Enter stage right: the 600-pound gorilla
UNC senior lecturer Jock Lauterer is on a two-week Fulbright to China to give lectures and lead seminars at three Beijing universities. He is the author of “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” 3rd. Ed, and most recently was the project manager for Prof. Chen Kai’s groundbreaking 2012 book, “An Introduction to Community Newspapers in the U.S.”
Weds, May 23,2012
From the very get-go, this Chinese Community Journalism project has been bedeviled by the tacit issue of press freedom — or more accurately, the lack thereof.
So while I want to be a gracious guest and not insult my hosts, how can I speak of great journalism at any level without confronting the issue head-on?
At my back I hear old Walter Lippmann urging me on: “A free press is not a luxury, but an organic necessity of a great society.”
Tonight at the prestigious J-school of Tsinghua University, to a room full of 60-plus bright Chinese kids, I introduced the 600-pound gorilla in the room.
I began by telling a true story of meeting a Sudanese professor during a 2008 flight to Ethiopia. In complete surety, she blamed the Western media for fabricating the controversy over Darfur. She assured us that the alleged genocide in Darfur was trumped up and entirely manufactured mainly by the U.S. press to make Sudan look bad. When I asked why she believed this to be true, the professor replied brightly, “Because my government tells me so.”
Enter stage right: the 600-pound gorilla.
As I finished this story, I couldn’t help but notice the level of tension had risen precipitously in the lecture hall, as if everyone was holding his or her breath, and that my hosts were becoming increasingly agitated. The door to the lecture hall was discretely shut, and I was told, please move on, this topic is too sensitive!
But the students would have none of it; they had come to hear the truth.
I walked to the back of the room where a clutch of student newspaper leaders were taking notes.
“Why are you going into communications?” I asked, standing just feet away from the row of amazed students. “Why do you want a career in journalism?” and I pointed to one young man at random. He piped up right away without hesitation: “It’s interesting — and…” then he paused to think, “I want to make a difference!”
“You don’t want to become rich and famous?” I asked playfully, referencing the fact that I’d learned earlier – how many kids at CUC want to be rich and famous TV anchors.
He grinned and replied that that would be OK but that it probably wouldn’t happen. Everyone laughed, and the oxygen returned to the room.
“So you want to make a difference, do you?” I challenged. And by the time two hours had passed we had covered the waterfront — from our cultural differences to the First Amendment, prior restraint, censorship, the importance and vitality of the community press in the U.S., the impact of the Web, right down to how to improve their campus newspaper by making it more “relentlessly local.”
When the lecture was over, I was again surrounded by eager young Chinese kids wanting my business card and autograph, and a little face-time with the ol’ perfesser.
I left the lecture hall thoroughly spent, both emotionally and physically, but also deeply satisfied. Driving me back to my campus quarters, my host professor encouraged me to stay, and if I couldn’t do that, he encouraged me to return again soon. His final words are burned into my memory.
As we drove through the darkened campus, he said, “China needs you.”