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08.24.11

Cable TV’s Breakout Star

CNN correspondent Sara Sidner’s fearless reporting on the fall of Muammar Gaddafi has brought her global recognition. She tells Lois Romano about dodging bullets on the way to Tripoli.

Sara Sidner emerged this week as the hottest broadcast star on the globe, as she brought the fall of Muammar Gaddafi into our living rooms while dodging bullets.

“It was the most adrenaline possible pushing through your body,” the CNN war correspondent said in an interview from Tripoli on Wednesday. “We didn’t need coffee or Coke or any of those things that we take to keep us going. Just feeling and seeing the excitement of the people and the celebratory blasts of massive gunfire—just keeps you going. I haven’t lost my energy yet.”

Sidner’s reports and her tweets have shown her to be a fearless reporter—one who until this week was hardly a household name. “We ducked mortars, artillery fire, and small-arms fire in Zawiya, Libya today,” she wrote on Twitter at one point.

Watching her compelling coverage Tuesday was a nail-biting experience, as Sidner—in head-to-toe body armor and helmet—provided a vivid view of the rebels as they stormed the African dictator’s fortified compound.

She was grazed by a bullet shell casing when she entered the compound with the rebels, who were wildly shooting celebratory machine-gun rounds into the air. She was not injured and didn’t miss a beat in her report.

“I’m going to try not to get hit,” she told viewers. And then a few minutes later, she turned to an excited reveler and said coolly, “Sir, please don’t shoot.”

Despite the anxieties of those watching—including her mother—Sidner says she never felt in real danger.

“When you’re in these situations you try to keep yourself in a position out of the direct line of fire, but you’re not focusing on that,” she said. “It’s such an historic moment. The city is very much under the control of the rebels; the city is so clearly in the rebels’ hands that you’re focused on telling the story in a very difficult situation. My mother is not happy about that.”

War coverage has always been considered the toughest, yet most exotic assignment for a reporter. Historically, careers have been made and Pulitzers won from the front lines. But it wasn’t until Vietnam that women began to elbow their way to the front lines. Even for the most intrepid correspondents, though, the dangers of the job have long been considered more acute for women.

Lara Logan, chief foreign-affairs correspondent for CBS, was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by a mob in Egypt earlier this year when she was separated from her crew during the street protests. A study conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007 concluded that "female reporters are targets in lawless places where guns are common and punishment rare. They face more sexual harassment and rape than their male counterparts.”

Sidner said she never felt at risk simply because she was a woman. “There wasn’t any scenario where as a woman it made any difference,” she said. “The one exception is that I was able to talk to women—and they were comfortable talking to me about their lives. As a woman, I never felt that I was in a particularly precarious situation. But as a human being I did.”

The mostly male army of rebels treated her “as an equal,” she added. “They may have said, ‘What are you doing here—this is so dangerous.' But they were so happy to see us.”

"As a woman, I never felt that I was in a particularly precarious situation."

Though not as well known as some of her competitors, Sidner has worked in broadcast television for 15 years, the past three at CNN. She is based in New Delhi, and covered the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. She started her career in Gainesville, Fla., and before joining CNN she worked at KTVU-TV in Oakland, Calif.

Such is her fame these days that two Facebook pages have sprung up, the first being “We Hate Sara Sidner” and the second “We Love Sara Sidner.” As it turns out, both are filled with praise for the correspondent.

Sidner, however, was far removed and detached from all the fuss over her these days. She thinks she may have slept a few hours this week—but she can’t be sure.

“What actually happens is that once you try to come down, you go over in your head what’s happened and try to give yourself some perspective amid all the chaos,” she said. “I tried to put my head down, but I couldn’t really sleep.”