As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Thomas Lippman discusses his time in Egypt during President Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Israel in 1977. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.
What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.
I was the Washington Post correspondent in Cairo when President Sadat changed the entire game in the Middle East with his trip to Jerusalem. Most of the regional press corps, including myself, were in Tunis, at a meeting of the PLO, when word came that Sadat really meant it. Most of us jumped on a Tunis Air flight to Damascus to be there when Sadat officially broke the news to Hafez Assad. Then everyone but me headed for Jerusalem. I didn’t want to do that; I figured Jerusalem would be a mob scene in which everyone would be reporting the same story. I wanted to know what would happen in Egypt, so I went back to Cairo. I was one of the half dozen people at the helicopter pad in Ismailia when Sadat essentially sneaked out of Egypt for fear of mob action against what he was doing. I watched in amazement as the country was 100 percent calm while watching the big speech on TV. And I was almost alone in witnessing Sadat’s ecstatic welcome home. He rode miles through the crowded streets, at night, in an open car, while Egyptians cheered. It was a dramatic test of Egyptian and Arab sentiment, and exhilarating to watch and report.
Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind that you believe has had a significant impact? This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.
Another story of which I was very proud, and which was very difficult to do professionally and emotionally, ran on the front page of the Post on January 2, 1994. This was the headline:
"POW Pilots Left in Laos, Files Suggest; Evidence Emerging that Officials Knew Locations of Prisons"
This was a sensational story because the question of whether some Americans were still captive in Indochina for years after all were supposedly released under the Paris agreement was politically volatile and emotionally charged. An entire sub-culture of Americans, financed in part by Ross Perot and deceived by opportunists who made money out of this story, was flourishing around the country and creating hope among women who had been widows for years. I spent a year on this, anchoring my reporting in the work of a special Senate investigating committee and traveling to the region with members, including John Kerry and Tom Daschle. John McCain, who had been a prisoner himself, was on that committee.
In the end the committee was able to demonstrate that the only US military personnel left behind in Vietnam itself were defectors such as Bobby Garwood and few guys who went native and didn’t want to be found. Laos was another matter.
I was able to unearth telling evidence that the Pathet Lao, who never considered themselves bound by the Paris agreement, continued to hold a few pilots after the war-and that the Pentagon and CIA knew it. In fact, it was probable that Henry Kissinger knew it at the time, but chose not to sacrifice the whole Vietnam peace deal over this issue.
That story was deeply gratifying and, I thought, a public service.