From AJR, April 2000 issue
State of Tension
Relations are strained between Madeleine Albright's State Department and the reporters who cover it. Lower-level officials have been kept off-limits, their bosses discouraged from talking. But as a new press spokesman takes command, hopes for a thaw are in the air.
By Dean Fischer
Dean Fischer was State Department spokesman in 1981 and '82 and diplomatic correspondent for Time magazine from 1995 to 1998.
H E HAS BEEN criticized for being occasionally arrogant and sarcastic, and has on more than one occasion lashed out at reporters for challenging the reliability of the information he gave them. He has sought to stem the flow of information out of the State Department by restricting journalists' contacts with diplomats.
He has worn two--some would say uncomplementary--hats: as the department's chief spokesman and as a diplomatic negotiator.
It should come as no surprise, then, as James Rubin leaves the State Department this month--at the end of nearly three years' service as Secretary Madeleine Albright's mouthpiece--that some are looking ahead with hope that the increasingly frayed relationship between the department and the media may be mended.
Rubin, 40, leaves his high-profile post to join his wife, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, in London. He's being replaced for the remaining months of the Clinton administration by Ambassador Richard Boucher, who held the job in 1992 and '93.
Boucher, in many respects, is the antithesis of his predecessor.
Rubin, who in the 1980s served as a senior foreign policy adviser to Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, brought a partisan edge to the State Department podium. Boucher, 48, is a career foreign service officer who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. (He was deputy spokesman under Republican Secretary of State James Baker; spokesman under Lawrence Eagleburger, Baker's successor during the Bush administration; and spokesman for Secretary of State Warren Christopher during the first five months of the Clinton administration.)
Rubin has demonstrated he doesn't shy away from verbal skirmishes; Boucher is a conciliator.
And, perhaps most important, Boucher, unlike Rubin, says he is a proponent of bureaucratic openness and accessibility. Boucher said in a recent interview this wasn't always the case. But he learned that "we need to actively try to explain ourselves, to give to the people as much information as possible, so they can reach their own judgment on our policies.
"We owe it to the people, to Congress and to the press. If we expect their support for our policies, we have an obligation to explain ourselves," Boucher says.
Such forthrightness is even more important now than it was during the Cold War, he adds. "The problems we face are more involved and more intricate."
Margaret Tutwiler, Baker's spokeswoman, hired Boucher as her deputy and describes him as "loyal, well-liked, totally dependable, not a hot dog."In her view, foreign service officers in many instances see themselves as keepers of the keys of foreign policy, regardless of the outcome of presidential elections. But Boucher "understood the need to articulate President Bush's policy,"she says.
Norman Kempster, who has covered the State Department for the Los Angeles Times since 1984, favorably recalls Boucher's four-year role as deputy spokesman and spokesman from 1989-93. "Tutwiler knew what Baker was thinking, and Boucher was the guy who knew the State Department," Kempster says.
Boucher's institutional memory and knowledge of foreign policy issues are important attributes. Similarly, his instincts to broaden the participation of State Department policymakers in a dialogue with the press could help restore a measure of trust between them that has sharply diminished.
But, unlike Rubin, Boucher is not a member of Albright's inner circle of political and policy advisers. (Albright grew to depend on Rubin at the United Nations, when she was U.S. ambassador and he was her spokesman. He said in a recent interview that Albright chose him for the State Department job "because she wanted someone close to her who knows her mind to be the one explaining and advocating what it is that she's hoping to get the department to do.")
Boucher's access to the secretary may be more limited. He will need time and exposure to understand her thinking.
Moreover, it is uncertain to what extent Boucher will be allowed by Albright to enlarge the channels of communication. "We don't know whether it's Albright or Rubin who is against access,"says Kempster. "Now we'll find out."
A LBRIGHT PROMISED A partnership of sorts with the press when Rubin became spokesman in August 1997. Introducing him to the State Department press corps, the secretary said: "I believe that conveying our views publicly to all of you and to the American public is a key responsibility.... We have...talked about the role of the press in not just the conveying of information, but in helpful criticism of the information, and our role in making sure that, as we enter this new era, that the public is well informed."
Two years later, Rubin sounded a different note, one that affirmed an atmosphere of growing alienation that has undermined the tradition of respect between diplomats and journalists. In a speech last fall at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, Rubin said: "Thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, there is an underlying assumption among many in the media that those in government are either incompetent or corrupt.... Today, it is strictly an adversarial relationship."
Indeed, to an unprecedented degree, the relationship between State Department officials and the correspondents assigned to cover them has become hostile and antagonistic. Instead of communicating the views that shape American foreign policy in a complex post-Cold War world, Rubin claims he has spent "most of my time playing defense."
His admission underscores an extraordinary reversal of fortune for Albright. She entered office three years ago on a wave of public approval and enjoyed a remarkable honeymoon from an admiring press corps during her first year as secretary. Initially hailed as a heroine for her tell-it-like-it-is rhetorical style, Albright increasingly is dismissed by Washington's foreign policy community as a lightweight lacking influence on President Clinton's global agenda and as a hectoring, finger-wagging scold by leaders of other nations. Peter Krogh, Albright's academic patron and former dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last April that she "appears to be trying to prove that she is tougher than the men with whom she is dealing. She does not need to do so; she could simply rise above them."
For Rubin, defending his boss from such skewering presented a monumental challenge. As Albright's direct conduit to the press, Rubin perceived himself as a combatant struggling against the negativism that he believes has infected journalism since the end of the Cold War. "We have entered an era in which the government seems mostly in a defensive crouch against the media onslaught,"Rubin said in a graduation address last May at Columbia University. Compounding the problem, he added, is the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, with its incessant demand for information. The pressure for news, complained Rubin, "often tilts reporters' balance toward speed at the expense of accuracy and fairness." In response, the State Department "is expected to be ever-ready with an answer."
In an interview, Rubin tempered his critique of the journalists covering the State Department. "I still generally believe that the State Department press corps as a whole is interested in nuance, in substance, and in understanding the thinking that goes behind our actions,"he says. "What I was hoping to communicate...is the fact that the new media and the new speed and the new climate of government and the press has pushed even the State Department press corps towards a more adversarial posture."
Alienation has intensified, says Rubin, with the advent of 24-hour cable news channels and Web sites, which compete for attention by concentrating on exclusives. They have put pressure on the mainstream media to keep pace. Not so long ago, he says a secretary of state could call in a handful of journalists and explain the motivation behind what the State Department was doing. And those journalists would define conventional wisdom. "Those days are gone,"Rubin says.
Today, asserts the spokesman, even the major newspapers--the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times--are more interested in exposÚs than in-depth explanations of complex foreign policy issues. "I think a lot of the trust...has broken down,"he says. Is the process irrevocable? "No, assuming journalists realize that government is not the enemy. Often we're too defensive, we fail to explain the complexities of a problem, and then we complain when the press shortchanges it. Government can be wrong; it can be ill-intentioned; it can be stupid. But government sometimes is smart, well-intentioned and right."
Rubin's accusation that correspondents engage in "gotcha"journalism while ignoring important policy initiatives is countered by their complaints that he has spun the news and restricted their access to policymakers. Spinning, which Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz has defined as a gray area between candor and outright falsehood, has traditionally been employed more by White House operatives and political campaign strategists than by State Department spokesmen.
It is a technique Rubin has vehemently denied using. But spinning can take many forms: It can encompass intimidation of journalists and diplomats and retribution against them. It can also entail the planting of classified intelligence information in press stories to deflect criticism of top officials.
It appears instances of both have occurred during the Albright/Rubin regime.
R UBIN CITES COVERAGE of the Kosovo conflict as evidence of journalistic bias against the Clinton administration. "Of the thousands of news articles and television segments devoted to the conflict,"he says, "you can probably count on one hand the number that were not negative."He faults the press for concluding the NATO bombing campaign was a failure soon after its inception. "On the first day, it was OK,"he says. "On the second day, it hadn't worked yet. By the third day, it was a big mistake."Acknowledging he is exaggerating to make a point, Rubin nonetheless argues that the media's pronouncements were premature--and demonstrably wrong.
After all, he notes, the administration achieved its three basic objectives: getting the Serb forces out, getting the refugees back and getting NATO in. "The impatience of the media is one of the phenomena of the 24-hour news cycle,"he says. "Three times a day, a new story line has to develop. And that creates an institutional impatience, where policies that require time...are not given their full, fair view."
For Albright, whose muscular support of American interventionism prompted descriptions of the Kosovo conflict as "Madeleine's war,"it was a high-stakes gamble. She had predicted that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would capitulate shortly after the bombs began to fall. In fact, it took 78 days of bombardment, plus the threat of a ground invasion, to persuade the Serbian dictator to back down.
The prolonged campaign prompted both administration backbiting and media criticism of Albright's forecast--and led to CIA and FBI investigations into leaks of highly classified intelligence data to the press, a flagrant breach of national security. According to a source aware of the investigation, Albright asked her aides to scour intelligence data for evidence supporting her prediction of a quick victory. Stories extensively quoting from highly classified material, some of which predicted Milosevic would yield to bombing threats, subsequently appeared on April 18 in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Albright's advocacy of military action was prominently featured in both accounts.
Asked about the outcome of the investigations, Rubin replied: "I don't know anything about them. That's not my job."He acknowledges hearing concern "about inclusion of intelligence information in those stories,"but rarely, he adds, is it possible to discover the sources of such articles. In any event, Rubin's reaction to publication of the intelligence estimates is surprisingly benign. "So long as the intelligence information doesn't really damage the sources of that information,"he says, "I say good for the reporters. That's their job."
If the Kosovo conflict was a crucible for Albright, it seemed at times to be a personal torment for Rubin. A year ago, Albright failed to achieve a peace agreement at a conference in Rambouillet, France. During the conference, Rubin had a confrontation with Carol Giacomo, a Reuters correspondent covering the State Department. Giacomo complained that Rubin had not briefed the traveling press on the negotiations until after he had met with a separate pool of newsmen staking out the site of the talks. Rubin stalked off and later summoned Giacomo off the press bus for a dressing down. "He had no sleep, he was strung out, and I felt embarrassed for him,"she says.
Rubin agrees he was under pressure. "It was what I would call a press management issue,"he recalls. "I sort of exploded, and I said, 'Why are you confronting me with this now?' "
At a briefing in October 1998, the spokesman was angered by the questions of Newsday's Roy Gutman, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his reporting of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Gutman challenged Rubin's assertion that redeployment of Serbian military and police forces suggested movement toward compliance with NATO demands to cease attacks on Kosovar Albanians. Pressed for specific evidence of withdrawal, Rubin accused Gutman of "having an agenda"advocating airstrikes. After the briefing, Rubin warned Gutman that if he ever again challenged Rubin's integrity by implying he misled the press, he would never talk to him.
"It took me more than two months to resume a conversational relationship with Jamie,"says Gutman. "I'm a reporter, and I need the access."
Reflecting on the episodes, Rubin says that after a couple of years on the job "I developed a thicker skin and an easier ability to brush off that kind of thing."
In addition to his duties as spokesman, Rubin briefly served as a diplomatic negotiator during the Kosovo conflict. Following the ill-fated conference at Rambouillet, Rubin conducted negotiations with Hashim Thaqi, a leader of the Kosovar Albanians. In the judgment of some journalists and State Department officials, Rubin's personal stake in the outcome compromised his credibility as spokesman.
Says a senior diplomat: "Here was a spokesman who was publicly ordained as a negotiator. Until then, the unwritten, unspoken assumption had been above all to preserve the credibility of the spokesman by rising above partisan attitudes and being dispassionate in support of a policy. The spokesman reports on policy; he doesn't make policy."
Rubin makes no apologies for his dual role during the Kosovo conflict or for his forceful advocacy of Albright's policies as spokesman. "I was in the secretary's morning meetings at which the day's events were spelled out, not as the spokesman, but as a policy adviser,"he says. "I hope that because I have a direct impact on policy it has made me a better spokesman, more informed, and more willing to be forthcoming in briefings."Certainly in the case of Kosovo, "I believe reporters benefited from my intimate knowledge of what was going on each day."
Rubin cites the absence of dispassionate journalism as the rationale for his impassioned advocacy. "You have to push a little harder,"he says.
I T IS AN AXIOM of journalism that a reporter is no better than his sources. In Albright's State Department, officials have been discouraged from talking to the press. Assistant secretaries with policy-making responsibilities were instructed not to grant interviews without permission from Rubin or his deputy, James Foley. Lower-level officials were warned that unauthorized press contacts could jeopardize their careers.
Rubin defended the practice as essential to the conduct of a coherent information policy. But journalists--and some State Department officials--saw a different motive. "Jamie's goal,"says a State Department reporter for a major newspaper, was "to ensure positive coverage for the secretary. He wants to be the sole spokesman, to control her and to know who else speaks to the press."
If he were a journalist, concedes Rubin, he would want regular access to policy-makers and their aides. But from a spokesman's standpoint, the requirements of today's instantaneous communications preclude it. "Every utterance and every grunt that comes over the telephone from a policy-maker to a sophisticated reporter tells him something,"Rubin says. "Some guy may be terrific on his policy issue, but he may not be so terrific at communicating it, or he may be too terrific at telling more than the government is ready to see instantly known in another country."
The State Department, insists Rubin, has the right to organize the way in which information is communicated about its policies and actions. "I would argue that there would be a lot less restrictions on talking to reporters if we didn't have this adversarial relationship."In any event, says Rubin, "I don't believe our policies have prevented reporters from getting what they need to know on a timely basis. They may have prevented them from learning what we weren't ready to share with the world, but there is no limit in the minds of journalists about what ought to be shared instantly."
The department's efforts to control the flow of information have not been entirely successful, but they have had a chilling effect on many of the officials to whom journalists seek access. Martin Indyk, former assistant secretary of the bureau of Near Eastern affairs, now on his second tour as ambassador to Israel, was always careful to seek Rubin's approval before speaking to newsmen. The bureau's agenda is sensitive--it includes Iran, Iraq, terrorism and Arab-Israeli relations--and Indyk was often blamed for leaks involving Middle East policy. "I have the scars to prove it," he once said.
Three years ago, Edward Abington, a respected career diplomat then serving as consul general in Jerusalem, aroused Albright's ire by speaking without authorization to the press. Reflecting the conclusions of a CIA study, Abington was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Israel's settlement expansion in the occupied territories was "ideologically driven"rather than based on natural growth. According to a senior State Department official, Albright wanted to fire Abington, even though he apologized. Counseled by cooler heads that there was no legitimate basis for his ouster, the secretary proposed sending notice of a reprimand of Abington to all U.S. diplomatic missions abroad as an object lesson of the consequences of an unauthorized disclosure. Finally, she settled for a personal reprimand. Says Rubin: "The secretary doesn't want her representatives around the world essentially creating new public policy without authorization. That strikes her...as Rule No. 1 for a senior foreign service officer."
But that was not the end of Abington's ordeal. Returning to Washington in 1997, he was asked by Phyllis Oakley, head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to serve as her principal deputy. Their primary role: to provide the secretary daily intelligence and analysis. Last summer, as Oakley prepared to retire after 42 years as a diplomat, she was told by two senior officials that Albright wanted Abington to simultaneously relinquish his post as her deputy. Although there had been vague hints of dissatisfaction with Abington from Albright's inner circle, no explanation was offered. Faced with the secretary's ultimatum, Abington elected to end his 29-year diplomatic career in December and join a public relations firm to represent the Palestinians he dealt with as consul general in Jerusalem.
Some foreign service officers are convinced that Albright's action affirmed that she never forgave Abington's "indiscretion"in the interview. To them, his fate suggests that she does not distinguish between dissent and disloyalty--particularly when it involves speaking to journalists.
R UBIN ARGUABLY HAS had more influence with Albright than any previous spokesman has exercised with a secretary of state. In addition to his responsibilities as spokesman, Rubin was a key member of her policy-making team and a participant in her daily strategy sessions. From his mahogany-paneled office just a few steps down the hall from the secretary's seventh-floor suite, he enjoyed unrivaled access to his boss.
A New York City native, Rubin brought a partisan background to his role as spokesman. Five years after receiving a master's degree in international affairs at Columbia University in 1984, Democrat Biden hired him as his senior foreign policy adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In May 1993, Rubin was named Albright's spokesman after her designation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
In 1997, soon after Albright was sworn in as secretary of state, Rubin's news management skills were tested. Michael Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter, uncovered Albright's Jewish ancestry while researching a story on her Czechoslovakian background. In an interview with Dobbs, Albright acknowledged that his evidence was "fairly compelling"and said the deaths of her grandparents and other relatives in Nazi concentration camps was new to her. Post editors wanted to incorporate the disclosure in a Sunday magazine article previously scheduled for publication 10 days after Dobbs' interview. Albright and her advisers had other ideas. Three days after the Dobbs interview, at a taping for CBS' "60 Minutes," Albright said she had just learned from Dobbs of her Jewish origins.
The next day, Rubin called Barry Schweid, the State Department correspondent for the Associated Press, and granted his earlier request to interview the secretary. Albright disclosed to Schweid that Dobbs' research had convinced her that her grandparents on both sides were Jewish. With AP bulletins ricocheting around the world, the Post was compelled to run a page-one news story.
Defending the pre-emptive strikes that deprived Dobbs of his exclusive, Rubin asserts that the Post editors were unjustified in seeking to delay publication to promote their magazine. "They believed that they owned her life and could force her to not talk about it,"he says. He warned the Post editors that he didn't think the story would hold and informed them once it was out. "If I had it to do all over again,"says Rubin, "I would have been even more forceful with the Washington Post in insisting that they put it in the newspaper immediately. Failing that, I would have issued a statement."
The disclosure created a furor in the news media: Had Albright known of her Jewish background before Dobbs presented his evidence to her? Dobbs, who had avoided addressing the issue, later concluded in his biography of Albright that she learned the essential details of her family's past long before he met with her.
Journalists covering the State Department have appreciated Rubin's access to Albright and his ability to articulate foreign policy issues, but they have disliked his occasional arrogance. At briefings, Rubin frequently has resorted to sarcasm; his attempts to make reporters the butt of his jokes often backfired. Most correspondents overlooked Rubin's put-downs. But his attempts to control access to policy-makers, including his strict rationing of Albright's press contacts, were deeply resented.
Says a veteran Washington journalist, "He's very smart, he has terrific access to Madeleine, but he's very difficult for reporters to work through, around or with."
Washington's growing perception of Albright as ineffectual complicated Rubin's task. Despite her knack for sound bites, Albright simply is not seen by many journalists as a major formulator of Clinton's foreign policy. National Security Adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger dominates the policymaking process. Writing in the New York Times last December, State Department correspondent Jane Perlez concluded that Albright "has been effectively eclipsed"by Berger since the Kosovo conflict. Berger, reported Perlez, "has brought his physical proximity to the Oval Office and his personal relationship with President Clinton to bear on every foreign policy issue."The judgment of journalists that Albright's influence has diminished has been echoed by diplomats.
Today's climate of suspicion between State Department officials and the press is a far cry from the informal dialogue that prevailed in an earlier era. Marvin Kalb, who covered the department for CBS and NBC for 24 years, fondly recalls the Friday afternoon sessions he and his colleagues had in the 1960s with Secretary Dean Rusk in an anteroom adjacent to his suite. Seated on sofas, sipping drinks, the shirt-sleeved secretary and a dozen State Department "regulars"discussed the issues the United States confronted. Although Vietnam already was dividing the country, Rusk candidly explained and defended American policy in Vietnam and everywhere else the journalists inquired about--always on background, confident that his anonymity would be respected. "If you had half a brain and half a sense of dedication to your job,"says Kalb, "you could be one helluva good State Department reporter."
I T IS MORE difficult today. In contrast to most previous administrations, what is lacking in Albright's State Department is trust, not only between officials and journalists, but also between the secretary of state and many career diplomats. Rubin's control of information has made it harder for journalists to interview State Department officials at all levels--even though Rubin insists he authorized such contacts whenever he considered it necessary. "If the regulars have a burning question they really have to get answered and they call me and I can't answer it, I get them to somebody who can,"he says.
Trouble is, no State Department correspondent wants to depend solely on the spokesman, directly or indirectly, for information. In an era of unparalleled American engagement in the world, Rubin's concentration of authority has amounted to interference in the effective transmission of information, from officials to the media and to the public.
To the Washington Post's Dobbs, the practice has been "pernicious and counterproductive, reducing the discourse to a level of spinning on one side and 'gotcha' journalism on the other." To a former senior State Department official, it is reflective of Madeleine Albright's suspicious nature: "She only trusts her inner circle."
Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post diplomatic correspondent who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes it is vital to maintain trust between State Department officials and the journalists who cover them. "There is one level of communication when you talk to the spokesman, and another when you talk to the principals," he says. Without that higher level of exchange, he adds, "there is not the level of information on diplomacy and foreign affairs from the government to the press, or from the press to the government, that has been important and healthy in the past. To the extent there is a disconnect between the State Department and the press, it is a serious problem for democracy."
Rubin agrees with Oberdorfer's diagnosis, but he differs on the cause and the cure. For democracy to function effectively, he says, there should be a consensus between the government and the people on objectives. "But because of the tension between the media and government, discussion and debate and resolution of big foreign policy issues suffers."
Foreign policy, argues Rubin, ought to be treated by the media with a perspective beyond the 24-hour news cycle. "But far from giving us breathing room, the media are breathing down our necks every day, looking for the slightest shift in policy, the slightest error and the slightest change in what we say from one day to another,"he says. "The result is press coverage of foreign affairs that focuses relentlessly on the negative and the ephemeral."
Ultimately, the problem can only be solved by the restoration of trust between the State Department and the reporters who cover foreign policy. Journalists should resist the temptation to rush to judgment--particularly on policy issues that defy sound bites and instant analysis. At the same time, State Department correspondents and their editors should hold Albright and her spokesman publicly accountable for circumscribing access to senior policymakers and career diplomats. Their depth of knowledge and nuance would add a dimension to the dialogue between the department and the press that is sorely lacking.
Perhaps Boucher can persuade Albright and her top advisers that in dealing with the press, "There's always something to say, and we need to say it."