On the Plane

From Candidate to Diplomat

By Glenn Kessler
JAKARTA--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spent much of the last two years running for president, vying for face time on the nightly news by doling out one-on-one interviews to local and national media outlets as she criss-crossed the country. She is now traveling the world, accompanied by a group of policy-oriented diplomatic correspondents.

Therein lie the roots of a potential conflict.

Campaign reporters love to grab some time alone on the road with the candidate even if it's just a few minutes. And the candidate barnstorming Iowa or some other state will also quickly drop by the local TV station or newspaper and give them a brief interview.

Diplomatic correspondents, on the other hand, favor depth and long conversations. They are used to substantive, on-the-record plane briefings before the secretary's jet lands in a new country. And they also like lengthy "roundtable discussions" with the secretary after he or she holds meetings overseas.

On Clinton's first trip, it's been a bit of an adjustment for both sides.

Flying to Asia, her aides announced Clinton would make a brief statement and then conduct an off-the-record session with reporters. Reporters protested that no recent secretary had done that; virtually all plane briefings are on the record. Clinton's staff relented, and the chief U.S. diplomat took questions for 25 minutes.

But heading from Japan to Jakarta, Clinton didn't come back for a second chat. Instead, two aides briefed about the visit to Indonesia, but not for attribution--meaning none of the reporters could really use the quotes.

Before leaving the U.S., Clinton gave radio reporters five minutes each after her policy address on Asia. She offered similarly short interviews to the TV reporters traveling with her in Tokyo. And her staff proposed she do five minutes each with the four wire services and five minutes alone with individual newspaper scribes traveling on her plane.

The wire reporters didn't like this idea because whoever got the first interview scooped the rest. And everyone worried that under the proposed format, there would be no sustained give-and-take with the secretary. She could just stay on her talking points--and none of the organizations would know what questions had been asked and answered by others.

After the newspapers and wires banded together and said they preferred joint interviews, Clinton's staff began to rethink their position. A decision was made: Clinton is now supposed to brief our whole group on the way to Seoul and then conduct a
roundtable with all of the reporters before leaving for Beijing.

Now the reporters just have to get her to commit news in those sessions....

By Washington Post Editor |  February 18, 2009; 9:02 AM ET  | Trip:  Clinton in Asia, February 2009
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