Washington, D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- The US Department of State in Washington is busy every morning of every working day with various matters that range from consular affairs of US citizens around the world to the most important developments in hot spots, from Venezuela, to North Korea, to Afghanistan and the Arab world. And while US embassies send political reports on developments taking place on the ground, the media remains one of the most important means of information about world events.
In the US Department of State there is a section that specializes in following up and dealing with Middle East media and supplying it with information. Erin Pelton, deputy spokesperson for the Middle East Media section in the Near East Office of the US State Department, is one of the officials responsible for dealing with Middle Eastern media and one of the most important sources of information for Middle East journalists in Washington.
She works in the Middle East Unit which deals directly with Middle Eastern media representatives, and she is one of two diplomats that the State Department has dedicated for this mission. In addition, the unit usually hosts a diplomat from one of the EU countries that have exchange programs with the US State Department; a French diplomat with a good command of Arabic is expected to join the Unit shortly. Moreover, the unit receives trainees from US universities whose studies are related to the Middle East, especially during the summer vacation.
There is a strict organization in the US State Department regarding who is authorized to talk to the media. High-ranking officials such as the Secretary of State [Hilary Clinton] and her deputy and aides are of course allowed, but often the one responsible for talking to the media is US State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly and the Assistant secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J Crowley.
Pelton says: “The spokesperson supervises our work. We also have a special manager who coordinates with us in addition to coordinating with public relations.”
Pelton begins work early in the morning, usually at 07.00 hours, reviewing US embassy dispatches from the Middle East and London concerning the most prominent issues covered by local and international media, and draws attention to the issues that are most likely to raise questions by journalists on that particular day.
Pelton says: “The time difference affects us; we have to deal with a time difference of between seven or eight hours. We wake up not knowing what developments have taken place in the Middle East and become a main story and we spend the day dealing with it.” During the day, “we have to allocate time for following up, such as giving interviews and preparing for visits from the region to Washington, instead of following up the particular front page event of a particular day.”
In less than two months since she finished her work at the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Erin got used to the busy eventful work schedule, especially as far as the Middle East is concerned. She says: “The greatest challenge for us is to present the news in a positive way. Given the continuous reporting, it is easy to get into a state of just responding to the news, a new piece of news or the latest in a crisis, but we [always] have a strong and attractive story to tell the world, especially with the new administration of president Obama. From comprehensive peace efforts to supporting the new Iraqi government and sending a new ambassador to Syria – we have an exciting story to tell, instead of just waiting for a crisis to take place and respond to it.”
Pelton, whose duty it is to watch for developments in the Arab media, spoke optimistically of developments in the Arab media. “I feel optimistic about the development taking place in the Arab media. There are talented and clever correspondents in the region, and I believe we will see the media environment getting stronger,” she said. She added: “of course, there are regions where the freedom of the press is not as we would like it to be, and one of the aims of the US State department is to support free, independent media and freedom of expression, and we will continue to do so. But on the whole, I am optimistic about the developments.”
The US State Department has special programs for hosting journalists in the United States in which journalists from various parts of the world participate. Pelton says: “Our embassies select suitable journalists for these programs because they work with them on a daily basis, and they are chosen according to certain criteria; either because they are more active, or have not previously visited the United States and it would be a good opportunity for them to know about public life and how decisions are made in the United States.” She added: “We naturally support these programs of which there are many, such as ‘the international guest program’ where the guests tour in the United States with a number of journalists. There are also programs that host a number of correspondents from one country, in addition to programs run by important institutions here.”
The new US administration is particularly interested in the so-called ‘new media’, which is an term used to refer to media that basically depends on the internet for communication, such as Twitter and Facebook, on which readers depend and directly disseminate news. Pelton says: “One of the issues that we monitor is how to deal with bloggers on the internet, how the new media interacts with more traditional media, and how to communicate with it in new ways.”
Questions are being raised about the increasing interest of the new US administration in the ‘new media’ at the expense of traditional media, especially the written press, as that may not reflect the actual situation in the Arab world, where only a small percentage use websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Latest statistics indicate that only 8.3% of Facebook users are from the Arab world.
Pelton replied to this question as follows: “The written press and television are both important media and will remain so in our work. We work closely with correspondents of the local written press on a daily basis. They are the ones who write the stories and events that are of interest to us. And we deal with TV channels because they are important for the region and for us. But we should not belittle the importance of the new media which allow us to reach groups that we cannot reach through traditional media.”
Erin Pelton is also responsible for granting interviews with US media officials. She explains that “one of our objectives is to say yes to everyone, but we cannot always do that. For example, everybody wants to meet with the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton; but it is not always possible to grant all those interviews, so we propose instead an assistant or deputy assistant to the Secretary of State. Nor is it always diplomatically possible to deal with all matters that concern a particular medium.”
Pelton regards it as her duty “to educate journalists about what is more beneficial. For instance, everyone thinks that it is most important to have an interview with the Secretary of State; but we tell them that the head of a certain section in the State Department may give them more precise and detailed information about what they want and that would be more beneficial than just meeting with the Secretary of State.” She added (laughing): “Of course this does not mean that an interview with the Secretary of State is not important; what I am saying is that it is necessary to turn to other officials.”
Pelton regards personal contacts with journalists as essential to her work, whether in drawing the journalist’s attention to the possibility of an interview with a certain official; or for building mutual trust for working together on sensitive issues regarding US relations with Middle Eastern states; or talking informally to journalists; or giving information to a journalist on condition that it is not quoted directly by the journalist.
Pelton says that this “in part depends on the personal relation with the correspondent in order to build trust and feel comfortable exchanging information. The other part depends on the journalist’s experience and expertise. If the journalist happens to be new in the field, with no past experience or previous relations with us, I feel that he may not understand the usual procedures and part of my job is to explain that to him.”
Pelton says she is happy that “so far she had no bad experience regarding breach of trust and no one has published what they were not supposed to, but this does not mean that we do not have complaints.”
Pelton speaks warmly and with enthusiasm about her job. “I have the best job,” she says. “The best thing about my job is that I deal with all people and all important issues,” she explains.
But there are many difficulties in her job, foremost of which is that “we have always to keep in touch with the news and ‘the blackberry’. It is impossible to keep away from it, even if I wanted to have some rest away from work, it is impossible to resist the temptation to follow the news.” She goes on to say: “I cannot fall behind because I have to keep up with the news. That is the nature of our job.” She explains that “the important thing is to make a balance between work and rest.”
Apart from the days with exceptional events, Pelton usually finishes work at 19.00 hours, “when it is after midnight in the Middle East and things calm down before the sun rises again.”