Gov't hopes to steer American press beyond Bush agenda

Foreign Ministry to pitch stories to journalists between briefings.

white house 88 (photo credit: )
white house 88
(photo credit: )
President George W. Bush isn't the only visitor arriving this week - accompanying him on his 48-hour trip beginning Wednesday will be approximately 130 American journalists from the White House press corps, representing the top media outlets in the country. With the reporters forced to hang on every word and tidbit which emerges during the highly orchestrated schedule, government officials are planning to make every effort to provide some value-added depth which they hope will be welcomed by the guests, as well as the 400 permanent foreign correspondents based in Israel. The reporters traveling with Bush will be the responsibility of the American Embassy, which is housing them in the Dan Panorama Hotel, a block away from the King David Hotel where Bush is staying. "That's where they're going to get their briefings from the White House spokespeople on Bush's activities while he's here," said the Foreign Ministry's deputy spokesperson Zehavit Ben-Hillel. The Government Press Office and the Jerusalem Municipality are setting up a press center for media - both local and foreign - on the top floor of City Hall for the duration of the visit. It will be equipped with computers, phone, and wireless connections for laptops, but Ben-Hillel and GPO Director Danny Seaman have no illusions that the Washington journalists will need to make use of it. "The press center is more for the permanent press stationed here, and for correspondents who cover the Mideast and may be based in Cairo and are coming in for the event," Seaman said. "The journalists coming with Bush - the 'bubble' - are coming to get an American perspective. They're here to get their daily White House briefing. As far as they're concerned, they could be in Washington - the only difference being the weather. They won't cover anything else," he added. However, in the event that the visiting reporters are in the market for broader material, the Foreign Ministry is going to make it available, said Ben-Hillel. "We're pretty sure there's going to be a lot of downtime with no briefings planned, and we want to be able to fill that gap and provide some story ideas and information. So we're putting together a packet with ideas and contacts which each journalist will receive, and we'll let them run with it if they want to," she said. According to Ben-Hillel, the effort is part of a campaign within the government to expose other sides of Israel which the foreign media rarely cover due to their focus on diplomatic and political events which dominate the news. Among the ideas being touted are stories which provide a uniquely Israeli angle on a typically American pastime. With the NFL playoffs in full swing, Ben-Hillel thinks that a natural sidebar would be the introduction of American football in Israel. As fate would have it, The Israel Football League is holding a regular season game of American tackle football on Thursday night at Kraft Stadium, only a few field goal kicks away from the hotel. "Another idea we had was to get in touch with representatives from Democrats and Republicans Abroad, and make them available to the journalists to comment on the primary season currently under way in the US, and provide them with a perspective on how Americans living in Israel are thinking," said Ben-Hillel. The ministry has also contacted a number of Israelis who have made aliya from Texas, Bush's home state, and are providing their contacts information to the visiting journalists. In addition, there will be story ideas about innovations in the high tech field and in alternative energy, which Ben-Hillel calls "a big deal for Americans." "We're counting on the fact that since everything is organized by pool, a big chunk of the journalists are going to stuck at the hotel looking for something to do," she said. Closer to the main story at hand, the MFA will also be organizing briefings at the press center with Prime Minister's Office spokesman Mark Regev and other government officials. They'll also be bringing in a delegation of residents from Sderot, including some who made aliya from the US to talk to interested journalists. "The briefings we're providing with the MFA will give some context to the issues and help fill in the downtime," said Seaman. "We'll also provide material on the kidnapped IDF soldiers, an issue that we think should not be forgotten on this trip." Other non-governmental bodies are also getting in on the act. The Israel Project, a non-profit organization providing resources about Israel for journalists, is also offering the journalists a number of experts for analysis and commentary in Arabic and English. "We think the main theme that the journalists will be covering are issues like terrorism the Iranian question and US-Israel relations, and we're providing experts in those fields for them to interview," said Eli Ovits, the organization's director of communications. "We think that the visiting reporters will take advantage of this service. My counterpart in Washington who works with them on a daily basis has good relations with them, knows what they want, and will be here with them. We understand that they would like to have in depth extra understanding of the issues, and how Israel perceived the visit." Despite the strong attention on the visit by the Washington journalists, the assessment within the GPO and the Foreign Ministry is that the Bush visit is not likely to generate the media attention that past visits by US president Bill Clinton or international dignitaries like Pope John Paul II attracted. "For a number of reasons, we're not expecting many other journalists to parachute in this time, unlike previous visits where hundreds of correspondents arrived," said Seaman. "There's the economic problem the media is facing around the world, which is cutting down on their budgets for travel. Second, the elections in the US is at center stage for the American media. As far as the international media, places like France, England and Australia are concentrating on Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya and Pakistan." According to Seaman, the Bush visit is more of a local story, of interest to the reporters traveling with Bush and to the permanently stationed foreign correspondents. "The Israel-Palestinian story has lost its supremacy over the last five years," Seamans said. "And remember, this is only a working visit, not an official state visit. Unless the participants come up with some dramatic announcement, the international media is not going to use their resources on this visit."