Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Breathing New Life Into an Old Federation (January 13, 2004)
"A little more than three years ago, a few prominent Americans thought it was time to reinvigorate the World Federation of United Nations Associations, a body created in 1946."

IAEA Chief Out Front on Arms Control (January 5, 2004)
"Since the departure of Hans Blix, Mohamed ElBaradei has been the U.N. system's most visible arms controller. Some Bush administration officials have begun trying to undermine his authority."

Refugees in Limbo Where the U.N. Isn't Welcome (December 29, 2003)
"For about a dozen years, tens of thousands of people, claiming to be Bhutanese citizens have been languishing in refugee camps in Nepal. Few officials believe they are all Bhutanese. Then who are these people, now numbering more than 100,000?"

Book on U.N. Creation a Welcome Reminder of Early Lessons (December 16, 2003)
"Here's the perfect holiday gift for your favorite member of the U.S. Congress."

Too Soon To Count the U.N. in on Iraq (December 9, 2003)
"The United Nations is not going to jump at the chance to take over the management of Iraq. Too much needs to change not only in Washington but also on the ground in Baghdad."

Sixteen Wise People and the Future of the U.N. (December 1, 2003)
"This could be a last-chance opportunity to reinvigorate a battered United Nations."

Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time (November 24, 2003)
"The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | January 20, 2004
from U. N. Wire Challenging Year for U.N. Brings Renewed Media Attention

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—Opinion polls show that most Americans get their foreign news from television, where footage from the United Nations is rare except when crisis flares. It shouldn't be surprising then that knowledge about the organization can be pretty thin. Ignorance benefits the world body's detractors, and when there is a bad year in U.S.-U.N. relations, as 2003 certainly was, the assumption is that the organization can do little to avoid damage. Now some are asking, is this too fatalistic?

Linda Fasulo
Linda Fasulo
Linda Fasulo, the U.N. correspondent for NBC and MSNBC and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, is one who bucks the prevailing opinion on this issue. She thinks that the "year of Iraq" may have not done much harm because the United Nations—or at least the Security Council—got more television footage than it has enjoyed for a long time. Paradoxically, even the negative coverage (prompted by officials in Washington who did not get their way on Iraq) was not only better than no coverage but also provoked debate about the organization itself, according to Fasulo.

At dinner parties in New York, she said in an interview, the sort of polite glaze that once crept over faces when she introduced herself as a reporter at the United Nations has turned to animated interest. People want to know what the United Nations is really like.

"The Iraqi debate really was a major plus for the U.N.," Fasulo said, admitting it was also fortuitous for her, given the publication this month of her latest book, An Insider's Guide to the U.N., which she began writing a few years ago as much to inform herself as others about this very complex organization, most of it hidden from view.

"There is a lot of uncertainty about how the U.N. works—why is it important, why isn't it important," she said. "The point is that it's out there now in center field. The average person is more cognizant that the U.N. is a functioning—or, depending on their views, a dysfunctional—body. They know that somehow it's important enough that the president of the United States and the major countries of the world go there and invest a lot of time to justify their positions."

Still, for broadcasters in a competitive news business, the United Nations is not often considered an important enough—or visually interesting enough—place to base a correspondent full time. Only the BBC and CNN maintain significant studio operations at headquarters, with full-time producers and reporters. BBC World Service may devote more time to U.N. news reports, but CNN has created a unique 30-minute weekly feature program called Diplomatic License, which explores the back alleys and foibles of the U.N. community.

Richard Roth, the show's witty host and CNN's chief U.N. correspondent, says the program gets a good time slot and an appreciative audience in Europe and almost everywhere else around the world on CNN International, the BBC's global rival, which is not seen in the United States. In the U.S., only viewers with CNNfn or a few other cable channels can watch Diplomatic License. On CNNfn, it airs Saturday mornings at 8:30 EST.

Reporting from U.N. headquarters, whether for a network or a newspaper, is in a journalistic category of its own. The press corps is polyglot, multicultural, of varying talents and intents and often breezily undisciplined and certainly not deferential—no pack of obedient, like-minded, security-screened correspondents that follow presidents or other high national government officials.

Well-placed leaks to favored news organizations are very rare in the U.N. hierarchy. Correspondents can, however, rely on diplomats from scores of foreign missions who may be in the decision-making mix at the United Nations in ways they would not be as ambassadors in Washington. Rotating Security Council seats, for example, almost always produce at least one or two very observant, analytically skilled sources of information who can be on the inside of closed-door sessions, even if on the sidelines, as bigger powers haggle over policies and votes.

At the United Nations, any issue has many facets and there are many opinions among the 191 member nations. "The U.N. is a great window on the world," Fasulo said. "You can sit and talk with anyone and everyone for the most part. You're free to develop sources from anywhere. The problem is that in diplomacy so much of what you get is off the record, or for non-attribution. Consequently, if you stick a camera in someone's face you may get something interesting, but you're not going to get anything earth-shattering."

In recent years, under Secretary General Kofi Annan, U.N. officials have been given greater freedom to talk with reporters, individually or in informative group official briefings. Some have become unusually outspoken, occasionally on the record.

For television reporters, an effort is being made to allow cameras to roam a little more freely, said Fasulo, who has been reporting from the world body since 1990, when she was a correspondent for the New York public radio station WNYC. Even for fixed-position camera work, the United Nations has gussied up the backdrop behind the Security Council stakeout microphone, better known for its stultifying blank wall and a tired potted plant.

Still, the fact remains that broadcast reporting around the United Nations will probably never be what it was in the early years. Then, debate in the Security Council or General Assembly often was a colorful story in itself. Memorable characters from around the world expounded dramatically and at length. A legendary representative from India, V.K. Krishna Menon, was known for his lengthy tirades, including one interrupted by a brief collapse and resuscitation, and a quick return to the lectern to complete the harangue.

Now, with satellite transmission and videophones usable in every small town in Iraq or Afghanistan, footage comes from the field, not the podium. Correspondents want to be out where the action is, not hanging around the Security Council waiting for scraps of information to emerge.

"In the 1950s, and the '60s you had real network stars like Pauline Frederick and Richard Hottelet, who became household names because of their coverage of the U.N.," Fasulo said.

But then, the organization was in its infancy and television was also new, and when an international crisis erupted, everyone turned to watch the United Nations. It was a natural match.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.