Page 40 - FSJ June 2012

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This came to an end in 1977, when
Hodding Carter, spokesman for Secre-
tary of State Cyrus Vance (1977-1980),
decided to allow the broadcast media
to bring their cameras and sound
equipment to the briefing room.
Overnight, the informality of the brief-
ing was gone. Spokesmen stopped
smoking at the podium, smiled more
and dressed better.
Perhaps to set a good example,
Hodding himself ceased practicing his
golf swing during long-winded ques-
tions. But he did once fire a rubber
chicken at the tirelessly combative
Lester Kinsolving, a stringer for radio
stations who was also a Protestant min-
More importantly, the new audio
and video devices had a chilling effect.
Spokesmen could no longer go on
background, the procedure that had al-
lowed them to explain more and give
out sensitive information on the condi-
tion that they not be named. Instead,
they were identifiable only as a “U.S.
official” or “administration official.”
This permitted more candor on the
part of the briefer and more in-depth
stories. But subsequent attempts by
spokesmen to provide clarity on back-
ground after the briefing with cameras
off have never worked well. As a result,
briefings became a chore, producing
less meat and more pablum.
The downside of the old system, of
course, was that promiscuous use of
background comments opened the way
for manipulation of the press without
accountability, an obvious danger. As a
result, media outlets grew increasingly
wary of any use of background quotes
in any story.
The Decline of
the Press Briefing
Some Secretaries of State were
more finicky than others about spokes-
men sticking strictly to the script
handed to them. During the 14 or so
months that he served as Al Haig’s
spokesman, Dean Fisher, a former
magazine reporter, said he devi-
ated just three times from the exact
wording of the official guidance. And
each time, he said, his superiors
“rapped me on the knuckles” for his
In October 1998, 21 years after
cameras had first been allowed into
the briefing room, an electrical prob-
lem meant that no functioning cam-
eras or microphones were present for
a noon briefing by Albright’s spokes-
man, Jamie Rubin. He was almost
giddy about being able to horse
around at the podium and, more im-
portantly, go on background at will. A
weight had been lifted from his shoul-
ders. The next day, electricity having
been restored, it was business — or
blandness — as usual.
David Passage was a State Depart-
ment press officer and briefer during
the Carter administration. He devel-
oped the habit of making up answers
if there was nothing official at hand on
a particular subject during a briefing.
I always knew when he was wing-
ing it. Instead of using the normal
dodge — “I have nothing for you on
that” — he would begin, “The United
States believes....” He would follow
that with an off-the-cuff account of
what he thought the United States be-
lieved. (I was grateful, though, for all
the times David was helpful to me
over the years by phone or in his of-
With the computer era, attendance
at State Department briefings de-
clined sharply because transcripts
were available within an hour after
their conclusion. Gone were the days
when the networks routinely had two
big-name, on-air reporters on duty
daily at the department, and TV cam-
eramen jostled for space at the rear of
the briefing room. Also absent were
correspondents from prominent news-
papers and much of the foreign press,
including Arab and Israeli reporters.
To many reporters, repetition was
often the most insufferable part of
noon briefings. One day in 2003, a
briefer urged an end to Israeli-Pales-
tinian violence 29 times in 30 minutes.
All the while the cameras rolled, and
so did the eyes of correspondents.
Despite all these constraints, most
of the spokesmen I saw in action over
my 39 years at State served the de-
partment very well. I would put
Hodding Carter, Chuck Redman and
Richard Boucher at the top of my
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U N E 2 0 1 2
Most of the spokesmen
I saw in action over my
39 years served
State very well.
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