U.S. Spokesman at the U.N. Makes His Mark
Monday, August 11, 2008 2:35 PM
By: Ronald Kessler
In February 2006, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times ran editorials saying that John Bolton, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, was right to reject sham proposals to reform the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Noting that some of the world’s most abusive regimes hold seats on it, the Times called the commission “disgraceful.”
The paper even applauded Bolton’s refusal to go along with a “shameful charade” to make cosmetic changes in the commission.
The New York Times is normally a cheerleader for the United Nations and a critic of the Bush administration, not to mention then U.S. Ambassador John Bolton.
“It was a coup for Ric Grenell,” says Maggie Farley, who covers the United Nations as bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Since 2001, Grenell has been the U.S. spokesman at the United Nations, a position officially called “director of communications and public diplomacy for the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.”
“He had both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times saying that Bolton was right and Secretary General Kofi Annan was wrong,” Farley recalled, noting his ability to reach out to the media.
Working Behind the Scenes
Grenell is a not exactly a household name; he stays in the background and works diligently behind the scenes to make his bosses look good as he promotes and protects America’s reputation. The longest-serving U.N. spokesman, Grenell has advised four U.S. ambassadors — John D. Negroponte, John C. Danforth, John R. Bolton, and Zalmay Khalilzad the current U.S. ambassador — on the formulation and articulation of U.S. policy at the United Nations.
Grenell has a no-nonsense approach – he quickly responds to attacks against the United States. That has raised some hackles among reporters who see the United Nations as a perfect launch pad for anti-American diatribes.
Still, many of the most respected reporters who cover the United Nations and State Department view him as a breath of fresh air who makes their jobs easier while getting the U.S. message out to the world. In that respect, many of them say, the White House press office could take a few lessons from Grenell.
Few outside the media grasp how much a good public relations person can shape coverage. Reporters are human, and if they are given respect and attention, they are more likely to be open to the official line. If they are ignored or simply “fed” a story, they often take it out on the agency or person they are covering.
“Ric Grenell is one of the sharpest press officers I’ve dealt with,” James Rosen, Washington correspondent for Fox News, tells Newsmax.
“He knows the policy underlying the talking points, the personalities, and the issues. He also understands the black-is-white, up-is-down bizarro world that the United Nations can sometimes become. Ric can be exceptionally helpful to an honest reporter — when he wants to be . . .
“The U.S. government is lucky to have him.”
Grenell looks younger than his 41 years. He’s articulate, well dressed, and comes across as poised as a veteran politician. In fact, before arriving at the United Nations, Grenell earned his stripes in the political world.
He worked on several political campaigns, then served as press secretary on Capitol Hill to then Congressman Mark Sanford — who went on to become South Carolina’s governor — and Congressman Dave Camp of Michigan.
From Washington he moved on to Albany and served as a spokesman for New York Gov. George Pataki. Later he joined San Diego Mayor Susan Golding as her press secretary.
Despite his media background, Grenell said dealing with the press at the United Nations offered different challenges.
“The U.N. press corps viewed themselves as international civil servants,” Grenell told Newsmax. “They certainly were journalists, but they viewed themselves differently than the press corps of Washington. They saw themselves as helping the world’s poor and needy. They were friends with Secretary General Kofi Annan, and they felt it was their job to trumpet the obscure reports produced by him and the U.N. They weren’t, for example, looking at how the billions of dollars were spent at the U.N.”
As aggressive reporters for Fox News, The New York Sun, and a few other news outlets arrived on the scene, “The press corps began to have a fight among themselves,” Grenell remembers.
“The old deans of the U.N. press corps immediately started talking loudly about those who were rocking the boat. And what really irritated me at this point was those old deans of the press corps not only were upset that people were rocking the boat and doing stories that they weren’t supposed to do, but they dismissed these people as not really true journalists. It was that elitist attitude of, You just don’t know the world, and we do.”
So, Grenell says, he focused on helping “those journalists who wanted to act like journalists.”
Instead of deferring to The New York Times and Washington Post, Grenell began pushing his staff to go online, blog, start MySpace and Facebook pages, and reach out to the new media.
“I’m not from the East Coast, and I don’t think like an East Coast press person,” Grenell says. “I don’t naturally think The Washington Post and New York Times are the be-all, end-all. I understand it’s all about digital media.”
Farley of the Los Angeles Times confirms, “Ric was very aware of the online presence of new media like The Huffington Post and Slate, and he made sure the news was accessible to them.”
Normally, government spokesmen confine themselves to passively working with the daily press. But Grenell made a point of reaching out to editorial writers, including those at The New York Times.
“I was doing monthly editorial writers’ calls with our ambassador to update the editorial writers, even at medium-size papers,” Grenell says. “When you have a conference call with the ambassador to the U.N., these people get very connected into what we are doing.”
At least once a week, Grenell checks in with two editorial writers at The New York Times. Such proactive work often pays dividends, as it did when the Times ran its Feb. 26, 2006 editorial, “The Shame of the United Nations.”
“When it comes to reforming the disgraceful United Nations Human Rights Commission,” the editorial said, “America’s ambassador, John Bolton, is right; Secretary General Kofi Annan is wrong.”
“Nobody could believe it,” recalls Farley.
Receptive to All Press Reps
Keeping in mind the need to convey to the rest of the world what America stands for, especially in the wake of Sept. 11, Grenell has cultivated the Arab press.
“All of the Arab bureau chiefs are integral to what we are doing here at the U.S. mission, and so I befriended them and really reached out to them, socialized with them,” Grenell says.
“I joined them on domestic trips sponsored by the State Department, so that I could encourage these Arab journalists to see more of America and understand that America is more than just Washington and New York.”
Grenell took them not only to Chicago, Denver, and Kansas City, but also to Las Vegas.
“Ric strongly defended his government’s position but always gave me the informational tools I needed to build a comprehensive and meaningful picture of that position for my audience,” says Abderrahim Foukara, bureau chief of Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel.
“On many occasions, he arranged for me to hear that position from the horse’s mouth, in one-on-ones with those representatives, whatever the issues may have been. This is extremely significant in light of the difficulty that some of my colleagues experienced in getting that kind of access to people and information in Washington.”
Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, says she never felt like a second-class citizen because her publication is not American.
“Ric Grenell changed the tier system and understood that he served American policies best at the U.N. though dealing with the international press as equal to the American press,” she says.
Grenell uses the carrot and the stick: If he feels certain reporters are not interested in doing an honest story, he shuns them.
“When we’re dealing with reporters who are biased from the beginning, and who don’t allow us to speak our mind and explain our policies, then that’s a vicious cycle,” Grenell says.
And if a reporter gets a story wrong, he tells him.
“I fully believe that it is my job to follow the story to the end,” Grenell says. “If a reporter writes a story that is erroneous, I feel that it is my responsibility to the public to correct the record as much as possible.”
Grenell says his job is to get the story out; he only has a limited number of ways to do that.
“I ask myself every day, ‘Am I getting the story out? Am I explaining our policy enough?’” he says.
As noted in the Newsmax story “Dana Perino: Press Job Like Herding Cattle,” President Bush’s approach is to present his message publicly in speeches and press conferences. Bush believes this approach minimizes leaks.
When it comes to the press, the White House has been known as a buttoned-down operation, often unwilling to feed the media even harmless tidbits that would make their stories more colorful and help to tame snarky reporters.
If Grenell differs in his approach from the more traditional White House press operation, that has not raised eyebrows at the White House.
“They recognize that New York is a different place and that the U.N. press corps is a huge challenge,” he says, “so they have given me a long leash.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com.
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