The U.S. State Department and the Press

Here's a big, juicy tip for you. The U.S. State Department is a lot more important than the mainstream press coverage of it (or lack thereof) would suggest. But the relationship between the State Dept. and the press is an interesting matter in itself.

The State Dept.'s daily press briefings are an excellent source of news. State is obviously mainly concerned with U.S. foreign policy, but that involves the majority of the most important events in the world. It helps to follow the briefings for a while, because the spokespeople use catch-phrases that have specific meanings that may not be obvious at first glance.

A particularly informative and lively briefing occurred May 12, 2000. Here are some excerpts and my interpretation of them. Richard Boucher is the State Dept. spokesman.

The background on this exchange is that the State Department was involved in some embarrassing security lapses, including the theft of a laptop computer that apparently carried detailed "code-word" information (more-secret-than-top-secret) on the status of nuclear weapons programs and nuclear proliferation across the globe. As a result, security in the department's building was greatly tightened.

MR. BOUCHER: . . . I want to remind everybody here, and even more the people out there in the audience, other people from the press, that your building pass allows you into this building for the sake of convenience so you can work here, but it does not authorize you for access above the second floor . . . We do have guards stationed in this building at various points at various times. They check my badge, which I have right there, and they will check your badge. And if you're found above the second floor with a press badge and not an escort, the badge will be taken away from you and you will not get it back.

QUESTION: . . . if you're invited upstairs to talk to somebody confidentially - I assume officials at State still have the right to speak to reporters if they wished without getting clearance and without surveillance of their conversations and without tape recordings of their conversations - why would a reporter want to reveal to the State Department who he's going to see? And why should he be required to reveal that, any more than when he calls him up on the telephone and talks to him - unless the State Department is tapping our phones, which is my next question.


QUESTION: It's happened. Kissinger tapped phones. I don't know why. You know, we're getting back to that period of paranoia.

. . .

QUESTION: Richard, let's not - please don't make this a frivolous thing. It isn't a frivolous thing. You know and I know, and a lot of people in this room know that, but maybe most of the people who watch this on television, that most solid information, important information here, is not obtained at the briefing, with all due respect. The briefing is a clearinghouse for, you know, the day-to-day stuff, but basically reporters talk to officials - and if they didn't, they shouldn't be reporters.

That last question is highly relevant. Official press briefings are supposedly how the government communicates openly with the press and the public. In reality, the real communication is done with private "on background" briefings (as opposed to public "on record" briefings), and in private conversations. The official briefings put information on the public record, indicating that it is for public consumption. The press (as is their job) usually knows about important events well before they publish them.

QUESTION: It was the New York Times, though.

QUESTION: Well, the Times may be part of the government or part of the press; I'm not sure.

This little side exchange between two reporters illustrates the widespread belief that the New York Times (as well as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times) often serve as a mouthpiece for U.S. intelligence agencies. Reading the Sunday Times is a great way to find out what the "official" version of any news story will be. Virtually all mainstream media in the U.S. have an amazingly similar interpretation of events as these three papers and an amazingly similar view of the relative importance of news items.

QUESTION: . . . There has been wiretapping of reporters in the not-too-distant past, and there is a certain, you know, mental state that a lot of FBI people share with other FBI people. They think there are spies every place. That's their job: to be suspicious. It may not be your job to be suspicious, but it's my job to ask you if they're tapping us and if you know they are.

. . .

QUESTION: With respect to what the Secretary [of State, Madeleine Albright] said yesterday, it appears to be in direct contradiction to what [State Dept. official] Mr. Carpenter said. She made it clear that she wanted the press to be in this building; he said he didn't want the press. I mean, there seem to be a blatant disagreement.

. . .

QUESTION: What do you suppose she meant when she said let's not go crazy with this stuff? Didn't she mean that sort of Carpentarian notion or authoritarian notion that the government would be better off if the press weren't around? Your papers would be safe; your minds would be less cluttered; you wouldn't be challenged; and you could probably just do whatever you felt like all the time without ever answering to the public. That might be a good approach by a fellow like Carpenter.

But she has spoken in familiar civil libertarian terms. Let's not go crazy with this. People are innocent until - you know, the sort of stuff you shouldn't have to - people shouldn't have to recite every few years. But she did recite them, and then here's a guy working for her who's in charge of the investigation who thinks reporters shouldn't be in the building. How do you put those two things together? Is he working for her, or is he working for the FBI or for some - I don't know what.

. . .

QUESTION: . . . I would hope that the institutional memory in this building, which itself and its members were targeted quite heavily in the '50s by this same kind of McCarthyesque tactic of saying we know that there are communists in this building or now, yesterday, we know that there are foreign reporters working for hostile intelligence organizations, that the State Department clears this up with the FBI and then comes - and then both of them come clean and explain what actually is going on here. Because it's frightening and ominous if he knew that there was no substance to what this FBI agent said, and he said nothing. It's scary.

These questions highlight some of the reporters' attitudes towards the FBI and the "some - I don't know what" agencies. For whatever reason, they think the FBI and the intelligence agencies are hostile to a free press.

In summary:

  1. State Department briefings are a valuable source of important news, even though the information has already been filtered and digested by the time it becomes public.
  2. Mainstream U.S. media often share a highly similar viewpoint of such important news, and this viewpoint often highly corresponds with the interests of U.S. intelligence agencies.
  3. The relationship between the State Department, the intelligence agencies, and the press is complex and dynamic. There is no conspiracy. There are interests and pressures which influence the process, but it is far from monolithic or predetermined.

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