Nieman Foundation reunions are many things to those who attend: a chance to see old friends, experience a taste of Harvard, and find out what’s new at Lippmann House and the Nieman program. For this gathering of Nieman Fellows in early May, the focus on talking and listening was especially important.
A conversation with the Curator during the Sunday morning brunch at Lippmann House offered a clear picture of what was on the minds of fellows in the room and suggested ways of opening new lines of communication about the Nieman program. The alumni seemed particularly to want assurance that the addition of weekend seminars and the narrative journalism program had not taken anything away from the fellows’ core experience. Many told me later or sent e-mails to say that, having now seen Lippmann House and heard from current fellows, they were satisfied that the program is serving its mandate.
The alumni also asked about the origins of the narrative journalism program. They sought full details on the construction of Knight Center at Lippmann House. They were interested in the reasoning behind a reorganization of the Nieman Foundation staff.
Members of the class of 2005 joined the discussion with stories about the enrichment they had found in the weekend conferences and the narrative experience. I offered evidence that the original purposes of the fellowship program remained the first priority of the foundation and that the core mission was solidly in place. One alumna wondered why we had weekly shoptalks on journalism, suggesting that the fellows come here to get away from journalism for a year. I replied that there had been a thread of journalism running through the program since the beginning and that it seemed unlikely that 24 journalists could come together and not want to talk and think about our craft.
A fuller and wiser response came by e-mail a few days later from a recent international fellow. She noted that the criticism had come from a U.S. fellow and wrote, “I think it’s important to remember how different the priorities of international fellows can be. Many of us come from countries where there is no ongoing conversation about journalism …. I feel that I benefited a great deal—more than I expected, to be frank—from the discussions at Nieman journalism events …. I am still very much using the memory of those discussions in talking to the people with whom I work.”
The topic that produced a spark of strong feelings was the foundation’s plan in partnership with the Fairbank Center and Asia Center at Harvard to provide an educational experience for 40 Chinese officials assigned to work with the press during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I explained it was not our intent to provide instruction on how to do things—the definition of “training.” Rather it would be an educational and informational program designed to give the Olympic representatives an accurate understanding of the history and traditions of the U.S. press under the First Amendment, plus a picture of the wide variety of topics the press will want to report on when it goes to China during the games.
The voices raised in opposition said it was not appropriate for the Nieman Foundation to meet with representatives of a repressive regime that, among other things, had imprisoned journalists. Others worried that the program would prepare the Chinese officials to manipulate the press or that these officials would use the Nieman name as a cover for whatever they might in managing news coverage during the Olympics.
News of the issue in the days following drew comments from others who sent e-mails, some with opinions favoring the idea but most expressing concern. During a long meeting with the current Nieman class, it became clear to me that the continuing furor was putting the reputation of the foundation at risk. The issue was no longer whether it was acceptable to have a dialogue with Chinese Olympic officials; the imperative had become one of withdrawal in the interest of protecting our name. The response to this decision from Nieman alumni and others—even those who thought that such a program might make a small contribution to transparency in China—was decidedly positive.
The reunion offered a rare opportunity to talk and listen and left me with a much clearer sense of the deep loyalty and commitment of the Nieman alumni and the intensity of their desire to make sure the fellows’ experience remains faithful to the original purposes of the program. I understand better our obligation to expand communication about the program through the tools of e-mail and the Web. The Nieman Advisory Board, with a strong representation of alumni, can serve an important role as a point of contact for fellows, particularly as board committees help us develop strategies for the direction of the Nieman Foundation.