TWO-WEEK GERMANY PROGRAMS 2018
Summer and Fall
RIAS Exchange Program – Summer ▼
June 11–23, 2018
RIAS Student Program – Summer ▼
July 01-21, 2018
RIAS Exchange Program – Fall ▼
Sept 16–28, 2018
RIAS Senior Program ▼
Nov 25-Dec 02, 2018
RIAS Exchange Program – Summer
Fourteen American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Brussels.
Individual extension program for five participants.
Karin Caifa, CNN Newsource, Washington, DC
My participation in the RIAS German-American Journalists Exchange program came at a particularly opportune time for a Washington-based journalist. The key topics for the Trump administration at the time of my departure included the aftermath of the G7 summit in Quebec that many referred to as “G6 + 1,” the expiration of the exemption from U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs for the European Union and other allies, and a roaring immigration debate.
Washington has become an all-consuming beat over the last 18 months. The pace is rapid, and it can be difficult to find time to adequately cover the relevant elements of stories that are not taking place in the American capital. This is one of the reasons why the RIAS Berlin program was so important to me. Without the pressure of deadlines, I was able to put major issues like trade, migration, NATO, and current U.S. perception among allies into more nuanced perspective.
The most valuable perspective about how the United States, and Washington, are viewed abroad came from the journalists we met, who could give an outsider’s perspective on the developments I cover every day. One of my favorite sessions was at ZDF with Bernd and Mitri, who talked about being fellows in the U.S. program during the fall of 2016. Hearing their perspective on the events that unfolded during the final weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign, events that I was completely swept up in covering, was fascinating, as was sharing our perspective on how the next U.S. presidential campaign in 2020 is taking shape.
The two weeks abroad also made me very conscious of how much Americans pay attention to international news (not enough) and the news we as American journalists export to the rest of the world. The current state of affairs in Washington isn’t what most are accustomed to, but the focus on the day-to-day dramatic churn can obscure the fact that the current administration is implementing policy that is going to impact our country, the world, and U.S. relationships with allies for years to come. This trip reinforced my commitment to do better at explaining what is relevant and important to the viewer, particularly when it’s a complex topic, and particularly when I’m addressing viewers not necessarily fluent in Beltway vernacular.
In addition, exploring each city by foot, by subway and by streetcar was an added bonus! It really gave a sense of each place and what it’s like to live and work there, in a way that being ferried by bus does not. In Berlin, especially, where we spent the bulk of the trip, I really got a good geographic sense of where things were, and it allowed me to experience things like running in the Tiergarten and finding new coffee shops that made me feel less like a tourist.
The final element that made this trip so beneficial was the composition of the group, for which Erik must be commended. Every single person was there to learn and report, which is remarkable for a group of that size. I appreciated being alongside other seasoned journalists who had a solid grasp of the issues and asked questions that each of us could build further discussion around. I can’t think of a single session that included any awkward pauses or that had to end because of a lack of questions. In fact, the most difficult part of any session was saying goodbye to our speaker(s)! We all made the experience better for one another.
To anyone who has not experienced the program, it must sound cliched to say that the two weeks were life-changing. But that is how I have been describing my experience. I am forever grateful for the time, and I look forward to remaining involved with RIAS through upcoming alumni events!
Bob Dickey, OUTV University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK
It’s July 4th as I write and the Polish government has sacked its Supreme Court. There are calls for the EU to consider sanctions. It could be the first country in EU history to face losing its voting rights. Deutsche Welle reports that U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell met with German automakers and has reportedly offered a solution to the Trump administration tariffs that could head off an all-out trade war. It’s put up or shut up time, according to the New York Times, for Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May. Coming soon we’re told is the PM’s plan to “soften the economic impact” of Brexit, the pending break with the European Union. And Germany’s Angela Merkel has snatched a temporary win to hold her coalition government together, agreeing to set up border transit camps for migrants as well as turn some refugees away.
All of these stories have a new, richer meaning to me – and I’m sure all of my Spring 2018 RIAS colleagues – because of our time in Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium. It’s a cliché, but nothing compares to first-hand experience. Being in the European Commission headquarters, meeting with Ambassador Grenell, discussing issues facing the EU with Politico’s Managing Editor, these experiences make for an enhanced appreciation of what might otherwise be just another headline scanned and forgotten. The planning and scheduling for all these visits is a difficult undertaking I’m sure, but as working journalists, working educators, I want to express how valuable and appreciated these experiences are.
I also want to take this opportunity to make some random comments on the specifics of our time in Europe. Hitler’s Bunker could have been a “so-so” Berlin attraction if it were not for the passion and sincerity of tour guide, Wieland Giebel, who truly made it worthwhile. I hope future RIAS fellows have the opportunity to take advantage of his expertise. Similarly, the visit to the Stassi prison would not have been nearly as memorable without the superb guide who told his story of imprisonment at that facility. His ending story of having stolen a keepsake, a prison spoon, as he left the facility was a great bit of nose-thumbing in the face of oppressive authority.
I found the visit to KCRW Berlin interesting in its oddness. I know the L.A. operation enough to know a little about what they do, but I find it difficult to believe the German venture will be successful. I could be wrong. If donors are found, they just may pull it off. The tour of the Reichstag was spectacular given the sheer beauty of the structure AND the serendipity of a great guide, who deserves a role in some future Wes Anderson film. She provided Professor Joe Sampson with a catch phrase that continued for the rest of our days together: “now if it pleases you to do so, please follow me.” That said, it was a standard tourist event and I wonder if it the future there could be a journalism component added, meeting with reporters who cover the parliament, seeing the news media facilities, etc.
The meetings with Amb. Grenell, Meggin Doddy/Ben Fajzullin, Barbara Richstein were extremely valuable. I think we all appreciated the humor and frankness of Ulrike Dimmer. Getting to see a “pater noster” in person at Springer/BILD headquarters was a highlight for Stacey and me who, it turns out, are both “Berlin Babylon” binge watchers. A number of the fellows praised the food at the Islamic center and I agree. Ozcan Mutlu and his colleagues contributed to our understanding of Germany’s diversity. I’m glad it was included. The same goes for the meeting with Firas Zakni and his walking Syrian refugee tour. The walk itself was perhaps overly long and the “name place game” a bit hokey, but his tale of escape from Syria and his insights as an assimilating migrant offset those minor issues.
There are so many wonderful experiences that I will look back on: the Dresden tour with Carola Bernholz, the trip to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Teri Schultz’s revelations on life as a freelancer in Brussels, the sessions at the EU Commission and the cap-off visit to Politico with Stephen Brown. My final week, back in Berlin, included an informative time with Sarah Schmidt at RTL. She and her colleagues were very generous with their time and Andreas and I enjoyed a long conversation with them that ranged from the time-wasting nature of ritualized meetings to what is being ignored/overlooked as so many focus on the migrant “crisis.” I’d also like to point out the value of visiting Reuters with Matthias Bahr and my return visit to Deutsche Welle and an extended period of time with Ben Fajzullin. Finally my visit to RBB with Gabriele von Moltke was a great way to end my “station visit” week. I know I have his name wrong, but the newscast director (“Manny” ?) and I had a long period of time to talk about newscast structuring, the division of work between the Berlin and Brandenburg operations and the attention paid to audio and video details that seemed to me to showcase the widely recognized German hallmark of engineering excellence.
The similarities in journalistic practice were found nearly everywhere we visited. What stood out as different – and strikingly so – is the number of people involved in producing relatively short newscasts and the duplication of production facilities, particularly at RBB. From my perspective, the last 25 years of American TV news production is marked by doing more with less. That did not appear to be the case in Germany. No one agonized about being overworked, in fact many pointed out that it is “verboten” for a German employee to work more than eight hours. Another difference is a general lack of specific competition. Although some news programs do go up against one another, there did not seem to be the same emphasis that we place on audience targeting and viewer/listener ratings. We all remarked about the quietness of German newsrooms. I heard no police/fire scanner squawk the entire time I was there. When I asked about that I was told news people make routine “beat calls” and that in the event of a major fire, fire officials would call to notify a news organization that a major event was underway.
So many experiences, so many people, packed into such a short period of time; it’s hard to recall it all, it’s hard to give it all its proper due. But I would be terribly amiss if I did not mention the “blind date” that Scott Libin and I enjoyed at Ulrike Bieritz and Olaf Opitz’s lovely home. Though it started off with a confusing mix-up regarding where to meet, it was a night of great conversation, wonderful food, drink and many laughs.
Yes, it’s the 4th of July as I write and there’s a PBS travel program on TV. Rudy Maxa is visiting Berlin. I left just a week ago but it makes me appreciate what we all got to see, as well as wish we’d got to see more. But I know we could not fit more into this jam-packed journey. It was filled with memorable events morning to night. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity and I thank everyone involved for all the work that went into making it such a success.
Andres Gonzalez, CNN International, Atlanta, GA
The RIAS Berlin fellowship was a transformative experience. RIAS offered me with a revealing window into the intersection of journalism and U.S.-European relations, while offering me a comprehensive and interactive review of Berlin’s culture and history. The RIAS fellowship expanded my understanding of the similarities between the reporting challenges confronting U.S.- and Europe-based journalists. These transatlantic challenges include the increasing need to defend journalists’ professional integrity amid a rise of “fake-news” attacks from right-leaning politicians. I learned that just as in the U.S., journalists on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean must increasingly report that politicians are stoking public fears with statements that are misinformed, misleading or simply worng. Additionally, just as U.S. journalists, our counterparts in Europe consider just how much coverage to give to tweets from President Trump and other right-leaning politicians. I get the impression that just as in the U.S., journalists in Europe have grown more skeptical of reporting attacks by President Trump and other politicians.
The RIAS fellowship also helped me expand my understanding of transatlantic relations. The visit to the European Commission and the opportunity to ask EU spokespeople about the status of trade and immigration issues was eye-opening. One lasting memory is asking the EU Commission Trade spokesperson about how Trump’s trade decisions have impacted trade negotiations with EU member nations. To my surprise, the spokesperson told us Trump’s confrontational trade policies have made it easier to negotiate with EU member nations because it has united them against the uninformed and sometimes-contradictory policies pursued by the Trump administration. There are multiple other examples of how this fellowship improved me professionally and personally. Yet, the ultimate turning point was visiting the then newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Berlin Richard Grenell.
After Donald Trump was elected president, I chose the personal defense mechanism of divorcing myself from the day-to-day political news surrounding the Trump administration. As a CNN International journalist in Atlanta – geographically separated from Washington and so-called Trump land – I was able to concentrate on international news, while only informing myself superficially of the fast-emerging developments involving the Trump administration. The interaction with Amb. Grenell was a personal turning point, sparking a professional conversion which has now led me to a political reporting job with MSNBC. No longer do I hide away from Trump news. Instead, I embrace and channel the rage and anger I feel by decisions taken by Trump and his political circle.
I immediately felt out of place as I stepped into the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Amb. Grenell is openly gay. As I a gay Latin X myself, being in the presence of a representative of the Trump Administration placed me in a confrontational stand. It was indeed my first personal interaction with a Trump official, and what ensued was a personal lesson on being informed about the issues that I am passionate about.
Amb. Grenell brought his partner to our meeting. I felt that made it fair ground to ask about the deplorable LGBTQ+ record of the Trump administration. Amb. Grenell, a former spokesperson for U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, did not miss a beat in striking my question down. He defended the LGBTQ+ policies pursued by the Trump Administration and turned the spotlight on me. He asked me repeatedly to enumerate examples of anti-LGBTQ+ policies pursued by team Trump. I had researched the poor LGBTQ record of Trump team but, in the moment, I was unable to defend my question.
Of course, in retrospect I can think of multiple examples of decisions the Trump administration has pursued against the general wellbeing of the LGBTQ community. Here are just some examples:
• President Trump’s military ban on transgender people, and the White House’s incorrect argument that paying for medical services for Transgender military personnel comprises a significant part of the federal medical expenses.
• President Trump nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch has a disturbing record on LGBTQ rights.
• President Trump’s 2017 executive order gave license to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, who in 31 states are at risk of being fired, evicted or denied public services because of who they are. The executive order allows LGBTQ+ discrimination by instructing the Attorney General to provide guidance to all agencies on “interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.”
• President Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, risking healthcare services for millions of LGBTQ people.
• Not to mention the Trump administration’s immigration policies have placed LGBTQ+ immigrants in greater risk of being discriminated or hurt by making it harder for them to come out from the legal shadows of our immigration system.
• President Trump has also nominated cabinet members who have a troubling history of opposing LGBTQ rights.
o Most popularly-known is Vice President Mike Pence, who the Human Rights Campaign has reported has tried to undermine marriage equality, has supported the dangerous and medically-opposed conversion therapy and has failed to pursue policies to curtail the spread of HIV and AIDS.
o Another troubling Trump-appointed official is Attorney General Jeff Sessions whose voting record has been characterized by the American Civil Liberties Union as anti-civil rights.
o Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family foundation, as well as her own foundation, have funded major anti-LGBTQ organizations. DeVos has rescinded Obama-era protections for transgender students. This is increasingly exposing LGBTQ youth to bullying, harassment and discrimination, especially for people of color. The HRC surveyed more than 10,000 LGBTQ young people, and found that only 26 percent say they feel safe in the classroom.
This is all to say that RIAS offered me the life-changing opportunity to awake a political and socially-informed muscle that I had purposely put to sleep. This is the biggest lesson and legacy the RIAS fellowship has contributed to my professional life.
Colby Hochmuth, ABC7, Arlingon, VA
My two weeks as a RIAS Berlin Commission fellow in Germany was one of the most meaningful, inspiring and exciting experiences of my life. Going into the trip, I had an idea of what I would experience, and the people I would meet, but it exceeded all my expectations. I couldn’t have predicted just how deep those relationships would go or the impact that those meetings and tours would have on me.
Our time in Berlin was a whirlwind. We were whisked to meeting after meeting, visit after visit and tour after tour. What didn’t sink in until after the trip, was the weight of those places we visited. Having the opportunity to speak with the U.S. Ambassador to Germany for an hour and ask him questions was rare — it’s not often journalists have access to a public official in that setting. We also were able to take a tour of a former Stasi prison with a man who spent several years in that prison as an inmate. Listening to the events in his life that led him there was so humbling, and lent such a level of authenticity to what we were all experiencing together. Our tour of the Berlin Wall Memorial was equally touching — seeing the remains of a wall that divided families, coworkers and an entire city. Looking through the crack of the wall to look at what the space between the actual border wall, and the secondary wall — seeing the sand that was intended to slow down people trying to escape — it really painted the picture of what it would be like to grow up during that period of German history.
Another highlight was meeting with the deputy press spokesperson for the German government. It was fascinating to learn about the difference between how government officials approach their relationship with the press, compared to the U.S. government. When we met with various journalists in Berlin throughout the week, it was fascinating to learn about the way in which they cover their elected officials, politics in Berlin and throughout the country.
Another personal highlight from Berlin was my “blind date” dinner with a Berlin-based producer. We had such an incredible evening, and it was so special to spend some time off the clock chatting about what their day-to-day life is like. I especially loved how informed and passionate my “date” was about American politics! It made me realize how important it is to have a global mindset when covering issues that are close to home.
Despite such an amazing itinerary, my two favorite activities were not journalism-related. The most memorable moments for me were traveling through the Sonnenalle Street neighborhood, following our tour guide who was a Syrian refugee. He had such an incredible story and it meant so much that he shared it with us. It was hard to hear the struggles he went through, but it was beautiful to see how Berlin offered him and his family another chance at happiness. Another favorite moment was when we sat down for a traditional lunch in a Muslim community center in Kreuzberg. We heard from a local politician who was Turkish, and passionate about improving minority relationships in Berlin. Not only was the food delicious at our lunch, but the Kreuzberg neighborhood was so full of life. It had this energy to it that reached down to my toes.
From there we traveled to the beautiful town of Dresden, where we took a walking tour and learned about the complicated history of the area caught in the crossfire during World War II. We were there for just two short nights, but it was still possible to really get a sense of what life is like there, and see the contrast from the city of Berlin.
After Dresden, it was a short but jam-packed visit to Prague, to visit the Radio Free Europe offices. It was such an impressive operation, and really uplifting to see the type of journalism that they are producing and sending to people all over the world.
Last was the bustling, bright city of Brussels — another one of my favorites on this trip. We spent an entire day at European Commission, speaking to a number of commissioners and EU officials. It was such an exciting day to speak to people of real consequence on the global stage, and to be able to ask them questions. Aside from the vastly educational experience, Brussels was such a special place to end our trip. I’ll always remember the lectures we sat in on, and tours we did — but most of all, I’ll remember the conversations I had with other RIAS fellows over dinner, while we were walking around the chocolate-filled shops and after hours out in the city bonding over an ice cold Belgian beer.
This experience spending two weeks as a RIAS fellow changed me. I learned a lot about myself — about what I am capable of achieving, and the importance of constantly being challenged. It also reminded me to dream bigger, and to never lose the passion or curiousity that a career in journalism demands.
Faith Jessie, KSNV-NBC, Las Vegas, NV
If I could describe this program in one word…well I wouldn’t be able to do it because it honestly left me speechless, in a good way. I first found out about the program while sitting across from ZDF news anchor Ralph Szepanski who was in the program himself. He was at my station working with my colleague Tom Hawley during his station visit. I’d always been fascinated with Germany since visiting a
highschool friend in Stuttgart a couple years back that I figured why not try and apply. I am very glad I did. The RIAS staff was absolutely incredible from preparing us before we left, to making sure we had everything we needed while abroad.
Upon receiving the program schedule and the list of people we would be experiencing this program with, I was in awe. I’d be traveling with experienced journalists, from CNN, NBC, and NPR. As a young journalist, it was a dream to have an opportunity to meet these people, let alone have the opportunity to be included in a program with them. The program itself was even more incredible.
Let’s start with the travel element. Four different cities and three different countries in two weeks. As an American, getting to Europe isn’t an easy weekend trip for most of us. The opportunity to experience, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Brussels as a part of a journalism exchange program was an experience that has broadened my international vantage point. Isabell Hoffmann, Lisa Ziss, and Erik Kirschbaum were so well organized and on top of every aspect of preparation for the trip. Logistically Isabell and Lisa prepped us with what we needed to know before we traveled. They supplied us with ideas of what to pack, and answered all of my questions in regards to flight, hotel, and itinerary information. Erik provided an ample amount of reading material to make sure we were up to date with the current events, German history, political background, european government and U.S German relations. The open book test Erik provided helped me to learn a lot about Germany, and prepared me to be knowledgeable in discussions through the program.
The program itself was very well planned. There was a good mix of educational discussions, tours, planned recreational activities, and free time for some exploring. One of the highlights for me was the opportunity to tour the U.S.embassy and meet the ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. We had the
opportunity to sit at a round table setting with a man who holds the responsibility of being America’s liaison in Germany. He willingly walked into a room full of journalists ready to get grilled. Although the conversation was off the record, we were able to hear what Grenell had to say about what he’s doing in his role from the source.
As a journalist it was eye opening to hear from colleagues working outside of the U.S market to hear their take on current issues and how they tackle events when news breaks. I remember being inside of the BILD newsroom wondering why everything was so calm. Turns out, most of the staff was on a lunch break (Yes, Germans honor lunch breaks, take note America). I thoroughly enjoyed visiting KCRW Berlin as I listened to KCRW as a college student at the University of Southern California. Erik did a great job of including RIAS alumni in the program. We were able to tour Deutsche Welle, sit in on a newscast and some RIAS alumni who now work as anchors. Another cool opportunity was the blind date night, where Isabell and Lisa were able to pair us up with RIAS alumni living in Berlin. My hosts were very welcoming and cooked us dinner at their home. They even sat in on one of my Facebook live conversations that was broadcasted to the viewers back in Las Vegas. We also had a big RIAS alumni meet-up at Stone Brewing in Berlin where I met a plethora of German journalists from a variety of fields. The owner of Stone Brewing, Greg Koch, even took over my iphone for social media video with some of the journalists.
My program didn’t end at the two week mark, RIAS allowed me to stay for a third week to work on a couple of stories about German gun laws. Erik assisted me in setting up interviews and connecting me with journalists in the field who could be of assistance. I met up with local gun owners, grabbed interviews with German politicians, and was able to get an interview with a mother whose daughter was killed in a school shooting in southern Germany (this will serve as the focal point of one of my pieces). Erik helped me to get some of these interviews throughout the program. During the last week I was able to shoot other interviews, broll, and standups for my station back in Las Vegas. The pieces are set to air in early
October, around the same time the city experienced a tragic shooting that took the lives of 58 people.
I recommend this program to every journalist that has an interest in seeing how our work is done outside of America. These experiences, bridging cultures, and understanding, are so vital to our profession. I’m thoroughly grateful to have been a part of it, and I’m looking forward to working with RIAS as an alumni in the future.
Steve Kaufmann, KTVZ-TV, Bend, OR
The 2018 RIAS fellowship was nothing short of amazing. Everyday of the two-week program exceeded my expectations. Working in a newsroom that has hosted German journalists and sent some of our own to the program, I had a pretty good understanding of what RIAS was about. But that said, like most things in life, there is nothing like experiencing something yourself.
All of the appointments were relevant and timely. Spending an hour with the freshly minted US Ambassador to Germany, we really got a sense of how the Trump administration views its relationship with Germany and Europe as a whole. Speaking of the American President, it was very telling that everywhere we went everyone wanted to talk about Trump. The Berlin Wall Memorial and the Stassi Prison were fascinating historical stops that will have a lasting impact. Whether it is political rhetoric or not, we are still hearing a lot about walls and locking up political opposition in the US.
Our tour down Sonnenalle with Firas Zakir, a Syrian refugee, brought home one of the larger global issues society faces today. Many Americans are fairly detached from the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa that are driving people from their homeland to Europe. We’ve seen the headlines about what Germany, and Europe, are faced with when it comes to the issues surrounding the influx of refugees, but hearing a first hand account from someone who lived the experience really helps paint the full picture. You couldn’t help to be moved by Zakir’s story of his perilous journey to a foreign land.
In the weeks after RIAS, I was interviewing a gentleman who escaped the killing fields in Cambodia. Hearing his forty plus year old story, I was reminded of Zakir’s story I listened to on a street corner in Berlin. My interview with someone who escaped a desperate situation to come to a new country was better because of my experience in the RIAS program.
Visits to the media outlets were also helpful and informative. Coming from a local television news background, I knew the stations would operate differently from what we are used too here in the States. It was refreshing to see newsrooms practicing top notch journalism with a robust staff. Deutsche Welle seemed to be a group favorite, Ben and Meggin were genuine and candid in their talks with us. The stop at Radio Free Europe was very interesting. The apps Alisher Siddique is using to report from Uzbekistan is a perfect example of technology assisted reporting from countries currently off limits to journalists. And I appreciated the openness and honesty from Teri Schultz on her experiences working in Europe. All of the journalists were great, adding depth and perspective to covering news in Europe and beyond.
The opportunity to work on a story about Berlin’s craft beer scene was an added bonus to the program. Through our stop at Stone Brewing and my Saturday evening ‘off’, I am working on an interesting piece about tourism and craft beer in Berlin verses my hometown of Bend, Oregon. The time in Berlin will allow me to show viewers the similarities and differences in the city’s beer scene. In the US we have seemingly unlimited choices in types of beer. In Berlin the choices are there, but access to those different types of beer are limited. The industrial versus craft beer industries in Germany are similar to that of the US in the 70s and 80s. To see, and taste, the rebirth of Berlin’s craft beer scene lead me to several great cultural moments. In two weeks of amazing experiences, this one ranks near the top.
Overall the RIAS program was great, and it was made better by Erik’s guidance and leadership. It is a tough task herding a group of 14 curious journalists around foreign cities, Erik did it with relative ease. His insight into German media and politics along with his cultural factoids made the experience that much better.
From appointments with politicians, meetings with those who cover politics, to the look into the history and culture of Germany, the RIAS program was an experience of a lifetime. The program came highly recommended to me and I will highly recommend it to others. I started the essay in my RIAS application with this sentence, “In the midst of growing nationalism at home and around the globe, opportunities for cultural and professional exchange are vital.” and after taking part in the program that statement rings truer than ever.
Scott Libin, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
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 spokesman 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.
David Marks, KQED, San Francisco, CA
Adam Reiss, NBC News, New York, NY
Thank you RIAS for an incredibly memorable trip that I will never forget. From Berlin to Brussels with Dresden, Prague, and Bruges in between it was truly an adventure. The history and classical beauty of each and every city will leave a lasting impression on me. The excitement began the moment I arrived on German soil and Erik picked us up at the airport. As he whisked us through the metropolis making our way to our hotel my first glimpses of the capitol city were everything I had imagined and more. I had always dreamed of coming here, a place where my forefathers grew up, and I was hungry to take it all in and learn as much as possible.
Not wasting a moment I immediately went for a jog so I could take in all the sights. Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag building, the Tiergarten, the imposing Holocaust memorial, and an impromptu group of dancers at the Potsdamer Platz train station raised my excitement level and gave me my first taste of what was to come.
Our visit to the American Embassy just steps away from Brandenburg Gate was informative and Ambassador Ric Grenell was a gracious host. We had an honest and frank discussion about US/German relations and the issues he planned on addressing during his time in Berlin. I know Ric from his time as a spokesman for the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations so it is nice to see him in this role representing America. Ric spoke about his upbringing and what led him to a career in diplomacy. Several days later I had the opportunity to have lunch with Ric and his partner Matt Lashey at the beautiful American residence in Berlin.
Our meeting with Chancellor Merkel’s deputy spokeswoman, who is a former journalist herself, gave us a sense of the sometimes tense relationship between the administration and the hungry press corp.
We made a solemn visit to a remaining remnant of the Wall where many East German died trying to escape. Their photos remain as a memorial as is the imposing guard house where soldiers were under orders to shoot to kill.
The opportunity to meet and engage with so many friendly German journalists we met along the route was eye opening, educational and particularly rewarding. Deutsche Welle’s campus houses a number of different radio and television entities serving different countries and languages. Australian Ben Fajzullin and American Meggin Leigh Doody decided to make Germany their home and they have never looked back. Germany spends eight billion dollars a year on public media and the opportunity of having a job for life is enticing and something we don’t often see in the United States.
John Kornblum founded KCRW radio in Berlin as a place for English language content providing a unique platform for cultural exchange. He is a Germanophile who decided to stay after serving his term as US Ambassador to Germany and we all greatly appreciated his take on the German media landscape. The station is working to grow its audience among Americans and Germans interested in a different take on the news. They’re just getting started with a small staff but they have big plans.
The Stasi Prison visit and tour by a former inmate gave us a chilling reminder of what it was like to live in constant fear in the East. We toured the prison cells and underground bunker and were transported to a time when thousands of political prisoners lived in terror. His description of the day he was taken into custody and his life at the prison was gripping.
I really enjoyed taking public transportation on the trip. All the trains were clean and ran on time. It was a pleasant experience. Our hotel was conveniently located near Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie.
Our visit to the Stone Brewery included a tour, a beer tasting and a delicious dinner. It showcased owner Greg Koch, an American from San Diego, who decided against all odds to invest in a huge brewery in a foreign land. It looks like he’s doing well and has even opened a second location.
Our visit to Bild, a German tabloid owned by Axel-Springer in the vein of the New York Post, offered us an opportunity to meet and speak with their reporters and learn what stories Germans are most interested in reading about. Bild’s coverage of German sports is very popular and they stay on top of all the juicy gossip. Our group was intrigued by continuous doorless elevator. Another sign of German ingenuity.
At the start of the second week we took the train to Dresden which is a city that was destroyed during World War II. The entire old town city center was rebuilt and made to look as it was before the war. The museums and few structures left standing were impressive. The Furstenzug, a large mural of a mounted procession of the rulers of Saxony, shows the thousand year history of the house of Wettin. Taking a run along the Elbe River and looking back at the skyline is truly a magnificent sight to behold. A visit to the Volkswagen factory in the city center was a real treat. We were able to see the automated assembly process as the cars were put together on the assembly floor. The German automotive and industrial sectors are roaring along and true models of success.
The chance to visit Prague was a lifelong dream of mine. I had goose bumps walking along the Charles Bridge seeing this city with its rich history and all of the cultural attractions. I stumbled upon the colorful Prague synagogue in the Jewish quarter and took a peek inside to see its magnificent grandeur.
Radio Free Europe in Prague is not only an imposing building and a fortress but a beacon of democracy in a place that for so many years lacked a free press. They report in 25 languages in 23 countries where a free press is banned. During our roundtable I was impressed at their use of social media and different apps they use to crowd source news stories.
In Brussels we spent the day at the European Union which to me felt a lot like my time at the United Nations. There are many similarities between the two world organizations as they try to come to consensus on many divisive issues. I was amazed at the opulence of the Grand Place considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I really enjoyed the chocolate and beer!! Not together of course.
Bruges was the perfect cherry on top of a most memorable trip. It was a beautiful warm day as I ventured out on my own and followed the winding canals throughout the city. I watched as children rode their bikes and played along the water.
Thank you RIAS for giving me this opportunity. I am truly grateful for everything I have learned and the memories which I will cherish.
Joe Sampson, Miami University, Oxford, OH
Prior to my RIAS experience, it had been 38 years since I was last in Germany. As expected, much has changed but still as my trip concludes I’m struck by the sense that much appears to remain the same.
The Berlin Wall fell, and with it many post war divisions. East and West reunified under one flag. And yet, many Cold War era divisions remain. I was struck how macro level movements of history can best be understood on a micro level. On this trip this was best illustrated by our tour guide at the former Stasi prison. In 1968 he had been accepted into a PhD program in Prague to continue his study of physics. That changed dramatically one day when he was picked up by the Stasi police, charged with distributing leaflets designed to tell East Berliners about the Soviet military’s swift clampdown following the spring uprising in the former Czechoslovakia. For his “crime” he served 17 months, often in solitary confinement. Meantime, the current German chancellor holds a PhD in physics. Two academic similar paths, altered the winds of shared history.
Try as it might, modern Germany can’t seem to shake its troubled past, nor should it. The obvious examples seem to appear on every corner. Our hotel is Berlin was across from to the SS museum and in the opposite direction visitors are directed to a new “Hitler Bunker” museum on the grounds of a former air raid shelter. But it was my conversation with German journalist Hero Warrings that brought the past into the present in a most compelling way. Hero explained how many young Germans today are inextricably linked to the sins of their elders, even now two generations removed. For example, while vacationing in France he had a swastika outline posted on his car.
Germany’s past also influences its approach to journalism, a point reinforced on several of our site visits. The country is now home to a new law that some argue is the most ambitious attempt by a Western democracy to restrict what can posted on social media. I spoke to four German journalists about this new law and its initial impact on newsroom decision making, and notably there was no consensus that emerged. There was agreement that the spirit of the law is needed in Germany given its dark history on issues related to hate speech.
What also hasn’t changed in the warm spirit of Germany’s people and their genuine interest in forging strong ties with American visitors. Despite current political tensions between our two countries, it is clear the bonds that unite us as far stronger than those which seek to divide. I am most grateful to RIAS for this opportunity and experience and to our many hosts over this busy two weeks who gave their time and expertise.
Stacey Samuel, National Public Radio, Washington, DC
Maylan Studart, Modern Wall Street, New York, NY
Lisa Weiner, WTOP News Radio, Washington, DC
Being a part of the 2018 Spring RIAS Berlin fellowship was an experience I will take with for the rest of my life. Our itenerary offered an extraordinary opportunity to learn from Germans and European journalists in a way that would never have been possible without the RIAS program. The ability to exchange ideas with Germans we met during the trip and with the other RIAS fellows was an incredible opportunity that I am truly grateful for. To this day, I still rave to friends and family about how special and invaluable my RIAS experience was. It was almost too good to be true!
Some of my favorite parts of the trip took place during the Berlin portion of our fellowship. Visiting the BILD newsrooms was a highlight and when I see the BILD name in the news nowadays I am able to recall my memories from that trip. Speaking to Ulrike Demmer was also a major highlight for me. Seeing such a strong female leader was an inspiration.
I also enjoyed visting the Deutsche Welle studios and watching a live broadcast. Being able to compare American broadcast news productions to German ones was a great exercise for me and my colleagues on the trip.
Another part of the trip that I sincerely enjoyed with the tour of the Berlin wall. I only had minimal knowledge of the wall and its history beforehand, but learned so much from our tour guide that it will stick with me forever.
But my absolute favorite part of the Berlin section of the trip was my “blind date“ with former RIAS alumni. I was matched with Marc Krueger and his wife Katarina. They welcomed me into their home, cooked a feast for nearly 10 people (there were only 3 of us!) and treated me as if I was a member of their family. We talked for hours over beers at their dining room table about all kinds of topics, from politics to personal things, all while a 2018 World Cup game played in the background. It was a quintessential German experience. I was so touched by how kind they were to me, a total stranger. At the risk of sounding cliche, that evening taught me a lot about humanity and how people can also find a way to connect across cultures.
For me, my absolute favorite visit of the entire trip was our visit to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I used to work for a similar company called Radio Free Asia in Washington and have always wanted to see the European version of the company I used to work for. It was such a treat for me. The journalists we who spoke to us gave us a reminder that freedom of the press is not universal. It was a deeply enriching visit that gave many of us a more global perspective on imporatnce of journalism.
Our time in Brussels was also unforgettable. Visiting the European Commission was an exceptional priveledge. I learned so much from our lectures with EU specialists, talking about Brexit, immigration and NAFTA. Our visits to the Politico Europe offices and our chat with Terri Schultz were also highlights of the trip.
I could go on and on about how lovely, stimulating, moving, and encouraging my RIAS fellowship was. It gave me immense perspective and broadened my horizons to life and journalism outside of where I live in Washington. I made lifelong friends on the trip and will fondly continue to tell stories of our adventures for years to come. Thank you, RIAS.
Tiffany Zeno, WNBC/NBC, New York, NY
RIAS Student Program – Summer
Fifteen American Journalism Students in Germany: Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig.
Nicole Browning, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, KY
Often burdened by my own uncertainty, I have had my struggles coming to terms with my choice to study journalism and German at my university, and struggled even more trying to decide if this was something I wanted to do long term. It wasn’t a lack a passion that had me doubtful, but rather that I had found myself caught in a loop; I was in a cycle of homework, day-to-day stress, playing my role as News Editor for the school paper, and essentially limping through university with no color, ambition or fire behind my actions. I looked forward to the RIAS Berlin program as a momentary opportunity to catch my breath and revisit my roots–the reason I had fallen in love with journalism and German culture in the first place.
When I arrived in Berlin, I was freshly burnt out on traveling because I had spent the whole previous semester in England and had been traveling around Germany for a month already. Despite my low energy levels and low funds, I was determined to make these three weeks count and absorb the journalism landscape in Germany. And through this program and what it gave me–an opportunity to see the journalism climate and how it functions in Germany, an understanding of the history of the Cold War in Germany, as well as the personal struggle victims of war go through, and close connections with fellow American journalists on the program–I was able to relight this fire and drive that had seemed to be lost.
My first incredibly surreal moment in Berlin happened just after our first meeting as a group on the Sunday we arrived. We were walking to the beer garden, Cafe am Neuen See, when we ran into reporters sitting outside the CDU building waiting to report on the apparent government crisis. I felt like a starstruck teenager as I watched the journalists on the job in amazement, hoping that one day that might be me. There were many moments in the coming three weeks like this, in which we had the privilege of being up close and personal with journalists in the area; it was encouraging to see these people at work. For them, it was an ordinary day, but for us, it was somehow both foreign and familiar.
These journalists invited us in and shared their stories with us, making them easy to relate to but also exciting and mysterious as we learned about their day to day lives at work.
There were far too many interesting and impactful cultural and political learning experiences in Berlin to count. When I think about those experiences that will change me for years to come, it’s the ones that exemplified some struggle due to a broken political system that resonate with me the most. It’s learning about people who dove through feces to escape East Berlin through the tunnels, and the elderly people who were left behind and decided to build their own tunnel instead.
It’s hearing Kani Alavi talk about trying to integrate himself into West Berlin without really understanding the meaning behind the wall.
And it’s seeing the same Iranian immigrant finally realize that the wall meant separation–and seeing him relish in the faces of thousands of ecstatic Berliners when that separation finally ended. And seeing that a piece of history–the East Side Gallery–was standing right before us while a living, breathing artifact of such an iconic moment stood and shared his mural with us.
It’s learning about the Syrian refugee’s experience coming to Germany that, though decades after the former GDR prisoner’s attempted escape, left me with the same raw feeling in my stomach as I tried to comprehend the pain these people went through. These people were let down by their governments and sought refuge; these people felt pain and they carry stories that will remain relevant in the coming years as we navigate the troubling world of today’s politics; most importantly, these people felt pain that we could all relate to and pain that keeps their stories alive.
While meeting all these people who are so important to history and to the beautiful art of storytelling impacted me beyond belief, there was nothing compared to meeting fourteen fellow aspiring journalists who were my age and shared my dream, but with their own little twist. I was thrilled when I watched Shayne (who had been quietly watching during each of our meetings) connect with the Cosmo Radio crew and score herself an internship. Among all the friendships made and all the happiness we were privileged to share together, one memory sticks out in particular as I think about a compact, short, crazy, lively three weeks I spent in Berlin. A group of us went up to Viktoriapark to watch the sunset and enjoy a few beers and snacks. Little did we know, the hike up to the top of the hill was nothing short of exhausting, but once we got to the top little seemed to matter as we took in the fresh summer air and watched the life of the city below us. We sat on the hill in the park and shared our memories, hopes and fears. One of the group, Nick, told us what he put in his application essay for the program. Always wanting to be a sports announcer, Nick said he used to play sports video games and mute the volume, and then do the announcing himself. As we all rejoiced in his passion that seemed to start at a very young age, he stopped and said, “I just realized I’m really going to miss you guys when we go home.” It was in that moment that I understood how much of an impact we had all made on one another, and in that moment I felt the melancholy that comes with making new friendships. The leaving part.
Life is all about relationships; it’s about how you relate to something else in this world. It was through the RIAS program that I was able to make all these relationships–the relationship between the journalists we met with and myself, between (an even more broadened) idea of German culture and myself, between the history of Germany and myself, and between all the friends I met along the way and myself. This spider-webbed network of relationships allowed me to broaden my horizons and connect with the rest of the world. When I’m working for the newspaper back at my university in Kentucky, there are so many valuable and impactful experiences to be had, but it’s easy to get stuck in the windowless, dark, secluded newsroom and forget about why you started as a journalist. It was through all the laughter, stress, tears and stories gained along the way that I remembered.
Gabrielle Calise, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
Three weeks. Four German cities. Forty-six appointments. And of course, an uncountable amount of train rides taken, rolls of bread consumed and new friends met along the way.
It’s been one month since I returned from my student exchange program to Germany with the RIAS Berlin Kommission. After finishing a journalism degree from the University of Florida just a few months prior, I was excited to meet with fourteen other students and recent graduates to experience Germany.
Half of the itinerary was devoted to networking with journalists, and the other half was filled with cultural experiences related to the Cold War. Based in Berlin, we spent most of our time meeting with professional journalists at radio stations and television studios. The weeks were packed with lectures, Q&As and networking dinners. We toured historic spots in between meetings, from wandering through a chilly, damp network of tunnels underneath the city to climbing to the roof of the defunct Tempelhof Airport.
The program also included trips outside of the capital. We ventured to Cologne on a high-speed train to meet university students and visit newsrooms in the west. Our last week featured a stop in Leipzig, where we met with an expert on right-wing extremists in South Germany and toured the church where Bach used to perform. We also spent a half-day in Potsdam with Barbara Richstein, a politician in the Brandenburg State Parliament.
Our schedule was packed tighter than a bus full of tourists headed to the Brandenburg Gate. But we still found pockets of free time to experience Berlin. I haggled for a vintage jacket at Mauerpark, moshed at a punk show in Kreuzberg and gobbled down döner kebabs at every opportunity. I got used to the lack of air conditioning and grew to love the taste of sparkling water. I tried to talk in a quiet, library-appropriate mumble on the train instead of shouting. I arrived to meetings on time.
Our program coordinators also made sure we arrived to meetings well prepared. Before leaving America, we were quizzed on Germany’s history and politics, down to the colors and possible coalition combinations for the six parties. We were given a hefty list of books and films to finish before coming to Berlin. After we arrived, we spent train rides and lunches brushing up on the backgrounds of the speakers we were about to meet. The preparation helped us discuss trends in communication and transatlantic relations with everyone from local students to politicians including U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell.
Throughout the trip, I noted several key differences between journalism at home and abroad. German public media outlets are sustained by a mandatory fee that each household with a television must pay. Most American journalists rely on Twitter, while Germans like WhatsApp. German audiences have a voracious appetite for foreign news compared to Americans, who tend to largely focus on local and national happenings.
Some highlights: Innovation can be found in newsrooms across Germany. Cologne-based broadcaster RTL employs a digital team to experiment with new storytelling platforms, from Google Home apps to smart fridges. Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild, has a house in Los Angeles that hosts cohorts of editors for three months at a time. This allows them to take advantage of the different time zone and edit German news that breaks overnight without having to become nocturnal. Finally, radio station WDR, which calls itself “the sound of the world”, has programs to help refugees integrate and fills 75% of its broadcast with music from other countries.
Now for the unfortunate realizations from the trip: Fake news and wavering levels of trust in the media are problems that plague German journalists, too. Rising extremism and safety for journalists were recurring themes throughout the meetings. President Trump’s attitude regarding the press was also a hot topic.
The upside of experiencing the same pitfalls on both sides of the Atlantic? We don’t have to deal with these problems alone. The meetings and tours showed me that journalists from both nations are eager to bond over our shared hardships and open to brainstorming solutions.
Some of the ideas that German journalists have come up with are things Americans can adopt at home in our own newsrooms. For example, WDR includes a daily segment to share good news in order to reduce distrust and negativity that people feel towards the media. The station reports on positive stories big and small, from increases in the butterfly population to new discoveries. I also learned about the increasingly popular concept of constructive journalism, an idea from Denmark that offers solutions to problems instead of just reporting about them. And of course, being as transparent as possible helps.
I knew that our country’s histories and current affairs are deeply intertwined (walls and immigration continue to be big themes for us both!) But visiting sites where famous chapters of history played out made the similarities of the past and present feel so much more stark. What emphasized this most of all was meeting with witnesses to these chapters in history: A man who was interrogated and imprisoned by Stasi officers. A former translator for rock stars that played in communist East Germany. A Syrian refugee who only made it to Berlin after multiple failed escape attempts. Spending time with these people reminded me of humanity’s capability for evil as well as bravery. It also reaffirmed the importance of the work we do as journalists — stories must be told to remember what we’ve been through, and for us to learn from the past.
So where does this leave me now? After four weeks back at home, my routine is back to normal. (Well, as normal as the life of a recent college graduate can be). I’m back to commuting to my internship in my old Honda Civic instead of zooming around Germany’s capital inside those crowded banana-yellow trains. I spend the days pushing out breaking news at the local paper instead of trying to decipher German words spoken in the supermarket. I’m sending texts to my new friends from the trip instead of meeting for drinks with them in a beer garden.
But I’m still talking about Germany every day. About the people I met. The places we visited. The problems we face together in both countries, and the ways we can work together to improve things.
I’m also still keeping up with about foreign news on a daily basis, and brainstorming story ideas that I’d like to pursue when I return. Now that I have a broader understanding of the media landscape in Germany and the support of the RIAS network, my lifelong dream of reporting abroad seems possible. And after a wonderful three weeks with this program, I already can’t wait to come back to Berlin again.
Rose Carr, Western Washington University Bellingham, WA
The RIAS Student Fellowship excels in its ability to create a knowledgeable and professional program focused around student journalists who are entering into their career. For three weeks you will attend meetings, tours and visit historical sights – pertinent to the Cold War. You will have the rare ability to see Berlin unlike anyone else, alongside a group of your own American journalist peers from around the country. During this time, I found it to be utterly surreal that I had an all access pass to some of the top broadcasters and producers in Germany. RIAS is a perfect opportunity for those interested in international broadcasting, foreign relations or foreign correspondence. The networking opportunities with the professional journalists and broadcasting stations is incomparable. This program benefitted me in more ways than one.
I was lucky enough to network with Nadja from n-TV. Although things are still in the works, she spoke with me about internship opportunities. There is potential for me to intern for two to three weeks with their video production and editing team. This is a connection I look forward to pursuing.
I can’t say enough how amazing it was to connect with fellow U.S journalists – many whom I hope to work with in the future. Learning how to network alongside fellow peers was incredible and being able to process together information learned from a particular meeting was also very helpful. To this day I continue to hold relationships with the other fellows. It would have been a completely different trip if those 14 other students weren’t there with me.
This fellowship is one I will remember forever and cherish. I learned about German politics, culture and language – and even more about myself and what kind of journalist I want to be.
The RIAS program is that of excellence and I hope that anyone who is even slightly interested – apply immediately.
Emily Damm, TAMU, College Station, TX
As a student of communication and political science, the three weeks of the RIAS program provided a huge amount of real world relevance. In my application essay, I wrote about my desire to immerse myself in a new culture and better understand the importance of communication work in the international and political science community. RIAS succeeded in both of those goals.
With every visit to a studio, we were reminded of the phenomena of “fake news” and the distrust surrounding media outlets. Many of the journalists are themselves struggling with the best ways to respond. Through the open dialogue with journalists, we were also able to explore the rise of extremist political views. Many of the journalists we met were struggling with how to cover extremists without giving them a platform. I think many American outlets are grappling with this, as well.
It was surprising to me to learn how the German people value art and that the government helps it flourish with dedicated funding. In my own experience, funding for fine arts programs in U.S. public schools is the first to be eliminated in a budget crunch. On our very first day in Germany, we were able to see this appreciation for the arts with a visit to the State Opera and a tour of the East Side Gallery with Kani Alavi. The East Side Gallery was a major highlight for me. It was nice to see something that was such an ugly part of history be transformed into a memorable piece of art with messages of hope and love. We were able to learn more about Germany’s musical legacy through a tour of the Bach museum while in Leipzig. Other cultural experiences included a boat trip to see Glienicke bridge and the former airport Tempelhof. One cultural experience that I will remember vividly is watching the World Cup final between France and Croatia while at a beautiful biergarten.
We spent three weeks learning more about Germany’s history and life in the GDR through various tours: the Stasimuseum, the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen, and “Unterwelten” escape tunnel. On our last day, we met Peter Keup, a contemporary witness to life in the GDR. Peter shared with us his struggle of trying to flee the GDR, capture and imprisonment, eventual sale to West Germany for his freedom, and attempt to find healing. His strength and simultaneous vulnerability was inspiring and heartbreaking. The opportunity to hear Peter’s life story really illustrated to me that what seems like a distant, historical event is, in fact, some people’s current and real reality. It became clear that the pain inflicted on people from the GDR cannot be fully understood from assigned readings or museum tours; putting a face and a personal story with these educational experiences made history come alive and have current impact. I know that from hearing his story, I will be forever changed.
Another impactful RIAS experience was the Neukölln tour and visit with Firas Zakri, a Syrian refugee. Peter Keup’s discussion of his desperation to leave the GDR was echoed in the tales of the Syrian refugees. Zakri spoke candidly about his harrowing journey from Aleppo, Syria, to Berlin. Specifically, he talked about the desperation he felt. He knew he needed to get his family out of Aleppo, but that meant leaving them for an unknown amount of time as well as risking death. Firas challenged all of us to consider what we would do if we were in his life situation at the time. While he has found a somewhat happy ending through his survival and reunion with his family, I struggle to think how we, as humans, can be satisfied thinking that is enough. In America, the current administration is jailing and separating families seeking asylum. After speaking with Peter and Firas, I am even more outraged by this practice. I fear the damage that the practice will have on the asylum-seekers, as well as the ripple effect it will have on America. These questions will haunt me and shape my future research.
From an academic perspective, I feel that the RIAS program -46 events packed into 21 days- has provided a foundational understanding of German culture and politics. This ‘framing’ will better inform my academic research and future professional work. Germany is no longer a distant country that I know only through my ancestry and history books. Rather, it is a place filled with real people who strive to move beyond the mistakes of history to create a beauty-filled and compassionate present; a place of adventure, laughter, and friendship.
Nick Derberbian, State University of New York at Oswego, NY
For a student who had never been abroad before, this experience was more than I could have ever imagined. Not only was I able to develop a different perspective of how the broadcasting industry is in Germany, go in depth of the Cold War and how it was like to live while the wall was up, but I was also able to create fourteen new friendships that RIAS made possible. To see the difference between Europe and the United States with the industry was one thing in itself, but to see other students in all around the United States to share different stories was incredible.
Going into this experience I was incredibly nervous. I was traveling alone. I’ve really only talked to the other students over a group message for the past weeks leading up to the trip so I didn’t know if I was really going to be able to stand all three weeks sane.
Before I go further into my RIAS experience I want to thank Erik, Isabell, James, and Lisa for making this a great trip and educational experience that I truly will never forget.
When I checked the itinerary, I was very overwhelmed to be honestly. But each day I was getting more familiar with the city and loving each stop that was scheduled. My focus has been sports broadcasting since middle school so when Erik told us that he was going to be able to squeeze in a visit from Jürgen Klinsmann I almost couldn’t believe it. The conversation we had with him is one that stuck with me throughout the trip. Talking about the differences in upbringing with young athletes really determines one’s path. In Europe, football (soccer) is life to people, they breathe and wear their team on their sleeve. Here in America, they’re die-hard fans, but not everyone is really showing their pride like the Europeans. He also talked about how his son had to make a decision with what sport he should play to advance into college for a possible scholarship. When he told this story I immediately related because playing baseball in college was a possibility for me and ultimately, I had to make the decision of whether or not I wanted to continue. Sports to some are a way to continue life and make it a profession, for others it’s a way to get away from a job and relax. Klinsmann and I were going back and forth because I had so many questions. He really put sports into perspective for people because for some it’s their entire life surrounding it.
Having the trip not only focus on broadcast journalism and visiting different stations of television and radio was probably the most elevating part. As great as it was to see newsrooms and get on different sets of television, learning the unbelievable history that Berlin had to show and what I’ve learned for a short part of high school, seeing that first hand was breath taking. Touring the Stasi camp after reading Stasiland was such a fulfilling experience. We were THERE! The descriptions in the books and then being there and seeing it with your own eyes was something else.
Overall, being able to say that I “lived” in Berlin, Germany for three weeks of my life is an experience I will share with so many. Being able to go off and explore was another great privilege that RIAS was able to give the students that were a part of this group.
I would also like to give a huge shout out to fellow RIAS Alum Michael Gargiulo. Without his prior experience, I would never have been able to connect with the group of amazing individuals and now be part of this amazing alumni network.
Leighty Hanrahan, Universtity of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
As a student currently pursuing degrees in Political Science, German, and International Studies, the RIAS Berlin Commission’s three-week undergraduate exchange could not have been more enriching of an experience. We were fortunate enough to arrive during one of the most turbulent political happenstances in recent German history, which only bolstered our curiosity of what the three-week exchange would entail. This exchange encouraged us to also stay updated on German news and inform ourselves of the German political system, as the importance of this central-European country quickly grew apparent even in our first few hours in Berlin. I also learned, that as inquisitive as we grew about the German political and affairs, the Germans that we encountered at our separate appointments mirrored our interests, but only regarding the current U.S. political climate. “What is going on over there?” is a question that frequented these meetings, which conjured among my fellow RIAS undergraduates a range of emotions. This caused us to not only reflect upon our surroundings in Berlin, but to also reflect upon the apparent astronomical impact that our current U.S. administration has on the world.
The exchange provided an equipoise of activities relating to politics, journalism, history, and the arts. I originally had expected our appointments regarding contemporary politics to largely pique my interest on the exchange. Of course, meeting Peter Beyer at the German Foreign Ministry and Ambassador Richard Grenell at the US Embassy proved inspiring, as I aspire to on day work as a Foreign Service Officer and/or for the Department of State. But I was surprised to discover that my favorite meeting on the RIAS Exchange was with Mr. Kani Alavi. Kani is the German-Iranian artist and was a key figure in the creation of the East Side Gallery. He told us not only the origin of his mural, but also his life story. I found both to be extremely riveting and, especially on the first full day on the exchange, it allowed me to formally contextualize and feel the weight of Berlin’s momentous (but convoluted) history. I was so captivated by all that Kani’s stories offer, as both a testament to Berlin’s artistic culture as well as an assurance towards its future. After this first day, I met with Kani on a few other occasions when we had free time. My fluency in the German language allowed me to communicate with him, as he did not speak much English. My meeting with him now causes me to entertain the idea of writing my Honor’s Thesis for the German Major about Kani and the East Side Gallery, and I am hoping next summer to return to Berlin to learn more about him.
Samarie “Shayne” Hill, Hillsborough Community College, Ybor City, FL
Flying overseas. Visiting a crypt. Using chopsticks. Being pick pocketed. Who knew that a summer trip to Germany would be filled with so many firsts for me? For the majority of my life, any inquiry into my childhood in Florida would lead back to almost the exact same response. What’s your hometown like? Eh, small. Is it famous for anything? Being boring. What’s fun to do around there? Absolutely nothing. I was a restless sort of kid growing up, perpetually caught up in daydreams about the world I was fairly certain existed outside of the home I’d always known, but could never be sure of. I knew that there was more to life than what I’d yet seen; so I went to Berlin with a bad case of FOMO, but with an extra E on the end because what I really feared was missing out on everything. Those first few days of the RIAS program were a whirlwind, marked by a feeling that can only be described as equal parts heady freedom and extreme jet lag. Berlin is a city of perplexing juxtapositions. Modern above ground trains drop off busy passengers at stops where pre-World War II buildings that have been beautifully restored cast shadows. Sitting in the middle of a restaurant, a waiter approaches with a greeting in German only to see the look of apprehension on my face and switch to flawless English as naturally as breathing. But the most menacing juxtaposition came in the form of cement blocks stacked almost double my height in the heart of Berlin.
At the end of our first week with RIAS, we took a tour of the Berlin Wall Memorial that had been erected in place of the now mostly destroyed Berlin Wall. Tall metal bars stood next to the protected pieces of the original wall that still exist, following the demarcation line that once separated Berlin into two different worlds. Children ran the length of the memorial, slipping between the bars like fish through wet hands. Seeing this, it was difficult to believe that less than 30 years ago this was impossible. Our tour guide led us through the former “death strip” of the German Democratic Republic or GDR, the no-man’s land where attempted escapes would be met with a series of booby-traps that would not have been out of place in your average horror movie. As our guide detailed the brutality of the East German regime, my heart sank lower and lower, finally coming to a rest somewhere beside my feet. Looking at the memorial, it wasn’t so hard to imagine it in all its deadly glory and I couldn’t seem to get this one thought totally out of my head: I didn’t expect it to be so…big. We’d read about the backstory of the Berlin Wall before coming; I knew all about the division of the city between the Four Powers, The GDR’s determination to stop the brain flow, the many standoffs between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the paranoia of the Stasi. But reading about the people who rebelled against their Communist state and actually seeing the pictures of the dead attempted escapees commemorated forever alongside the wall that was their downfall brought the inhumanity of the whole business into stark relief. On that day, I began to think about the walls surrounding my own life.
Before visiting Berlin with RIAS, politics seemed to me like an endless game of telephone, rife with miscommunications and heresy. Even after meeting with several politicians in different cities, the term transatlantic relations didn’t begin to take on a new meaning for me until I got a glimpse of Germany’s favorite past-time. In the middle of a bar plucked straight from the Middle Ages, I was trying to decipher a menu of German delicacies when a roar rose up all around me. A crowd of people had just cheered at the flat screens displaying England’s opening goal against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. I’d never quite understood the world’s obsession with soccer; in the U.S. we worshiped a different sort of football. But the longer I sat in that bar, the more I watched the faces of the crowd cycle through crushing disappointment and exuberant joy, the more I began to understand something. Soccer means everything to Germans, in the same way that we all have something we love. In order to appreciate another culture you have to immerse yourself in it, right there with its people. In that moment, I began to see soccer as a metaphor for all of the little misunderstandings that build barriers between people of different lands. The only way to combat that is to step outside of yourself and see others as they are, even if it takes crossing an ocean to do so.
Berlin is the greenest city I’ve ever seen, so it seems only natural that I should grow while I was there. At the suggestion of another RIAS student I began to write down all of the things I tried for the first time in Berlin, and it became a sort of mission to fill the list with as many items as possible. First, there was the food. Beef doner from the Turks. Tempura at Thai Park. Kolsch beer in Cologne. Baklava from a Syrian bakery. T4. In three weeks, hardly any dish was consumed twice. Then, there were the random adventures probably common among most Germans, but totally novel for me. Getting lost at the train station and making friends with the kind strangers who pointed us in the right direction. People watching in the tourist districts, laughing appreciatively at their selfie postures and trying to blend in with the locals. Attempting to hail cabs in the Leipzig sunshine, staring in disbelief as the drivers zoom past waving sarcastically. One of my favorite moments had to be riding a rickety beach cruiser across Tempelhoff Airport, the site of the 1948 Berlin Airlift, now used as a park of sorts. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was about twelve, so although it doesn’t count as a first, as the wind whipped my braids back from my face I thought that it was the first time in so long that I had felt so free.
Germans developed this saying after reunification: Mauer im Kopf or “The wall in the head.” It was used to describe the attitude of Germans who still lived divided and harbored prejudices even though the physical Berlin Wall had fallen. There are many events in her past that I’m sure Germany is eager to forget, yet Berlin is full of memorials dedicated to remembering indiscretions and all of the German journalists we met during the program felt an incredible responsibility to tell their people the truth. Berlin’s determined to live her best life despite hardships, and this above all was what inspired me the most. I didn’t want to live behind walls of my own making. During my summer in Berlin, I was offered an internship at an awesome radio station during our stint in Cologne, copped some classic albums at an outdoor flea market and met an amazing assortment of RIAS alumni who were all nice enough to take selfies with us. Like I said, I grew. So for anyone considering taking a trip abroad with the RIAS folks, know that you’ll grow too. It’s kind of a Berlin thing.
Dolores Hinckley, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
I often think the most valuable thing I as a journalism student can gain is access to professionals. RIAS did just that in spades, and grew me more as a person, a journalist and citizen of the world than I could have expected. From print/digital, television, radio and everything in between, we met German and correspondent journalists every day, and gained an incredible insight in what it means to live and work in this country. But more than meeting journalists, we met Germans of every background. Ones that lived through the realities of Stasi surveillance and life on one side of the wall, and others who had no notion of East-West divides but felt their own limitations by their country of birth. The experience of being German was different to everyone I talked to, from Mayor Walter Momper to Kani Alavi, one of the East Side Gallerie painters. But nonetheless I often saw a similar commitment to democratic ideals, and the overall idea of Germany as a place where one can thrive.
In my month in Germany, sometimes big moments of learning came discreetly. Branching outside of Berlin, I understood how certain divisions in German-American relations form, all by just a small instance during one of our visits. It wasn’t until visiting the Runde Ecke Stasi museum in Leipzig that the NSA surveillance scandal from a few years back really clicked in my brain. The tour guide had mentioned how many Germans, particularly East Germans, have fake Facebook names. She explained this is owed to their reverence for privacy and distrust for data-devouring social media networks. The total outrage of the German people after the NSA scandal broke made much more sense. Germans knew what it meant to be tracked, recorded and analyzed. They did not want it to happen again.
As a broadcast student, there are few times left in my career that encourage me to deep-dive into history unattached to a reporting assignment. The chance to immerse myself in the Cold War and World War II, and then see it played out through the eyes of the citizen, the politician and the journalist while in Berlin, was an incredible experience I am so thankful for. It has affirmed my desire to tell people’s stories, and ignited a fiercer commitment to understand the historical context those stories live in. In the bomb shelters and aerial views of Tempelhof and the cells of Hohenschönhausen, I learned about the hard-fought struggle to democracy and freedom. In the halls of the Reichstag, the American Embassy and the Federal Foreign Office, I learned just how crucial the US-German relationship has been, is and always will be.
Before this trip, I understood Berlin and its country to be a place that functions successfully by that natural German inclination toward efficiency. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The democratic, peaceful and thriving life of Germany was purchased with much struggle and hardship. Those pains of the past are motivations to improve and thrive in the future. I see that drive to the future mirrored in my own country. German journalists increasingly face the same challenges their American colleagues do. Time and again, I heard an all too familiar tale of public distrust of media and shortening attention spans. Despite those similar struggles, German media in some respects has much of what I would like to see re-instilled in the U.S., particularly an emphasis on context and detail. It’s not the most carefree time to be a journalist in either country, but from what I have seen in Germany and at home, it is a time to be encouraged by a new dedication to truth and public service.
I will never forget the people I met and the stories I heard while on RIAS. Now back home, I am thankful for the chance to tell people stories of my own and share what life in Germany is really like. RIAS was an incredible opportunity for me on many levels. I saw places I had never seen, made lifelong connections in my industry and grew in my desire to become a better journalist.
Hannah Lee, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Everybody has a different reality — whether that’s living in a different country, a different political sphere or a different family. Journalists are calling this an ‘information news bubble’ and many are living in it — even the journalists themselves.
So what does this have to do with me?
Well, when I came to Berlin, I was fully prepared to learn about the same Berlin I had been to three times prior. I was wrong… and that’s the issue, especially for me as a journalist and many Americans when it comes to politics:
When we think we know something, we think we know it completely. But we don’t.
You can never know anything completely. You can know a lot about something, but stories, people and places are always changing, and nothing is forever.
And if I, or maybe even America in this case, don’t change with the times, we’ll continue to build this bubble. Or literally, a wall.
Unknowingly, I let my experiences, my history, my view of the world guide my fear of politics. I come from a family of conservatives who see no view other than their own, which makes it difficult to have mutually understanding conversations. So rather than getting involved in politics, I tried to steer away from them — that way I stayed neutral in what always felt like a polarized situation.
However, after these past three weeks with RIAS, I’ve learned that steering away from politics has also steered me away from the rest of the world. That’s especially true of Germany, where I’ve built such strong connections. I realize now that politics are the tool that keep us in contact with the rest of the world. They help us recognize that there’s something bigger than ourselves. They are a major part of what dictates our future and if I don’t choose to be a part of my future, then what am I doing?
After visiting politicians, broadcast stations and students in Germany, I realize I’m not alone. The rise of Germany’s populism, the AfD, has caused similar problems. Rather than suffer from this shared climate, I’ve come to understand that the U.S.-German relationship and their civil societies should strive to take this opportunity to face domestic threats together. But of course, that’s easier said than done… maybe that’s where journalists come in.
But politics have never been my forte. I’ve always had a stronger fascination with art, music and fashion. I love the way artists test boundaries and explore new realms of creativity. In politics, I didn’t think that was the case. I think that was a part of the reason I wanted to go on this program in the first place. I wanted to appreciate a side of journalism that I’ve never fully been immersed in.
I especially came to see that when we met Kani Alavi, a German-Iranian artist. In his story, I saw the intersection between art and politics. His initiative to memorialize the Berlin Wall through his paintbrush showed me that I also can help improve American-German relations — even if that’s through much smaller initiatives in my home state.
Three days after the RIAS program ended, I was offered a job to be an editorial assistant for a local media company in North Carolina. Needless to say, I accepted. I hope that I can localize important international issues for this publication. America covers far less international news than other European countries, and I hope I can change this and help Americans become more informed on global affairs.
I refuse to continue to live in this news bubble.
Mollie Lemm, KRWG, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
When I was 18, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. with the United States Senate Youth Program. That week was incredibly amazing and we got to hear from Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and numerous other important members of our political sphere. However, even with all of those names, one quote sticks out from me from that entire week. “You don’t know what’s out there until you’ve stumbled across it,” said Elizabeth MacDonough, the parliamentarian of the senate. This statement drives my desire to explore the world and understand the possibilities it has to offer. The RIAS student exchange program started out as one of those opportunities that I just happened to stumble upon and it ended up giving me so much insight and inspiration about German-American relations and my desire to further explore them.
The three week program started out with 18 hours of international travel, a 5 minute shower, a quick debriefing in the lobby of the motel we were all staying at, and then pizza and beer while Croatia played Denmark in the World Cup. Even though I have traveled a little bit before, switching from the slower paced Montana lifestyle to Berlin takes a bit of getting used to, and it took a few days to feel acclimated to the Berlin ways. Even with this, I feel like I absorbed so much information every day of the three week period. Coming from a small Montana town, I am astounded by the wealth of history and information present in a place like Germany. Even though a lot of it was destroyed and rebuilt, there are so many stories engraved in its streets and buildings.
Every journalist benefits from increasing their worldview and learning as much as they can about the world and I really felt like this exchange provided me with a very unique and precious view into what makes Germany tick. By understanding and learning about the history of Berlin during the cold war and before, I was able to look at the current landscape and understand why certain people acted they way they do now. It was incredibly interesting to visit Leipzig and see how an East German city now conducted itself. In America, I often feel very removed from the events of the world, but when I was in Germany and could listen to people tell their stories, I realized just how close the history actually was. The true significance hit me when I thought about my parents and how if they had been born in Germany, their entire lives until they were 30 would have been under a divided cold war nation. I think about how my mom worked at national parks, went to college and then art school, lived in Seattle, met my dad, married, and lived in Japan, and all of that before she turned 30. My life and theirs would have been fundamentally different if they had been born in Germany, which I have always viewed as a contemporary to the U.S.
History and insight is so powerful in figuring out motives and it determines how people react to different things. Everything happening in Germany right now is in some way a reaction to everything that has happened in Germany in the last 80 years. I would not be able to understand current Germany if I did not understand past Germany, and for that I am beyond grateful to the RIAS program.
The program not only provided an avenue for learning, but connected us with journalists and others who passionately tell the stories of Germany. Even though I am not studying broadcast, I felt like I learned so much about how to be a good journalist using any form of media.
When I first learned about the RIAS exchange program, I only thought of it as a cool opportunity to visit Berlin for almost free. I didn’t come in with expectations for what I would take out of the program but I feel now that it really was instrumental in my understanding of Germany and my development as a journalist. Aside from the actual content of the program, I met so many amazing and fellow American students and I count myself as lucky to call some of them friends and I look forward to our continued collaboration and love of Germany. I am returning to Berlin in a few short months and I feel a lot more prepared to integrate myself into society and journalism in Germany now than I did before this program. All in all, I am incredibly grateful to RIAS and to the German government for sponsoring a program like this.
Sam Lichtenstein, Elon University, Elon, NC
The way in which a country deals with its past can often redefine its future. Perhaps the most fascinating case study of a nation that is proactive in the treatment of its troubled history is Germany. From the appalling atrocities committed during the Third Reich to the fierce paranoia that perpetuated the former German Democratic Republic, German re-unification has endured a long, harrowing road towards democracy. Over the past month, my peers and I have gotten the chance to speak to influential people in the realm of German politics, media and education. This opportunity has been an indispensable addition to my academic development as I enter the beginning stages of my career.
One of the most surprising parts of modern Germany is its commitment to public media funding. Each household within its borders must pay a flat rate of 17.50 per month, which sums up to about 8 billion euros dedicated to supporting regional, national and international public broadcasters. To provide some context, America spends about 5 percent of what Germany spends on public media. Our meeting with Deutsche Welle, one of Germany’s international broadcasters, illuminated the stark differences between American and German journalism. German stories rarely ever use the American standard of the “inverted pyramid” style, an approach rooted in a desperate effort to capture a reader’s attention immediately. Instead, German news stories tend to build up to the climax, hoping not to overwhelm the audience too early. Public funding also allows broadcasters to focus more time on stories rather than rely on commercials to fill air time. Watching the seminal Taggeschau in sports bars during halftime of every world cup game was a fascinating experience for me.
Some of our most enlightening appointments on our trip were with politicians. I was impressed with the penchant of current and former politicians in Germany for modesty. In America, politicians often catch the public eye with fiery dialogue and radical stances. That does not seem to apply as much in Germany. Walter Momper, the former mayor of Berlin when the wall fell, was outwardly humble when he explained his efforts to integrate East Germans back into Western society. Peter Beyer, Merkel’s top man in the foreign ministry, was bothered with President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric surrounding NATO commitments and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Barbara Richstein, a former justice minister and local politician, was candid in her concern with the rise of the AfD party in her constituency. Each politician was articulate in expressing the significance of sustaining a unified Germany and a united Europe in the age of New Nationalism.
The RIAS summer study trip provided me the opportunity to make new discoveries and take them back with me to America. The state of journalism in the new digital world is a complicated topic. By studying other countries’ successes and failures in media policy, we can advance our own media landscape in order to inform the public more effectively. However, it is important to understand the differences between the average German and American media consumer. Because of their history, the German people understand that their existence is contingent upon their ability to consume well-researched, hard news. This can be seen in the content of its public media and the lingering popularity of print media in Germany. Both the Nazis and the SPD of East Germany recognized the importance of controlling all aspects of information as a vehicle for maintaining its power. The unified German government has acknowledged that information is a valuable commodity that cannot be left to private interests. I left Germany wondering if America should treat journalism in the same way.
Adrian Molinar, New Mexico State University, El Paso, TX
Still Building Bridges
In thinking about visiting Germany, a person might expect to learn about the unfortunate past the country has had to overcome as well as a strong lingering influence of that past. As an American tourist he/she might expect to feel a tension that says, “You don’t belong.” That person would be wrong. If you ever find yourself in Germany, you might be surprised to realize those expectations couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there is WWII and Cold War influence, but not in the way you might expect. There is a strong foundation of accountability in every person’s mindset. They recognize this destructive past and actively use it to avoid thinking in extremes. RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) is a big reason for this heightened level of maturity.
This media outlet was established shortly after WWII. It’s purpose was to help promote democratic values in the changing landscapes of the community. After the country was separated into four distinct regions, each governed by different powers with its own set of laws, the people began to realize a different set of liberties in each region. More specifically, East Germany was governed by a communist Soviet Union, and the west was governed by the United States’ democratic model. And although Berlin was in the heart of East Germany, that city was equally divided.
Considering the strong influence socialism still had on Germany post WWII, the country was still wrestling with this idea of democracy. In 1961 the Berlin wall came up relatively overnight. Thus, RIAS had its work cut out for it. With East Germany controlling every aspect of the media and education, people didn’t have much of an idea of what life was like in a democratic society. RIAS, established in West Berlin, was one of the only options. But it was a dangerous one because listening to this radio station was considered a crime against the state.
Nonetheless, there were those who took their chances. Many looked for a way out, whether it was through a tunnel, creating fake passports, or going through the application process (which also carried with it certain risks). In short, people were living in fear. The Stasi (secret police) had a lot to do with that. They were literally everywhere. I had the chance to speak with someone who had a father that was a secret informant for the Stasi. His father was actively spying against his own family. This organization went to such extremes to ‘protect the state,’ the likes of which would be difficult to fully describe in one essay.
If you have a chance to speak with a German who lived during the Cold War about RIAS, you might get the sense that this media outlet carries a special place in his/her heart. He/She might tell you that it would have been difficult to unite Germany without this news agency. You might also be surprised to learn that RIAS was established by the United States and that America too carries a special place in German hearts.
Remember that application process? After applying for this, East Germans were easily persecuted by their own government and many went to jail because of it. Nevertheless, West Germany offered to buy these people from the Soviet Union. They were given food, housing, and offered integration programs to help ease their transition into a democratic state. Imagine being conditioned from an early age that your position in society is the only thing that matters and that that position is determined by the state and your compliance to the structure of that state. Leaving that place into a society that says, “You’re free,” can be overwhelming for some, and it certainly was.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and Germany began to unite. The United States decommissioned RIAS so that Germany could be left to govern its new home. During this process there was a parade that showed American troops marching back to their posts getting ready to leave Germany for good. Germans waved goodbye to their American friends with tears in their eyes and a gratitude still felt today. Yes, American politics disturbs many Germans, but the very essence of who we are and what it means to be American, also lives in the German people.
The German government therefore decided to keep RIAS alive. As a publicly funded media outlet, RIAS continues to tear down walls and unite people. The RIAS Berlin Kommission has been paying for professional journalists to come to Berlin and learn about their rich history. They’re trying to say, “Look this is who we are. We are a humble, compassionate people who have learned from their past” and “More things unite us than divide us.”
This experience was in a very professional setting. It is the first year RIAS opened its doors to college students. Because of this, I am lucky to have become part of a network of 1,600 alumni journalist members. RIAS went above and beyond to set up meetings with multiple media outlets, politicians, museums, etc. It’s an experience I’ll never forget and now, I get to help them continue their long-standing tradition of building bridges.
Pamela Ortega, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK
When I first applied for the RIAS Berlin Kommission student program, I figured there was no way I was going to get it. I spoke no German, knew very little about Germany and had never been Europe. Funny enough I learned later, I was the type of student they were seeking.
My first few days in Germany, I kept wondering why in the world I was there. I hated not speaking German. See I was always in my comfort zone in the United States, I spoke both English and Spanish, so I could communicate with virtually anyone. But being in Germany, knowing no German really did take me out of my comfort zone. One evening I decided to take a walk and ended up at a nearby park. People were on dates, others were having picnics, there were children, adults, senior citizens. It was a Wednesday night and everyone was enjoying themselves. Something like that would never happen in Oklahoma. People didn’t go to parks for fun, especially weekdays. That evening I realized Germany was going to be so much more than what I played it out to be.
I think I got my first real hit of reality when we visited the Berlin wall memorial. To think today people are still dying when crossing borders, simply seeking a better life. The last week I learned about the Berlin underground tunnels and tactics used to travel to the West, like fake passports and tunnels. Tactics, that today are still used by immigrants throughout the world. The Syrian refugee who gave us a tour of the Syrian neighborhood discussed exactly how he bought a fake identification in Greece. I also heard Peter Keup’’s first hand account of he tried to escape to the West. The whole time I just kept thinking, what would I have done if I was in East? Would I have risked it and escaped? Or would I have waited until the wall came down, not knowing exactly when it would come down?
I not only learned about the Cold War and the Berlin Wall but about German media as well. The whole time I kept thinking how is the German media so successful and not falling apart like in the states. Well I soon learned their mantra “mandate to educate the people,” applies quite literally by having every household pay 17.50 euros a month for public broadcasting. Later I learned about Axel Springer’s journalism powerhouse and mantra on journalism “we don’t make newspapers to earn money we earn money to make newspapers.”
Intertwined behind this whole experience was the concept of U.S-German relations. From meeting with Peter Beyer, coordinator of transatlantic cooperation at Auswärtiges Amt to sitting down with the U.S Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. I learned the integral role both the United States and Germany play in the politics of each other. Both countries are the leaders of their respective hemisphere, so a fostered relationship is integral to each countries success. And RIAS and KCRW have been there along the way to document the evolution of the relationship.
By far my favorite part was learning about immigration and the refugee crisis. As an aspiring immigration reporter, learning the complexities of immigration in Germany helped in understanding one of the largest issues to face countries worldwide will be immigration. From learning about the Turkish guestworker program to the learning about the current refugee crisis. Speaking to Germans on the topic, I soon realized the issue was complex, people always have me a long winded response to my simple questions “what do you think about the refugee crisis?”
RIAS not only gave me three weeks of learning, three weeks of travel, a love for German croissants, a distaste for beer, five new Latino friends, a growing love for doner, an appreciation for public transportation, a network, three new best friends, a bike ride through Tempelhof, and a desire for Syrian sweets, it gave an inside look into a world different from mine. I was taken out of my comfort zone, challenged and taught to “get on my bike” when I’m moving slow, but importantly to be a sponge and take it all in.
Sophia Saliby, Indiana University Bloomington, IN
We arrived in Berlin on the brink of a government collapse. As we wandered to a biergarten on our first night, we stumbled upon the CDU headquarters surrounded by media outlets covering the overnight talks to keep Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition together. We even ran into a reporter from ntv who will go on the RIAS program in America later this year. It was an exciting start to a trip that would take place in the shadow of tense global news, especially related to the relationship between Germany and the United States. During our second week, we saw President Donald Trump rip into other NATO members, and especially Germany, over commitments to defense spending during a summit in Brussels. Later that week, President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During that meeting, the President made comments expressing his opinion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 elections; he would later walk back on that statement. A highlight of the trip was our meeting with U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell where the discussion of transatlantic relations took centerstage as we reflected on the news that had occurred during our time studying journalism and the media landscape in Germany. Ambassador Grenell gave us further insight into the mind of the President and his aims to keep the relationship between Germany and the U.S. strong. This is all to say, it’s clear we had an incredible opportunity to be in the middle of Europe during a time where Germany’s relationship with the U.S. is on the front pages, both in Europe and America. Through the RIAS program, we were able to engage with journalists in Germany who are deciding how to cover Trump and how to report his actions and comments, just as American journalists are grappling with the same issues.
During my time in Germany, I learned that, unfortunately, the “fake news” phenomenon and a general mistrust of the media is not confined to America. In many of the newsrooms across Germany that we visited, journalists are dealing with the same problems our cohort has faced back home when it comes to politicians discrediting our work and the public turning increasingly to niche media outlets. However, conversations are happening now on how to move forward in this increasingly tense environment for media. It was an incredible privilege to not only be privy to these conservations during the RIAS program, but to be able to contribute and bring our own perspectives to discussions with journalists throughout the broadcasting industry in the country. I think it is well-understood within American media that there is less of a market for stories told from abroad. While this may be true to some extent, the RIAS program made me more aware that there are plenty of opportunities for young journalists like me who aspire to report abroad and being a part of the RIAS network will be a great asset to achieving that goal.
Dylan Srocki, Miami University, Oxford, OH
When I was selected to be one of the participants in the first RIAS Berlin Commission student program, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I knew that the program was geared towards broadcast journalist students, so I expected meetings with professionals in the field of media. I also expected to talk to politicians about the state of German-American relations. Both of these expectations turned out to be true.
During the program, the other students and I had the opportunity to meet with numerous German journalists, including those in both the private and public sectors, and who worked in all mediums, including print, radio, and television. These meetings allowed me to learn about the media landscape in Germany as compared to the United States. For example, each person in Germany pays almost 20 euros each month for public television, which has led to a robust public broadcast system, and a general population that is aware of newsworthy events both in their own country and abroad. We also had the privilege of meeting with politicians such as Barbara Richstein, Peter Beyer, and Richard Grenell. With them, we talked about the diplomatic issues that have created a rift between our two countries, such as NATO defense spending and the Nord Stream pipeline.
What I did not expect when I was chosen for the program was the emphasis on German history, specifically with regards to the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. Throughout the stations that were planned over the duration of our three weeks, I learned about the stark differences in East and West Germany and Berlin, and that knowledge helped me to gain a better understanding about why RIAS was so important to many people. I’ve always had a passion for journalism, and hearing stories about RIAS and the impact that it had on the people living in Berlin during this tense time period helped to reinforce the ideas that I have long held about the profession—namely, that the work journalists do is essential to the working class and to the public in general. Talking about the issues related to German reunification and integration was also an unexpected part of the program that was eye-opening to me. I had no idea that there was still a divide between West and East Germany, but I learned that not only are there cultural differences between the two regions, but strong differences in political beliefs as well. Additionally, immigration is as controversial a topic in Germany as it is in the United States. One of the most impactful talks for me was with a Syrian refugee, who talked about how he faces many of the same issues that impact minority groups in the States.
In addition to all that I gleaned from the program, I gained a wonderful network of journalists, both in the United States and abroad. I became friends with the other fourteen students, and I am looking forward to continuing relationships with many of them. The RIAS family also includes a large number of professional journalists, many of who strive to be active alumni. Going into the program, I don’t think I ever would have considered working in Germany, but I very much enjoyed my time there and met an abundance of nice people. I just want to end by saying thank you to all those who made my RIAS journey an overwhelming success.
RIAS Exchange Program – Fall
Thirteen American journalists in Germany: Brussels, Cologne, Mainz, and Berlin.
Individual extension program for eight participants.
Justin Campbell, WVLA Baton Rouge, LA
What an incredible experience! The opportunity to visit Europe and tour NATO was amazing. You read and hear about NATO in the news, but standing in the same spot President Donald Trump gave a speech, was a different experience. Regardless of my political belief, for a few seconds, it was a surreal feeling!
The RIAS German Exchange Program gave me and others a crash course into European current affairs, German history, and how their TV/radio networks work.
At NATO, I learned about a resurgent Russia and what does that mean for Western Europe? How are officials dealing with cyber security? In a world where microchips are even in soccer balls. NATO is still struggling getting allied countries to spend 2 % of their GDP on defense. These are not easy issues to solve with any overnight answers.
The exchange program also took us behind closed doors to see how the European Commission works. It’s a complicated process, proposing legislation, implementing decisions, and running day-to-day business of the EU.
One highlight of the exchange I really enjoyed was going to the front lines of the old Cold War, the Berlin Wall. I learned so much about the separation between East and West Berlin. Not only did the wall divide the city and resources, but it also separated families. People were shot to death trying to cross the wall.
The visit to a former Stasi prison, Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, put things into perspective. Probably one of the best tours during the exchange. The reality of seeing how terrible living conditions were for political prisoners. On the bright side, former prisoners now have a job giving tours and telling their stories. This is why it’s important to be a journalist, telling stories, helps preserve history.
The core principles of being a journalist are the same wherever you go. No matter what country, what state, or city. But how news organizations deliver their coverage may be different. It was interesting to learn that many Germans still like reading a web script. Whereas in the United States most TV stations post a video with a short web script.
Millions of Euros goes toward public TV and radio in Germany. Something vastly different in the US, not much funding is allocated to public broadcasting. Most television stations are private for profit businesses. Many have made budget cuts in recent years, because of a decline in viewers, and competition from the internet. That wasn’t the case in Germany. Although, one thing in common German news outlets, just like in the US, want to establish a dominant social media platform.
Being able to learn so much about European current affairs, Germany, and media was great! But being able to learn with a bunch of journalist outside of work made it even better! The long days, walking for miles, all made for great conversation at dinner. I made lifelong connections, friends, and got to stand where President Trump once stood temporarily.
Letese Clark, WTOP Radio, Washington, DC
As an editor at a local radio station it is rare that I get an opportunity to leave the newsroom, yet alone explore the world for an experience that is not a personal vacation. In September of 2018, RIAS granted me that opportunity and it became one of the best experiences of my career. Over the course of two weeks, I increased my knowledge of Germany including – but not limited to – the political system, issues that matter most to citizens and the country’s approach to journalism.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was our time in Brussels. We had the opportunity to visit the Politico Europe Office, the European Commission and NATO. As a journalist in Washington, D.C., the city itself felt a lot like being at home. It was small but had a great presence. I greatly appreciated the visit to the European Commission. I gained a greater understanding on what goes into policy decision making and how they work with the press. It was interesting to learn that the commission has a separate office that broadcasts all of the press conference and special events, but it acts independently and is not associated with press. I also enjoy the in-depth conversation we had on migration and trade. The visit to NATO was one of my favorite visits of the entire trip. It was exciting to have an open discussion about defense, where we stand as a whole and how things can get better to improve the overall safety of the allied nations. I particularly enjoyed the conversation the conversation on cybersecurity, which is one of the currently one of the greatest threats globally, and our chat with the diplomats during lunch. The visit to Brussels overall provided me with a great deal of knowledge.
The opportunity to hear stories from the people of Germany – natives, refugees, and migrants and the journalists – was the true highlight of the trip. My thoughts about Germany before this trip were limited. I mainly knew Germany’s involvement in both the World Wars, the Berlin Wall and a brief snapshot of how they were helping with the migrant crisis. Being able to talk to residents about the changes the country has endured over the decades, helped put things into perspective. It was particularly interesting to see the Berlin Wall and hear from Peter Keup who tried to flee and was imprisoned and to hear from Kani Alavi about how he added art to the wall and worked to preserve it over the years. It was also nice to walk with a Syrian Refugee and hear his story first hand and sit down with a Turkish migrant who became a member of parliament. Visiting the different TV and radio stations, helped put a lot of things into context when I’m reading international coverage, as well as the perception that others have us American journalists. The thing that shocked and impressed me and most of the group was that German contribute to the news organizations through a fee. The studios were all nice, very large and most of the staff was big as most of our networks here. It was interesting to see the different dynamic where most of the news in Germany comes from a few different outlets, whereas in American it seems like we a lot of more, but with a different concertation on local, national and international. The visits, conversations and personal stories during our time in Germany demonstrated while has come so far, the country still has a long way to go.
Participating in RIAS was one the best decisions I made this year. I gained not only knowledge of Germany but a group of friends and colleagues who remain part of my life. We had a diverse group of people from all different backgrounds, which really made the trip a lot better. I also appreciated making connections with the Germany journalists, and even meet up with one of them when they came over to cover midterm elections. RIAS is great for exposing journalists to different cultures and expanding our knowledge, but the organization is also great at connecting us with lifelong friends.
Kane Farabaugh, Voice of America, Ottawa, IL
Participating in the RIAS Berlin Commission German / American Journalism Exchange Fellowship is a profoundly enriching and motivating experience that has given me new enthusiasm and energy in my work as a correspondent with Voice of America, and as an independent documentary producer. As I indicated in my initial response to the experience:
“This RIAS experience has been more than rewarding, enriching both my personal and professional life with unique exposure to European and specifically German culture,politics, history, and people. With fresh perspective and insight into current German thought on issues ranging from refugee resettlement and migration to international tariffs, I am now better equipped to report on these topics with real international insight that is current and relevant. Perhaps most importantly to me personally, this experience has reconnected me to the culture and country of my grandparents, and has given me a deeper sense of what my own family living here is experiencing. The connections made with colleagues on this trip and RIAS Alumni around Europe will be the best, and everlasting, souvenir of this incredible experience. It motivates me to be increasingly active in the RIAS alumni network and encourages me to give back to the organization that has given me so much these weeks here in Europe. Thank you for this wonderful experience.“
One of the highlights of the experience, for me, was the interactive and first-hand exploration and tour of the STASI museum in Berlin with one of those who was interrogated in such a facility. To have this experience was unique and encompassing and I would hope that this would be a staple on every future RIAS fellowship. The personal tour of the Berlin Wall was also a memorable moment.
Another highlight of the experience was the ability to network and interact with German journalists and media professionals during the social events usually hosted in the evenings. These events offered casual but meaningful interaction with our German peers and afforded us opportunities to engage and ask questions and gather more insight than what would normally be afforded during the day-time programming. It is through these experiences I became committed to exploring setting up a RIAS Alumni chapter in the Midwest United States and further participating in RIAS events to help promote networking and further interaction and exchanges, and to promote an understanding of the organization and its importance.
My week of reporting and production following the organized two-week exchange further enhanced my understanding of German culture, life, and society today, and in particular, how the events of both World War 1 and World War 2 manifest itself in German attitude and thought. From Ohrdruf in Thuringia to Truef and Regensburg in Bavaria, to Wiesbaden and Frankfurt in Hessen, my understanding of how Germans view today’s societal changes through the prism of yesterday’s costly conflicts offers a more thorough and nuanced appreciation for everything I learned and will take away from this experience. I also had the opportunity to visit the European Space Agency (ESA) Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, and tour the facility and see first hand the scope and operations of the organization. I would highly encourage and recommend that RIAS consider adding a stop at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt on its list of places to visit and meetings to schedule. ESA is conducting important work in the area of understanding space and its exploration, but most importantly, climate science. This would be an interesting
and dynamic addition to the itinerary and program. I’m not sure that many Americans even know about the European Space Agency.
While these comments offer validation of many aspects of the program, I do want to point out a few observations that may help inform or adjust future planning for such
Of particular note is the meeting we had with a member of the AFD party in Berlin. I believe that this was one of the most important meetings we had, and I feel that we should have had more time to engage and interact with him. I believe that Erik Kirschbaum was absolutely correct in including him in our program, and was surprised to learn that this could be considered controversial. As journalists, it is important for us to promote and maintain objectivity despite our personal beliefs or political views. However, in almost every interaction I had with our German RIAS Alumni peers and other members of German media, there seemed to be outrage or concern that we met and interacted with a member of the AFD party. Just because we had a meeting with them doesn’t validate their message or their motives. But the more alarming observation was the apparent lack of objectivity exhibited in any discussion about the AFD. This is also similar and reflected in conversations we had about President Donald Trump and conservative Republicans who support him. It seems to be very difficult for those who live outside it to understand the current political dynamic in the United States, and few seem to have room or tolerance to at
least objectively understand how the controversial messaging of President Trump is accepted and received by many in the United States. It was clear to me in the interactions I had with many that the societal polarization we seem to be experiencing in America is not isolated to those borders. I would hope that in the future, there would be continued efforts to engage all differing sectors of German politics and thought and believe that including a member of the AFD on the program
was and is key to providing an objective understanding of German society today.
I was keenly inquisitive and deeply interested in understanding this and many other aspects further, and initially felt empowered to ask questions during many of our early meetings in Belgium and Cologne. But because we had such a large group, and because during the question and answer sessions it appeared as if there was competition to ask questions, I later felt intimidated and judged by my colleagues when I would ask a question. It became a demoralizing part of the experience for me and prevented me from asking questions towards the end. I believe that the size of the group was problematic in this regard, and believe that limiting the size of the
group to 10 instead of 14 may have fostered more of an environment where everyone felt empowered to ask questions and wasn’t competing. Additionally, it appeared as if several members of the group arranged to have one-on-one meetings or interviews with many of the people we were meeting and talking with, yet those same group members – despite having one-on-one opportunities – also dominated the public question and answer sessions. Perhaps it would be best to understand who is conducting private one-on-one meetings or interviews and encourage them to let others ask questions during the public Q&A session.
I was also disappointed that we did not travel to Prague, and understand that this is a part of the itinerary on other exchanges. During our feedback session with Isabell Hoffman at the end of the Berlin Wall tour, it was clear that many in our group felt there was a duplication of visits of radio and television stations. Many felt that our trip to ZDF in Mainz was repetitive, and could have been exchanged with a trip to Prague and a visit with Radio Free Europe. Additionally, we only spent one afternoon at the former RIAS headquarters in Berlin, but understand that there is a
radio network located in the same building but we did not visit this facility. Also, while there was a lot of focus on German media outlets, and we did have the opportunity to talk with a foreign correspondent of the New York Times and the head of Politico in Europe, it might be beneficial to those participating in the exchange from America to visit a foreign bureau of a U.S. broadcast network or media outlet, and understand how that organization approaches editorial decisions
regarding European news and events.
I do not offer these observations as criticism, but hope they are constructive and help better inform your future planning of the exchange and what might be included in the program.
This truly has been one of the greatest experiences of my professional life, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity this fellowship and RIAS has provided me, and the enhancement and enrichment it will provide in both my personal and my professional life. I am very thankful for the opportunity to participate in this program and will be an enthusiastic advocate for the organization and its mission, and hope to be a RIAS Berlin Commission Alumni Chapter leader and ambassador here in the Midwest United States.
Andrew Lapin, Freelance NPR, Huntington Woods, MI
It’s a good thing our group of RIAS journalists worked best on the move, because this fellowship program never slowed down. For two weeks we were rushing from city to city and appointment to appointment, often hoofing it between government buildings or broadcast headquarters as we navigated the journey from Brussels to Berlin. I was grateful for the constant stream of stimulating conversation: we met with NATO and EU officials one day to talk about the largest threats facing Europe and the U.S., and the next were chatting with German economists about the impact of migrants on the country’s workforce. In such a short expanse of time I was exposed to more pressing issues than I’ve written about in my entire career.
I appreciated that our group was perfectly fine wading into more controversial, and therefore more stimulating, realms of debate both with our hosts and with each other. Although our visit with a leading member of the far-right AFD party was brief, the effects of it lingered throughout the remainder of our stay. It gave many of our other appointments a sense of plurality, like we were taking in the entire spectrum of thought the country had to offer, adding to the sensation of a Syrian refugee giving us a personalized tour of his Berlin neighborhood, or the soccer game we watched in the city’s still-intact stadium from Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. We were there for the whole of Berlin, diving right into the heart of its many controversies, forever blurring the lines between past and present, in a city and country that have been destroyed and rebuilt many times over.
Our fellows came from wide-ranging and diverse backgrounds across the U.S., a mix of ages, races, cultures and experiences. Having been on my share of journalism programs that were sorely lacking in this category, I appreciated Rias’s commitment to looking outside the typical U.S. media bubble to allow us to have as broad and meaningful an experience in Germany as possible. We not only consistently challenged each other, but we were also in turn challenged by German journalists and Rias alums overflowing with questions about the state of America today. This kind of vibrant exchange of ideas is the heart of what makes journalism such a special profession for me, and I think every journalist should have these kinds of opportunities to engage in meaningful international dialogue about this many topics.
When we took a tour of a former Stasi prison, the tour was led by a prisoner who became a history professor after the war and has devoted his career to telling the world about what happened in East Germany. That experience, which was on the last day of our formal itinerary, really brought home the purpose of the trip for me. Like our guide, Rias is an organization founded on the principle of free information – the idea that it is better to know things, even horrible, difficult-to-process things, than not to know them. Our network of contacts, both American and German, forged through the program will all contribute to our future efforts to impart crucial information to the masses. And the extensive efforts Rias puts into furnishing a robust alumni network will ensure that such strong cross-cultural communication will continue. Great ideas can happen over a Kölsch at a Cologne beer hall, or in a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, with the right mix of dedicated, open-minded American and German journalists.
Extending my stay in Berlin, with an added trip to Munich, allowed me to report on a very cool story for one of my freelance outlets: the rise of KCRW Berlin, the only American public radio station located outside of the U.S. The history of KCRW Berlin also dovetails rather nicely with that of RIAS, as both organizations are rooted in a spirit of collaboration with Allied forces and a desire to use information and culture to penetrate the forces of the Eastern Bloc. Having that synergy gave my stories an added sense of purpose, as it felt like all of us were on a journey of discovery the more we ventured into Germany’s history and culture.
I plan on living and working abroad for some time in my future, and even though I likely won’t be reporting on Germany for the most part, the Rias program has still given me a level of comfort and confidence that I’ll continue to embrace as an American journalist working in new and unfamiliar countries. No matter what your motivation may be as a journalist, having this kind of experience – both on your resume and in your own memory – is invaluable for expanding your horizons.
Carol McKinley, Freelance ABC, CBS, Littleton, CO
Every morning for two and a half weeks while I was participating abroad in the RIAS Fellowship, I had to pinch myself as a reminder that I wasn’t dreaming. The experience is exciting, enriching, and exhausting. Every day, I found myself putting one foot in front of the other as we were treated to new experiences which opened our eyes to a world beyond our backyards.
The sad truth is, American media does not pay much attention to news which does not have anything to do with the U.S. It took several emails to convince one of my biggest clients, ABC News, that it needed to do a story about the pain Germany is feeling over immigration. In the end, I did win that battle, and did a comprehensive piece on a video which caught German police officers beating an unarmed black man. I found that it’s hard to report in a country where the laws are different, but it’s not impossible.
Everywhere we went, we were treated to discussion and asked questions both on and off the record. From a Parliamentary member of the AfD to an economist who explained Germany’s immigration predicament, we gained understanding of this defining moment in German history. Berlin has been the center of change for a century and Erik, Isabel and Lisa provided a wonderful blend of the history of WWII to the Cold War to present.
While in Belgium, we were the guests of NATO and of The European Commission. We heard about how the Europeans feel about President Donald Trump’s brash style. And we realized that some of the ideas our president has, even though they are delivered with a harsh tone, are welcomed by a Europe which has much to consider when it comes to helping struggling nations. That was an important lesson for me.
If you keep your eyes open on this fellowship, you will be able to participate in events which have nothing to do with the program. For instance, one day, during free time,
I went to a demonstration of mostly Turkish immigrants in downtown Berlin when President Recep Erdogan paid a visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. What a rush to see six thousand people peacefully march in protest. Still, I met some Turks who support Erdogan because they believe he will bring stability to Turkey. Again, this is an education I would never have dreamed of at this stage in my career.
On another day of free time, I visited a concentration camp. On another, saw a real live crazy German soccer game at the Olympic stadium where Jesse Owens ran. This was a highlight for me, as it was the same stadium where I high jumped with my high school track team as a 16 year old growing up in Wiesbaden.
One of my favorite things about the program is the fact that we met with real people who have been personally affected by this history. Yet, we also met with political analysts, with leaders in the Foreign Ministry and with fellow journalists.
It’s a whirlwind two weeks with little asked of the fellows, except the trust that we will participate in the program. I plan on staying active with RIAS. In fact,
I was lucky enough to talking with the news director of RTL Television over a German pretzel. We are around the same age and have both lived through many stories in our careers. I hope that Renata Friedrich will come see me and that I can show her how we cover the news in the U.S. I have a friend at the local ABC affiliate who would be glad to meet another woman who runs a television newsroom, and plan to introduce the two of them.
One day, I overheard our group leader, Erik Kirschbaum remark that we were “working.”
I had to consider this, and decided that Erik was right. RIAS is the best kind of work. Twelve of us will now take back to the United States a new understanding of how our world in the States is affected by how politics and government develops in Europe. I hope to fight to tell the stories of people who are not so different from us.
Danke Schoen, RIAS, for an experience I will keep in my heart forever.
Bonnie North, 89.7 WUWM, Milwaukee, WI
It took me 34 years to return to Berlin. The city I knew then was a half-Berlin – I traveled there between 1982 and 1984. The wall and the iron curtain were up, Berlin and the Germanies were east and west, and I was not a journalist. I was a US soldier stationed in Bavaria, visiting a then boyfriend who was stationed at the US base at Teufelsberg. In the half of Berlin that was free. It was a place I loved but I only partly knew.
In the intervening three-plus decades, I became a journalist and I traveled to Europe many times. Spain, France, the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Germany. I even lived and worked in the Balkans from 2000 to 2002 and traveled extensively throughout the region. I watched the Berlin wall come down on TV, I watched the two Germanies work through their initial reunification, I read international newspapers to see how other former Eastern bloc countries handled their new democracies, I saw the after effects of the Balkan wars up close. But in all that time and travel, I never got back to Berlin.
So 2018 I jumped at the opportunity to participate in the RIAS journalist exchange program that September. What initially impressed me the most was how hard the small staff of Erik, Isabell, and Lisa worked to create an itinerary for us that gave us as much breadth of experience as possible. That impression didn’t change once I was in our whirlwind two weeks. From getting briefings from EU and NATO officials in Brussels to meeting our German TV and radio colleagues in Köln and Mainz, to the full slate of meetings, tours, and behind the scenes briefings in Berlin, the program really immersed us in the immediate politics of the day. What seemed to be on everyone’s mind was what was happening politically here in the US and how that was affecting Germany and the rest of the EU and NATO, and the rise of nationalism all over Europe – represented in Germany by the unexpected rise of the hard-right AfD party.
Some of the delightful experiences we had were not policy related. Meeting visual artist Kani Alavi, learning about his wall project, and getting to tour his studio and purchase a small, signed artwork for myself was a highlight. As was sitting in the press area for the Bundesliga match between Hertha and Mönchengladbach (Berlin won). Eating the fabulous chicken shawarma at Aldimashqi in Neukölln (it was so good I went back a few days later for more). Attending the many fabulous dinners with our German RIAS fellows. Getting to know my US cohort – we are all still in touch with each other. Exploring the eastern part of the city, which was out of bounds for me the last time I was there. Finding the stumble stones – each one broke my heart. I kept thinking that if the United States could do half as well as the Germans have to acknowledge the horrors of our collective past, we would be a far better and more compassionate country.
I cannot fail to thank Isabell for arranging things during my extended time in Berlin so I could spend a day each at two German public radio stations. Thanks also to RIAS alums Nancy Fisher and Eberhard Schade for hosting me at their stations and incorporating me into their production days. It was illuminating to see the similarities and the differences. The biggest difference I think, was money. The Germans in public broadcasting have a lot more of it that we do here in the US. There seems to be no sense of having to do more with less all the time, the way we do here. From wonderful equipment (Neumann microphones everywhere! My audio engineer back home was drooling…) to adequate staffing levels, that €8 billion/year allocated to public broadcasting is money we in the US can only dream of.
One of my personal goals during this fellowship was to record long form interviews to send back to my daily show to air during my absence. Even though this goal was outside the scope of the overall fellowship, Erik really helped me to make it happen. I interviewed a NATO spokesman, various politicians and former politicians, the head of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, the New York Times’ Berlin correspondent, and a former Stasi prisoner. I’m very proud of the resulting 7 interviews. They gave my audience at home a taste of the kinds of issues we were hearing and talking about daily during the fellowship and even more importantly, why those issues matter to us on this side of the pond. I received a number of emails thanking me for giving these voices and perspectives an opportunity to be heard here. http://www.wuwm.com/term/radio-free-bonnie#stream/0
I could go on: I am still processing everything I experienced during this life changing experience. I am honored to be a RIAS alum and I’m in great company. But perhaps most personally for me is that 34 years later, I finally came home to Berlin.
Jessica Prater, CNN, New York, NY
In my application essay for the RIAS program, , my goal was to gain more understanding of the refugee crisis, how America is viewed outside of the US and about the different cultures that make up the German population. However, I learned much more than that during my two weeks in Belgium and Germany. I learned from the dozen journalist I traveled with, from exploring neighborhoods and visiting newsrooms. Here are few highlights.
I had a great time traveling with this elite group of hilarious, smart and resilient journalist. Regardless of our news outlet or whether we were in radio, television or print we created a long lasting bond. We were diverse in age, background and region, and we all got along and avoided cliques. Each morning at breakfast, there was a chance to sit with a new cohort and get to know them personally. Together we challenged our interview subjects with tough questions and listened intently for the Truth.
One of my favorite moments was visiting the East Side Gallery. I imagined what it was like for Kani Alavi and the other artist in cold painting and creating an iconic piece of history. Kani Alavi’s gallery was stacked to the ceiling with all his creations. I surely had to bring something back home to decorate my walls (and of course a gift for mom).
My other favorite was touring the eastern area of Berlin that was ruled by communism. Peter Keup shared his story about his attempted escape from the GDR and his imprisonment by the Stasi. Learning first hand from a person who lived it, helps relay the emotion that he felt during that time. He explained that sharing his story may be educational for us, but is therapeutic for him.
Prior to my visit to Berlin, I didn’t know anything about the Turkish community. Özcan Mutlu’s walking tour of the Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin was fascinating. I enjoyed eating family style at the restaurant he brought us too. The part that resonated with me most about the walking tour, was the gentrification the Kreuzberg area is going through. It is very similar to what is happening in my neighborhood in Harlem.
The tour of Neuklöln neighborhood reminded me of Queens, NY. Hearing Firas Zakri’s story of was eye opening to the struggles that he still has to deal with such as finding a job. Although he is educated, and capable of teaching English his opportunities are still limited. Also, his story is the first time hearing how people managed to reach Germany all the way from Syria.
Another component to the fellowship that I was most impacted by was visiting television stations ZDF and RTL/n-TV. Both are CNN Newsource affiliates, and I was fascinated to see how they use our product and rely on our live signals in breaking news in the US.
My goal is to implement what learned during the fellowship into how I produce stories which impact people internationally. I made many connections on this journey that will be good resources in newsgathering in the future. Since the completion of the program, I have given a tour of CNN to the group of German journalist participating in RIAS!. I look forward to being a part of the RIAS Alumnae Network and I am motivated to be involved with the New York City chapter of alumni!
Gitzel Puente, KJRH, Tulsa, OK
As an American journalist, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in the two-week journalism fellowship with RIAS Berlin Kommission during the fall of 2018. It was my second time traveling to Germany, so I had some preconceived notions of the country’s culture and people. However, it was the first time that I was exposed to how the government and media work. I had an in-depth look into the news-gathering process at major broadcasting stations and the rare opportunity to have an open dialogue with top officials with NATO and the EU.
I found several similarities between German and American stations, such as the use of digital space to convey a story. Some stations use it less than others, but the reality is that the way we consume news is changing. Social media and the Internet have become an integral part of almost every news media organization. An example during the trip was at Cosmo radio station where I tweeted about our visit, and almost immediately, the station’s main Twitter page retweeted me. The immediacy in which we can relay a message to hundreds and even thousands of people is truly amazing! Also, many of the on-air personalities we met during our trips to various radio and TV stations have a work account for Twitter and Facebook.
One of the differences I found at TV stations, whether it was private or public, is the little emphasis put on the weather forecasts Some stations like at RTL, the weather is pre-taped and not very long, whereas in the U.S. it is always live and usually three minutes long. We use a lot of resources for the forecast because studies have shown that an American audience is highly interested in the weather and breaking news. Another striking difference dealing with TV is the use of virtual studios. I had never seen a large, half moon-shaped green screen before, but it is the way new studios are designed at every TV station we visited. This I imagine has to do with cost-saving efforts. It would be neat to have this type of virtual studios in the U.S. to have a variety of sets for different topics.
An impression I had during the trip regarding the country’s culture is an anti-immigrant sentiment, similar to the U.S. While we were exposed to the different political parties, one stood out the most: Alternative for Germany (AfD). What I learned about this party is that it has gained popularity since it was founded five years ago based on far-right beliefs that are centered around nationalism to preserve Germany’s identity. However, this is often viewed as anti-immigrant and xenophobic. I spoke to several Germans outside of the program’s speakers at local restaurants and bars in Cologne, Munich, Mainz and Berlin and many confessed they are uneasy about the AfD’s rise in the political spectrum saying its ideology is racist and not open-minded to immigrants. This is very similar to what we are going through in the U.S. with President Donald Trump’s unwelcoming views to immigrants, specifically those coming from Central America who are fleeing political persecution and violence.
As far as the German culture, I have always found it to be welcoming in some parts and not so welcoming in others. It was my second time in Cologne, and I felt that restaurant waiters were a bit crude. It could just be the culture, but in the U.S. most waiters go above and beyond to earn tips because wages are not high. However, I understand that in Germany the wages are higher for those working in the service industries. The same experience I shared in Berlin where a waitress did not display politeness, and a bar owner seemed almost annoyed at my friend and I being there. Though I did encounter a waiter who softened up after I started a friendly conversation about our group traveling to Germany for the fellowship.
Overall my impressions of Germany were positive. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to travel with 12 other American journalists and meet dignitaries, tour broadcasting stations, visit official government buildings and spend time with local Germans. There is so much history in Germany that every corner you turn, there is a story to be told. I enjoyed the food, the talks and the knowledge we gained as a whole from the two weeks.
Thank you very much RIAS! Danke!
Judith Snyderman, Federal Contractor State Department, Washington, DC
I enjoyed all aspects of the RIAS program, from getting a feel for public perceptions on top news stories to a close up look at the political system and the history behind the headlines. Visiting broadcast studios and meeting RIAS alumnae were all enriching experiences. For me, the biggest surprise was the instant bond formed among our diverse group of participants. I feel lucky and am most appreciative for the opportunity to participate in RIAS. Here are a few moments, places and people from our journey that resonate.
European leadership on digital privacy matters
Despite following debates over internet privacy, security, access, commercial interests, regulation and freedom of expression, it had never occured to me that European concerns are heightened by post WWII police state surveillance. It was a real eye-opener that gave me context to follow and analyze digital policy issues. I noted that recently the U.S. is considering following Europe’s lead on digital privacy laws. It’s hard to forget the NATO cyber-defense representative’s anecdote about hackers using Internet of Things (IOT) connectivity to turn smart TVs into watching devices. Someone in the group said, “I’m putting a blanket over my TV,” which summed things up nicely. Our tour of Hohenschönhausen led by Peter Keup left an indelible impression on me. It was really helpful to have read the recommended book Stasiland beforehand.
Refugees and the rise of the right
It was disturbing to see first-hand how the movement of refugees in Europe and initial efforts to help them, led to growing support for far right thinking and political parties. There are striking similarities and contrasts to the politics and humanitarian crisis on America’s southern border. One thought for the next U.S. tour of German journalists is a visit to Univision in Miami, perhaps meeting anchor and author Jorge Ramos for his perspective.
Walking tours in Berlin of a well established Turkish neighborhood and a neighborhood with recently arrived Syrian refugees were informative and upbeat, but face to face time with parliamentarian Armin Paulus Hampel of Germany’s far right AFD party was somber.
Green-screen studio envy
Our visits to broadcast TV and radio news operations had many wow moments. Despite knowing that television in Germany is well funded by mandatory household license fees, I was still was blown away by super-sized control rooms and studios like ZDF’s green screen studio complete with a sinuating rosewood anchor desk. I was also impressed by the European Union Commission’s broadcast facility in Brussels, Belgium. I’ve already told several colleagues about the EbS EU audiovisual services website and all the resources available for free to cover EU centric content.
We should have covered our shoes before romping through ZDF’s green screen studio.
The Brussels bubble
I had never been to any of the cities on our itinerary and enjoyed them all. At first glance Brussels looked to me like a charming historic village. But at our first meeting at Politico EU, Chief Brussels Correspondent David Herszenhorn set me straight, describing the city’s vibe as the Brussels bubble, due to the big footprint of NATO and EU, both headquartered there. As a Washington beltway resident, I got it.
Poor but sexy Berlin
Before the RIAS program, all I knew about Berlin post-1989 was that American tourists and expats love it partly because it is hip and cheap. In addition to our fantastic itinerary, I went to a Wim Wenders Polaroid photo exhibit at the former U.S. America Haus building and trekked through the extravagant KaDeWe department store that makes Nordstrom’s look dumpy. Perhaps Berlin is not as bohemian or as inexpensive as it was when a former mayor described the city as “poor but sexy” but it is a destination where I would like to return.
Since returning from the RIAS program, I started an assignment as a location producer for foreign broadcast crews sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I’ve been inspired by the high bar RIAS set for content and experiences and working hard to live up to your example. I look forward to staying connected and active in the alumni network. In the meantime, best wishes for the New Year.
Sage Van Wing, OPB, Portland, OR
I had such a wonderful experience on the RIAS Germany program, it’s hard to know where to begin. Certainly the program itself wouldn’t exist without the diligent work of the people who organized everything for us. Isabell is an absolute treasure. I can’t imagine negotiating the details of the institutions, trains, hotels, and travel with such precision, and still managing to have care for each of us as individuals and our needs.
Erik has such a wealth of knowledge and connections that he shares with absolute generosity. He also cares deeply- he cares about the future of journalism, and of Germany, and of the US. He cares to make the connections between us and the wider world. And he cares to listen and get better at his job- to know when to stay quiet, and when to share his knowledge; to know when to wait for stragglers, and when to march ahead at his usual pace; when to make us schlep to a craft brewery, and when to stick to the German beers. Erik is a treasure in this job.
Before setting out on this journey, I imagined that most of our conversations would be about far right nationalism on the rise, simply because that is such a huge issue in the US, and seemed like something we all could learn more about from Germany. And indeed, we did have many conversations about this, but I was surprised about the “migrant issue” rose to the forefront. I think like most Americans, I had assumed that Germany was mostly at peace with the decision to let in a large number of migrants in 2015.
Perhaps most striking to me was the fundamental lack of alignment amongst the various people who spoke to us about this issue about whether or not the migrants were expected to be temporary, or permanent residents in Europe. On the very first day, the EU official told us that migrants from Syria, the middle east, and northern Africa were expected to return to their home countries in several years when the wars were over. He cited the experience with migrants from the Bosnian wars, many of whom did return to that region after fighting ended.
However, only a few days later in Cologne, we heard Erkan Arikan speak about the experience of his Turkish parents. They had always intended to return to Turkey, but built lives and had children in Germany and stayed, despite the fact that they were treated as, in his perception, “second class citizens.” Arikan said of Germany: “They wanted workers, but they got human beings.”
In Cologne, we also heard from Dr. Hans-Peter Klos, who, as a business industry economist, seemed to agree with Arikan. Klos argued that Germany had not done a good enough job integrating and training Turkish migrants. But he saw great opportunity in the new group of migrants- as workers in Germany’s aging economy. Kos emphasized, however, that the country would need to be prepared to do cultural education, and job training in a distributed way so that migrants all over the country would get what they needed to fit in. He also argued that current restrictions would need to be lifted to make it easier for people to find work.
We heard this point echoed numerous times in conversations in Berlin. The Syrian refugee Firas Zakri told us how difficult it was for him to find work as a teacher, despite his excellent English and years of experience, because of red tape. He also told us that, though he loved his home, there was nothing in Aleppo for him to return to.
On the other hand, Armin Paulus Hempel, member of parliament from the AfD party, did not believe that migrants should stay in Germany. He understood Germany to be a monocultural society that could not withstand the implicit threat of other cultures.
As someone whose country is struggling right now to understand its own multicultural heritage, and how to define the differences between refugees and economic migrants, it was incredibly valuable to see how another country is dealing with similar issues. It was also reassuring to me to see that these issues are just as contentious in other places, and that journalists everywhere are continuing to find creative ways to tell these stories, and hold truth to power.
Thank you for the opportunity to become a RIAS fellow. I now have friends, connections, memories, places, and knowledge that I will hold with me forever.
Jordan Vesey, Union Docs Center for Documentary Art, Brooklyn, NY
I cannot reiterate enough how wonderful this trip with RIAS was. I truly didn’t know what to expect but found that thorough research beforehand really paid off. We met such incredible people in important positions in Germany and I really was impressed by how hard the RIAS staff worked to get everything lined up for us. It made my time in Germany unforgettable.
I absolutely loved Brussels and found it extremely valuable to see the head of NATO and the European Union. Gaining an understanding of the ways in which these organizations operate across Europe and in conjunction with America was truly a delight. I found that while I had read a lot about these two governing bodies, speaking with people who actually work for them provided a level of complexity and nuance to my overall understanding. I particularly enjoyed chatting with the heads of cyber security and planning defense for NATO. I left with my head spinning with knowledge of the present day challenges facing the organization and the alliance. In a political climate such as the one we are facing right now this will help inform me for many years to come when reporting on European or international issues.
The differences and comparisons between ZDF and RTL was another real pleasure for me. As an American public media broadcaster, it was just incredible to see how much funding there is for public media in Germany. Yet despite an 8 billion euro annual budget I was surprised to discover that German public media still suffers from some of the same challenges that it does in the United States. An older, more educated base of declining viewers, and how to modernize digital and social media offerings were some of the similar challenges I saw facing the German and American public media systems. It was also quite fascinating to see how different their studios are and how cutting edge their graphics department is. American television, private or public, is still a long way off from virtual studios in every newsroom! RTL had a familiar feeling in my mind to NBC with their diversity of offerings, multiple news channels, and entertainment programming. I was surprised to hear that RTL believes they have more trust and viewership in Eastern Germany because of the legacy of the state broadcasting. Similarly I was also very surprised to hear that according to RTL’s market research the majority of German news consumers want print news as opposed to video. This is a stark contrast with American news consumers and has presented a huge obstacle for how we adapt in the 21st century. It was also amazing to hear that RTL owns a flat that they operate where editors can talk with viewers, conducting focus groups and learning from one another. This would be an incredible idea to implement in the United States and I am very compelled to bring this information back to my own newsroom.
During my time at radio Cosmo one of the most fascinating things I learned is how much German newsrooms struggle with hiring diverse candidates. While diversity is an issue across newsrooms in America as well, I came away feeling that the American system has adapted to cultivate and recruit diverse journalists a little more thoroughly than the German system has. With the exception of radio Cosmo, who had an extremely international and diverse staff with broadcasts in many languages, the majority of newsrooms we visited were almost all populated by white people with very few women in positions of power. I was struck by how at a time when Germany is really becoming a deeply multicultural society, this is not yet reflected in newsrooms or the faces you see on the news in Germany. Cosmo seemed to have a very clear understanding of this real challenge and that is why their programs attract much younger, urban, multicultural audiences. The ways that Cosmo has stepped up to the plate to tackle issues surrounding diversity not widely discussed in mainstream media was impressive and inspiring. I mean they even have a program just for refugees! This gave me a lot of hope for innovation yet to come in Germany but also ideas to take back to America.
One of the most informative and useful meetings RIAS organized for us was the talk at the Bundespressehaus with Melissa Eddy and Conny Günter. Seeing how an American covers Berlin for the New York Times audience was something I had long wanted to understand. Melissa was so informative with really practical career advice, and information I never knew like that the Economist and the Times will often pay for intensive German language classes for foreign correspondents moving there. I learned about the German press union, which sets standard contracts for freelancers, and helps make sure that there is pay equity across outlets. This I never would have known if I hadn’t asked them about it. It was also incredibly interesting to hear about the challenges between the German and American journalism industries when it comes to “on the record” interviews. Learning about the tiered 1/2/3 on the record system in Germany blew my mind. I had no idea that the German press has to get their quotes from politicians and government agencies approved before publishing, or that German politicians perceive the foreign press as nicer. Hearing Melissa talk about how the Times pushed back on this on the record difference and their ongoing struggle to gain trust of politicians was riveting. I also loved hearing these two accomplished female journalists speak about how there really hasn’t been a #MeToo movement in Germany. It was such a large and engrossing part of the American press this past year, and so to hear that this didn’t come close to cracking into big players in the German press was discouraging. Nevertheless, it was a good realization for me, and helped me see how isolated the American press can sometimes be—fully obsessed with its own inner workings.
Overall these were my most memorable takeaways. I learned that we share many of the same challenges the press is facing globally, from fake news, to declining audiences, to how to make a living as a modern journalist. Both nations have rising populist movements, xenophobia, and large immigration that are central to politics and culture in 2018. Yet almost every day I was impressed by how much more support there was for journalism in Germany, and the existing structures that have been put in place since the end of World War II that seem to have preserved the independence and funding for the press. If the press is the “enemy of the people” in America, it certainly seems to be the “bedrock of democracy” in Germany. I really would love to come back and deepen my ties with German journalists. RIAS helped me see the world and my place within it a little bit more clearly, which is really all we can hope for in these times. I would highly recommend this program to all American journalists!
Bryan Weakland, MSNBC, New York, NY
The RIAS Berlin Kommission fellowship for American journalists was one of the best experiences of my life. Prior to the fellowship, I had never been to Germany despite my German ancestry. The two weeks in Cologne, Mainz and Berlin gave me the opportunity to learn about the country firsthand in a way that only the RIAS Berlin Kommission could provide. And it’s something I will never forget. I now have insight into Germany as a country, its people, its government, its media and its culture.
Germany as a country is an incredible contrast of old and new with tough challenges and immeasurable opportunities. What struck me the most is how the country is trying to deal with the massive number of refugees that have recently entered the country. Angela Merkel opened the door to massive numbers of them a few years ago and the consequences of that decision are playing out in real time.
At the same time, I learned how Germany is dealing with integration problems with the Turkish community. These Turkish workers have been in the country for decades but many still feel they are not a part of Germany. There are positive signs. It appears that Germany is now seriously trying to integrate all of these people by providing German language lessons, for example. But there are still several challenges ahead.
Germans like beer. I had the opportunity to experience some of the beer gardens the country is known for worldwide. The RIAS alumni get-togethers at some of the beer gardens were a real highlight into learning more about the German people. The interaction with German RIAS participants was invaluable. I was able to talk to them about their country and its people. For example, I learned the accent spoken in Munich is different from the accent spoken in Cologne or Berlin. Germans in Berlin can be a bit more brute while Germans in the south go over the top for Oktoberfest. Many Germans still remember life in a divided nation before the Berlin wall came down. These are just a few of the impressions I got from the wonderful conversations I had with several incredible Germans.
The German government is facing challenges and opportunities. Angela Merkel is having a hard time dealing with the fallout of her decision to allow refugees to enter the country a few years ago. After speaking with various Germans in Cologne, Mainz and Berlin, many seem to think her days as chancellor are numbered. She’s also dealing with conflicts within her own party leadership and the rise of the AfD. The far right AfD is growing in power and many are voicing their concern about its racist and bigoted platform.
We did get the opportunity to speak to a member of the AfD. And although I abhor the party’s racist rhetoric, I did find the meeting important. It gave me insight into why some Germans are supporting this party. They feel left behind. They feel immigrants are taking their jobs. They believed things would get better economically for them after the Berlin Wall fell, and it hasn’t. The AfD taps into this distress by placing blame on immigrants and refugees, gaining support primarily from Germans in the East. You can see similarities with the United States with the rise of Donald Trump, playing to Americans struggling economically by blaming immigrants and Muslims.
At the same time, the German government is facing unique opportunities with Brexit. Already Europe’s largest economic power, Germany could potentially rise even more after the United Kingdom departs from the European Union. This is one area I am very interested in watching over the next year that I know will be covered at my station MSNBC in the U.S.
German’s media is very interesting. I learned a lot about the difference between the public and private television networks. The model is so different in the United States where most of the major networks are private. ZDF and DW receive their money from the government, whereas RTL is private and receives its money from advertising (like the network I work for in the United States, MSNBC). One thing I found interesting was that in the German press, suspects of crimes are not named publicly. Their identities are kept under wraps during a trial. That is completely different from the way we report on suspects in the United States where we will release their names as soon as we learn their identities from authorities.
It also struck me that so many government officials will talk to reporters, but then many of their comments cannot be quoted and are off the record unless they consent to it being on the record. It’s a bit different in the United States because when someone talks to the media and grants an interview in front of a camera, that’s pretty much all on the record.
The German culture is fascinating. People at first can be a bit reserved if you don’t know them. But once you’re introduced and start talking, they warm up and are some of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met. That is one key takeaway that will live in my heart.
I also appreciate the Germans’ emphasis on never forgetting its difficult past to make sure its future citizens never repeat the horrors of the past century, namely the focus on the Holocaust, the rise of the Nazis and the Stassi in East Germany. Germany clearly never wants any of this to happen again.
Those points were driven home during the meeting with the managing director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, Deirdre Berger. And the tour of the Hohenschonhausen Memorial with Peter Keup who was imprisoned by the Stassi.
It’s also evident in the museums around the country. I saw many school children at some of these museums, which signaled to me that Germany is educating its children about these horrific events to prevent them from ever happening again.
I don’t have enough words to describe how meaningful this experience was for me. I’d also like to take a moment to thank Erik Kirschbaum for his leadership, guidance and assistance throughout the two weeks in Europe. Erik brings a unique perspective that enhanced my experience tremendously. As an American living in Germany for three decades, he was able to provide us insight from an American perspective about what life is like in modern day Germany. He often filled in the holes and connected the dots during several of our discussions and panels. That really helped me grasp more and learn more from the speakers we heard from. Simply put, Erik is incredible. And I truly believe because of him, I had the most amazing experience possible.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you again for this tremendous opportunity. I will carry what I’ve learned with me into my newsroom at MSNBC. I’ve made lifelong friendships and connections with Germany. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
Kenya Woodard, CTTV, Tampa, FL
RIAS Senior Program
“Refugees, Immigration and Border Security”
Eight American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Munich, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Zagreb
Lee Anderson, KTVZ, Bend, OR
I’m not exactly sure when it happens; learning right from wrong, good from bad. We learn and grow (hopefully) with good guidance from parents, teachers and mentors. Certainly it happens at an early age. As we grow we keep those fundamental values, but something wonderful happens. We begin to Cloud our thoughts of how the world works with a notion “something is different”. The world isn’t exactly how our childhood is laid out. Let me steal a line or two from Dr. Boucsein in Zagreb, “The world isn’t black and white. There are grey areas, and many shades of grey”.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect on our trip to Germany and Croatia regarding immigration and border security. Mainly I wanted to keep my eyes and ears, and mind open, and learn all I could. What happened was beyond any expectation. I came home feeling that I had indeed learned and grown as a journalist and as a person.
As a RIAS member for more than two decades, I’m always surprised at how I see a change in the young reporters I’ve sent on the RIAS trips. As I’ve told Erik Kirschbaum, they’ve all come home changed as journalists and as people, all for the better. Of course I feel like the proud papa, seeing this epiphanous change. They appreciate what they’ve learned, and all have said how it was a life-changing experience. I’ve seen the result. Now, It’s my turn. Maybe it’s a bit selfish getting to have the experience for myself, and getting “that feeling”.
“That feeling” began Sunday night with our dinner at the Syrian restaurant. Hearing from a refugee, seeing refugees work, seeing them dining, noticing their clothing, hearing their conversations. These people weren’t downtrodden, didn’t seem out of place, they seemed like people who were where they wanted to be.
“That feeling” continued throughout our many meetings with high-level experts on immigration. I found the meeting with Beatrix Von Storch particularly eye opening. Agree with her politics or not, she certainly gave points I could see people believing. Truthfully, I went into that meeting with some seriously preconceived notions. After the meeting I got another viewpoint which I could understand. I got the sense that her viewpoints, although not aligned with my own, could have validity with many people, which of course they do. The meeting with the Hungarian Ambassador was a bit more clouded. Although I got the sense he believed his government’s actions were justified, I didn’t understand clearly whether he was skirting the issue, or somehow being defensive with us. Either way, I still had another learning experience.
The trip to Bavaria was outstanding! Learning how the state police are tasked with maintaining order, and dealing with thousands of migrants, was most definitely a highlight for me. Each speaker was able to give insight into the problems associated, but yet no one seemed to take a hard line. Hmmm, could there be more grey area that I had not considered? Dare I say, “humanity”? yes, clearly.
On to Croatia and even more opportunities to expand my knowledge. The border patrol speakers, including the police searching the trucks, were insightful and quite helpful, and did not have any problem answering our questions.
Then came the highlight of the the entire trip… at the Syrian border. I don’t know if the young Iranian man at the fence had any idea how much we appreciated him coming to the fence and speaking. The woman who told us we couldn’t take pictures also added to the moment. I don’t think she realized how we journalists absolutely love that. “Makes for good TV” we say in the Broadcast News industry. Again,another shade of Dr.Boucsein’s grey area.
It was an eye opening experience, and a great week of learning, and expanding my horizons. Now I look just like all the other young journalists who’ve returned from their RIAS trips!
I am eternally grateful for having this opportunity, and I look forward to many more years of association with such a terrific organization.
Robert Bodisch, Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin, TX
John Burnett, NPR, Austin, TX
Tom Hawley, KSNV-TV/Channel-3, Las Vegas, NV
Hugo Perez, NMSU News 22, Noticias 22, Las Cruces, NM
Adam Reiss, NBC News, New York, NY
Yami Virgin, KABB, San Antonio, TX
Sara Wittmeyer, WFIU/WTIU, Bloomington, IN
I’ve been involved in the RIAS program for nearly a decade. My newsroom hosts German journalists every year, but it had been a one-way street. November’s trip to learn about borders and migration was my first visit to Europe. Erik’s reading materials provided good background on what the trip would entail, however the experience was so much more than I could have imagined. Our hosts organized an incredible program; no one could argue that even one minute was wasted! During our one-week trip we visited dignitaries from Germany, Macedonia and Croatia. We got access to important think tanks and people working on the front lines trying to make border policy and enforce it. People were forthcoming during our meetings and I developed a new perspective on migration – it’s not just an issue in the U.S. or in the EU, it is a global issue. I appreciated that we had the opportunity to meet with people from all sides of the issue, ranging from the Soros Foundation to the co-leader of the AfD party.
I can’t think of a better way to describe the trip than life-changing. As a news director I consume a lot of news, but to meet the people who are living it showed me how little I actually understood. The problems facing the EU and the world are complex. I hadn’t really considered this because in the U.S. the conversation seems to be limited to a political debate over whether or not there should be a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
It’s fair to say that at the end of the trip I probably left with more questions than I had at the beginning but I think that speaks to how successful the program was. During the midterm election season, Hoosiers we spoke to identified immigration as the number one issue that was driving them to the polls. This RIAS trip was the primer I needed to understand how big the border issue is and why people in Indiana should care. Our news team will be doing much more reporting on immigration in the New Year and my experience with RIAS will help inform our coverage.