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A Day In The Life: Reporting On The State Department

In the wake of North Korea's missile tests, the media is hanging onto most of what the administration has to say on the matter. And, if you were watching cable news yesterday, you likely saw at least one of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's public appearances, during which she discussed it. It ended up being a relatively heavy day of appearances for Rice, CBS News State Department reporter/producer Charles Wolfson told me when I joined him at CBS' booth in the building, so there was a lot on his plate.

The secretary's first appearance took place in the briefing room (which is quite posh compared to the White House's digs) where she made some brief remarks along with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to introduce a new report from the State Department's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. The report is a recommendation that the U.S. spend $80 million "to help nongovernmental groups hasten change in Cuba," as the Associated Press put it. It was not huge news (especially amid North Korea's recent actions) but the appearance of Rice at the briefing generated a larger crowd than might typically appear for such announcements, said Wolfson.

Nonetheless, "it's nothing I would push" as a big story, Wolfson said, but he noted that it would probably be of interest to radio – particularly stations in Florida with substantial Cuban populations. So he ended up recording a brief spot for CBS Radio News on the report and sending out a summary of the briefing to the Washington bureau and CBS' producer based in Cuba.

Rice and Gutierrez didn't take questions – they ceded the podium to Caleb McCarry, the Cuba transition coordinator, who summarized the report and took questions from reporters. (You can read a transcript of that briefing here.) Rice then headed to a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Kasuri – which ended up getting a bit more attention than the Cuba report after she answered a few questions about North Korea and Iraq during a brief photo op.

Indeed, once we returned to the booth, MSNBC was carrying footage of Rice's comments on North Korea. Her comments on that issue were "far more newsy" than the Cuba report, said Wolfson, who summarized them and sent a brief note to the Washington bureau, the foreign desk and correspondent Lee Cowan in Iraq. While Rice's quotes would be in wire reports, said Wolfson, part of his job is to keep anyone who might be interested up to date on what's being said and whether it's useful.

Wolfson has a unique position as a reporter/producer. While his primary responsibility is covering the State Department for television, Wolfson does frequent on-air radio spots, which he records right from his booth. Yesterday, he ended up recording three spots for radio on Rice's statements from that morning. (None of Rice's statements from yesterday ended up on the "Evening News" that night.)

He thinks of himself as "a reporter with a small 'r,'" because he's basically gathering information and distributing it to various people throughout the Washington bureau, traveling with Rice or helping arrange future coverage. CBS News doesn't have a full time State Department correspondent (nor do ABC or NBC) so the on-air portion of the beat typically falls within the purview of the White House and the national security correspondents, whom Wolfson works with as stories come up.

Later in the afternoon, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack held the daily briefing, the usefulness of which, according to Wolfson, "varies depending on what's going on." In today's case, with Rice making various appearances throughout the day, "McCormack isn't going to say anything that's going to outdo Rice," he added.

And he pretty much didn't as far as I could tell. The briefing lasted about 45 minutes and was pretty typical fare as briefings go -- no real news made (you can check out the transcript here.) The State Department's "view of the briefing is very different than [the press's] view of it," said Wolfson. "They see their purpose as making pronouncements that will be heard around the world," as opposed to directly serving the press. If the State Department wants to send a message to a leader with whom they don't have a diplomatic relationship, for example, appearances before cameras are an opportunity to make it heard.

Wolfson referred to a conversation that he had with former State Department spokesman Richard Boucher when he left the position. Asked about his view of the daily briefing, Boucher said:

"… we're only there because we need to convey the president's policy and the secretary's policy to the audience that's on the other side of the pen, or the other side of the recorder, or other side of the camera … We're just the place where the gears fit together … and reporters don't matter because we don't really want to talk to the reporters. We want to talk to the people who read their newspapers and watch their broadcasts. You know, twenty reporters in a room is nice but if they don't write anything after your pronouncements, all you've done is educate twenty people. The goal is to educate millions."
While millions may not have tuned into the State Department briefing, Rice's appearance with British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett gained a bit of attention. We headed to it at around 3:30 p.m.

While the press is free to walk around most of the Pentagon on their own, at the State Department, an escort is required for reporters to go above the second floor, so the press corps was escorted to the Ben Franklin room by a press officer.

"We're not free to roam the building," said Wolfson, who joked on the way to the presser that while the "lowliest state department intern" is free to go throughout the building, the press cannot. (Reporters used to be able to move more freely throughout the building, according to Wolfson, but following incidents such as a 1999 episode in which the State Department discovered that a Russian spy had bugged a 7th floor conference room in the building, tighter security measures restricted reporters' movements.)

After Rice and Beckett's brief introductions, Wolfson expected that reporters would be allowed a total of about four questions – two from the American press and two from the British press. It didn't quite work out that way (you can check out the transcript here) -- after one question from an American reporter another from the British side, Beckett and Rice took a quick photo, said thank you and headed out. "With only two questions," said Wolfson, "it's not a real press conference, like the ones the president has been holding lately. There are very few real news conferences around here."

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