have received explicit orders from the presidency’s media office to refrain from covering President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes program on any TV channels, websites or newspapers owned by the media conglomerate. …A source from D Media, another media company owned by Egypt’s General Intelligence Services (GIS), also confirms that similar instructions have been issued to its subsidiary network, DMC.”

3. Discussing As-Sisi’s interview

The interview has been the subject of considerable discussion in the Middle East. Two major themes emerged. The first focuses on the lack of media savvy on the part of President as-Sisi and his handlers. The second discusses the structure of the 60 Minutes narrative as reducing Egypt’s politics to a dichotomy between the authoritarian regime on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.

No one should blame him for trying to kill the piece, opined Mohammed Krishan in an op-ed in the Qatari-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi daily newspaper. He argues that as-Sisi was puffed up with “false” self-confidence derived from all the yes-men around him saying “Everything is fine, ya rayiss….”  Krishan expresses incredulousness that as-Sisi’s media advisors didn’t do their homework on 60 Minutes and let the president on TV without extensive training and practice…or at all.

What correspondent Scott Pelley and Producer Rachael Morehouse revealed showed that the president and his team had no clue what the famous show was about, or the nature of the interviews it conducted, which are usually challenging and embarrassing.

But as Shahira Amin reports in a story in Al-Monitor, while as-Sisi’s opponents were pleased to see the President discomfited by hard questions about human rights abuses and cooperation with Israel, many saw the interview as endorsing a 2-sided narrative, the regime versus the Muslim Brotherhood. The existence of a vast network of pro-democratic activists who would prefer neither a military authoritarian government nor a Muslim brotherhood government, is almost entirely ignored by 60 Minutes.

In so doing, 60 Minutes seems to damn President as-Sisi, without undermining the capacity of Islamophobes to continue to say, “See? We need dictators to keep things under control.” This feeds into the classic “faults on both sides” mode of sidestepping real political issues by obscuring the fact that there aren’t just two sides. This process of dichotomizing complex issues is a classic problem in US journalism.

4. Assessing the Media Story

One of the things the media does in the contemporary world is to comment on its own institutions and the effects they have in the world. At this metapragmatic level, the effects on the world at large by news discourse is described, usually in ways consonant with pre-existing ideologies.

One of the most interesting was the framing of the 60 Minutes report by (usually Donald Trump-affiliated) American political actors who support as-Sisi as “fake news” and as a “hatchet-job” on as-Sisi.

For example, Donald Trump’s tweet about the opening of the Nativity Cathedral in the new administrative capital as-Sisi is building was cited approvingly by Mike Evan in his Jerusalem Post op-ed Jan. 9. A founder of the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem and member of Trump’s Evangelical Faith Initiative, he argued that the interview “was a full-court press by the liberal Left media”

Trump has referred to CBS as “fake news” and an enemy of the people. There is no doubt that what the network has done to Sisi is, indeed, fake news. Nor is there any doubt in my mind that no other world leader has more effectively won the ideological war against radical Islam. …What was the motivation for the one-sided 60 Minutes interview? It is obvious that the only incentive was to slander the president of Egypt.

Evan likened the interview to the CBS interview with the Shah of Iran back in 1962 which, in Evan’s paradigm, led directly to the Iranian revolution, the fall of Afghanistan and ultimately the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York.

Conclusion

The 60 Minutes interview is a classic example of news story that becomes a media event. A relatively lackluster interview, in which the only thing controversial said would not be so to the intended audience, is reframed as an event by the embassies request not to air it. The reframing of the story as “the interview Egypt doesn’t want you to hear” leads to greater scrutiny of the interview and its contexts. Ultimately, it leads to discussion of whether the story, as an event in the world, had any significant effects in that world.

References

Amin, Shahira. 2019. The real reason Egypt tried to quash Sisi’s ’60 Minutes’ interview. Al-Monitor, January 10.

Boostin, Daniel J. 1961. The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Vintage.

Evans, Mike. 2019. Egyptian president El Sisi and CBSJerusalem Post January 9. Accessed January 10.

Krishan, Mohammed. 2019. “Es-Sisi and the need for training on how to do interviews.” Al-Quds al-Arabi, January 9. Accessed Jan. 10, 2018. In Arabic.

 

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