Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9941
October 12, 1999

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: An official once sat down with me during the Fiftieth Anniversary year and said, “We had the most wonderful thing yesterday. We had peacekeepers from all over the world visiting New York City high schools.” I thought, “Yesterday!” And this is a perfect story for the New York Times because the New York Times is an international newspaper; it’s also a local newspaper. And here was my chance to write something about UN peacekeeping using people from Fiji in a public school in Brooklyn—no one who dealt with that entire operation, which had been planned for weeks—had ever thought to call the New York Times. Or any other New York newspaper.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, journalists covering the world from mid-town Manhattan.

CROSSETTE: You just have to be there a while and get to know people. And then, and they know that the New York Times not only is read in the UN but it’s read in Washington in the morning. And so there are people in the UN who really do try to present a case as well as they can when there is a subject particularly of some potential controversy.

KRISTIN MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. United Nations Headquarters in New York City is the only place where nearly every country on Earth has official government representation. As such it’s sometimes the news media’s center of the universe. But many other times the UN is ignored, especially by the American media. For an inside look at how journalists cover the United Nations we are joined by two veteran reporters. Barbara Crossette is the UN correspondent for the New York Times. And Lucia Mouat is the former UN correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. I first asked Barbara Crossette to name the best part of being posted at the United Nations.

CROSSETTE: Well, the global view I think is the best thing. The opportunity to meet people from many regions of the world, to get a lot of ideas of policy thinking from many, many capitals. And also to take a look at how a diverse organization like that looks at a problem that we otherwise only see from our national interest point of view. And that’s not just problems of security and things like that. It’s problems of anything from diseases to, to poverty, to any kind of international terrorism, drugs. All those issues come through the UN and get an airing in an international way.

PORTER: Are there really any other assignments at your paper that are comparable?

CROSSETTE: No. No, not really. The State Department reporters—and I’ve done that twice—are very much in the orbit of American policy. That doesn’t mean that they—and I think many, many foreigners misunderstand the relationship between the American press and the government. If, even if you’re a State Department accredited to travel with the Secretary of State and so on, this doesn’t mean that you’re producing propaganda for the government or that they are necessarily telling you what to write. They might try but they often fail. But you are in an environment which is very closed, both in the sense of being around the State Department and also being within the Beltway, as we say, in the Washington community where American interests, American policies, American domestic policies, are very much at the forefront. So although being the State Department reporter has a lot of international to it and a lot of traveling, the fact is that it’s not the UN. There is no other place.

Geneva would come close on certain issues. But again, that in many ways, I feel in Geneva a much more European-centered city in itself, for obvious reasons. It’s there. New York itself is a more international city. And so the combination of the United Nations and the city of New York and the environment there is, it’s really truly international.

PORTER: Our other guest here, Lucia Mouat, who is the former UN Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Tell us what you think the best thing is about being assigned to the UN.

LUCIA MOUAT: Well, I think Barbara’s second point is, about covering the UN, is what I would subscribe to particularly. And that is the chance to really know what other nations are thinking about these important issues. And I too covered the State Department and you’ve got the US view very, very clearly, and that was interesting. But this is, this gives you a broader sense. And you have great access to people at the UN once you’re in there. It’s not easy getting the credentials and so on, I find now that I’m out and trying to go back occasionally. But it’s, you have access to virtually everybody around there. And so, you know, and you can go to the missions where the different, each nation has a mission. So you’re not limited at all in that regard.


MOUAT: Occasionally they’ll say no.

CROSSETTE: You know, in fact, on the missions I ought to add that—I think—again both of us having been in Washington, but I having been there twice—I think the diplomatic missions, the quality of the diplomatic missions in New York are far higher than the diplomatic missions in Washington. First of all there isn’t a lot of time in Washington. A lot of it is social, obviously. And it’s, all those embassies in Washington are focused solely on the State Department and on Congress, on American policy. At the UN the missions have a range of experts. Each country’s—it’s really an embassy. The diplomats cover all the major world topics. They interact with each other. They’re not just running to the State Department or to Capitol Hill or somewhere to deal with bilateral issues. So that the missions in New York are really truly wonderful resources. And the best ones, I think, are far better than the best of the embassies in Washington from foreign nations.

PORTER: Well, and it’s also interesting because you do have access to at least a small group of diplomats who with the United States doesn’t have relations. And so you do get to sort of, occasionally run into a Cuban or it used to be the Vietnamese when we didn’t full diplomatic relations—the Vietnamese mission at the UN was one of those places where you—one of those rare places where you could actually meet someone who could give you the official line, at least, from Vietnam.

CROSSETTE: And it’s neutral, neutral ground.

MOUAT: Or talk to the PLO.

PORTER: Or talk to the PLO. Another good example. A very good example. Lucia, what do you think is the worst part, or the down side of being based at the UN.

MOUAT: Well, I get nostalgic about not being there, cause I really loved it. And Barbara reminds me, who has been there much more recently, she said, “Do you really miss those 2:00 a.m. Security Council sessions, when they get out?” And I have to say, no I don’t miss that. But, yeah, the time, you have a great deal of waiting. A lot of it is waiting. You can anticipate. When I first came to the UN it was in 1990, a really good time, and you know, everything was happening. The place, you know, peacekeeping missions were booming and the Cold War was ending and so on. So there was a lot of good stuff going on. But it was, and you could tell when resolutions were coming. And my editors were very receptive to putting in stories at that point. But it later, you know, it got a little more—there’s a lot of waiting and a lot of resolutions that do and don’t mean anything. They word them so carefully. And sometimes you wait till 2:00 a.m. and it won’t be that exciting.

PORTER: Barbara, what do you think is the downside?

CROSSETTE: I think the frustrations. I think until you build the personal relationships that Lucia was talking about you really find it very difficult to get information of any kind. And I mean even just plain old harmless information. It sometimes is a real problem. It’s an organization that doesn’t really know how to deal with information very well. It’s getting better under Secretary General Kofi Annan. But there are still problems. So to get even basic information is frustrating. Until, again, you’ve developed relationships with people both here in New York and in Geneva and in the missions. Also then, it’s the frustration of waiting out the process, which with 185 members of the Board, as Madeleine Albright used to say, it’s hard to make a decision. And so, whether it’s the General Assembly, whether, or the Security Council, or whether the Economic and Social Council, whatever—everything goes really through a hash machine. And in the process editors lose interest, the document or the decision itself gets watered down, and you put in an awful lot of time and for very little in the end. And I think that’s what—at some point I decided I just will not stand outside the Security Council for six or seven hours. I might add I’m lucky. I have a research assistant in my office. We have closed circuit television. So there are ways to mitigate this. But those frustrations, the sort of, this sort of logistical and daily, the daily effort to accumulate any information, are frustrating.

PORTER: I know from my own interactions with the institution that there are an awful lot of good things happening. There are good stories. But they sometimes don’t get told. And as a journalist I suspect that it’s not the media’s fault. That the organization has a problem with telling its story. And with getting sort of the good news out there the way other, sort of commercial institution do. Because they have people employed whose job it is to make sure that happens. But do you agree also that there are good things happening there but they are, that the UN is somehow the best at covering up its own—you know, putting it’s own bushel basket over it’s light?

MOUAT: Well, there are tons of reports. And you know, if you could spend your time looking at those there are probably some really goods one there. It’s a bit mixed.

PORTER: And it’s hard to sift through all of that.

MOUAT: Yeah, it’s hard. Because you’re focused, usually on the peace and security. At least I was. Those issues were the ones that were important to my editors.

PORTER: But a lot of times in the State Department or at the Pentagon or in a commercial operation, when they put out a report they are very eager to pull out the one number that makes them look good or that is the most interesting statistic. And there really doesn’t seem to be—maybe in some agencies there are, but not overall at the UN—that person who pulls out the one number and tells the journalists, “Here’s the story, here’s the good story.”

CROSSETTE: That, yes, people who pull out the numbers, but also if they can, if you can find or they can present you with somebody who’s done a lot of the thinking. When the late Mobubu Hak?? was preparing a human development reports—which really I think revolutionized the way we look at human progress—unfortunately, regrettably, died far too young—before this was carried out even he had just started doing them for the region in which he lived, South Asia. He would be able to, in five or ten minutes, get your, rivet your attention on what it is about that year’s human development report that was, that was knew and interesting. Not just something that would sell it but something that was genuinely new. And that was wonderful.

I, there’s a story I tell though about how the United Nations doesn’t seem to know anything except publicity or secrets. And you say, they don’t always hide stories, or they don’t always try to keep them from you, they simply don’t think that something is a story. An official once sat down with me during the Fiftieth Anniversary year and said, “We had the most wonderful thing yesterday. We had peacekeepers from all over the world visiting New York City high schools.” I thought, “Yesterday!” And this is a perfect story for the New York Times because the New York Times is an international newspaper; it’s also a local newspaper. And here was my chance to write something about UN peacekeeping using people from Fiji in a public school in Brooklyn—no one who dealt with that entire operation, which had been planned for weeks—had ever thought to call the New York Times. Or any other New York newspaper.

PORTER: You write for what is in effect the hometown newspaper for the UN. Does that give you any special closeness? Are you ever aware of any special closeness through that? That that most of the officials you see on any given day there have probably read your paper that morning?

CROSSETTE: Yeah, they have. And they’re not shy about saying if I got something wrong. Actually, getting a few things wrong is not the worst thing sometimes, because then, from then I simply say, “Look, you know, I tried to call your office,” or you know, “Let’s talk about it at some more detail. And the next time this subject comes up let’s sit down and hear your side of it.” Or whatever. It’s, but I think as Lucia said, you can’t say, it can’t be said too often that you just have to be there a while and get to know people. And then, and they know that the New York Times not only is read in the UN but its read in Washington in the morning. And so there are people in the UN who really do try to present a case as well as they can when there is a subject particularly of some potential controversy. We have very good relationships with the Secretary General’s office. He has a very good spokesman now. They make great effort at any time of the day or night to get the attention of the person you need to talk to. And as time goes by if you don’t abuse the relationship and you don’t trap people—because people in the United Nations are very wary, they’ve worked for years under rules about people not being allowed to talk to the press—and so that if you don’t hurt them in any way, or you value how they wish to deal with you, whether they’ll give you information with their name attached to it or not—I think increasingly some of them will—as long as all those little practices are adhered to it’s getting better.

PORTER: Lucia, when you were writing in the Christian Science Monitor about the UN, did you get feedback from people at the UN? Did they…?

MOUAT: Yes, they read it. They sold it there on the newsstand.


MOUAT: And yes, they would, they would react to stories. We weren’t quite as daily oriented on the news front, I think, as the Times, cause our deadlines are different and so on. We would, I would write maybe two or three times a week. So you’re able to sort of cull more things, you know, into it. Whereas Barbara had to be right there on the spot newsfront. But yeah, I did get reaction. And I can remember the, I used to be next door to the Iraqi correspondent when I was there. And he was very excited one day when we had a story about maybe the balance of—this was early on in the Iraqi game—but maybe the balance of powers sort of opposed, or in favor of sanctions was shrinking a slight bit. And he was terribly excited about that.

PORTER: I bet.

MOUAT: He once came into my office incidentally, and said, “I just put through a call to Iraq and they said, “The operator said to me, ‘are you calling from the hated America?’” [laughing]

MC HUGH: We’ll hear more in a moment from Lucia Mouat, former UN correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and Barbara Crossette, UN correspondent for the New York Times.

CROSSETTE: Abroad, the Secretary General is treated more like royalty, or more so, like a head of state. It would be nice if we could spend more time just relaxing with the Secretary General over coffee or something and talking about the events of the day.

MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

CROSSETTE: I know that there are a group of journalists who seem to think that anyone who works for a big American newspaper gets special privileges. But we really don’t.

PORTER: This again is New York Times UN correspondent Barbara Crossette.

CROSSETTE: You know, it’s fair to say we can interview the Secretary General but we don’t, most of us in the American papers, don’t do that all the time. There are only a few times. First of all we have to have a legitimate story to tell so as not to waste any high officials’ time. And we’re not supposed to be wandering around the building. They’re supposed to have a pen on the third and fourth floor. But that doesn’t really count, either. We do get around quite a lot. I do think under Fred Eckhart, the Secretary General’s spokesman, that they’ve broadened as much as possible, his staff has broadened as much as possible, the information we have. He has some very good people and he’s given them special tasks. So, in the spokesman’s office now, as in the State Department system, there is someone who deals with human rights issues, there’s another person who may deal with peacekeeping issues. And these people are very good. And other people who will call in the Secretariat if there’s someone you don’t know that you have not yet met or have not yet interviewed, we’ll call that person and say, “You know, we think it’s okay to talk on this subject and therefore go up and see him in his office.”

They make every effort to do everything they can to help, I think, all journalists. And I think Fred Eckhart, the spokesman, is particularly careful to be even-handed. Because you know, the press group there is such a mixed bag. Official news agencies. I mean, for all we know they could be gathering intelligence from some countries. As democracies expand more people are coming from small newspapers and small countries—big newspapers for small countries—with a mixed bag of experience also. So we have, we have quite a different group there that makes it very difficult to deal with all of us the same way. But we do get office space. That’s a struggle in some cases. The New York Times has not a big office but we’ve been there since the United Nations was founded, so there’s never been a question. We have, as I said, a closed circuit television. We put our own electronic equipment and so on in. So that we have a lot of other access to the Internet and so on. And I have a research assistant, as I said. We have a small little—well, a very small library. And that’s becoming less necessary with the Internet. The UN Library also, my assistant tells me, is, goes out of its way to be helpful when necessary in finding things that we can’t find.

So the environment is not bad at all. And I find the environment in another funny way, very, very attractive. And that’s I think its multiculturalism at its best. It’s people trying to relate to one another. People knowing that there are traditions and cultural attitudes and, for example, attitudes toward women that are very, very different, and may catch you sort of short. But that everyone seems to try. And try in several languages, which it’s marvelous to walk around and hear conversations in lots of languages. And to see people relating to one another. You know, greeting each other, learning to sort of get along. And that I think, is an environment that I would certainly miss and I’m sure that’s what Lucia misses, among other things too.

MOUAT: I do.

PORTER: I’m sure.

CROSSETTE: You don’t miss the cafeteria.

MOUAT: Actually I do. I like that. No, and I agree with that last point, and also what you said about Fred Eckhart. Because he was not the spokesman when I was there, per se. But he was often on, you know, as a substitute.

PORTER: Again, Lucia Mouat, former UN correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

MOUAT: I can remember the hours he would spend out there after, that we have a regular noon briefing—at least we did then. And he would stand out there and talk about Bosnia with a group of reporters that wanted to hear more about it, for hours, almost. I mean, he really gave with the info. As much as he could, you know.

PORTER: I talk to people who cover, who cover Capitol Hill. And they often talk about it as being sort of an imposing institution from outside—Congress—but once you’re inside it’s much like a small town and there are lots of, you know, characters, personalities, people you get to know, rhythms of the place. Do you find that also Barbara, that it has sort of a, some small town aspects to it once you’re inside?

CROSSETTE: Sure. Sure. I, yes. Even village characters. And lots of you know, sort of mythology. And one of the things that does break down this, all these clashes of culture, is humor. And I mean, there are people who will talk about certain people who are seen in the delegate’s lounge only because they’ve arranged to be paged over the loud speaker system so that everyone will think that there’s something important that they need to be consulted on. You know, there are, there are real characters. The Security Council, when Lucia and I were both there at the same time, was, had some tremendous characters. And you know, I think it makes a difference sometimes in how the Council works. Big personalities representing countries.

PORTER: Lucia, did you find that a community atmosphere existed there?

MOUAT: Yeah, to some degree. I’m just thinking about after the Security Council meetings, there’s sort of a gate there and people come up and you can sort of yell questions to people. Or if it’s the President of the Security Council giving a statement, then you ask him questions afterward. But often you can get other delegates just walking down the hall and so on.

CROSSETTE: They’re anything but a combination, especially the people at the top, are certainly not dull, gray bureaucrats. At the top of their programs and projects and so on.

MOUAT: That’s true.

CROSSETTE: There are lots of colorful people. That’s one of the great frustrations I have in writing. I wish I could think of some way to get this across more. That’s a problem if you’re in the UN, because increasingly the media wants we always call “smells and bells,” but wants sort of scene porting. The kind of thing that you can do with film or whatever. And if I could travel all the time, if I could go with Mrs. Ogata for example, to Zaire or the former Zaire, the Congo now, the DRC, or with Mary Robinson to Tibet, or something like that, I think this might be a better way for the general public to see how these people work. But again, like Lucia, I run into the problem where a big newspaper has bureaus in those places. So they’ll say, “Why should you go. It’s gonna cost us how many thousand dollars when someone”—but it’s not quite the same. And that’s a problem that we haven’t quite overcome yet. Including also with reports. Some fine reports come out that I say to myself, “God if I could only write this from Egypt,” or from somewhere else. It would mean so much more than sitting in my office at the UN.

PORTER: You both wrote for, or write for, newspapers. And so at least you have the luxury of some space to tell these stories. What about television? I mean, we see so few stories based directly on the UN on television, unless there’s some Security Council action. And then all we see is a very fast soundbite of someone who stopped in the hallway at the spot that you were describing, Lucia.

MOUAT: I think it reflects the sort of lack of interest in general in Washington in this. And I, you know, it’s the chicken and egg thing. Are they responding to what people want to see or are they leading the pack and you know, giving them what they think they should hear. And there’s a big element of that in there. But you’re right. You see it on CNN occasionally, but it’s very rare on some of the networks. Very rare.

PORTER: I think, I don’t think any of the three broadcast networks in the US have a full-time correspondent.

CROSSETTE: They have…

MOUAT: Well, they do really. Linda Fasulo…

CROSSETTE: Yeah, and Tom…

MOUAT: …at NBC….

CROSSETTE: They do, but they don’t always have camera crews.


CROSSETTE: And here the UN is partly to blame. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard CNN on its knees to the spokesmen about “please let us go somewhere else.” The problem is the static nature of what can be filmed. Because they have this stakeout that Lucia was describing outside the Security Council. And everyone—I mean it’s a joke—everyone has seen the famous potted plant light with the light on over it waiting for someone to come out to say something. So, that’s bad. And they’ve argued and argued for more access, to places like the delegates lounge, the dining room once in a while. But television is a very intrusive medium and so I think the feeling within the Secretariat and among the diplomats is that they sort of don’t want to open the door a crack. Because then they’re going to have a problem. And so the TV people suffer.

PORTER: Okay, one last area for you that I want to ask about. You mentioned covering the UN Headquarters and the role the missions play. Also I want to ask about the NGOs, the nongovernmental organizations, because they’ve become more important both as providers of analysis and also as service providers on the ground in the field in a lot of UN work. Do you also rely upon them and view them as good resources in your reporting?

MOUAT: Oh yes. I think there are, you know, there are so many human rights groups now. There are just so many NGOs that you kind of have to sort out the goods from the—not that they’re bad, but there are just so many. I was just rereading something about the Copenhagen social summit in ’95 and I had written down that 150 nations were negotiating in the basement before the conference began, with 500 grassroots groups. That’s, you know, and there are just thousands of them really. All around.

CROSSETTE: I think I spend more time during the course of a day with NGOs than with officials. In the sense that the variety of topics that comes to the UN, as I said, is so great. So that you get experts on a number of things. Before each conference, before each major review of anything, whether it’s arms control, the most detailed, for example, information on chemical weapons, it’s there, they are lifesavers, I think for those of us who are generalist reporters in a place like that. And the legal expertise that the human rights groups—and I agree with Lucia, you begin to sort out the groups that are very serious and do very, very hard work, and neutral work, from ones that are sheer advocacy groups. And there are many, many of those. And those, we can spend less time with because we pretty much know what they are going to say on any issue and we have plenty of—we also get a mountain of faxes every day and lots and lots of e-mail. So there’s a, there’s no end of contact. And I try to keep the door open. Especially to NGOs that come from developing countries and from, in general, from abroad. Because they often have things to add. And you know, we try to see them. It’s not possible to see everybody.

PORTER: Any final words of wisdom on how the UN can help you make your jobs easier?

MOUAT: Hmm. Well, I was just thinking as Barbara said about, you know, trying to make it more lively when you cover it, or more, sort of give the reader a picture, and that’s why I put in a little plug for the book I’m working on here, The Role of the Secretary General Over the Years, and part of what got me, I wanted to, you know, make it more lively. And you see this when you’re walking to the cafeteria in the UN, you see this wall full of portraits of former Secretaries General, and it’s sort of haunting. There’s one of Perez de Cuellar that looks like it has cobwebs on it. But these are real people. And I just, I’m finding it very interesting looking at each one of them and sort of the role they play.

PORTER: Well, no, I think the Secretary General is an interesting figure. And we know that the United States doesn’t—government, Congress and diplomatists–really don’t want too much made of this. They sort of sense that there’s another President running around. Abroad, of course, the Secretary General is treated more like royalty, or more so, like a head of state. And the interesting thing is again to be able to travel with them and see them off-base a bit. Because the do tend to be very much isolated in the United Nations building, from the press and from everybody else. And that is, it would be nice if we could spend more time just relaxing with the Secretary General over coffee or something and talking about the events of the day. This is not easy though. Again, for the reason that I’ve said, because the great variety of journalists who are there, with lots of different agendas and so on, it is not an easy thing to organize. And if they were to chose 4 or 5 reporters to do this, there would be a terrible outcry. So to be fair we end up not seeing him at all.

PORTER: That is Barbara Crossette, UN correspondent for the New York Times. Our other guest was former UN correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, Lucia Mouat. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security