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From Al Jazeera to BBC, Conventions Are Hot Story

Times Staff Writer

Among the many logo-bedecked television skyboxes visible from the floor of the Fleet Center in Boston, one name sticks out: Al Jazeera.

“That says so much about where the world is now -- and about the interest in this election,” marveled CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman. He saw the Arabic- language news channel’s insignia the other day as he surveyed the Democratic National Convention hall in Boston.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera is one of many international news organizations covering this year’s political conventions. When Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts accepts the Democratic nomination for president Thursday, he will speak to an audience that is not just national but global.

In Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Latin America, millions of people are expected to follow the Democratic National Convention through TV, radio and other media to learn more about the man trying to unseat President Bush.

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Many will tune in again when Republicans renominate Bush in New York at their convention Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

International interest in modern American politics always runs high. But political analysts and foreign journalists say it has surged since the terrorist attacks of 2001 and subsequent U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. That means deeper coverage of the 2004 campaign and other domestic events previously obscure to the typical person in, say, the Middle East.

“For us, it is exciting in a way to see how American democracy works and where the candidates stand, what makes them different from each other,” said Nadia Bilbassey-Charters, a Washington correspondent for the Al Arabiya satellite TV channel. She is part of a team that plans to cover the conventions for the first time for the news channel, which is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Like its competitor Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya serves an Arab audience. Bush administration officials have accused both channels of slanting their coverage against the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq.

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In January, Bilbassey-Charters went to New Hampshire to cover the Democratic nomination battle.

“It was difficult to explain to Arab audiences the differences between caucuses and primaries,” she said, referring to the party gatherings and plebiscites, respectively, through which presidential candidates competed for convention delegates. International journalists matter far less to the two major parties than reporters from Ohio, Florida or other electoral battlegrounds. The conventions are staged for media outlets that can reach American voters. Foreign reporters generally don’t, aside from a smattering of U.S. expatriates who vote by absentee ballots.

But to help the foreign media navigate the convention in New York, Republican National Convention spokesman Leonardo Alcivar said the GOP planned to have staff members fluent in Arabic and other languages.

There were no estimates available this week on the number of foreign news representatives the two parties expected among about 15,000 media personnel credentialed for the conventions.

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The State Department counts more than 2,600 journalists residing in the United States who have registered with its foreign press centers in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. Many are expected to cover the Democratic and GOP conventions firsthand, bolstered by news crews flying into Boston and New York from around the world.

The British Broadcasting Corp. is dispatching 15 members of its Washington bureau and more from London to cover the Democrats. The convention will air live during the wee hours on a BBC channel ordinarily devoted to the British Parliament, with excerpts replayed later each day. Another BBC channel will have its newscasts straddle the Atlantic, with one co-anchor in London and another in Boston or New York.

BBC Washington bureau chief Martin Turner says the 2004 election has a “pitch of intensity” that far exceeds the contest between Bush and Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

“We’ve moved so far beyond it -- with 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq. You put those together with George W. Bush, who is an enormously controversial figure in the rest of the world, and you’ve got a recipe for something that is of enormous interest to our audience,” he said.

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Agence France-Presse said it planned to deploy English-, French-, Spanish- and German-speaking reporters in Boston.

Francis Kohn, chief North America editor for the wire service, said the world was curious about Bush’s challenger.

“It’s like in America -- you don’t know very much about John Kerry. There is a hunger to know more about his personality and about what he would do,” Kohn said.

Fumihiko Kure, Washington bureau chief for Nippon Television Network, said he expected that Kerry’s acceptance speech next week would be carried live in Japan.

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Because the United States is the world’s dominant power, analysts say, foreigners can’t afford to ignore American politics. White House decisions on military troop deployments, strategic arms, international trade, fiscal policy, immigration, environmental protection and a host of other issues reverberate around the world every day.

“It’s not new to other countries that what we do matters,” said John Hamilton, an expert on foreign news coverage and dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “But some things have changed. One is that the United States is now perceived abroad in a very negative way compared to the way we were seen after the Second World War.”

Many foreign reporters based in the United States have been covering the presidential campaign since the Iowa caucuses. The State Department’s foreign press centers organized trips to Des Moines in January and then to New Hampshire and South Carolina for the subsequent primaries. Officials said attendance on these trips was about 25% higher than four years ago.

Jose Carreno, Washington correspondent for the Mexican newspaper El Universal, has gone to nearly every convention since 1984. He said some of his Latin American peers would be going to the conventions this year for the first time.

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Carreno plans to watch how the Democrats and Republicans court Latino voters and what they say to people worldwide.

“For the average American, it may be dull,” Carreno said. “But if you look at it from a foreign point of view, a lot of the speeches could be important pronouncements. So we are looking for meaning.”


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