Freelance CNN correspondent and go-to man when it comes to reporting on the ground, Ian Lee has become quite the celebrity in Egypt. In an exclusive interview, we talk to the man behind the mic about poignant and pointless things in equal measure...
Days before the revolution, Ian Lee – formerly of Daily News Egypt – got a phone call that was to change his career. Asked to cover a story for CNN, the Wyoming-born journalist found himself in front of a camera, with millions of people hanging on his every word. When the revolution took off, he became CNN's – and Twitter’s – go-to man for everything that was happening on the ground in Egypt, then Libya where he was injured in an explosion. In this CairoScene exclusive, we talk to Lee about Hanson, racy tweets and his signature look. Why? Because, as usual, we missed the point.
What’s the difference between you and Jack Shenker?
Jack Shenker is a print journalist and I am a TV journalist. He’s also British and I’m American, so I guess that’s another big difference.
How did you get into journalism and what interested you about it in the first place?
I started journalism in high school and what really interested me was telling different stories and learning different things and about different places. For instance, I could do a story about a factory and learn how they make rubberised asphalt and then the next week I could do a story about how they make wine. I could learn so many different things and see how different people live. Here, I’ve done a wide range of stories from cultural, colour pieces to some really heartbreaking exposés.
What is the most heartbreaking story you’ve found in Egypt?
I worked on a documentary in Sinai called Death in the Desert, and I shot a lot of that video. You’re seeing these people who are trying to go to Israel for a better life and, in this case, they were getting their organs harvested. So saw the bodies that they discarded... Walking into the morgue in Arish, the smell itself, when it hits you, your first instinct is to just throw up. They didn’t have a working refrigerating unit, so all the bodies were put in there, rotting. That was a tough story but it also was a good story in the sense that, through the recording, it kind if brought light to this issue, and a lot of international organisations and news agencies started highlighting it. So, while it was one of the most heartbreaking stories, it was also one of the most satisfying because it had a really good outcome.
Do you have to desensitise yourself to this kind of thing?
I think you do. Each journalist has their own wall. I’ve recorded in Libya and here during the height of the revolution, so you see a lot of different things and if you let it get to you it can really drive you mad. I’ve seen journalists who have serious PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). For me, I have my own way of coping with what I see.
What’s the hardest situation you’ve found yourself in as a journalist?
I’ve lived in Egypt for five years now and I have a lot of Egyptian friends who are passionate about what’s going on and, for me, it’s important as a journalist to be neutral and not to be an “activist journalist.” That’s probably one of the hardest things because I am caught up in it; I live here. I lived on Mohammed Mahmoud Street for two years during the revolution. My balcony overlooked everything; protestors on the right and police on the left. It was no man’s land.
You talk about all these heartbreaking stories, but as you cover them, technically, your career excels. Does any part of you waking up wishing there’s a Tsunami today so you can report it?
Maybe a younger Ian would’ve thought something like that. But now definitely not, because now I’m intimately involved in these stories, I’ve seen the pain and the terror and I’ve felt it, so I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.
So how did you get the CNN gig?
I was at Daily News Egypt when the church bombing happened in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve. Ben (Wedemen) and Mary (Rogers) were going to Sudan to cover a referendum and they needed someone here, so I got a call. I was overwhelmed! CNN calls you and asks you to come from the Daily News… Of course I said yes! That was in January 2011, and the rest is history.
What was the most ridiculous story you had to do?
During the revolution I couldn’t win. I was always a spy for the other side. When I was in Suez they were like, “You’re with Mubarak! You’re a spy for Mubarak!” And then when you go to the pro-Mubarak group they’re like “Oh ,you’re a spy for the American opposition!” I just couldn’t win. That was the most absurd thing.
Have you ever made a stupid mistake on air and laughed?
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed on air, but I definitely made mistakes. You have these lights shining right in your face, as bright as the sun, so sometimes you space out. Especially in the beginning, I would get really nervous. And if I was doing something for CNN Domestic I’d be extra nervous because I knew that Jon Stewart’s team was watching and that if I really screwed up I’d be on their show. They monitor the news and they’ve used two of my clips before, so I know that they’re watching!
As a journalist, when something terrible is happening in front of you, where’s the line between filming and reporting it or getting in there and helping the person?
Personally, if my direct action can save a life then I put down the camera and help. For instance, if someone’s getting beaten up, if I put myself in the situation, I would make it worse. Here they would be like, “Why is this person in this situation? What has he got to benefit?” So I usually get out of there because I know the situation is dangerous. If there was a bombing and I saw people who are hurt on the ground and my actions can help them and save their lives, yeah of course, you stop! You put the camera on the ground and you keep it rolling, but you can help people.
We once covered a story in Egypt about a man who was fighting a lion with his bare hands to kill him for the sake of tourism/protesting against Israel. Have you covered any stories about a man fighting animals ?
I covered that story, too! It was in Marsa Matrouh and I interviewed him while he was looking for his lion. Actually, while we were filming him, the lion sprayed us! I thought that was hilarious, like the lion was taunting us.
Does your mum watch you, and when she does, does she give you feedback?
Yeah, she does watch. She calls people and is like, “Ian’s gonna be on TV!” It’s nice. She’s supportive, so she’ll just say “Good job, I really likes your piece,” but she worries all the time. My parents expect a phone call in the middle of the night saying that something happened…
Something did happen, didn’t it?
I was in Libya, and this is one of those situations where I called my parents in the middle of the night. We were going into Sirte with the rebels on the third day of the battle. We were with a convoy trying to go in and rescue people inside the city. It turned out it was an ambush and an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) exploded about 10 metres away from me. It killed an ambulance driver and shrapnel hit my leg. Luckily, we had a really good team. Especially our fixer. The unsung heroes of any news team are the fixers. This guy, in a hail of bullets, goes up while we’re talking cover, turns our truck around and waits for us to get out from behind a fortified dirt mount to get into the truck and drive us away. All along, bullets and RPGs are whizzing around him and he drives us out of there. I was taken to a field hospital and all I could think about is my parents hearing about this on the news, so I called them and I’m like, “Hey guys, how are you?” And they’re like, “Oh good, but it’s the middle of the night… Is something wrong?” So I said, “Well, I’m going to keep all my limbs…” I went to a proper hospital in Tripoli where a doctor X-rayed my leg and he’s said that I’d been hit twice, even though I could see my wound, and knew I wasn’t. I turned out he was pointing at the same piece of shrapnel on two different X-rays! Thank god this guy didn’t operate on me!
So you’re pretty big on Twitter. We have to ask: when it came to Morsi Vs. Shafik, a lot of educated activists and journalists were encouraging people to vote for Morsi when they really should have known better. What did you think about that?
Well, honestly, I think for a lot of the revolutionaries, it was really looking for the lesser of two evils. I know a lot of them were hoping that someone inspiring would come out and win it, especially since the polls were saying it was going to be between Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. But that’s democracy. There’s been lots of times back home when I’ve had to vote for the lesser of two evils.
You keep saying word revolutionaries. What’s a revolutionary?
You know what? I have three tiers of respect – the first is for the people who have been out on the streets for years before January 25th, the second is for the ones who were there on January 25th and the third is for the people who are really still working on achieving the goals. Those are the revolutionaries, not the people who were just hanging in Tahrir, waving a flag. It’s the people who put themselves on the line that I respect, personally, because that takes strong character.
On a lighter note, how long does it take you choose what to wear on air?
I used to actually try to vary it, because if I have a demo reel, I don’t want to be wearing the same thing for years. But then if you look at journalists and watch what they wear, you’ll notice it’s usually the same stuff.
Don’t you want to have a signature thing?
Oh yeah, everyone has their signature. You will see me a lot in blue, collared shirts.
What’s your big dream?
I wouldn’t mind getting into politics one day. Back in the States obviously. I don’t have any political aspirations for myself in Egypt!
If you could have any other job right now, what would it be?
I was thinking about this the other day, actually. I think it would be fun to be a brewmaster.
What is that? Is that from Harry Potter?
No, it’s someone who makes beer! I was thinking it would be a fun job because it’s pretty relaxing and there’s this company called the New Belgium Brewing company in Colorado that treats its employees amazingly…
You’ve researched this?
No, I know because I grew up in Wyoming. You just get to make different beers…
And get drunk…
You have fun.
When you were growing up in Wyoming, did you ever think you would end up in here and being a journalist?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I had a passion for travel. I come from a really small town in a very sparsely populated state, so I enjoyed travelling as much as I could.
So when you go back, are you treated like a celebrity?
Look, I get a lot of people wondering why am over here and granted, working for CNN, it does put me out there. So people don’t treat me like a celebrity as much as they’re very curious. They’re like, “Why do you do this? Why are you in the region?” and I have to tell them that I just witnessed a revolution in Egypt and I witnessed the civil war/revolution, whatever you want call it, in Libya. That’s history in the making. Not many people get to actually witness history and be a part of it so that’s pretty cool.
Do you ever get prepositioned on Twitter?
Yeah, I get a few racy tweets.
What’s the funniest, craziest or weirdest one you’ve got in ?
This person once sent me a message saying: “You are by far the best looking person on CNN.” Which was nice,but it got kind of creepy because they were like, “Here’s my email, we should talk.” I took a pass on that.
Why would you pass on that ? Was it a guy?
Hahaha, yes, it was a guy. I’m kind of fed up with Twitter right now. I like watching it, but not participating. It’s really annoying especially when I see all these people calling for others to go to Tahrir or a march, and I get there and none of them are there. I have no respect for these couch protestors who are tweeting all the time and never actually a part of it. There are a few people whose opinions I don’t agree with at all, but at least they get out on the streets, practicing what they preach.
Who is the most annoying person on Twitter?
Hahaha, I’ll tell you off the record. (He told us. We agreed.)
Who was your favourite member of Hanson?
I was caught up in that when I was little, actually. I would have to say the drummer (Zac Hanson) because he was supposedly my age and he’s a drummer.
How did you feel about Justin Bieber’s recent antics? My god, the boy has gone mad…
I have to tell you that the beauty of living in Egypt is a lot of this crap doesn’t get to me. Like this Honey Boo Boo thing. I’ve heard of it but I don’t know what it is and I’m so happy.
Well, how about this Ian: There is a lot of fuss right now about Kim Kardashian’s choice of maternity wear. How do you feel about that?
I mean I haven’t followed this story but I would say I would hope that she’s wearing whatever’s best for the baby.
If you and Ben Wedeman were a celebrity couple, what would you be called?
I’m really hoping my career never reaches that point.
What’s the difference between you and Lara Logan? Is she even on CNN?
No. she’s on CBS…
So that’s the only difference? Have you ever been sexually molested in Tahrir?
I’ve been in Tahrir a lot so am trying to think… I have not, but I have been in Egypt.
No way! Where?
It was on the Metro. It was packed and someone grabbed my butt. I was like, well, hello!
Have you ever sexually harassed a woman in Tahrir?
Never. I’ll tell you this: one thing that I have become while being here and seeing the women’s issues is quite the feminist. Where I grew up, these weren’t the issues on the forefront of political discussion so it wasn’t something I really thought about. But here, the sexual harassment is appalling, so I enjoy doing stories on it to expose the issue. A lot of people are like, “Oh, you’re destroying the image of the country,” but unless you’re confronting these issues, nothing is going to change. You have to have a bit of humility, otherwise Egypt won’t grow as a country.