Different lobby, same fear and loathing.

One writer told me that there is a moment on the day of every OPEC meeting when many journalists think to themselves, “This has got to be my career low point.” I feel his pain, literally.
It usually happens in the early afternoon as scores of reporters start corralling themselves into a tiny space behind a velvet rope near a glass door in the lobby of OPEC headquarters. They stand there, their feet aching, because beyond that rope and door lies a set of stairs. Up three flights is a conference room with an enormous U-shaped conference table where all the oil ministers and their delegations and special guests sit.
While OPEC meetings are held behind closed doors there is a point when the ministers break. Downstairs, the velvet rope is thrown down and a stampede of reporters bum rushes the guards, tearing up the staircase and running into the conference room where they will cram inside the U-shaped table, sardine-style, jockeying for position to ask questions.
Since this is a blog on the site of a “family newspaper” I can’t even publish what this session is called except to say it is very crude slang for a group sex act.
The ultimate goal: figure out whether oil production will be cut or not. It is sort of like the opportunity for a sneak peak into what OPEC might do. One more guessing game that gets played at these meetings.
On a day like today when everybody is 99% sure production won’t be cut, the questions can drift to refining capacity and geopolitics or, in my case, back to the Oscars. I’m curious to know how many of the Middle Eastern ministers have seen Syriana and what their take is on many Americans’ view of oil politics.
There is pushing. There is swearing. There is, occasionally, tripping. More than once a black eye or severe bruising has resulted from getting hit in the head by a cameraman’s equipment or shoved into the sharp end of the conference table. If a reporter cannot nab one of two of three spaces in front of a minister then he cannot hear what is being said. All in all, it is quite a degrading experience and seems planned to that effect.
Strategy is key. Reporters have to figure out who they want to talk to and rank their importance. The middle of the conference table gets so packed that if someone wants to hit both the Saudis and the Iranians they might not have time to navigate to both spots. Even if they do, their questions may not be answered. All this takes place in the rush of a few short moments. Ten minutes or so if the journalists are lucky.
The press pool has been standing around for hours now waiting for this open session to come. They shoot the bull, smoke, quietly work their way for a crossword puzzle torn out of the latest Financial Times.
It’s pack journalism at its worst. While waiting, some complain the reason many of the ministers seem to enjoy the whole frenzied, scurrying scene is because they don’t really have a chance to spar this way with journalists in their own countries where there’s no free press. That’s true of some OPEC member nations and not others.
But as one AP reporter who recently returned from assignment in Bosnia told me, “How bad can it be? What’s the worst thing that can happen to you in Vienna — you eat a bad pastry.”