Based upon queries of my blog, and queries from US media outlets, it seems that US reporters are finally taking an interest in Expo 2010 and the oft-troubled project to build a US pavilion (Shanghai Scrap reporting on the issue, here). As for the latter topic, the interest is overdue: as of January 4, 2010, the private group authorized by the US State Department to design, fund-raise, and build the US pavilion has not yet finished the fund-raising – despite the fact that the Expo begins in 118 days. In early 2009, the situation was so dire that the Chinese government made high-level appeals to Secretary of State Clinton, who has since undertaken some of the fund-raising herself.
And so, this weekend the New York Times gives us “For Shanghai Fair, a Famous Fund-Raiser Delivers,” in which the authors – Mark Landler and David Barboza – correctly report that Secretary Clinton’s played a crucial role in securing pavilion funding, and thus preventing a major diplomatic rupture with China. At the same time, they document the State Department’s careful vetting of Clinton’s fund-raising role, including its determination that – due to her position – she “could not solicit private donations herself.”
This is a compelling story for those who follow the US pavilion, but it is also a seriously incomplete one – as the reporters who worked on the story surely know. So let’s be clear here: the reason that Clinton had to become involved at all is because the private group authorized to design, build, and fund-raise the pavilion had – by early 2009 – shown themselves to be completely incapable of accomplishing what they’d been authorized to do by the State Department. Barboza and Landler blame this failure on the economic crisis, the Olympics, the US election and State Dept restrictions prevented a solid effort. But what they don’t acknowledge is that – by early 2009 – the members of the USA Pavilion, Inc [the legal entity is known as Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc) had alienated a vast swatch of the expatriate business community in Shanghai (“arrogant” and “abrasive” are common adjectives used in regard to the members of USA Pavilion, Inc), numerous potential US corporate donors, and even high-ranking members of the Chinese government. For example, in Spring of 2009, Ellen Eliasoph, a USA Pavilion co-chair, told NPR that an interest-free loan from the Chinese government to pay for the pavilion was “on the table;” shortly thereafter, a high-ranking Expo/Shanghai official repudiated the suggestion in the state media (not long after, a chastened Eliasoph repudiated herself in the Washington Post). Problems like these, as much as anything, required Clinton to designate Jose Villarreal, a charismatic fundraiser from San Antonio, to rescue the pavilion effort, present a fresh face to donors, and serve as a Commissioner General.
So why should it matter now?
Eliasoph is married to Ira Kasoff, the Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Asia, one of the US government’s most senior officials involved in trade access issues, and Eliasoph has been involved in USA Pavilion fund-raising from the beginning. This fact may be unknown to Barboza and Landler, but it is well known in Beijing, and in Shanghai Expo circles, where rebukes to the spouses of US officials are not taken lightly. Likewise, it is certainly the case that the US and Chinese companies solicited for pavilion funds by Eliasoph are aware of her personal relationship to Kasoff. Whether that relationship has made any difference into whether or not those companies donated to the pavilion is a question only they can answer. But it would have been nice – if not journalistically sound – if Barboza and Landler had bothered to tell this side of the story (after all, perceptions matter in diplomacy), instead of presenting a narrative suggesting that Clinton and her friends are the only fundraisers involved in the pavilion project. That’s simply not the case. At a minimum, a proper account of the mistakes made by Eliasoph and USA Pavilion is essential to preventing a similar debacle in the future. Clearly, the New York Times can’t be counted on to provide it.
In the end, the New York Times piece is puff that reads like a press release for an organization – USA Pavilion – desperate to shift media attention away from its murky, incompetent origins. But for those who follow USA Pavilion closely, many if not most of its problems can be traced to those origins. The fact that USA Pavilion has gone to great lengths to avoid answering questions about its “no bid” selection, and continues to obfuscate the facts surrounding it, should be a signal to reporters – like Barboza and Langler – that there’s something amiss.
An example: at USA Pavilion’s official site, under the “Facts” tab, the group presents its preferred version of how it was selected [the text below is a screen capture]:
Now, a reasonably intelligent reader might take away two natural inferences from this official account of events. First, “Shanghai Expo 2010″ participated in the lengthy bidding process; and second, US Secretary of State Rice and Mayor Han Zheng of Shanghai provided letters of support to the group during the bidding process. But both inferences would be false. First, the “lengthy bidding process” lasted from 2006 to 2007 – and failed to select a pavilion group. Most important: Winslow and Eliasoph did not participate in that lengthy bidding process. Instead, they were chosen in March 2008 – after the formal process had concluded without a pavilion team. No explanation has ever been given as to how they were selected (though a widely circulated rumor suggests that Kasoff – who has long-standing contacts in Shanghai and the State Department – played a role in securing the pavilion for his wife’s group). Second, the group did, in fact, receive a letter of support from Secretary Rice – roughly three months after their selection. Likewise, Mayor Han offered his support in September 2008 – 6 months after the group’s selection.
It is worth noting that this isn’t the only instance of the USA pavilion group selectively presenting limited US government action as a wholesale endorsement of their efforts. Most notoriously, Frank Lavin, the former US Ambassador to Singapore, former director of the US International Trade Administration, and Chairman of the USA Pavilion steering committee falsely claimed that a Congressional resolution introduced by a former impeached federal judge constituted Congressional “endorsement” of the US pavilion and the group’s efforts – despite the fact the resolution has almost no Congressional support to this day.
Efforts by other reporters to ask about these incidents have been met with silence (State Department), temper tantrums, and, in one notable case, threats of retaliation. Barboza and Landler clearly didn’t have to deal with any of that; here’s hoping that other reporters will try harder.
[More on this subject come Monday … ]