Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, has made herself scarce in answering direct, spontaneous questions from the press corps based at the UN, to the chagrin of many reporters. The press corps is international by nature and not affiliated with the UN but housed in UN headquarters, where reporters can ask questions of UN officials and diplomats at the “stakeout,” a formal space outside the UN’s most powerful body, the Security Council.
There, reporters — from independent bloggers to state broadcasters, from Bangladesh to Russia, Japan to Lebanon — are roped off from the dignitaries standing at the microphone, but journalists are free to ask what they want, if they are called on by the dignitaries’ press squad. Diplomats from the Security Council use the forum for promoting their government’s stance on a given topic, while UN envoys use it to clarify their work.
But Power, who has been the US ambassador to the UN for nearly two years, has appeared at the Security Council stakeout so infrequently that many members of the press corps at the UN not only wonder why Power, a former journalist, seems to avoid if not neglect the media. Her last recorded presence at the council stakeout was Sept. 30, 2014.
That is, until May 8, when Power came to the stakeout on a Friday, usually a quiet day at the UN. It was also a day after this reporter told a US mission press officer that this article was being written. Power took questions on Burundi, on the bungled handling of allegations of sex abuse by French soldiers in the Central African Republic and on Syria, giving the handful of reporters 21 minutes of her time.
She does meet with certain media — like the large wire services — who are invited to press briefings held at the US mission, yet that practice is viewed by those not invited as an exclusive club, reinforcing Power’s air of bias. (The British and French missions to the UN also exclude their briefings to certain media, including leaking draft Security Council resolutions they want to publicize.)
It is not as if Power is avoiding the public entirely or at least a select slice of the public in media-rich forums or in academic settings, where she discusses geopolitics or how she juggles motherhood and a demanding job as an ambassador. She recently, for example, spoke on Charlie Rose about Syria and led a World Press Freedom Day talk at the US mission, featuring a journalist from Azerbaijan and from Ethiopia, though Power herself took only one question from the audience — about supposed American support of a corrupt government in the Balkans — telling the person that her question was “simple.”
Power’s speeches around the world may impress a global audience, but closer to home, in New York, she has snubbed invitations to speak, for example, from departments in the City University of New York, the largest urban university in the United States.
She has made ample time available to human-rights or gendercentric audiences, like a “women’s summit” led by Tina Brown, the former journalist, held at Lincoln Center in April, where soft questions were lobbed at Power by the moderator. It’s a tactic that reporters call “preaching to the converted,” meaning the audience is not likely to be too critical, say, about US foreign policy in Syria and why the war is leaving so many people dead for so long.
The press office at the US mission defended its lack of appearances at the UN media stakeout by Power’s ambassadorship in the last eight months by contending that it uses that space when it deems useful.
Power did have an informal encounter in April with the media at the UN this year, after a US-sponsored closed Security Council session on chemical weapons use in Syria. The event, however, was not recorded.
“Do keep your eye peeled for our press events at the UN,” said a US mission press officer, Anthony Deaton, to a question from this reporter on Power’s infrequent appearances. “I know the Arria formula stakeout wasn’t recorded, but a lot of press showed up to cover it.”
Power’s last major appearances — four altogether — at the Security Council stakeout occurred in September 2014, when the US held the rotating presidency of the Security Council. She also spoke at the stakeout numerous times in the winter of 2014, during the Russian annexation of Crimea.
The low number of stakeouts? “It’s not good,” said a veteran journalist who has covered the UN for decades, excusing Power for not showing up because she travels a lot. “When you see her at a party,” the reporter added, “she’s very good and talks a lot, though not on the details.”
If Power came to the stakeout, said other journalists in the UN press corps, all of whom asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, everyone — not only “elite” media, as one person called it — could have the chance to ask her questions, widening the coverage.
The press corps contingent is heavily weighted by media from the Middle East, who have had much to report on, including ISIS (or ISIL), the Palestine-Israel conflict and, more recently, the airstrikes by Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, in Yemen.
Just because certain media are invited to the US mission for briefings does not guarantee they are getting the information they need to do their jobs.
As one journalist said, “All English language reporters flock to the Brits for analyzing and helping them by giving answers you can trust.” The British mission to the UN has established a positive reputation for dealing with the press at the UN, a turnaround after its faulty reports during the buildup to the US and allied invasion of Iraq in 2003. The French, too, are considered reliable sources. (The US, France, Britain, China and Russia are the five permanent members of the Security Council, the most important countries on the 15-member body.)
One longstanding American reporter based at the UN said that the US mission briefings were so regimented — reporters were not always allowed to use recording devices — that the meetings were not worthwhile. This reporter also found Power off-putting, as she snapped to this person’s question, retorting, Did you just hear what I said?
Power’s reluctance to talk to a wider net at the UN has a precedent: Susan Rice, the previous ambassador to the UN, took years in her office to address the media regularly at the council stakeout. When she made that leap, she expounded on issues and even bantered with reporters.
Yet other US ambassadors to the UN, including Thomas Pickering, Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke, often made themselves available to the press as much as humanly possible, engaging in real dialogue. Bill Richardson, another ambassador, held impromptu meetings in Spanish with Latin American reporters, a much-appreciated effort.
The benefit of having Power talk to the media at the UN stakeout varies, depending on the journalist’s needs, but the underlying concern is lack of original information — vital elements in a reporter’s work.
“We’re at the point of having a lot of information from social media and from press releases, but that doesn’t mean we are well informed if we’re recycling statements,” said an Eastern European journalist in the UN press corps, adding that such limited sources do not help him do his job, which he said was to “scrutinize professionally what is going on — to ask questions.”
He noted his disappointment at Power’s approach to the media being “so engineered,” with her attention focused narrowly on such geopolitics as Ukraine — reflecting her seeming unwillingness to present a broader picture of the US perspective on the repercussions of global events. Power doesn’t seem to “even care about our right to know, our questions,” the Eastern European reporter said. “Are we going to save our democracy,” he added, referring to the press’s right to know, “or are we going to be complacent?”
The reporter also found fault with Power’s press people, who in the rare circumstances Power has gone to the UN stakeout in the last year, call on “big corporate media” like Reuters and The New York Times, saying this tactic is “so obvious.”
“Once you have the diplomats from other parts of the world, like China and Russia, giving flow to every media,” you realize, he added, how helpful it can be in getting information, although that information could be as slanted as any other provided by a diplomat.
Other reporters more or less forgive Power for her selective approach to the press. “I think she has lots of pressure that other ambassadors don’t have — she’s a Cabinet member,” one journalist who writes for a large Asian publication said. “American journalists can be more savage here, given the freedom of expression, so she has to be more on her toes” — something she knows, he added, as an ex-journalist herself.
The reporter said Power “makes an effort to be personable” by saying hello to the reporter in the UN hallways, but her favoritism toward “elite” media became clear, the person added, when she was president of the Security Council last September. “I raised my hand but was never called on.”
The reporter added that Power is most likely is clamped down because of White House directives — matching Obama’s reputation for tightening press leaks.
People in the UN press corps who were interviewed for this article took particular umbrage at the treatment they receive from the US mission press pack, some of whom are notorious for their rants on the phone — spouting expletives in response to straightforward requests for information — or exhibit basic rudeness, like not answering emails.
As one veteran journalist noted, she doesn’t bother to talk to the US press contingent because she doesn’t “like them personally.”
Which may be the intent of the press officers — who “eat you out over the phone,” said another reporter, adding that their jobs must be “tough.”
“I try to be empathetic with them,” to cultivate a working relationship, and as a result, he said, they told him, “We’ll always take your phone call.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.