This week, Matt Lee, State Department correspondent for the Associated Press, has repeatedly had prickly exchanges with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.
Here are three entertaining and inspiring moments.
First, on Monday (the video is here), Lee picked up on reports that former Clinton envoy Martin Indyk is Secretary of State John Kerry’s choice to be the negotiator for the renewed peace process. Lee describes Indyk as a “recycled” failure at negotiations in the past.
Lee: The Secretary said – and others have said – in fact, the President as well has said that in order for this to work, all sides have to be courageous and be creative, and I’m just wondering… I mean, they have to show – they have to demonstrate courage and creativity.
MS. PSAKI: That’s true.
Lee: So can I ask what would be – what is so courageous, or what would be so courageous or creative about appointing a recycled – more recycled Clinton Administration officials to shepherd these talks? It would seem to a lot of people, I think, that people like George Mitchell and Dennis Ross, they’ve had – they’ve done this before and not been successful. Martin Indyk was involved in that. What – it seems to me that there’s very little courageous or creative about an appointment like this. Can you address that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, given a decision hasn’t been made and we haven’t announced any personnel decisions, I can just broadly say that obviously, there are a number of factors that go into a decision, and that includes individuals who will abide by the agreement that we’ve discussed here today, but also having a background and having the credibility on these issues are also important factors. But beyond that, we can discuss more when we have an actual —
Lee: Okay. And —
MS. PSAKI: — announcement of who will be a part of this exciting process going forward.
Lee: Okay. And when we do, you’ll be able to talk about the credibility that this person or these people will bring to this, including their past experience? Yes?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m happy to speak about any personnel that has been announced.
Then yesterday, Lee picked up on another reporter’s question about whether American diplomats are seeking to visit Edward Snowden in the Russian airport.
[Unidentified reporter] QUESTION: Just a quick one on Mr. Snowden. As far as this drama, airport drama, is concerned, have any U.S. diplomats allowed to see him or meet with him?
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of. Obviously, there’s been – we talked a little about the event he held, but beyond that I don’t have any updates for you on it.
QUESTION: So why you have not tried? Maybe he will have changed his mind.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we’re working through the proper channels to have Mr. Snowden returned.
QUESTION: Thank you, ma’am.
Matt Lee: [at minute 10 in the video] Do you know – has there been a request made to the Russians to see him?
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of, Matt.
Lee: Well, why not?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’re working through the proper channels to have him returned.
Lee: Well, I understand that, but why wouldn’t you want to see him? Why wouldn’t you want to send – I mean, he might not want to see them and he might say no, but I mean, why wouldn’t you at least ask? I mean, you might – do you not have any interest in talking to him –except in a trial?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think he’s been –accused of three federal felonies. We’d like to see him returned.
Lee: I know. But as you’re fond of saying, he is an American citizen and he has rights —
MS. PSAKI: That is true.
Lee: — as an American citizen, and protecting the welfare of American citizens abroad is apparently, according to the little sign downstairs, it’s one of your primary missions of the State Department. So you know, if you haven’t seen him, I’m just wondering – have you asked to see him?
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of, Matt. I’m happy to check if there’s more to update you on.
Lee: Okay. Can you find out why you wouldn’t want to or why you —
MS. PSAKI: If there’s more to report, I’m happy to share it with all of you.
Also yesterday, Lee kept pressing Psaki to learn more about reports that the peace talks that were supposed to begin by this Friday are foundering on one obstacle or another, and negotiators have postponed their trips. Psaki said:
Well, I know there have been a lot of reports out there, some accurate, some inaccurate. But I can assure you that we’re continuing – nothing has changed since last Friday, and we’re continuing to talk with both sides about setting a date for them to come to Washington.
Lee took her up on the matter and once again mentioned Edward Snowden:
Lee: In the interest of seeking clarity on this — can you tell us which reports are accurate that you just mentioned?
MS. PSAKI: Well, thank you for your question, Matt. I am not going to get into behind-the-scenes discussions and negotiations. It would require me doing that in order to refute or confirm any of these reports, so hence the challenge.
Lee: Okay. So when the Russians give you that same explanation for why they won’t you give you clarity on Snowden, I hope you’ll be as accepting of their answer as we are of yours.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, I would caution you that those are apples and oranges. This is a —
Lee: No, no. Well, it’s all in the greater quest for clarity.
MS. PSAKI: I know you do like to make sweeping assertions.
Lee: I just like to know – (laughter) – I just like to know what’s going on.
P.S. The other day Muhammad Idrees Ahmad praised Lee as the only reporter carrying on the prickly tradition of Helen Thomas in the US press corps. Lee reminds people of what real journalists did before they aspired to be media stars: he aggressively questions government officials because he doesn’t really trust them, and doesn’t mind seemly curmudgeonly or losing dinner invitations in his effort to determine the facts.