‘Arctic Ambassador’ Position Draws Mixed Reaction From Alaska Delegation

Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that he’s creating a new position called Special Representative for the Arctic Region. It’s been referred to as an “Arctic Ambassador” in some reports, but it’s not exactly that, and the reaction of Alaska’s two U.S. senators has been mixed.

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Townsend: Liz, both senators have been pressing for an Arctic ambassador to assert the U.S. interests in the region. Shouldn’t this be unbridled good news to the senators?

Ruskin: Well, it was the way Sen. Begich announced it last week on Valentine’s Day. He talked to Kerry on the phone, then issued a press release that used the word “ambassador” a dozen times.

Townsend:  But Sen. Murkowski didn’t see it that way?

Ruskin: Not so much.  A few hours later, when her press release came out, she pointed out the Secretary of State never used the word “ambassador” in a letter he wrote to both senators. Murkowski questions whether the position would be on par. And she used some harsh language, calling the Obama Administration’s Arctic policy “lackluster” and “a national disgrace.”

Townsend: So is this just the Washington dance, where the senator of one party is obligated to criticize the president when he’s of the opposite party?

Ruskin: Could be some of that. It’s also a turf battle between the two senate offices.

Townsend: How do you mean?

Ruskin: It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that Murkowski — or her staffers — were ticked the Secretary of State called Begich and allowed him to break the news. That was kind of a gift. In her press release, Murkowski’s staff wrote that she “is considered the leading expert” on Arctic issues in Congress. They backed up that with pictures of her posing with the chair of the Arctic Council this month and sitting right next to Secretary Kerry at an Arctic confab in Sweden last year. And her staff included a video of her talking Arctic on the Senate floor back in 2011, and she’s gesturing to a map of the Arctic, no less. Altogether, the not-so-subtle message is “back off, the Arctic’s hers.”

Townsend: Back to the terminology, Special Representative or Ambassador. Does it matter?

Ruskin: It does to Sen. Murkowski. She issued a press release yesterday suggesting this Arctic rep thing is just window dressing because the person won’t have the same standing as the real Arctic ambassadors from other countries.  She says Secretary Kerry should meet with her and explain why he refuses to upgrade to ambassador. Begich, on the other hand, said today this is a step toward creating an Arctic ambassador, which requires Senate confirmation.

Townsend: So is he saying he was wrong to use the word “ambassador” in his press release last week?

Ruskin: No. He insists he’ll call the appointee “ambassador” because he or she will be acting in that role.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori