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Stateside At Annapolis: When We Played Our Charade

Stateside With Rosalea Barker (At Annapolis)

When We Played Our Charade

Master Ed, aka The Editor, has requested an overview of my day at Annapolis. (I would, of course, respectfully call him Mr Ed or Sir Ed if those territories had not already been occupied.) Truth be told, my day began the previous evening when I took a bus down to Annapolis to collect my press credential.

I caught a commuter express that goes to Annapolis from DC’s Federal Triangle (where the hopes and dreams of millions mysteriously disappear forever).The bus was already nearly full by the time I boarded it on Capitol Hill, its last DC stop. Everyone rode in silence, dreaming the dreams only bureaucrats may dream, until we got to the first Annapolis bus stop—a Park and Ride lot—where Maryland bus etiquette dictated that all those disembarking do so in strict order starting with the front seats first. It was like watching an over-ripe inside-out banana being peeled, as only four or five passengers were left on board.

At the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, I’m directed to enter via some double glass doors, through which I can see a great long line of people. My heart sinks, because the last bus back to DC leaves in less than an hour and it sure looks like a two-hour line. Turns out that line is for the people whose credential request got lost in a computer glitch and miraculously I’m not one of them. It takes just a few minutes to sign for my crimson badge, Scoop Media New Zealand right there under BBC on the sign-in sheet. (The little website that could!)

Next morning’s sign-in for credentials started at 5:30am, and many news crews left it until then, thinking it would still give them plenty of time to set up for early morning broadcasts. If their credential requests had been lost, they first had to wait in one doubled-up line to get a badge, and then wait with the rest of us in another doubled-up line to go through metal detectors, have our bags searched and sniffed, boot up our laptops, and then be shuttled by the busload to the filing center.

A couple of flat panel TVs are playing in the area where we’re lined up. The big news of the day is the topic that was discussed in great detail by my fellow bus passengers coming to Annapolis in the morning: the death of a local football star at 5:15am. He had been shot in his home in Miami and the evening news the night before said he was recovering. My fellow commuters seemed almost more upset that they’d been given false good news than that he’d died. My fellow media, standing in line at the stadium, observe with wry humor that their Annapolis conference stories might get bumped in favor of stories about the football star’s death.

When we get to the filing centre, I wander around all the tables fondly thinking that Scoop might have been allotted a space. Is there a map of where everyone is sitting? I ask. No, you just wander around and grab a space that hasn’t been reserved. A Department of State media liaison person points me towards some tables that are set on the gallery level and I head in that direction only to be told by a DOS uniformed security officer that I’m not allowed to go up there.

So I go to the gallery on the other side and stake my equipment’s claim to a couple of concrete steps that are roped off and have an electric outlet in the wall below. (Note to self: professional media always carry an extension cord and multi-plug.) Not long after, a television news crew from New York also gets turned back from the gallery on The Far Side, returns and sets up a spare trestle table near the same power outlet and I get to share an end of their table, repaying the favor by bringing them copies of the leaders’ prepared statements and saving them some seats for the Secretary’s closing remarks.

The advantage of being up in the gallery is the short walk to the food and restrooms, not to mention great views out the windows behind where those facilities are located. Actual natural light! Trees in autumn drag! Beautiful old Mahan Hall! Which a food service worker tells me used to be popular for receptions and weddings but is now a study hall and classrooms. Much to the relief of catering staff—the building has no elevators and no kitchen so hot food had to be carried up several flights of stairs to the reception room.


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Mahan Hall. Out of sight behind this building is Bancroft Hall, which contains Memorial Hall, the alleged site of the Annapolis Conference.

I decide I’ll fill in time until the 11am speeches by transcribing the questions that were asked by the audience at a media panel the previous night. The series is broadcast live on public television and is called the Kalb Report. David Gregory (NBC News), Dan Rather (HDNet), David Sanger (New York Times) and Helen Thomas (Hearst Newspaper columnist and White House doyenne) were interviewed by Marvin Kalb at the National Press Center. The broadcast ends before the audience questions start hence the need to transcribe them off the recording I made when I was there.

It’s been a common comment in this series about reporting on the White House that US journalists find it the most difficult Administration to get information out of that they’ve ever had to deal with. Striking up a conversation with a DC-based foreign journalist at Annapolis, I find he says exactly the same thing, adding that if you’re at all critical of the Bush Administration or governments that are strongly supportive of it, you’ll find you just don’t get access to the people you need to interview. Not just in the White House, but in the Administration at large.

At 11am, the video projection screen crackles into life with a bespectacled President Bush reading a prepared statement and remarks, followed by Abbas and Olmert. The media pit quickly busies itself with writing reports, phoning in reports, standing up outside in the cold wind giving live TV reports, finding a quiet spot to record a radio report, and generally parsing every word that was spoken.

Taking a break in one of the windowed areas, I overhear a reporter wearing a Jewish skullcap angrily telling someone on the phone that the conference is all about the Bush Administration weaning Syria away from Iran with promises of enough money to turn the Syrian economy into a Middle Eastern powerhouse.

Back at my shared table, an Arab journalist for a prominent Arab-language network is telling the African American journalism intern about his experiences working for a French Canadian television station where “they only want people with blue eyes on screen.” An accomplished journalist in his home country of Morocco, he was shocked by the upfront prejudice, and holds even more disdain for what passes as news in the West. A story about a football star getting shot wouldn’t block out the real news. Here in the US, journalism is all about cheering mindlessly and not being critical, he says.

The reporter and cameraman whose table I’m sharing come back from doing their live report and start reviewing other material they’ve managed to shoot, including an interview with a negotiator for one of the non-Palestinian/Israeli delegations, whom they just happen to have seen walking along while they were outside. I have a new respect for this blonde, blue-eyed reporter—he knows who even the off-stage players are and has the gumption to go get an unexpected interview when the opportunity presents itself. (When he later introduces his intern to someone using an entirely wrong name, he loses the Brownie point.)

Now comes the long haul of waiting for the final statement by Condoleezza Rice, the timing of which is anyone’s guess. First the rumour says it will be 4 o’clock, then 7, and finally 6. Camera crews are told to have their equipment in place by 5:15 so the sound and vision can be tested. The curtain is dropped where the projection screen once was, and anyone who wants to see the Secretary’s speech and take photos has to relocate behind the curtain once the okay is given to do so. Once there, we wait and wait all over again. My news buddies decide they’re not going to cover the speech after all.

All eyes are on the few cameramen who’ll be covering Secretary Rice’s entrance from a passageway, stage right. Once we see their camera lights go on, we’ll know she’s coming. There’s a false alarm. Their lights go out again. Then the interpreters come out of that entrance and walk up the steps to their booths. We’re told that’s the two-minute signal. She must be coming soon.

Sadly, my camera autofocused on a nearby handrail, but if you look just to the right of the cellphone being used by the woman with the gamin haircut to take a photo, you can see the Secretary’s head as she starts up the steps onto the stage.


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Condoleezza Rice starts onstage to deliver her closing remarks at the Annapolis Conference. Note the serious number of minders she has, both in uniform and plainclothes.

The irony is, that when we were put through security procedures at the stadium before coming to the filing center, we weren’t even asked to turn our cellphones on, which is a very common security measure because, um, aren’t they used to detonate bombs?

*************

rosalea.barker@gmail.com

--PEACE—

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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