Monday, December 12, 2011

The Diplomats and the Journalists (1/2): Waiting for John Kerry

John Kerry was a little over an hour late to the press conference, leaving the journalists ample time to schmooze with one another and the cheery embassy staff, two thirds through a twelve-hour workday.

When I arrived, on time and therefore very early, I found David, the deputy press attache (on his first diplomatic "mission") talking to an Egyptian journalist, a short older woman with long dark hair and small, sharply angled glasses. She was making him work hard to be diplomatic.

"Where are the other journalists? How did they know Kerry would be late?" she unloaded in imperfect but rapid English on the young, red-cheeked diplomat, as if smelling conspiracy. "I don't know," he shrugged. "Maybe they just have better sources."

He smiled. She didn't get the joke. Looking around the room, she pointed out the American and Egyptian flags hanging behind the table where Kerry would speak. "Why the flags?" she quipped, tossing up her hands. "I've been to press conferences at German, British, and French embassies. They never have flags. Why the arrogance?”

"But they are next to each other. They're equal."

"Yeah right!"

When she walked away to greet another diplomat, I chatted with David about a recent road trip he had taken around U.S. national parks. He told me wanted to see the country he would be representing abroad before a long career that will involve little choice about where he is posted, and little chance to actually see the place he is representing.

That gave him a lot in common with the international journalists who began to arrive in waves. A tall British man from Reuters, wearing a knitted scarf and a casual linen blazer, joined the conversation. The buzzing Egyptian woman returned and asked him where he was based. "England," he responded, "but I've reported from something like thirty-one countries over twenty years."

He's been in Jerusalem for the last several, but had been sent to Cairo for ten days to help the local staff, who had been exhausted lately. He told me that he had taken the Jerusalem job expecting action, but now his staff has been jealously watching the Cairo bureau get all the activity (elections and revolutionary protests in the same week!). "But we have to be careful what we wish for," he told me. "Because when things go downhill in Jerusalem, they go downhill sort of spectacularly."

More journalists arrived, representing Egyptian, American, and European wire services, newspapers, and websites. As usual, they clustered together based on informal, expected networks: the Egyptians from independent papers, the Egyptians from state-owned papers, the Americans, the Europeans.

Since I didn't have a club, I chatted more with the Egyptian woman. She works for the Middle East News Agency (MENA), a wire service owned by the Egyptian state with a staff of roughly 500. I asked if anything had changed for her in the tumultuous past year. "Of course. Before the revolution we could not write about the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak. Like the rest of Egypt we have the freedom to write about anything now!"

"But what about the military council?"

"Well of course we depend on the government for our budget."

That was not so surprising, but then she explained how being state-owned means the agency is swept up into inter-regional relations, which I had not known. A few months ago, MENA had planned to publish an article on the sit-in of Syrian protesters at the Arab League building in Cairo. The Syrian government got wind and was angry. MENA, which is based in Egypt, worried that some of their correspondents in Syria might be put at risk, so they pulled it out. I wondered out loud if it is more responsible to get the stories and then censor them, or like Western agencies simply send less people to places like Syria. She shook her head. “It’s just business.”

The din in the room suddenly grew, meaning that John Kerry had arrived. When he entered, he insisted on working his way around and shaking hands with everyone: a move that unsubtly robs time from the questions and answers.

Part Two (the part with John Kerry) on Wednesday

1 comment:

  1. So interesting! love "she was making him work hard to be diplomatic."

    re: "...simply sending [fewer] reporters to places like Syria." This is really interesting. I hope you write more about the ethics of censorship vs. sending, assigning, making assignments available, (or whatever you want to call it) reporters to dangerous regions. It's one thing for the individual journalist to go or not go, but at what point does the employer have a responsibility, and if so, what is that responsibility?

    Mil gracías for your insights, as always