Richard Engel: NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent | Talks at Google

Richard Engel: NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent | Talks at Google

STACIE CHAN: Welcome, everyone,
to another Media Talks at Google. My name is Stacie Chan. And I’m with the
Google news team. And the team and I
are so incredibly excited to have Richard Engel
here in the Mountain View office. I know. I see, like, silent claps
already in the audience. That’s so great. [APPLAUSE] Well, we’ll save– OK, we’ll do
the big round of applause now. I’m so excited to
have him here– RICHARD ENGEL: It’s
great to be here. STACIE CHAN: –as the next
speaker in our Media Talks at Google series. And we’re really looking forward
to hearing Richard’s insights into the ever-changing
media industry, especially as newsrooms
are figuring out their own digital revolutions
at their own pace, we’ll say. And it was really fortuitous
that we got Richard here. I don’t know if any of you were
able to see his commencement speech at Stanford
University yesterday. But he was just
there, across the way. And we reached out
to him and said, could you actually
extend your trip to the Bay Area for just a
day and come speak at Google? And he graciously said yes. So we were able to get him here
at the Mountain View campus. RICHARD ENGEL: Oh,
it’s not a bad place to spend an extra day. STACIE CHAN: Yeah. RICHARD ENGEL: You know
where I normally live. STACIE CHAN: It’s not as hectic. RICHARD ENGEL: Certainly not. STACIE CHAN: People
biking around campus. RICHARD ENGEL:
Yeah, that’s great. STACIE CHAN: And you might
have to watch out for them. But otherwise, pretty
safe here, I guess. As always, we’re going to
have plenty of time for Q&A at the end. So we’re passing around a mic. Everyone watching over the
live stream, we have a Dory. Go/richardengel, spelling
E-N-G-E-L. Richard, I sort of explained– RICHARD ENGEL: These are the– STACIE CHAN: These are the
internal questions asked by– RICHARD ENGEL: –people
who are online now, watching internally. STACIE CHAN: Yes, they’re
watching at their desks in different time zones. Richard is looking
forward to your questions. So ask some good ones. He’s a journalist, so he’s used
asking the questions to you. Now we get to turn
the tables on him. So that should be fun. RICHARD ENGEL: Thanks a lot. STACIE CHAN: Nothing
you can’t handle. I think you’ve been in other
precarious situations far worse than this. So I’ll start off
with a brief bio, and then we’ll just get
started into questions. So Richard Engel is NBC News’
chief foreign correspondent. He’s held that
position since 2008. But Richard is a
lifelong journalist. Since graduating
Stanford in 1996, he intrepidly decided
to leave to Cairo and become a journalist
in the Middle East. Since then, covered wars,
conflicts, disasters, revolutions for nearly 20
years all over the world in some of the most remote
countries, probably some that I have never even heard of. In 2003, he went to
Iraq to cover the war. And he was the only
American television corresponded to be
stationed in Iraq for the entirety of the war. So pretty much the leading
expert on all things Iraq and the Middle East. Then joined NBC news in 2003. Became the Middle East
correspondent, then the Beirut bureau chief, and
then now into his role as the chief foreign
correspondent. RICHARD ENGEL: She’s
memorized all of this. STACIE CHAN: He’s a
fascinating person. RICHARD ENGEL: She hasn’t
looked down once, by the way. I was just saying. STACIE CHAN: This
kind of experience– RICHARD ENGEL: I don’t
remember my resume that well. STACIE CHAN: –is
really easy to recap. I could always be your PR person
if Google doesn’t work out. RICHARD ENGEL: If this little
company doesn’t work out, if it folds tomorrow, I
think we can talk about it. But I don’t think it will. STACIE CHAN: And I know
someone in the audience wanted to talk
about Richard’s time covering the Syrian
civil war when many of us remember in December, 2012,
anxiously watching the news reports of his kidnapping when
he and his five crew members? RICHARD ENGEL: There
were six of us in total. But that’s right. STACIE CHAN: So I’ll definitely
ask some questions about that. RICHARD ENGEL:
We’ll get into it. We’ll get into it. STACIE CHAN: But thankfully,
as you can see, he and his crew escaped and made it out alive. So very glad he’s
here today with us. And then most recently, you’ve
got a documentary coming out about Nepal, the
devastating earthquake that happened just last month–
two months ago now– April 25, killing 9,000 people,
injuring countless others. That documentary is airing–
remind me of the date? MALE SPEAKER: June 28. RICHARD ENGEL: June 28. STACIE CHAN: June 28. RICHARD ENGEL: No, actually
since she brought it up, it’s– STACIE CHAN: Sure,
we can start there.f RICHARD ENGEL:
When we went there, I think we arrived about 15 or
16 hours after the earthquake had struck. And we happened to be
in Istanbul, Turkey. And not many places
were flying to Nepal. And there was a flight
leaving from Istanbul that was originally
canceled, and then the flight got taken over by
Turkish aid workers. And we managed to
get on that flight. So it was just us and
Turkish aid workers and a few other journalists
and the rescue dogs. And we got on the flight. And I wasn’t sure if it was
going to take off at all. And we got there. And it did. And it landed in Kathmandu. And the earth was still
rolling with aftershocks. When we got into the landing
arrival hall and an aftershock hit. And everybody clears
out because we thought the building was
going to come down, including the customs officials–
including the customs official who had my passport. I was like, wait! And then I’m in a dilemma. I was like, do I
enter the country? It’s like, imagine you arrived
at JFK and everyone leaves. And you’re standing there,
and they have your passport. Do you go in? So I waited ’til
the guy came back. I was like, (WHISPERING)
can I have my passport back? So he stamped me in
because I figured I’d have trouble leaving,
which I would have had trouble. And we stayed in Kathmandu
and the surrounding area for the first
week or so, reporting on the earthquake and the
buildings that went down and the temples
that were destroyed and the reactions
people were having to that, how everyone
kind of moved outside. It was a really
strange phenomenon that I hadn’t expected,
that everyone just suddenly went to live in the
parks and was calm about it. There was no looting. There was no
violence that I saw. People were not hostile. They were incredibly
kind and receptive to us. And they just were
taking it as it came. Again, like New York City,
imagine everyone moves into Central Park all at
once and is living there for a while. And there’s no fighting. STACIE CHAN: That
would be incredible. RICHARD ENGEL: And all
the buildings are empty. And everyone’s just sort of
chilling out in Central Park without anyone
telling them to do this– no public announcements,
go to Central Park. They just did it. STACIE CHAN: So you don’t
have to worry about– RICHARD ENGEL: I’m almost done. And then we went up to
Mount Everest base camp because the earthquake triggered
an avalanche that devastated the central part of base camp. There’s a base camp at about,
almost 18,000 feet– 17,598 feet. STACIE CHAN: High. Very high. RICHARD ENGEL: High. And this base camp is where
the climbers go and congregate, and then attempt to make
the ascent on Everest. Or sometimes trekkers will
just go there and visit it. And I know Google had a
terrible experience up there. And I’m very sorry. STACIE CHAN: Thank you. RICHARD ENGEL: So we
wanted to go and see what was going on there. And we got to the
Everest base camp, saw the devastation there,
and we’re doing a documentary that I think because of
your terrible experience might be very interesting
to a lot of people at this company about what
happened at Everest base camp told through a
group of survivors. STACIE CHAN: Absolutely. Well, thank you. Yeah, we’ll definitely
keep an eye out for that documentary
airing sometime this month. RICHARD ENGEL: 28th. STACIE CHAN: The 28th. OK, we’ve got it on schedule. So you said that when you land
in a place like Kathmandu, the ground is still rolling. With such unpredictable
factors like Mother Nature, how do you ensure yours
and your crew’s safety when you go into some of these
very dangerous situations? RICHARD ENGEL: I
actually don’t cover that many natural disasters. This was an unusual thing. Mostly I cover
man-made disasters. STACIE CHAN: Which are,
arguably, even more dangerous. RICHARD ENGEL: Yeah, which I
think are much more dangerous. I mean, in a natural
disaster, OK, you’re in a building and it
either falls on top of you or it doesn’t. That’s pretty easy. And then in a
natural disaster, you have to deal with the
hostility of the people. Are they angry? Are they going to be looting? Is there going to be theft? That’s relatively
straightforward. Most of the time,
however, in a war zone, it’s much more
complicated because you’re dealing with rebel groups. You’re dealing with
government troops. You’re dealing with guns. You’re dealing with
possible kidnappers. You’re dealing with
possibly soldiers who are rebels, who are drunk, who
don’t know what they’re doing, who have a grievance against
you or have a perceived grievance because you
don’t know necessarily what’s in their mind. A friend of mine,
a colleague, said the most frightening thing
he ever saw in his life was pulling up to a checkpoint–
I think it was in Somalia– and there was a 14-year-old
boy with a blond wig on holding an AK 47. Because that’s person who
controls whether you’re going to live or die. So it’s not the same
as an earthquake. You’re dealing with someone
who’s– god only knows what brought them to
that moment in time. STACIE CHAN: And you’re dealing
with some of these people, like you say, who are
in control of your fate. And you cover these incredibly
dangerous situations, all these conflicts. What draws you to
places like these? Is there something
inherent about war conflict that you say, that’s
just so inherently interesting? RICHARD ENGEL: I
spoke about this at the commencement
yesterday, which was such an incredible honor. I’m still tingling. STACIE CHAN: That’s
my follow-up question. RICHARD ENGEL: I was
amazed and humbled to be asked, and shocked. I just got an email one day and
said, would you [INAUDIBLE]? I was like, are you serious? Yes. Yes. I didn’t actually ask
if you were serious. I just said, yes. And then I asked, I was like,
(WHISPERING) are they serious? But as I said yesterday,
the reason I go to war zones is not because I like them. It’s not because I like war. I don’t like the violence. I don’t like the spectacle
of groups getting together and trying to kill each other. I hate it. And I hate it more and
more as time goes on and the more conflicts I cover. But I go there because
I think it’s revealing. And think of an atom smasher. You smash two things together
because when they break apart you could understand something
about their components, maybe even something universal. And I like to think of
war as like a collision. You think of a car crash. Two cars smash into each
other on an intersection. And in that tiny
split second– it’s a horrible moment– you see
everything, the whole range of the human experience. You see maybe someone is dead. Somebody else is alive, injured. Is the society still working? Is an ambulance coming? Maybe it’s not coming. Who was that person? Did he have a fight,
the dead person? Was he was a man? Did he have a fight with
his wife that morning? Everything is
encapsulated right there. Is someone rushing in to help? A policeman or a bystander? Is somebody else pushing,
rushing away to escape? In that tiny split second,
you see the whole range of the human experience. Now imagine a war where you have
two countries or two religions or two ethnic groups
smashing into each other. It’s that car accident magnified
by a thousand or by a million. And it’s very revealing. You understand a lot
about how societies work, how they don’t work,
what happens when people are pressed, the
cowardice, the courage, the degree of
sophistication of a society or the degree of its barbarity. It’s all right there. So that’s why I go to war. Because it’s revealing. But it’s revealing
in a tragic way. STACIE CHAN: What are
some of the biggest revelations you’ve
seen in covering all these different conflicts? RICHARD ENGEL: I would say that
it takes courage to be good. It takes courage to be kind. It’s easy to be mean. It’s easy to be cynical and
to take advantage of people when they’re down. It’s easy to exploit through
misogyny or through ageism or whatever it happens to be. It’s easy to exploit those
that a particular culture– or racist– that a particular
culture has marginalized. And it takes courage
and confidence to do something brave,
to help someone out. And when I see it– and I see
it a lot– I’m always uplifted. But unfortunately, it is those
who take a stand to be good. And I, unfortunately,
think that the opposite is the path of least resistance. So that’s something that’s
been a little bit depressing. But I’m always encouraged when I
see people who are brave enough to put themselves at risk
to take in a refugee family or to hide people, like in
World War II hiding Jews in their homes, or
taking in someone from a different ethnic
or religious group now in the current conflict. So that’s always
encouraging to see. STACIE CHAN: And in your
role as a journalist, do you feel it’s your job to
be magnifying those uplifting stories or to give the
actual reality of what’s going on in these places? RICHARD ENGEL: Well,
when I see them, I’ll cover them because
I’m excited by them. But like I was saying,
unfortunately, they’re not the norm. Unfortunately, the
norm is usually the path of least
resistance where people are cruel or
negligent or just selfish. That’s unfortunate. So, yes, when I see them, I
love doing stories like that. But I just kind of take
stories as they come. When you arrive in
a place– again, to go back to that
car accident– and everything is smashed
together and thrown up in the air, you just
see what you see. You find someone who’s
got an amazing story. And maybe they’re doing
something wonderful– great. Or you find somebody else and
he’s doing something horrible. OK, you talk about that. And you see a situation–
We were Nepal. And there was an
orphanage that we went to. And the orphanage
didn’t collapse, but the foundation cracked. So everyone had to move outside. And they were all living
under a tarp in back, about 100 children
from– I don’t think they were all, like, 12
and younger, 8 to 12 range. And they were living
under this tarp. And they were playing. And they were making
the best of it. But they were orphans who
were now homeless orphans. And some of them were living
in a Buddhist monastery temporarily next door. So was an interesting microcosm
of– actually, in this case, it was a very uplifting story
because the whole community was helping this– The weakest
members of the society were now homeless
orphans in Nepal. If you can imagine a more
vulnerable– kind of hard to imagine a more vulnerable
community than that. STACIE CHAN: And
so I’m going to tie what you’ve been talking about
to the theme of your Stanford commencement speech, which was
the intersection of technology and geopolitics. So can you elaborate a
little bit more about that since you’re speaking to
a room full of people who work for a technology company? RICHARD ENGEL: Yeah,
absolutely, This is something I’ve been
thinking about a lot recently. And I watched the Arab Spring
movements, the revolutions– which I also include
the Green Revolution in that kind of spectrum. So the Green Revolution
in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, where one revolution
was inspiring the next. And if you go back
to 1989, there was a series– an explosion,
really– of political reform when the Iron Curtain
came crumbling down. And those, in many ways, were
facilitated by television. They were the
television revolutions. You probably read
about them in poly-sci. Clearly, it wasn’t
television that was the cause of the revolution. The cause of the revolution
was the oppression, was the economic suffering. People in Eastern Europe who
were living behind the Iron Curtain simply
weren’t living as well as people in Western Europe. And then on
television, they could see how badly they were living. And they could see how
oppressed they were. And then they could see
the revolutions start. And once you were
in Poland and you watched people going to the
streets in Czechoslovakia, you said, well, why not us? And the revolutions
inspired each other. And then you had a
series of revolutions. I think the Arab Spring
movements were probably the world’s first
internet-based revolutions. Where the same reason–
it wasn’t the internet that caused the revolutions. The revolutions were because
of mismanagement in Egypt, because of police
brutality, because of economic wild disparities
between rich and poor, the tension that was there. But the internet, especially
when it became pocket-sized, became cellphone, which is much
more subversive than television ever was, it allowed
people to communicate, commiserate, plot,
plan, and then to experience the
revolution and share it and share lessons
learned and pass it on. It sort of was a
lubricant for revolutions. And it made them faster. But the question
that I think one needs to consider and
ponder in this experience was, is it a good
thing or a bad thing? Because all those revolutions
happened very quickly and almost in every case led
to chaos and not a good result. In Egypt, you’ve seen a return
of an authoritarian system. In Syria, there’s
chaos and civil war. Libya, there’s
civil war and chaos. Tunisia, probably the
best example, but it’s a very small country and not
necessarily representative of the wider region. So was it too fast? Were the societies ready yet? Or was this lubricant too
slippery and the revolution happened not on its own pace,
but at a digitally enhanced pace? So I think one of the
most interesting things to think about going
forward is this intersection between geopolitics
and technology. And is it necessarily
a good thing? I think, going
forward, it could be. But I think, going
forward, what it’s going to lead to is
much more volatility. And if you take a
city like Cairo, there’s 18 million people
in Cairo right now. It’s big, hard to manage. It’s poor. Infrastructure’s terrible. Education is poor. It’s naturally
explosive because you have so many people who are
often unhappy, living right on top of each other. And now they can all talk
to each other and exchange lessons learned and
commiserate and, in exchange, good things and bad things. So it makes it a little bit
more volatile because of that. Now what happens when there’s
25 million people in Cairo and the air is hard to breathe,
that is, it already is now. And communications technology
are even more advanced. I think it could be
even more volatile. And there will be,
in my postulating ahead, I think you’ll see
sort of rapid revolutions or a tendency toward
rapid revolutions, and a countervailing
tendency for strong men to come in and use the same
kind of technologies to hunt out and hunt down– I should say,
ferret out and hunt down– the revolutionaries. So you’ll have a tendency
for quick uprisings and a tendency for strong men
to come in and squash them. That’s where I think. I could be totally wrong. And I think people in
this room and beyond will have different
opinions on this. And I’d love to hear them. But the idea of where
does technology– as it becomes part of
the– more and more of a factor in big
geopolitical issues, issues of war and peace,
where does it lead us? STACIE CHAN: Well, I was going
to follow up on your question– RICHARD ENGEL: I think it
leads us in that place, but we’ll see. STACIE CHAN: Is
technology a good thing for spurring revolutions,
inciting them from a technology perspective? RICHARD ENGEL: If you’re
a dictatorship, no. But maybe it’s good. And I’m not saying
that– I’m not trying to sound like someone
who says, oh, it’s bad. You’ve got to keep
the people down. No. Absolutely not. Maybe it will ultimately lead
to a better place, the exchange of ideas, the exchange
of information, the exchange of knowledge. Maybe this volatility ultimately
leads to a better place. Or maybe it doesn’t. You know people say, oh,
there’s a rough road ahead, and you have to go
through this rough road to get to a better place. Well, sometimes the journey
kills the patient, too. And it’s really,
I think, unclear. And that’s kind of the
excitement of what I do. I don’t know. I suspect that going
forward– I know Google was involved in Egypt
and you had some Googlers, I should say, who were involved. And the allowing this
sort of exchange of ideas was seen at the time is
an enormously important political objective. And I can understand
that tendency, but look at what
happened in Egypt. We’ll see. We’ll see. Is it a good thing long term? Yes, I think it probably is. How could exchange of
ideas not be a good thing? Of course, it is. But it’s going to lead to
a very rough road ahead of an extreme period
of volatility. And I’m not sure all
the countries out there are going to get through
that road safely. STACIE CHAN: In addition to
the exchange of information and ideas, do you have
specific ideas of how different social media platforms,
different technology products can help facilitate
these good revolutions? RICHARD ENGEL: Well,
it’s not up to me to say it’s a good revolution. I think it makes them faster. I’ve described war as a car
crash between two big things– nation states, religions,
ethnic groups– banged together. Everything’s exposed. I think you can think of
geopolitics a little bit like the plates of the Earth. Tension builds up because
of poor management, police brutality, a
closed political system. You have these tensions building
up, building up in the system. And the more oppressive
the system is, the more the tension builds. And the longer the system
has been oppressing, the higher the tenion
is, like in the Earth. And then a revolution
happens, and it snaps. And I think technology makes
the snap happen faster. So the question is, is
that a good– Does it snap in a way that heels a society? Or does the snap cause the whole
thing to come crashing down. The snap’s going to happen. So maybe you shouldn’t
blame the technology. You should blame the poor
management of the state. But sometimes the slip happens
so fast, that it’s not ready. And the thing comes
crashing down. STACIE CHAN: So before I open
it up to questions in the room, this was actually a
question before we started. Is Richard going to discuss
his time in Syria when he and his crew were kidnapped? So whatever you feel
comfortable with, Richard. RICHARD ENGEL: Sure. No I’d like to. STACIE CHAN: I know he
has a great, actually, first-person editorial
in “Vanity Fair.” So I’m pretty sure he’s
open about talking about it. RICHARD ENGEL: Yeah, sure. STACIE CHAN: But
for the audience, can you share this
experience with us, and how you go back to covering
the war after experiencing such a traumatic event? RICHARD ENGEL: Yeah, absolutely. It was complicated because
we originally thought it was one group that took us. And then we later learned
that it was another group. But it doesn’t
change the sequence. Or it doesn’t radically
change the sequence of events. So we were driving
along in Syria about two and a half years ago. And I was with a team. Some of them are
my closest friends and still are my
closest friends. And we get surrounded by
a group of gunmen– masks, black, hooded, ski masks. And they were screaming at us. And they were all dressed in the
same black unofficial uniforms. And they take us
out of our cars, and they load us into a
container truck that’s parked backwards under the trees. And I see this container
truck under the trees. And I thought, oh, no. We’re going in there. And they’d clearly done
this before they load us into the container truck. They slam the door shut. They have flashlights that
they turn on, duct tape us up. Duct tape over my
mouth and nose, I thought I was going to
suffocate right there. And they hold us for
the next five days. And we thought we were
going to die sometimes right then and there. They told us we
were going to die. And then after the
end of the five days, on the morning of the
sixth, we got out. And we went back into Turkey. And a rebel group escorted
us back across the border into Turkey. And we’re still reporting. And we’re still
very close friends. And we have had–
it’s a wake-up call. I think it’s almost
like surviving some sort of terminal illness. The flowers smell
better the next day. And the food tastes
better the next day. And you’re like, wow, that one
really could have gone badly. I mean, it did go
badly, but it could have gone much, much worse. And unfortunately,
the people who were kidnapped around the same
time or a little bit later, we all saw what
happened to them. You know, James Foley
other journalists who were taken by
ISIS and were really brutalized for several
years before they were savagely butchered. So I consider myself
incredibly lucky, and everyone on my team
to be incredibly lucky. And, yeah, the
food tastes better. And the flowers smell better. STACIE CHAN: I bet. Well, we’re all so grateful that
you made it out alive as well. I have to ask one more
journalistic question. You mentioned that the
kidnappers were not the group, the pro-government
Shiite group that you thought. RICHARD ENGEL: That’s
what they were telling us. And that’s what we thought. So what was the– STACIE CHAN: Well, the
journalistic question was “The New York Times” was
planning to do this big expose and expose who the true
identity of the kidnappers were. They were planning
this big scoop. And then Richard’s team and
the investigation team at NBC actually scooped “The
New York Times”‘s scoop. So how important was
it for you to get the story correct and out there
before any other organization? RICHARD ENGEL: We
thought– I thought that we knew who this group was. We were captured, we thought,
by pro-government militia men. That’s how they were dressing. That’s how they were speaking. That’s what they
were telling us. It seemed very credible to
me and the other people who were on my team. I speak Arabic. And there were three
Arabic speakers there. We were all of the
same impression that that’s who they were. They did an incredible
job convincing us that they were
government militia men. So we got out. And that’s what we thought. There were five people there. We all thought the same thing. We said, good. Not good, but that’s
what we thought. That’s what we said. And then about just
a few months ago, we got this information
from “The New York Times” that the people who we thought
had taken us were actually hiding their identity. It may have been
a different group. So of course, we
started looking into it. I have the most
interest out of anyone in the world to find out
who these people are. So we started reexamining it. And we did what
journalists always do. You look at the facts. You look it over the best way
you could put it together. And it’s much harder to figure
out 2 and 1/2 years later what had happened because– STACIE CHAN: This
is December, 2012. RICHARD ENGEL: Yeah,
so looking into it 2 and 1/2 years later
is obviously much harder because some of the
people are dead. Some of the other
people are missing. People’s– you
have to figure out, have they changed
their story much? Who are they? What are they competing agendas? So it took us a long
time to put it together. And after re-researching it,
we updated the information and said, ah, we actually
learned some new information, that the story was even more
complicated than we thought. And it reveals how in Syria
these days, it’s a jungle. You don’t necessarily
know who’s who, and what the competing agendas
are, and who’s on whose side, and how this conflict has really
deteriorated into something where it’s very hard to
tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. STACIE CHAN: Well, I think
that was an incredible win for journalistic integrity. So we’re glad that you and
your team did that story. RICHARD ENGEL: Look,
we would do it again. If somebody comes to
me and says, look, we have information
that pertains to you, I’m the most interested party
in trying to figure it out. STACIE CHAN: Definitely. I know we had a couple
questions from the audience. Is the mic? AUDIENCE: You somehow got
away from these captors. Did they release you? Did you negotiate? Or was it some type
of they just realized that there wasn’t, I
guess, something positive they could do out
of the situation? RICHARD ENGEL: Again, that
was complicated initially. I think in the end–
let me put it this way. I think in the end, we became
too complicated for them. I think in the end,
they wanted a ransom. But it was not going well. It wasn’t going as
well as they’d planned. So I think they realized
it wasn’t worth it anymore. They could have either
killed us or let us go. And instead, I think
we were– they arranged for us to get out in a way
that they could walk away from it without getting
themselves caught, and to back off
from the situation. So it was for them–
for us, it was a kidnapping that went badly. And I think for
the kidnappers, it was a kidnapping that
didn’t go exactly as they planned, either. AUDIENCE: For a
couple years now, I’ve been trying to
wrap my head around ISIS and how it came to be. Because it seemed like
it was such a surprise. Obviously, Obama made
the famous JV comment. So I was wondering, you knowing
Syria and Iraq as well as you do, was it a surprise to you? Did you expect it? Or was it just– were
you caught off guard like everybody else
seemed to have been? RICHARD ENGEL: We
were reporting on it, expanding, pretty consistently. Because it was al-Qaeda in Iraq. ISIS is al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is the same group
that was the Zarqai. And if you listen
to ISIS statements, they talk about their
founding members being the insurgency in Iraq
that was fighting in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Anbar province,
where they, by the way, are still fighting. So this happened
quite gradually. US forces go into Iraq in 2003. That’s really the start of this. It’s not Syria war. It’s going into Iraq in 2003. The Sunni movement there
is– The Sunni population, some of which were Saddam
Hussein regime loyalists, are cornered. They see they have no future. They’re antagonized. They’re angry. They start to organize. They become an insurgency. That insurgency becomes
more and more radical, becomes more of an
al-Qaeda insurgency. Then the US troop
surge comes in, an enormous force with a
practically limitless budget. More weaponry than you
could really imagine is poured on to tamp
down this insurgency. And it didn’t crush it. It didn’t kill it. But it tamps it down to a point
where it’s almost meaningless. It’s quieted down. Then the US troops leave,
gives that insurgency a little bit more breathing
room, but not much. Then Syria, just across the
border, totally collapses. So that seed of insurgency,
which was always there, goes over and finds incredibly
fertile ground in Syria and blossoms into ISIS. And then what happened? What is the first thing they do? They move back across
the border to Iraq, to where that which was
their homeland to begin with. And now they have
one group or one ISIS caliphate, as they call it, that
spans the border between Iraq and Syria. So I think when you talk
about, could we see it coming? Yeah, we could see this coming. We could see it coming
right from 2003. And there’s a line
that goes right back to the insurgency in Iraq. It’s not a strictly
Syria phenomenon. STACIE CHAN: So you’re
dealing with extremely dangerous, unpredictable
ISIS insurgents. How do you go about
endearing yourself to these people/groups
that are hostile and often brutal towards
people other than their own, including other
Arabs and Americans, and convincing them that they
should trust you to write their story responsibly? RICHARD ENGEL: I don’t
think you can anymore. I don’t think I
could go to ISIS. I don’t try. And I think those
days that– You have to know your limitations. Certain groups will
not be convinced and don’t want you to be
there to tell their story, and don’t think they need to. They don’t think they need us. So it’s not just an
example of being charming. You can’t be charming
enough with ISIS. It’s not going to work. It used to be. And I watched this change. And it has– since
this theme, it seems appropriate talk
about, media and technology, and geopolitics and
technology– which is what I sort of thought–
It was what I’ve been thinking about in coming here–
was in 2006, again the Iraq war is raging. And that’s when things like
YouTube and internet videos really start becoming
easy and popular. It was really simple
for some people to start making their own videos
and uploading them to YouTube. And it coincided just
with the rising peak of the Iraq insurgency. So previously, before
that, in the late ’90s, when I was reporting,
it was much more like along this example. You would go to a group. You would meet. You would chit chat. They didn’t like me. I did necessarily like them. But we had to
respect each other. There was a modus operandi. You couldn’t be hostile
to me and beat me up or worse because then I would
say nasty things about you. And you didn’t want that. And I wanted access to you. So we would talk. And we would come to an
agreement for my safety, and I would hear your story. And then I would leave and
I would write the story. And inevitably, you’re not
going to happy with it. You’re the insurgent, by
the way, in this example. STACIE CHAN: Oh, OK. RICHARD ENGEL: You’re
the terrorist group. STACIE CHAN: I could put
on a ski mask or something. RICHARD ENGEL: Yes. Inevitably, you’re not
going to be happy with it because we didn’t
tell your full story. Or we took you out of
context in your opinion. Inevitably, you’re
not going to be happy. But you figure, OK, at least
I got the message out there. Jump ahead to 2006,
these groups decide, we don’t need the journalists. We’ll just go direct
to our audience. We’ll cut them out entirely. Well just post our
message on YouTube. And we can say exactly what
we want to say for as long as we want to say it. And you know what? Journalists? It’s better to kill them
and put them in the video than it is, necessarily,
to have to filter the message through them. So I think technology
profoundly changed the way that relationship happens. STACIE CHAN: And earlier, you
talked about exchange of info. RICHARD ENGEL: It’s not like
you sit down with ISIS and say, so let’s, you know– Nah, you’re
not going to win that one. STACIE CHAN: And
that’s interesting. You talked about technology
being a force for good and speeding up some
of these revolutions. But it sounds like you
just gave an example where it could be
very deadly when you have the bad guys having
direct access to the people they’re trying to recruit. RICHARD ENGEL: Look
at the internet. STACIE CHAN: People trying
to get to their side. RICHARD ENGEL: Some of
these videos are appalling. STACIE CHAN: Right. RICHARD ENGEL: Appalling. Brutalized. It brutalizes the spectator. You look on these
videos– which I look at a lot–
they’re absolutely pornographic in their violence. And yeah, that’s not a
good side of technology. You don’t want the
internet to just become some highway for
bandits and criminals to use to speed up and
down their messages into our bedrooms and into
our houses, into our minds. No, that’s not wonderful. STACIE CHAN: And
with all technology comes the good and the bad. RICHARD ENGEL: Absolutely. STACIE CHAN: So we’ll
see how that plays out. Another question? AUDIENCE: Hi. Yeah, I was wondering what you
think news organizations can do to better maintain the
public’s attention to wars and natural disasters. RICHARD ENGEL: How to
keep the story going. Why aren’t we
covering Nepal now? And why does it move on? I wish, to be
honest, that we were. And we are actually. We have a documentary
coming up in a few days. But I do know your point. Generally there’s a new cycle. And it gets shorter and shorter. Sometimes it’s 24 hours. Sometimes it’s a week. And there seems like there’s
the movie of the week. And then everyone moves on. I don’t know how. I’m a provider of news. I don’t decide programming. I gather. I’m still in the
hunter-gatherer mode. But yes, I think
it’s really important to stay on top of stories. But how to convince news
organizations, my bosses, other people’s bosses
to stick on this story when there’s another
story happening that week? I think it’s a challenge. Maybe you have better
ideas for that. I still gather the stories. But how to break out of this
cyclical story of the week phenomenon that
we’re in right now? Sometimes story of the
hour, story of the day? I think, actually,
technology sometimes really is working against
us on that one. Because people go for
the trending topics. And oh, this thing is trending. And they follow what’s trending
on YouTube or on Twitter or whatever for a minute. And media organizations
are chasing that. So I think, if anything, this–
you’re not helping us in this. You’re making it harder to
get where you want to go and where, I think,
I’d like to go as well. STACIE CHAN: Well, could you
argue that the media could be the trendsetters, and
it sounds like it actually might be a battle within
the newsroom to convince the programming people– RICHARD ENGEL: Yes. STACIE CHAN: –that, no, we want
to do a follow-up Nepal story. This is going to– RICHARD ENGEL: I fight
that battle all the time. I fight that battle
all the time. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose. But yes, there are
battles in the newsroom. BEN PLESSER: [INAUDIBLE]. RICHARD ENGEL: This
is Ben Plesser. Ben Plesser is a
fabulous producer. He and I have worked
together for some time now. We go all around the world. This is a very
serious individual. BEN PLESSER: I like it on this
side of the camera, generally– or that side. But just a shameless plug to
answer the three last questions in another way– we did
an hour-long documentary on ISIS, which aired on MSNBC. We would never manage to get
that on our larger platforms. But A, that’s our answer
to where ISIS came from. There’s a whole
big section there where Richard walks through
that in a much longer way than he was able to do here. Two, that’s our answer
on some level, too, is to find other platforms. This is the last group
we need to tell– different platforms
have different audiences with different
kind of tolerances. And we try to find
them as best we can. And three, I think
Richard could discuss in the intersection
between YouTube and what we do, the
beginning of that hour with the challenge on the
press not coming to Kobani. RICHARD ENGEL: So as Ben was
saying, maybe a way that you can do it is– and the way
in which we try and do– is you find different platforms. So if NBC News, which is a
big platform, won’t run it, MSNBC will give us an
hour and put it on air and put it together. But there was a challenge. There’s a lot of
user-driven video out there. And there’s a tendency,
I think, among people who troll the internet
to believe it. I don’t know why. But there is a huge tendency. The more obscure
the source, it seems to be that the people on the
street think the more credible it is. I don’t know why, but they do. Oh, that’s a source
I’ve never heard of, so therefore they must
be telling the truth. Not the big media
organizations who are– STACIE CHAN: Not the
legacy organizations. RICHARD ENGEL: Yes. But there was a
town– there still is a town in Syria–
called Kobani. You may have heard of it. It’s right on the
Turkish border. It’s a Kurdish town. And ISIS, through its own media
channels, was putting out, we’ve controlled Kobani. We’ve taken it over. We control 90% of the town. We’re victorious. They were raising flags. They were releasing videos
of flags being released. And we said, OK, maybe. So we went in. And we went in and we
found it was not the case. And it was a small group of
rebels holding out, fighting. And they eventually got
some more American support. And they turned the tide. And this sort of
nucleus of rebels that was in the town
with incredible stamina and determination held out–
then with later American air support– and turned the tides
and pushed all these people out. But ISIS was saying
the opposite. We’ve take it over. And then by saying it, they
were making a fait accompli because they were terrifying
even the townspeople who thought, OK, everything’s lost. We’d better leave. It was a way to say,
oh, it’s all done. And a lot of these refugees
and a lot of people who were fleeing– One of ISIS’s most
powerful weapons is it scare tactics
through the internet. Sometimes ISIS
will come to a town and the town will
already be empty. Sometimes they’ll announce
that they’ve taken a town, they haven’t even taken it yet. But the people in the
town will say, what? This town has been
taken by ISIS? And they’ll run away. STACIE CHAN: So with all that
misinformation just rampant on the internet,
people plagiarizing, this misinformation, ripping it
off, shaping into another form, the follow-up question online
is, how do you and the NBC digital team then make sure
your online audience is reading and/or watching your
originally reported story with all the facts? Or can you? RICHARD ENGEL: It’s hard. I mean, you have to
put it out there. There’s so many different ways
to get into people’s devices. How can I make sure that
you get the story that is the right story, the
story that I worked hardest to prioritize that one? STACIE CHAN: That I’m
not going to click on that obscure source? RICHARD ENGEL: I don’t know. I don’t know. I try and– I mean, I think
NBC has a vested interest to try and promote
the material and make sure it’s easily accessible. But I do not own an
algorithm that sorts data. I know another company,
however, that does, that is good at finding
things on the internet. STACIE CHAN: Hint,
hint, nudge, nudge. Point taken. RICHARD ENGEL: But
that’s not my job. Although I hear people do that. They do organize data. And they find it. And they sort of
select groups and they try and stream data to them. AUDIENCE: You can find news. RICHARD ENGEL: Yes. STACIE CHAN: Fair point. All right. A question from the audience. AUDIENCE: Thank you for coming
to speak to us, Richard. RICHARD ENGEL: Oh, absolutely. AUDIENCE: So recently
on a cable news channel, you characterized the
president’s foreign policy as convoluted and
self-contradictory. And I think you give examples
of the administration supporting Iran and some of its
activities in the Middle East, and then Saudi Arabia and
some of its activities. So I’d be interested
to hear more about why you think that that
isn’t the best way to go. RICHARD ENGEL: Well, talking
about being self-contradictory, you speak to a lot
of analysts and this is what a lot of analysts
have been telling me. And a lot of people in the
region, some political leaders in the region. And they say if you look
at the policy, objectively, is it consistent? And their answer is no. It’s not consistent. So if you take Syria
and Iraq, for example, where they’re both really
proxy wars in many ways. They’re civil wars,
but also proxy wars. So in Iraq, you have the Iraqi
army and the Iraqi government, which are being backed by Iran. And when those Shiite militias,
which are also backed by Iran, fight in a city like Tikrit,
the US is giving them support. So the US, in this case,
in this piece of the war, is supporting Iran. Up in the north of
Iraq, there’s Kurdistan. In that case, the
US is more or less supporting Kurdish autonomy. We are helping by helping
the Kurds to establish their own state. Like it or not– a lot of people
like it, plenty of countries do not like it– but that’s what
the effective result of the US policy is. So it’s supporting an
independent Kurdistan while telling Baghdad,
at the same time, that the government needs to
reconstitute itself and seize control of all of its territory. So if you’re a Baghdad, that
seems very contradictory because the Americans
will come and tell you, Baghdad, you need to do more to
take control of your country. And then Baghdad says, but
you’re establishing Kurdistan in the north of the country. That’s a contradiction. The Sunnis in Anbar province,
which is western Iraq, the US just recently– just
few days ago, in fact– decided to send 400 more,
450 more advisers to Anbar. So we’re effectively,
more or less becoming a sponsor of the Sunnis there. They are radically anti-Iran. So they are confused
by the policy, which, again, when the
Iranian forces move upward toward Tikrit,
we’re helping them. So the people in Anbar say,
well, this doesn’t make sense. This is totally convoluted. Cross the border
into Syria, the US is fighting ISIS and bombing
ISIS almost on a regular basis. Bashar al-Assad is also bombing
ISIS on a regular basis. So when we bomb ISIS, are
we helping Bashar al-Assad? In effect, yes. But we’re also
still backing rebels who are against Bashar al-Assad,
and paying and training them. Iran backs the government of
Bashar al-Assad and attacks ISIS. We’re negotiating with
Iran at the same time for a nuclear deal. So a lot of people say,
what is all of this? It’s so self-contradictory
in many ways. And it’s inconsistent. And is it working? If you look at the
region right now, it doesn’t necessarily
appear to be working. So that’s why I would say–
I know it’s a long answer, but that’s why I would
say a lot of people I speak to say that it is
internally inconsistent. AUDIENCE: Hi. So my question is more about
your path to getting here. It seems like when
you graduated, you just decided to pursue this
calling for adventure and stuff like that, and this region
that seems very interesting. And I’m just
wondering how you were able to– I guess, in a way,
there’s a lot of pressure from I’m sure your
parents or other people or just seeing your
classmates doing other stuff. How are you able to
stick to your plan through I’m sure many years
of just, what am I doing? RICHARD ENGEL: Almost 20. I’ve been doing the same
thing for almost 20 years. AUDIENCE: Yeah. It was a sense of, I
don’t know what I’m doing, there’s no clear, but
there is this ambition. RICHARD ENGEL: Well, I
graduated from Stanford just down the street from here. And I left immediately for
Cairo, or almost immediately, because I wanted
to be a journalist. And I thought the
Middle East was going to allow
opportunities and was going to be– I like to use this
analogy– the train of history. And I thought that’s
where the train of history was going to go through next. And I wanted to get on
board, sit in the front car and watch it happen. And I wanted to do
that passionately. And I still want to do that. So I haven’t had a lot of
second guessing about it. There’s been tough days. And there’ve been bumps
along the road, certainly. We’ve talked about
some of them today. But I still very
much enjoy– I would say love– sitting
in that front car and watching what’s
happening outside and seeing history unfold. And I don’t know if it’s always
going to be in the Middle East. I’ve done almost 20
years now in that region. But I’m spending more
time in Russia these days, just got back in Nepal. I think what’s happening
in China is fascinating. The train keeps moving. And we’ve talked a little
bit about the intersection between technology and
political change today. And I gave some
thoughts about where I think maybe the way
of the world is heading. But I don’t know. We’ll see. And that’s the exciting part. That’s why I haven’t had a lot
of second guesses from watching my friends and
what they’re doing. And I’ve been really
enjoying the ride. STACIE CHAN: And
on a final note, when you’re giving the
commencement speech at Stanford, it
was to an audience of relatively young,
recent college graduates. But I believe you’re talking
to a room and a company full of people who have that
similar wide-eyed approach to the world, where
the sky’s the limit. We’re here to
innovate and to change the world for the better. RICHARD ENGEL: Good. STACIE CHAN: So do
you have a message for us Googlers going forward
as we go back to our desks and get back to work? RICHARD ENGEL: Well, yeah. Then please do change
the world for the better. I mean, I’m not saying
that you’re not now. But I’m saying that I think
that’s an important goal to stick to, that the
internet doesn’t have to be just a vehicle for
crazy propaganda or porn or a way to share
photos of your lunch. Is there a way to actually
make it better, make our society better, not just
more interconnected and more volatile, but actually better? That would be, I mean,
an incredible machine. If you could do that,
I’ll come work here. STACIE CHAN: We Just
have a great recruitment tool for Richard Engel. Well, thank you so much,
Richard, for coming. RICHARD ENGEL: If
you’ll have me. STACIE CHAN: We
really appreciate it. Yes. Thank you so much
for coming today. It’s very kind. [APPLAUSE]


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