Babs Chase serves as a Program Officer for the State Department's Foreign Press Center.Saturday, March 1, 2008
The State Department’s Foreign Press Center (FPC) is mandated to help foreign journalists better understand the U.S. government and American culture and society so their coverage of events in the United States is more accurate and thorough. To accomplish this, we arrange "reporting tours" that bring foreign media to the United States to write on a specific topic, and during the tour put them into contact with government and private sector decision opinion leaders who are knowledgeable in that area. Our latest tour is bringing 25 media from around the globe to visit the U.S. on a reporting tour themed "How Americans Vote: The Processes and Issues Surrounding the 2008 Presidential Elections."
Participants are nominated for these tours by their Embassies on a variety of criteria that are set for each trip. The Foreign Press Center team reviews the applicants paying close attention to the credentials of the journalist, the reach of the publication and the influence in the country. For this trip, we requested mid-career political print and radio reporters and columnists who must be fluent in English and have a working knowledge of the U.S. political system. There are some tours that include journalists who require translators, but a trip of this size is unique and does not allow for that option.
The State Department covers all costs associated with the trip, including airfare, lodging, and meals. The FPC received over 50 strong nominees for this trip, and we finalized on the top 23 for final participation. This is quite an investment by the State Department, but the long-term influence and reach of providing this access to the journalists can make a difference that does not have a price.
We are embarking on an adventure to the Lone Star State with this group of 23 journalists representing 22 countries from all over the world. Our journey begins with the Texas primaries in Austin where we will do our best to share with these journalists the democracy that makes this country so great. Never in a million years would we think that the primary would continue to be as exciting as it is this long into the process.
After "Super Tuesday #2," we will travel to Houston and Laredo to learn more about the issues that will face those striving to be the next commander in chief. In Houston, we will visit with the Mayor and other community and industry leaders to learn more about that city’s views on the economy and healthcare. We will proceed from there to Laredo to get a first-hand look at immigration from those who reside in a border town living this issue and both sides of the debate on a daily basis.
I am honored to have the chance to follow both sides of this exciting election so closely, but, more importantly, to view it not just through my own eyes, but through the eyes of the inquisitive foreign journalists traveling with us.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
A jet-lagged but excited group arrived for our first meeting today anxious to get started and learn more about the week ahead. After the general housekeeping items, we gave them a chance to tell us why they were interested in this trip and what they hope to learn from their time here. The range of individuals and their experiences are vastly different and will make for an interesting group.
Many of our journalists have traveled through this country on business or for education numerous times, but there are also several for whom this is the first trip to the United States. For them, we not only have the privilege of welcoming them to Texas but also the honor of showing them what makes America great.
The journalists expressed the most interest in understanding the political process and following the key issues facing the candidates. Immigration and U.S. policy to their homelands were common themes as well as getting to know U.S. residents from their respective countries. One of the most telling remarks was when a journalist inquired about what she could write ----she is so accustomed to censorship that she could not understand the freedom we give her to tell the true story she sees from her briefings and experiences. It surprised her that we will not only expose them to all angles of an issue but also let them make their own conclusions.
The reporter from Poland was most intrigued with talking to the citizens to learn what makes them decide who to support—is it the charisma and personality of the candidate or the stance on the issues? What makes them get out and support not just with a vote but with their time and financial resources?
Several, especially those from Eastern Europe, have been happy with the relationship their countries have had with the Bush Administration and are hopeful that the new Administration will carry on these positive efforts. Also, the war in Iraq and terrorism were mentioned as issues of concern, but the other issues were more prevalent in the group discussions.
The reporter from Singapore was fabulous as she expressed her interest in the elections, she honestly admitted that she is most excited about an opportunity to attend the Houston Rodeo and see this true slice of Americana.
Many were excited about the elections from the Democratic side because they offer a chance for firsts—whether it will be the first woman or the first African-American—they see a chance for the leader of the most powerful nation in the world to change so much more than a government.
The group went to Stubbs Restaurant for a down home Southern Gospel brunch and stuffed themselves with biscuits and gravy and beef brisket while experiencing some amazing Texas music. Karen Hughes, former Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy for the Department of State, joined the group for lunch. Afterwards she took the time to speak and answer many of their questions regarding her time with the Administration. She is an amazing woman, taking the time with each to help them understand everything-from her stance on the 2008 elections to the progress of the Iraq war and her unwavering support of President Bush.
The political process in America is so transparent that we often take for granted that everyone understands how to get involved in high school or college with the political party or candidate of their choice. We have no fear of further social or career detriment if we put a bumper sticker on our car, spend a Saturday passing out campaign literature or attend a candidate rally.
The interest in this election around the world is like nothing I’ve seen in my short 15 years in the political world. We forget that standing in line for an hour to vote in a primary is not a burden, but rather a privilege that so many would give everything to do just once
I visited for awhile with our Egyptian journalist while walking through the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library discussing his desire to learn more about the basic grassroots organization so crucial to our democracy but so foreign to theirs. Hopefully our time on Tuesday with the Annette Strauss Institute for Civil Participation will give him some ideas to share with his audience about how everyone-especially the youth of a nation- can get involved, make a difference and become the next generation of leadership by realizing the power of their voice and their vote.
We will begin our day tomorrow with the Texas Secretary of State then spend the afternoon with the key professors of public and political affairs at the University of Texas. Until then!