The U.S. Department of State maintains three operational Foreign Press Centers (FPCs) (Washington, DC, New York and Los Angeles) that are dedicated to assist foreign correspondents with their assignments in covering the United States. Their mission is to “support U.S. policies and priorities by helping resident and visiting foreign media cover the U.S” through the promotion of depth, accuracy, and balance of foreign reporting from the U.S. and provision of direct access to authoritative American information sources.
Thus, FPCs are a dedicated public diplomacy tool that aims to actively shape representations of the United States abroad by cooperating with indigenous foreign media.
The FPC project was originally launched by the United States Information Agency. The first FPC, then called Foreign Press Liaison Office, was set up in 1946 in New York where the newly created United Nations opened its headquarters and drew hundreds of journalists from all over the world. In 1968, the U.S. government decided to create another center in Washington, as foreign media were starting to pay greater attention to events in the United States. To face the growing number of foreign reporters, the USIA moved the Washington office to the current location at the National Press Building. In 1982, a third center was opened in Los Angeles. According to State Department estimates, the Foreign Press Centers serve more than 2,000 journalists.
The FPCs help foreign correspondents as well as journalists traveling to the United States to report on American society, politics and culture. U.S. journalists are not allowed to attend the FPC briefings. Although some foreign correspondents have access to the regular meetings at the White House or the State Department, they tend to prefer the Foreign Press Centers.
The FPCs are staffed predominantly by public diplomats. Their every-day tasks include offering daily briefings from government officials and non-government experts on American policy and society; helping journalists gain one-on-one interviews with U.S. officials; and organizing press tours to expose media to America "outside the beltway." "Our commitment is to give the administration’s view a fair hearing," former director James Pope said. "This is a U.S. government operation. We feel that there are other platforms in town available for those who oppose the administration’s view. Correspondents can go and listen to them elsewhere."
FPC: A Public Diplomacy Effort
As David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs acknowledged during a briefing on August 15, 2006, at the Washington FPC, "I think what I'm doing here today is public diplomacy." In Communicating with the World: U.S. Public Diplomacy Overseas, Hans Tuch, a former Foreign Service public diplomat, explained the importance of access and credibility that the FPCs provide:
Where a Public Affairs Officer may find it difficult to make personal contact with a busy newspaper editor or television producer to talk about a specific issue, the PAO’s colleague in one of the USIA Foreign Press Centers in the United States may more easily have a conversation with the U.S.-based correspondent of the respective publication or TV network while helping the correspondent get an interview with a policymaker or an invitation to a press briefing, while clarifying a particular question, or while providing useful information. That correspondent’s reports, in print, on radio, or on local television, would very likely be featured by his or her editor or producer with greater prominence, and be regarded as more authoritative, than anything the U.S. Information Service officer might have provided the editor on the latter’s home turf.
The FPCs’s relevance increased further after 9/11. Several reports emphasized the need to expand the relationships between foreign correspondents and U.S. policymakers. The 2003 Report by an Independent Task Force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, "Finding America’s Voice: A Strategy for Reinvigorating U.S. Public Diplomacy" , cautioned against overlooking the role of the foreign press corps: "Too often, foreign reporters feel they are treated as second-class citizens relegated to the fringe of U.S. outreach efforts. To the extent that the U.S. government marginalizes foreign journalists, it alienates a group of highly effective, highly credible messengers." Anthony Blinken concurred that "senior government officials should receive periodic media training and should be encouraged to brief foreign media regularly at the Foreign Press Center or in individual interviews."
Recent public diplomacy initiatives by the FPCs have been praised. For instance, in January 2007, it co-organized with the Army a visit to Fort Riley, Kansas, where the foreign press corps followed soldiers on training exercises, preparing to deploy to Iraq. “[It is] part of the State Department’s public diplomacy efforts to inform the international media about U.S. policies and dispel myths and stereotypes,” Jess Baily, director of Washington's FPC explained.
On the other hand, foreign correspondents were astonished when in 2004 the FPC did not set up an office to either party convention. The Department of State blamed it on budget restrictions. "We had to decide what is the best use of U.S. taxpayer money to reach out to those we want to influence," Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman said. It was the first time in twenty years that the FPC had no office at the Republican convention. For foreign journalists who are not familiar with the U.S. election system and are moreover a secondary audience for election campaigners, this proved problematic and crippled their opportunities to get in-depth coverage and access to officials.
A Foreign Correspondent’s Perspective
An average foreign correspondent in the United States has worked as a journalist for about 21 years and as a foreign correspondent for about 13 years.  In other words, these are seasoned professionals who carry high credibility as commentators. The FPC is a unique structure in the world of journalists and they appreciate it. Marc Guillet, foreign correspondent for the Algemeen Dagblad in the Netherlands, confirmed that the connections that the FPC supplies make his stories more interesting and better in content. In a 2003 survey among foreign correspondents in Washington, respondents requested four improvements: better access to U.S. government sources, equal treatment of the foreign press by U.S. officials, more openness of U.S. officials and more frequent high-level briefings with top political and industrial leaders. The authors of the study argued that understanding this underprivileged position of foreign correspondents made an important contribution to indicating "the various tensions and pressures under which foreign correspondents work and perhaps in explaining the kind of news coverage that the United States receives from them."
At present, foreign journalists – perhaps some of the most credible messengers for U.S. public diplomacy overseas – enjoy a far from privileged relationship with the U.S. government and non-government sectors. On the contrary, efforts seem to be moving in the exact opposite direction as revealed by a recent State Department decision to close down the FPC in Los Angeles.
1. ^ Zeynep Alemdar, "Conveniences for Correspondents; Foreign Press Center, a Branch of USIA, Aims to Help Visiting Reporters Gain Access," Washington Post, September 23, 1986.
2. ^ Hans Tuch, Communicating with the world: U.S. Public diplomacy overseas, New York : St. Martin's Press, 1990, p.83.
3. ^ Kathy Kiely, "Foreign Press Center taken out of convention loop," USA Today, August 30, 2004.
4. ^ Lars Willnat & David Weaver, "Through Their Eyes: The work of foreign correspondents in the United States," Journalism, Vol.4 Issue 4, 2003, p.411.
5. ^ Andrea Heister, "U. Oklahoma speaker discusses America's image," Oklahoma Daily, February 8, 2005.
6. ^ Lars Willnat & David Weaver, "Through Their Eyes: The work of foreign correspondents in the United States," p.419.
7. ^ Lars Willnat & David Weaver, "Through Their Eyes: The work of foreign correspondents in the United States," p.420.