With emotions inflamed over immigration on both sides of the Atlantic and trade tensions high, June 2018 was an interesting time to be traveling as an American in Europe.
Especially as a journalist.
That was the opportunity I had thanks to the long and productive partnership between RTDNA and the RIAS Berlin Commission. As RTDNA chairman, I accompanied 13 other American journalists to Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium. It was an experience I’ll never forget and one that could hardly have come at a more remarkable moment.
Through four cities in three countries over 12 days, we immersed ourselves in the issues gripping Germany and its European Union neighbors. We met news professionals, politicians, community leaders and survivors — some from the Berlin Wall era, others from ordeals still in the daily headlines.
A 75-year-old former inmate led us on a tour of the Stasi secret police prison where he once served time. His crime: printing and distributing flyers that carried a political opinion intolerable to the East German government. A recent refugee showed us around Berlin’s Arab community and told us about his escape from Syria. He barely lived through the sinking of a smuggler’s boat in the middle of the Mediterranean and landed in jail before reaching Germany. He was able to reunite with his wife and child only two years later.
We got behind the scenes at media organizations ranging from the tabloid newspaper Bild to public broadcasters like Deutsche Welle and ARD, engaging in long, lively conversations with journalists whose work we could then see and hear online and on air.
We visited a bunker where thousands of Berliners huddled during the bombing of their city in the final days of World War II. We saw the graffiti scrawled on the walls of the Reichstag by the Soviet soldiers who captured Berlin — messages intentionally preserved by the Germans in the rebuilding of the structure where their lawmakers still meet. We toured Dresden, a city hundreds of years older than anything in the U.S., virtually leveled by allied bombers. We marveled at the miraculous survival of a few structures and at the acceptance expressed by the people of Dresden, who acknowledged that German bombers had done the same to cities in England.
In Prague, we got firsthand accounts of the important reporting being done by journalists at Radio Free Europe, including investigative work in repressive regimes made possible by a powerful combination of courage and technology.
In Brussels, at the headquarters of the European Commission, we sat in on the daily media briefing and then got extensive briefings of our own from top government specialists on issues that could not have been more timely. A Commission expert on migration explained the latest proposals that leaders of European Union nations would be meeting to discuss in that very building just three days later. The Commission’s spokesperson on trade provided the European perspective on the tariffs that would be imposed at midnight, just hours after our session.
We met with representatives of local, state and federal government as they processed presidential tweets from Washington claiming that refugees have driven crime way up in Germany (they haven’t) and that the Trump administration’s relationship with Europe is “a 10.” (It isn’t.)
Our conversations weren’t all about the politics of the moment. We learned what it’s like to freelance as a reporter covering NATO and how German labor laws shield workers from the kind of job insecurity that afflicts so many American journalists. We examined the differences in privacy laws affecting news coverage and examined the ethics of relationships between reporters and their sources.
There were no plush charter coaches involved in our travels around town. We took public transportation to almost all of our destinations and walked, on average, about seven miles a day. (A couple of our group members tracked that by smartphone app.) That helped us see cities at the street level and notice details we might otherwise have missed.
A personal highlight for me was the evening spent at the home of two journalists who grew up and began their careers before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two of us from the U.S. were their guests. They fixed us a memorable meal they told us was typical of eastern Germany and talked about how their lives and work have changed over the years. At the end of the evening, they presented us with German flags and Hawaiian-style leis in Germany’s national colors that we could put to use two nights later, watching Germany’s first World Cup soccer game. (That didn’t end well for the German team, but it was nice to feel — or at least look — like a full-fledged fan.)
At numerous stops, it was fascinating to hear about the historical role of RIAS, representing Radio in the American Sector of Berlin, as it broadcast news and entertainment across the Wall to East Germans whose own government tightly controlled media.
The summer 2018 RIAS Fellows comprised a wonderfully diverse mix of American journalists. Some were from commercial operations; some from public media. There were reporters and producers, digital journalists and broadcasters. Our group included journalists of color, widely varying levels of professional experience and news organizations at both the network and local levels. Three of us teach college journalism full time. We came from the East and West Coasts as well as several states in between.
That blend was essential to our experience. We learned not just from the Germans and other European journalists we met, but from one another, too.
I expected more questions about President Trump. I thought there would be more interest in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
I was surprised to find that air conditioning isn’t as ubiquitous in Germany as it is in our country; in fact, many Germans don’t like it. Fortunately, we had nearly perfect weather throughout our visit.
I didn’t anticipate so much asparagus. Germans adore asparagus, especially the white kind, which they serve with delight and no small measure of pride — but only during May and June. It’s a strictly seasonal thing.
As usual when traveling internationally, I was embarrassed that I don’t speak a second language. Throughout Europe, almost everyone we met — from journalists to taxi drivers and store clerks — can converse in English. Amid such widespread bilingualism, I was reminded of how fast one can pick up words and phrases in another language. All it takes is a little effort and the courage to try.
The RIAS program would be an outstanding opportunity for any American journalist, and RTDNA’s partnership is a remarkable resource for our members. Now that I’ve had the experience, I hope to help others do the same. As a RIAS alumnus, I treasure the new friends I’ve made on both sides of the Atlantic and the new understanding I’ve at least begun to gain of the concerns we have in common.