When Rosie Gray, a reporter for BuzzFeed currently camped out in Geneva, Switzerland, for the international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, agreed to a brief interview via Gchat Friday morning, she warned that the Internet might go out.
“And if you have to run because news happens,” I added, “similarly no worries.”
“Yeah it won’t,” she replied.
Thus—one gathers from Twitter and from more formal reports—is the Beckett-like lot of the hundreds of journalists from around the world currently gathered in the largest French-speaking city of a notoriously bucolic country that, as Orson Welles’s character famously put it in The Third Man, “had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” The journalists are there for negotiations between the P5+1 nations (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, United States) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, which many credibly allege has a military component.
“I mean, I’m sure that whatever is going on in the negotiating room is very interesting,” said Gray, who has covered the story extensively both from Washington, D.C. (where congressional momentum for more sanctions, driven in part out of concern for Israel, has a huge impact on the talks themselves) and from Geneva. “But from a reporter's perspective it’s a lot of waiting around and waiting for little odds and ends that come out.”
It is so bad that it is not even clear if editors back home believe the reporters should be there. “I weirdly just got dragged into helping with a totally unrelated story,” emailed The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick, declining to comment. In a follow-up, he noted, “it is bizarre.. i think the desk has this idea that we’re just lounging around a hotel lobby, bullshitting over expensive cups of espresso. Oh, wait.”
The central quandary the talks present to journalists is this: The potential payoff to being in Geneva right now is very large; the likelihood of that payoff coming to pass is very small.
On the one hand, the talks are really happening and might produce an actual deal. (“None of the remaining obstacles are insurmountable,” one analyst said this morning in a typical pronouncement.) Iran’s nuclear program is Diplomatic Topic A both internationally and in the United States. It would almost certainly involve lifting some sanctions against the Islamic Republic, greatly upsetting important U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia and setting the stage for an upending of power dynamics in the volatile Middle East.
On the other hand, there might be no deal. In fact, if past is prologue—there have been several talks much like these recently—there won’t be a deal. It is not clear how short the Iranian negotiators’ leash is. And it isn’t clear whether Congress will increase sanctions, scuttling a potential agreement.
And so the reporters sit, all day, mostly in the lobby of the Intercontinental in downtown Geneva, where the cheapest room for a Thursday night two weeks from now costs more than $400, and a decent burger downstairs costs $35. Sometimes there are press briefings at the convention center (where credentials were handed out through the Swiss foreign ministry) or the U.N.’s Palais des Nations. “A lot of the writers sit around,” said Ali Gharib, an American freelancer. “People occasionally get scheduled interviews with officials.”
When important names walk through the Intercon lobby, questions are shouted, but the only response is diplomatic boilerplate—these are, after all, diplomats. “When [Russian foreign minister] Sergey Lavrov just came in, the Russian security guy said, ‘No moving, no questions, okay?’” Gharib recalled. “And when he walked in, all the security guards shushed us!” According to Gharib, NBC’s Ann Curry expressed disbelief while Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen shouted, from her couch, “Mr. Lavrov, do we have a deal?”
How is the rest of the day spent? “Tweeting,” Gray said. “Trying to get scraps of info from the delegations when they come in and out. Eating really expensive food and drinks!” (Apparently, fondue is still cool over there.) A look at the Twitter hashtag #GenevaTalks gives a good sense of what the journalists are up to. “Not saying there IS a presser tonight, but have been asked to move camera to make way for delegates who MAY want to hold one,” wrote CNN’s Matthew Chance. “Breaking news from #GenevaTalks: $9 espressos eclipsed by $12 teas. Did I mention the chocolate sticks gratis?” added Hooman Majd, on assignment for The New Yorker. On Thursday, Gray went meta: “Wendy Sherman leaves hotel #genevatweets” (Sherman is leading the U.S. delegation). “Whoa, if true,” replied The Washington Post’s Max Fisher.
If anything, it is the logistical moments of reporting that may provide real insight. According to Gray, several reporters who are staying at the Intercon (the journalists are scattered all over) attempted to book their reservations through Friday, and were rebuffed, leading some to wonder if more rooms were filled then because more foreign ministers would be flying in. “It is like ALL tea leaf reading,” Gray explained. “It’s like kremlinology!”
In the meantime, they could arguably be more productive back at their cubicles. Twitter, which is the very reason spectators can know just how little is going on (“Clemenceau just rolled his eyes in an interesting manner at his German counterpart,” nobody tweeted from Versailles in 1918), also might make it less necessary for the reported hundreds of journalists to travel to Geneva for the week. Alternatively, the increased transparency afforded by social media might actually be an argument in favor of making sure you have somebody on the scene, which would explain why BuzzFeed, which has opened several foreign bureaus in recent months, does.
But is it fun? Gray and Gharib relayed relatively little mixing between journalists from different nationalities, and lots of comradeship among those who already knew each other. Gharib reported “a little latent tension between Israeli reporters and the reporters from Iran.” And, perhaps, there is a quiet dash of competitiveness—actual news, after all, just might break. When I emailed the New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon asking to chat, he replied in a manner I wasn’t expecting: “Sorry. Too busy for that.”
This post has been updated to accurately reflect the situation of some reporters who tried to book rooms at the Intercontinental though Friday. Also, the CNN journalist should have been identified as Matthew Chance, not Michael.