- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

Interviews galore

The U.N. General Assembly opens its fall session this week and, as every year at this time, world leaders are on the move. Dozens of them will be in New York for the session, and several will pass through Washington, making themselves available for interviews.

On Wednesday, we interviewed South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, the current front-runner to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations. The same day, we interviewed the chairman of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Yu Shyi-kun.

On Thursday, we hosted the head of the National Dialogue Party in Lebanon, Fouad Makhzoumi. Tomorrow, we will meet in our offices with the foreign minister of Gabon, Jean Ping.

That is nothing compared to the flood of world leaders who will be competing for space in American newspapers and broadcast outlets this week with interviews, photo ops and interview opportunities in New York.

In past years, it has been possible to rush from a briefing with the president of Iran to one with the president of France to one with the president of Pakistan.

We will be sending at least two Washington-based reporters to help U.N. bureau chief Betsy Pisik cope with this embarrassment of riches, but even then we will have to turn down invitations, we would normally jump at to, talk with leaders.

Tough choices will have to be made: India or Egypt? Turkey or Japan? The reporters will have to weigh the current issues we have been covering in each country and the likelihood of hearing something new that will interest and inform our readers.

Prestige and policy

Why do we bother? Does anybody really care about these interviews, in which the leaders tend to reiterate old policy statements and duck the more difficult questions?

To some extent, it is a matter of prestige. News outlets compete to interview the most prominent policy-makers simply to demonstrate how important and influential they are.

That has some legitimacy in an industry in which we compete fiercely for readers, viewers and listeners. The more world leaders who talk to our reporters, the more significant and influential we must be. And the more influential we are, the more likely that people will come to us for their news.

That is especially true in a market such as Washington, where our readers include State Department and Pentagon analysts, think tank experts, diplomats and journalists from around the world.

Many of these experts will read through an interview with a foreign leader word by word, searching for nuances that might signal a slight shift in that country’s policy directions. We want these analysts to feel they have to read The Washington Times every day, or they might miss something they need to know about.

The value of any interview depends a lot, of course, on the skill of our reporters and their ability to pose questions that will elicit genuinely fresh responses.

We are not interested in tricking the interviewees. We want them to feel they can talk to our reporters in the confidence that their words will be conveyed accurately and fairly. But we also want them to say something that our readers have not heard before.

Sometimes, they come to us with a message they want to get out to the larger policy community in Washington. If so, we try to make sure that message gets communicated.

But we also probe the issues that we think our readers will be interested in, trying to find new ways to ask the questions so that we get new answers.

When it’s over, reporters and editors sit down together and compare notes, trying to decide on the most interesting comment to lead the story, what should come second and what should come third.

Tune in this week to see how good a job we do.

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

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