Reporters wait for something to report

The Baltimore Sun

Some eyed their fellow reporters warily, not as mere competitors but as international adversaries. Others struggled for something to do during the seemingly endless down time between media briefings. On an upper concourse, a British broadcaster repeated her dispatch over and over, struggling not to stumble over the words. And in a dark corner, an Asian journalist, succumbing to the monotony that dominated much of the day, caught a catnap.

More than 700 journalists from an estimated 70 countries - Israel and Saudi Arabia, Russia and Japan, Britain and the United States - packed the floor of a basketball court at the U.S. Naval Academy's Alumni Hall. Laptops at the ready, microphones at their sides, notebooks primed, print and broadcast journalists aimed to inform the world about yesterday's Mideast gathering, the latest attempt by a U.S. president to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace process. The mood in the room ranged from boredom to wariness, exasperation to hope.

Even among the press corps, old antagonisms die hard. Tamman Al-Barazi, a journalist with the Lebanese-based Arab magazine Al-Watan Al-Arabi, inspected a journalist's credentials badge before chatting, to make sure he wasn't with an Israeli outlet.

"It is nothing personal" against his Israeli colleagues, he said. "The people in the street - they hate anyone who talks to Israelis. As a journalist, you would lose the respect of your audience."

Should meetings like this one in Annapolis bear fruit, Al-Barazi says, he'll be glad to talk to anyone. But not until.

"We think that, to be ahead of our politicians and our Palestinian brethren, this is not right," says Al-Barazi, who over three decades has covered negotiations in Oslo, Norway; Madrid, Spain; and Dayton, Ohio. "We cannot jump the line."

But as the conference was ready to start yesterday, he pointed to a schedule printed by the U.S. State Department and saw hope. The itinerary listed the day's topics: "Israel-Syria," "Israel-Lebanon."

At least, he said, the subjects are being broached.

"For us, this is an advancement," said Al-Barazi. "To see this on a piece of paper, from the State Department. ... This makes the Palestinians happy and the Arabs happy."

Journalists started gathering at the Naval Academy in the wee hours yesterday, even though most had nothing to report until President Bush took to the podium shortly after 11 a.m., followed by remarks from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

They were done by noon. After that ... nothing. Word spread that there might be another update about 5 p.m. or so, but until then, the media were on their own.

"Boring," said Jacky Kughy, Arab and Middle East affairs correspondent for the Tel Aviv, Israel-based tabloid Maariv. With little to write about, he had resorted to an article noting the absence of any Syrian journalists. That done, he was trolling for material, and coming up empty.

"When it comes to journalists interviewing journalists, we're in a bad situation," he said, responding to questions about the morning's events. "In fact, I would like to thank you for plying me, because it broke the boring conditions."

With so much waiting, there was copious down time for speculation. Among the sometimes-jaded reporters, plenty were ready to write off Annapolis as political opportunism, a final effort by President Bush to stake a claim to diplomatic greatness.

"I expect nothing, absolutely nothing," said Amira Mohamad Abdul-Rahman, who flew in from Egypt to cover the meeting for the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. "I'm coming here, and I know nothing will happen."

Over three years of covering the Palestinian situation, Abdul-Rahman says, she has learned not to expect anything substantive from gatherings like this.

"They will meet," she said. "They will take photos, they will shake hands and say, 'We have to go for peace' - and nothing happens."

Al Jazeera correspondent Nasser Hssaini, however, refused to be so cynical.

"I believe he is trying, despite what is being said in the media," said Hssaini, a native of Morocco who has been working in the U.S. since 1994. "The test for Bush will be: Can you force [the Palestinians and Israelis] to sit down, like two kids who are fighting, and really come up with a solution?

"This is his chance," Hssaini said. "Can he make it happen? I don't know if he can do it in one year. But he can start the truck."

But it was just a single day. Those who have covered Mideast turmoil observed that any rush to judgment now would lack perspective.

"You cannot say whether this is historic until you see it in the back mirror," said Danish journalist Allan Silberbrandt, covering the meeting for TV2 Denmark. "They didn't walk out on each other - that's a success."

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