On the Plane

A Surprising Silence

By Glenn Kessler
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, March 1--Something strange happened as we traveled to this resort town for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first foray in Middle East diplomacy.

She didn't talk to reporters.

Of course, there had been some mild chitchat before the plane departed at 11 p.m. on Saturday night. But then she conducted no briefing about her trip, which left reporters nothing fresh for their stories when we landed here.

This is the first time in my seven years on the beat that a secretary of State failed to brief at the start of a trip; other reporters with even longer tenures could not recall it happening before either.

Why is this important? From a secretary's perspective, she or he can set the tone for the trip and maybe make a little news. From the reporters' perspective, we need something on the record from the secretary when we land. Otherwise there is nothing to write.

And yet, over 13 hours of traveling, there was not a peep, from either her or her staff.

It's not like the 15 reporters on the plane weren't shy about it. I sent an e-mail a few days before the trip to key members of her staff, noting a trip briefing was needed at some point. (I received polite replies back, thanking me.) When we refueled in Shannon, Ireland, after we all had had some sleep, we brought it up again--and again--with staff members on the plane. Everyone claimed to understand our needs. But nothing happened.

We got off the plane, wordless. This was a big deal for the press corps. The wire reporters made apologetic calls to their bosses. The newspaper reporters sent e-mails saying that they knew space was reserved in the paper, but they weren't sure what to write.

Clinton has been candid and open on her first trip, to Asia last month, so reporters began to speculate.

Was she pulling back from press access because she felt she had been too candid?
Were the stakes too high for the Middle East for a potential rookie misstep?

Why would such an experienced politician with some many years of dealing with the media suddenly not be assessable?

Finally, four hours after landing and after many staff meetings, her spokesman, Robert A. Wood, showed up in the press filing center with a morsel of news--the amount of aid Clinton will announce for Gaza at the conference. At least we could write something, but we were left with virtually no insight on how she plans to pursue diplomacy in the Middle East.

After we pressed him, Wood insisted that she will have many meetings with the press on the trip and was not trying to duck questions.

But the fact remains she did not make herself available at the start of the trip. It looked like she did not want to face the media on the eve of her first big Middle East trip. As any politician knows, image is reality.

By Lexie Verdon |  March 1, 2009; 6:56 PM ET  | Trip:  Clinton in Mideast, March 2009
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With all due respect, is that what reporting comes down to nowadays -- waiting for government officials to tell you what to write? Maybe Secretary Clinton feels free to refuse comment because she knows that the Washington Post either has no independent sources of news or won't use them, and thus that she need not fear someone else setting the tone or framing the issues before she can get on the record.

I have just been reading elsewhere on the Post website that the paper has recently lost a large chunk of its revenue. Maybe that is because people don't want to read the American version of Pravda -- the mouthpiece of official Washington, D.C. Just one recent example is the Post's editorial support for the war in Iraq and banishment of stories challenging the official line to tiny columns in the back pages.

Where are the Post's inside sources, the information gathered on the Sharm El Sheik meetings by its resourceful reporters from Egyptian officials and other non-US government sources? We don't actually need a newspaper whose sole function is to circulate government press releases.

Posted by: Jamil Nasir | March 1, 2009 11:39 PM

Maybe Hil and her staff were still suffering the effects of jetlag from the China trip.

Posted by: GatorGal | March 2, 2009 9:41 AM

Ms Clinton has the right to brief reporters - or not brief reporters as she deems it necessary, proper or helpful. Of course maybe by her silence this time she has in the back of her mind all those "According to inside sources which which to remain anonymous ...." and other lines that clue a person reading it that the writer really has no news so they're just filling space with inuendo and conjecture that no one can prove or disprove - after all there was a pledge of silence - sometimes to a soucre that probably doesn't even exist!

Posted by: jandbcelebratejesus | March 2, 2009 9:45 AM

Great! We finally get a report on what's really happening: nothing!

Posted by: Arlyn H. Lichthardt | March 2, 2009 5:07 PM

Finally, four hours after landing and after many staff meetings, her spokesman, Robert A. Wood, showed up in the press filing center with a morsel of news--the amount of aid Clinton will announce for Gaza at the conference.

well, with absolutely nothing to write about, do you think you could spill the beans on the ONE piece of info you got? or don't you want to tell us the amount of aid Clinton will announce for Gaza at the conference.

Posted by: annie | March 3, 2009 9:35 PM

with no news, there is always gossip from anonymous 'official' sources directing us towards IRAN, or didn't you hear.

first we get the gossip someone in the know said hilary said she has no hope for the upcoming talks w/iran, although hilary wouldn't confirm that. then we found out from another anon 'official' source (NOT the same as an administration official mind you) about a 'secret letter' that supposedly said obama is 'trading' w/russia re the missle defense if russia would pressure iran off nukes, but obama then denied that. and then the news of israels demands of the US, naturally pressuring us on iran.

so who wants to talk about the gaza convention! nuthin there. go report, i want to know about the gaza convention!

Posted by: annie | March 3, 2009 9:43 PM

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