As Blix Unloads, News Comes Back to U.N. Bureaus

It may not have matched the white-knuckle drama of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis-when U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson took on the Soviet Union’s Valerian Zorin during an emergency session of the Security Council-but the United Nations experienced a kind of Broadwayrevival on Monday, Jan. 27.

Insidethe U.N.’s East 46th Streethome, there was a flurry of media activity. Reporters from Di Zeit to the Daily News to The Christian Science Monitor tried to quickly crib the names of Security Council members. Producers complained about the space given to their cameramen. Outside in the cold, TV crews trained their lenses on howling protesters.

The reason for all the commotion, of course, was that Hans Blix-the U.N.’s elegant, even-toned chief weapons inspector, who appears to have stepped out of a John Le Carré thriller-was delivering his report on Iraq’s dealings with the arms inspectors. Though Mr. Blix kinda-sorta split the difference in his report-telling the Security Council that while Iraq had complied with U.N. inspectors, it hadn’t come to “genuine acceptance” of the organization’s terms, prompting the Bush administration to continue its prep for war-it felt, for the first time in a long time, that the U.N, for one brief moment, was again the center of the earth’s attention.

For the media, it was a long time coming. Since the seminal debates of the Cold War, the U.N. had slowly devolved from a rollicking showcase of power fisticuffs into a dusty symbol of 20th-century bureaucracy and ideals. Even when the U.N. was actually doing something-sending peacekeepers into Bosnia, initiating the first Gulf War against Iraq-it felt predictable and pat, like dinner theater.

But now the stakes were big again, and so was the story. For Mr. Blix’s remarks in the open meeting of the Security Council, the U.N. issued about 600 credentials. Afterward, dozens of journalists thronged outside the second-floor meeting room where Mr. Blix met with security members in private. When they emerged, they spoke in front of a sheath that had been temporarily hung over a tapestry version of Picasso’s Guernica . Derek Rose, a reporter for the News , hunted for what he called “color. Good color.”

At least on this day, there was plenty of color to be found. “It’s a good story that puts us U.N. reporters in the center of the storm,” said Benny Avni, who covers the U.N. for Israel Radio. “And on page 1.”

Indeed, reporters assigned to the U.N. felt vital-even if some of them wondered whether their audiences understood what was actually happening.

“The most complicated thing about this story is the references to technical stuff,” said Washington Post U.N. correspondent Colum Lynch. “If you haven’t followed this story before or studied the basic documents, it’s extremely difficult. Most Americans think there’s a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. You wonder if people are actually reading the newspapers. We [ The Post ] probably explored this topic as much as anyone else … and what you find in the reporting is a good deal of skepticism about the linkage. And yet, it doesn’t filter through to people that there’s not an established link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, between Iraq and Sept. 11.”

Maggie Farley of the Los Angeles Times shared some of Mr. Lynch’s frustrations. She described following the Iraq story on the U.N. beat as “part comparative literature and part paralegal work, like knowing the difference between an ‘and’ and an ‘or.’

“I’ve written a story almost every day about this issue since September,” Ms. Farley said. “It’s to a point where I almost can’t write about it anymore. If people don’t understand it, I don’t know what else to do.

“The trouble is, this is a nuanced issue,” Ms. Farley continued. “And you have an administration that prefers to deal with black and white. This has a lot of shades of gray.”

Of course, Mr. Blix’s report also played big internationally, but that’s not unusual. Unlike the U.S.-where the U.N. only seems to show up in the news when there’s a war on, or a diplomat with $500 in unpaid parking tickets-people abroad care about the U.N.: They believe in the organization and take an interest in what it should do.

“It’s the biggest story right now, especially because there seems to be a battle between the French and the U.S.,” said Philippe Bolopion, a reporter with Radio France Internationale. “People in France feel really strongly about Iraq. There’s a definite pro-Iraq bias in France. I’m very surprised to see the coverage here. Every day, the front page is: ‘Bush says time is running out.’ There’s very little questioning about what proof the administration has that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq has ties to Al Qaeda.”

Gianna Pontecorboli, who’s covered the United Nations for over two decades for a group of regional newspapers in Italy, assessed the difference this way: “What happens is that people are blinded by their own ideology. We Italian journalists have done very careful reporting, but when you go to Italy, people ask you, ‘Does Bush really want a war?’ And I say, ‘Yeah! That’s what I’ve been saying all these months!'”

Ms. Pontecorboli called Jan. 27 “historic.”

“Look at the attention,” she said. “The attention of the media. The attention of everybody. Everyone was very careful with what they said. I was here in ’91. It was different. That was carefully orchestrated by the U.S. You knew where things were going to lead. Here, you don’t know.”

And now for a Freaky Friday alert ….

On Thursday, Jan. 24, and Friday, Jan. 25, the supposedly liberal New York Times had op-ed pieces by Bush National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as Leon Kass, the ultraconservative bio-ethicist, and the granddaddy of them all, William F. Buckley Jr.

A little further downtown, Democratic Senators John Breaux and Zell Miller and their fellow party member, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, penned op-ed pieces for The Wall Street Journal , whose editorial page usually reads like one big, gushy love letter to Barry Goldwater.

“I woke up today and saw Buckley and Kass in The Times and thought, ‘Can this really be The New York Times ? These are our guys!'” said Tunku Varadarajan, editorial-features editor for The Journal . “Then I saw the unsigned editorial on ‘The Right to Counsel,’ about Jose Padilla, claiming a Sixth Amendment right to counsel for military combatants, and I realized that I was in Rainesville after all.”

When asked if he and Mr. Varadarajan had in fact switched personalities, New York Times Op-Ed page editor David Shipley said: “I’ll believe it when they start running Noam Chomsky. My goal for the page is to post as many different voices and opinions as we can.”

Apparently, that includes football coaches. On Sunday, Jan. 26, Bill Belichick-last year’s winning Super Bowl coach-wrote a humorous piece with “thirty-seven thoughts” for the winning coach of this year’s big game.

“We called him, and he was willing to play along,” Mr. Shipley explained. “[ Sports Illustrated ] and other news reports always cite him as the smartest coach around. This usually works out one out of every hundred times, and this time we got lucky. He did it all himself, and it came in camera-ready.”

Asked if he planned to further comb the N.F.L. coaching ranks for pundits (Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells on U.S. aggression, perhaps?), Mr. Shipley said: “When the occasion demands it, we will.”

They can’t move ‘em out fast enough at the business section of the New York Post .

Following the dismissal of media business reporter Dan Cox last year, the Post recently fired Wall Street and markets reporter Jessica Sommar.

When reached by Off the Record, Ms. Sommar confirmed that the Post let her go on Jan. 6 for, officially, “not breaking enough stories.”

Citing a confidentiality agreement, Ms. Sommar declined to go into details about her dismissal, but said: “If this were about breaking news, this would never have happened. But I absolutely love the Post . I think it’s the best daily newspaper in New York.”

Post business editor Jon Elsen likewise declined to go into the matter, but told Off the Record: “Jessica’s left, and we wish her well.”

Do they call her Mini-Me? Condé Nast–watchers may have noticed that the masthead of the newly launched Teen Vogue includes Bee Shaffer, who is the teenage daughter of none other than Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue for adults.

Teen Vogue editor in chief Amy Astley indicated that Ms. Shaffer is a natural.

“She’s been involved since the very first issue,” Ms. Astley said. “I really love what Bee has to say. She’s obviously the ideal Teen Vogue reader. She and her friends are a ready-made focus group. They’re smart and really sophisticated and clearly know a lot about fashion, but they’re still normal girls.”

Ms. Shaffer is not the only Condé Nast kid on the Teen Vogue staff. There’s also Cayli Cavaco, the twentysomething daughter of Allure creative director Paul Cavaco.

“Paul is a friend of mine, so I understood what Cayli’s interests are,” Teen Vogue ‘s new editor in chief said. “She’s very crafty. She likes do-it-yourself projects, so we’re having her do one of those each month.