News conferences are heavily orchestrated events [GALLO/GETTY]


Travelling with the White House press corps on an overseas presidential trip is a cross between going on a luxury cruise and working on a chain gang.

 

On the one hand, it involves business-class travel aboard a chartered Boeing 747 where the Scotch and smoked salmon flow freely.
 

On the other, journalists and reporters are herded on to buses, driven back and forth, constantly scanned and inspected, and ordered around with a "hurry-up, let's go, keep-it-moving" brusqueness that would make a Marine drill instructor proud.

 

Snorre Wik, an Al Jazeera cameraman, and I are two of about 150 media professionals who are accompanying George Bush, the US president, on his travels through the Middle East. 

Journalists and broadcasters have arrived from the US, Britain, Russia, Japan, Italy and several other countries. The news organisations along for the ride include the famous - The New York Times, CBS, Fox News - to the obscure, such as the Chicago Jewish News.

Orchestrated events

 

It's a strange existence inside the White House press bubble. Everything is scripted and scheduled down to the minute. 

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Experienced media professionals say the trips tend to take on a predictable pattern.

 

Brian Haefli, a sound engineer for the CNN network who has been travelling with presidents since the first Bush administration in 1989, said: "It's very repetitive."

"All you see are hotel ballrooms and buffet food. And the picture is always the same - smiling, hand-shaking, and two questions from each side during the press conference."

A small number of reporters and photographers are assigned to "pools", which are allowed to take pictures of Bush at official events, such as shaking hands with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and smiling, or shaking hands with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and smiling.

The other reporters sit around in a hotel ballroom watching widescreen TVs, gossiping and waiting for the pool people to come back and give their report - which is usually along the lines of: "The president smiled and shook hands."

On the road

 

On January 10, all the White House travelling press rose early for a 6.45am bus trip to the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Bush and Abbas were to meet. 

After an hour-long trip through a fog-enshrouded landscape of olive groves, Israeli settlements and military checkpoints, the group arrived.

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The town appears to be completely empty except for soldiers working for the Palestinian Authority and police. No one gathers to wave at Bush. Residents appear to be ignoring the visit altogether.

 

The buses stop outside the Mukata, the Palestinian government compound. Everyone is herded into a large room fitted with a dais, twin podiums for the two presidents and raised platforms around the walls for the camera crews.

A portrait of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, beams down from above the stage.

There are endless mike checks, and lots of scurrying by White House or US embassy factotums making sure there are sufficient numbers of extension cords and power strips.

 

The photographers take their places and wait. It is still two hours before the news conference.

Suddenly the doors burst open and dozens of Palestinian journalists and photographers file into the room.

White House press aides rush around trying to herd everyone into the increasingly cramped space, ordering cameramen to stay behind blue ropes that mark their appointed place in the scheme of things.

 

A Reuters cameraman with a heavy French accent demands of a White House aide: "Where can we go?"

 

More mike checks. The crews squeeze themselves together somehow and make room. In a hallway off the main room a short man in a waiter's vest prepares endless plastic cups of instant coffee, while the Palestinian press official paces, smoking furiously, outside the toilets.

 

Still an hour to go. While waiting, photographers begin shooting videos of each other.

Anticlimax

Reporters chat and make morbid jokes. "Did Bush ever meet Arafat?" "No, he refused to." "Well, he could meet him now - he's right outside" - a reference to Arafat's glass mausoleum in another part of the Mukata.

 

Suddenly, Palestinian and American officials enter the room, followed by Bush and Abbas.

They take two questions from each side - two from American reporters, two from the Palestinian press.

Bush makes a joke about how his motorcade was not stopped at any Israeli checkpoint.

 

And within minutes, the conference draws to a close.

Source: Al Jazeera