POSTCARD USA: Fog horns at Foggy Bottom — Khalid Hasan

remember the time when one would hear the complaint that Pakistan does not receive much coverage in the American press. That prayer the Almighty undoubtedly heard at a propitious hour and willed it be answered in full measure. The results are now splashed across the pages of American newspapers every other day

The State Department not only runs the world, it also reads newspapers, sometimes even ours. How else do I explain the one-line mail I found in my in box on Monday, Aug 11.

In a state of disbelief I read, “Ambassador Boucher asked me to be in touch with you to let you know he is trying to reach you. When you have a moment, would you please return his call? Our number is (202)736-4325.”

The sphinx aka Dr Freud-look-alike of Foggy Bottom had spoken or someone on the part of the jetlagged sage of Foggy Bottom had spoken. Although the message did not address me by name, nor was it signed at the bottom, since it had made a three-point landing in my computer, I took it to be meant not for Charlie’s aunt but for me.

I reached for my phone and, breath held back, dialled (202)736-4325. The phone rang and rang and then it was picked up, which turned out to be too hurried a conclusion, because it was not a living human being but the presiding spirit at the State Department: Miss Voicemail. “I am not at my desk right now, but if you leave your name and number etc, etc.”

I left both my name and number. To drive the message home, I also sent an email to the one who had emailed me, proceeding on the adage that one email deserves another. The top of the email had revealed the sender to be “Richard, Dona F”. My mail said, “I phoned the number given (202)736-4325 as asked on Monday at 4 pm but (as was to be expected) I was greeted by a voicemail. I would have been pleasantly surprised if I had not been greeted by a disembodied voice.”

The next day, there was another one-liner in my in box, again from Richard, Dona F, which said, “We are in the office and ready to receive your call.”

Receive my call? Wait a minute, I said to myself, that is not how it should be, so I wrote back to Richard, Dona F, “If Mr Boucher wishes to speak to me, I can be reached on my phone, which should be available with the Department. I wrote him a letter and I expect that he will answer it. But what he needs to do is to ensure that South Asian correspondents who call the section concerned for comment or information are dealt with in a polite, efficient and professional manner; that there is someone to take the call and able to answer questions. The present state of affairs, as I wrote to Mr Boucher in my letter, is unsatisfactory. It brings no credit to the Department.”

As far as I was concerned, that should have been the end of the matter, but it was not to be. My response produced another one-liner from Richard, Dona F. It said, “If you will provide a telephone number, we will have Ambassador Boucher phone you.”

It was like a game of ping pong, but always being one who thinks longer rallies are far more fun than serve/return/Love 15, I wrote back, “Dear Ms Richard, Thank you, but I do not really wish to take any of Mr Boucher’s time. All I want is that he should do something to address my complaint that I detailed in my letter to him — and in an earlier email — so that we, correspondents from Pakistan and India — are able to reach someone at the State Department when we need to, and have our questions answered. At present, all we get is a voicemail and even when the phone is answered, the information sought is not given or is not available. Messages left on voicemail are seldom returned. This is what I expect Mr Boucher as head of the South Asia bureau to address. There is no need for either of us to be on the phone. What I would say to him, I have already said in my letter and this email. Khalid Hasan, Daily Times, Lahore. PS. I have been an accredited State Department correspondent for more than 10 years and my phone number and other particulars should be on the file.”

I have not heard from either Richard since, nor, I should add, has anyone called me from the desk that is supposed to answer our questions but does not. I take it, we lose, the system wins.

In all the years I have reported from Washington for three newspapers — though not at the same time of course — and one news agency, which terminated my contract a year earlier for reasons that to this day remain lost in impenetrable bureaucratic mystery and good old fashioned Islamabad intrigue, no deep throat has called me and said, “Meet me on level 3, car port 303 of the Union Station parking lot and I will tell you something that will make your editor’s hair stand on end.”

In other words, nobody has ever leaked a story to me. For the last many years, there hardly has been a week when one or the other nasty story about Pakistan has not been planted in this or that newspaper or media outlet by officials who have neither names nor faces nor phone numbers. These stories all relate to us and our region, but we who will not only be most concerned about what is being said, but also more knowledgeable, are the very ones who are treated as if we did not exist. I suppose unlike American correspondents, we would not swallow what we are told line, hook and sinker. We would ask questions. We would raise issues. We would express doubt. We would want more evidence. Obviously, we don’t qualify.

I remember the time when one would hear the complaint that Pakistan does not receive much coverage in the American press. That prayer the Almighty undoubtedly heard at a propitious hour and willed it be answered in full measure. The results are now splashed across the pages of American newspapers every other day. St Teresa if blessed memory spoke the truth when she said: More tears are shed for answered prayers than unanswered ones. So next time, we express a wish, we should make sure that the Almighty is not listening.

Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is khasan2@cox.net

Source: Daily Times, 17/8/2008

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