- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

Two interviews

Paul Martin, who covered the war for us from Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, used his every ounce of charm and persuasion trying to secure an interview with that nation’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in advance of his visit to Washington earlier this month.

The effort paid off when Mr. Martin informed me a few days before the emir’s arrival that his staff had agreed to the interview but wanted to do it as an editorial board meeting at our offices in Washington.

That was a disappointment for Mr. Martin but fine with the rest of us; any time the leader of a geopolitically significant nation takes the trouble to visit The Washington Times it gives us both an exclusive story and a certain amount of prestige.

I was told the Qatari ambassador in Washington, Bader Omar al-Dafa, had been informed about the plan and that I should call him right away to discuss the exact time and other arrangements.

Apparently the word reached me before the ambassador, however; when I called he did not know anything about an interview with The Washington Times. I apologized for any embarrassment I might have caused him, and everything was straightened out later that day.

The shoe was very much on the other foot a few days later.

One of our reporters had — without my knowledge — submitted a formal request to interview South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun during his visit to Washington last week.

This time, I was the one to be taken aback when I received an e-mail from a South Korean official in Seoul whom we know from his time at the embassy in Washington. The e-mail, saying our request for an interview had been granted, was the first I knew that the request had even been made.

The catch was that Mr. Roh wanted to conduct the interview at the presidential mansion in Seoul — the Blue House — before he left for his visit to New York, Washington and the West Coast.

We quickly agreed, especially as this would be the only interview the president gave to an American newspaper before the trip, giving us an opportunity to set the tone for U.S. press coverage of the first American visit by the leader of a major ally.

Our men in Seoul

As a demonstration of our respect, we decided that Managing Editor Fran Coombs should go to Korea to conduct the interview, accompanied by Deputy Foreign Editor Willis Witter, who knows the country and its issues well from his four years as our Asia bureau chief in Tokyo.

Koreans are very formal people, attaching great importance to appearance and style, and the interview was conducted with due deference to local sensibilities, Mr. Witter reports.

Our delegation, which also included photographer Liz O. Baylen, drove in through the wrought iron gates to the Blue House late in the afternoon in not just one but two large black town cars.

After climbing a flight of exterior stairs that Mr. Witter compared to the steps of the Lincoln Monument, they were escorted to a holding room with high-backed, stiff wooden chairs to wait until Mr. Roh was ready.

The event was apparently big news in South Korea. When our team was led into another room for the interview, they were almost blinded by the camera flashes from the Blue House press corps, which was waiting to record their presence in a roped-off area.

The interview itself took place at a round table with chairs for our two reporters, the president, his interpreter and two senior aides who, Mr. Witter says, nodded supportively as the president spoke. Miss Baylen remained unseated, prowling the room to shoot pictures from different angles.

We had submitted a list of our questions in advance at the request of the president’s staff, though we never give up our right to deviate from that list as other issues present themselves.

Mr. Witter says he and Mr. Coombs stuck pretty closely to the themes of the questions, but that the Koreans appeared to be caught off guard by the variations and follow-ups during the one-hour session.

When it was over, Mr. Roh told our reporters he had heard that The Washington Times was a well-respected newspaper in the United States, but that he had never expected such tough questions.

Mr. Coombs replied that it would be good practice for what he could expect from other journalists when he got to Washington.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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