Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Press Conference in an Egyptian Novel

Press conferences are a constant feature of politics and politics is a constant feature of life in Egypt this year, so naturally there have been a lot of press conferences. I’ve attended many while writing for an Egyptian newspaper and researching the ‘behind the scenes’ of journalism in Egypt. Usually, it’s an American politician passing through for diplomatic reasons who answers a few questions from the local press late in the afternoon.

As a novice journalist, I came to learn quickly that press conferences always have an element of theater. They are performances, really, in which the audience, formed of reporters, actively participates to shape the text, gestures, and delivery of the performer, a politician, expert, or eyewitness to violence.

But this rich exchange never makes it into the actual articles produced by the conference. The news reports, as they are supposed to be, are always lackluster, even when the moments that produce them feature real passion, frustration, and confrontation. I once watched Leon Panetta ignore Egyptian journalists because he could not understand their accented English, which predictably annoyed them. I watched Jimmy Carter chastise journalists for incessantly repeating the same prodding query that he simply couldn’t answer.

None of this makes it into the writing, but this disconnect is even more apparent when the conference involves a live interpreter. I have simply been amazed at many conferences where passionate oratory is converted into another language as dry, mechanical copy.

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