- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

It's hardly a glamorous job, they say, slaving away in a small office with an old computer in a city halfway around the world, forced to cover elections, riots, culture and social trends they often don't understand.

Thus Washington appears through the eyes of many foreign correspondents. Most see America as a country where even the Democrats are too right-of-center for their tastes.

"No question about it, it's a conservative country," says Dimitris Apokis, the bureau chief for Greek National Television and the Cyprus News Agency for the past eight years. "Even the Democratic Party is conservative compared to the European system."

Jose Carreno, a correspondent for El Universal, a leading Mexico City paper, agrees.

"The political center is more right here than Latin America or Europe," he says. Or maybe, he adds, the rest of the world is more to the left.

If American politics does not make sense to these foreign correspondents, the Foreign Press Center can step in to help. George Newman, who is on staff in FPC's Washington office, says the center helps foreign journalists survive in a city of roughly 5,000 journalists, outranking London, New York, Moscow and Jerusalem in terms of sheer numbers of resident scribes.

The FPC helps correspondents acquire media credentials and will host briefings to help sort through issues ranging from AIDS to the California energy crisis. Briefings are given in English.

"If a correspondent is having trouble gaining access to sources," Mr. Newman says, "we're advocates to help them professionally."

About 1,000 names are in the FPC database, but not all are currently active. Washington may be considered a plum assignment by foreign embassy personnel, but not so by foreign journalists.

They praise the art museums, grouse about the food, the politics and Americans' "obsession" with cars, but give grudging admiration for how the country handled last year's contested election.

"What happened in Florida would lead to bloodshed in other countries," says Philip Tazi, president of the African Correspondents Association and a writer for the Cameroon Herald.

Americans seem to decide all their important issues in court, Mr. Carreno says. If they are willing to put issues of creation and evolution on trial, why not their next president?

Many foreign correspondents say they are frustrated with how little Americans know about the rest of the world. Mr. Tazi says sometimes people don't even know Cameroon is an African country.

"The United States could afford to learn a little bit more about the rest of the world," he says.

But the rest of the world knows a great deal about the States, due to its superpower status.

"For good or for bad, the U.S. is seen as an empire," Mr. Carreno says.

Indian journalist T.V. Parasuram has been working in the States since 1958 and has spent the last 20 years in the District of Columbia writing for the Press Trust of India. Washington, he says, was not always the center of worldwide media attention.

"All the interest was in London and the U.N.," he says. "Washington was just on another planet."

But, now, he says, Washington is the focus. London and even the United Nations have dwindled in importance.

Anne Toulouse, who has worked in the District for Radio France Internationale for the last 3 and 1/2 years, says the States are not a place of people coming together as is often portrayed.

"The melting pot is a legend," she says, adding she is surprised to see how much racial segregation still occurs, especially in neighborhoods.

Many of the correspondents opined that Americans are too focused on their careers and that "healthy fun," as Mr. Carreno put it, is not sitting in front of the tube with a six-pack.

Compared with the Greeks, Mr. Apokis says, Americans just don't know how to loosen up. He says that while it is good for Americans to focus on careers for the strength of the economy, they could use some more socializing time.

"At least give more time to the family better for them, better for the kids," he says. Europeans generally have five to six weeks of vacation a year whereas much of the American work force gets by with much less.

The problem here, according to Mr. Carreno, is not that Americans don't know how to have fun, but that "Washingtonians take themselves way too seriously."

But in the past 15 years, more ethnic restaurants and places to go dancing have opened up, which "makes a lot of difference," he says. "It makes the city more livable."

Being a foreign correspondent is not always an easy transition. Mr. Tazi says it took him nearly two weeks when he first arrived to understand the true purpose of a restroom.

"I thought it was a place you go to rest," he says. "I had a good laugh."

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