Front Lines: Meet The Press

The State of the Union Message brought opposing forces together under one roof--and not just under the Capitol dome.

As part of a new effort to court the world's media, the White House invited foreign reporters from nearly 20 news outlets to watch President Bush's speech with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz--one of the administration's most ardent hawks. They gathered like a big, if at times dysfunctional, family in the conference room next to the Indian Treaty Room. Afterward, the former Johns Hopkins professor hosted a roundtable interview with print and radio journalists and did a spot with each of the TV reporters--including the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, which has often been a colorful critic of the Bush administration. "We are extending our reach as an administration and our own awareness of other media and other audiences," explained Tucker Eskew, who heads the Office of Global Communications (OGC), which formally opened for business last week and came up with the "novel" event.

Eskew and his small staff are still culling the results of their outreach, but they got their message out live to a lot more places than they would normally: Nile TV in Egypt; Jawa Pos, an Indonesian newspaper; and, of course the BBC which has always had tremendous reach in the Arab world. Australian, Russian and Japanese journalists were also among the strategic invitees. Wolfowitz, who was once ambassador to Indonesia, has a particular interest in Islam. While in Jakarta, he saw the burgeoning of a small group of radical Islamists try to hijack what he believes is a peaceful religion--and it made his blood boil.

Meanwhile, in Jakarta, the current U.S. ambassador to Indonesia set an example for his counterparts around the world and invited opinion leaders and journalists to a speech-watching event. The party was not orchestrated by the OGC, but it is just the kind of international message machine the new office supports. "We helped to make sure that the speech was available for translation as early as we could get it to them," explains Eskew, whose office coordinates with the State Department.

The Bush White House is not only trying to get its message heard as widely as possible but as accurately as possible. Part of Eskew's mission is to counter disinformation in the press abroad and to develop relationships with foreign journalists. Take Al-Jazeera, for example. The upstart channel, based in Qatar, made a name for itself during the war in Afghanistan by broadcasting Osama bin Laden's statements in Arabic. The White House was concerned that the recordings had coded messages and officials denounced the network for "inciting attacks" against the United States. Some in the administration wanted to take them on.

But cooler heads prevailed. The White House realized that Al-Jazeera, while it can be inflammatory at times, could be reasoned with. Instead of shutting them out, the administration started to include them in White House events. The Pentagon even included Al-Jazeera correspondent Dana Budeiri in the December media-training camp that I attended at Fort Benning in Georgia. (There were 600 applications for 60 slots.) Meanwhile, the OGC is cultivating relationships with others in the region including Al-Jazeera's competition, the Middle East Broadcasting Co., which is actually larger. "Access is the coin of the realm," says Eskew, a smooth South Carolinian who helped Bush win that state's rough-and-tumble presidential primary in 2000.

But it was Al-Jazeera that was right on the money Tuesday night. Budeiri did her standups--just like all the U.S. networks--from the White House lawn. The channel went live for nearly three hours with a special program on the State of the Union address and featured Wolfowitz afterward for five whole minutes. His conversation with the anchor back in Qatar was translated into Arabic. But sometime this winter, Al-Jazeera will start dubbing its programming into English, which one day may even compete with the BBC.