TWO-WEEK GERMANY PROGRAMS 2019
Summer and Fall
RIAS Exchange Program – Summer ▼
June 2–15, 2019
RIAS Exchange Program – Fall ▼
September 15–28, 2019
RIAS Exchange Program – Summer
Susana Castillo, KTSM, El Paso, TX
The RIAS Fellowship is a life changing program that inspires me to be a better journalist and all around person. Speaking with politicians, journalists, and people with one of kind experiences has helped me view the world a little bit different. While it was my first trip overseas, it was a very busy schedule that seems like a lengthy course on American-German relationships condensed into just two weeks. Using public transportation was a great way to help me become familiar with the city of Berlin. Getting lost a few times was a challenge I’m glad I overcame because it made me a more confident traveler.
Monday, we visited the RIAS building. I was fascinated to see how one of the rooms is still in its original state. Many people from both West and East Germany got their news from RIAS (Radio in American Sector). It was also a station played rock music. We spoke with a German journalist with a migrant background Jaafar Abdul-Karim. He talked about how he covers immigration topics while being objective. A topic I was very interested in since I live in a border city and cover immigration too. Another impactful visit was with German journalists at the ARD. They spoke about German and American politics and how they cover those stories including being able to tell a political story with all six parties in parliament commenting.
Tuesday, our group of 13 American journalists visited a Deputy Spokesperson of the Federal Government. She speaks with Chancellor Angela Merkel regularly and speaks for her at press conferences. It was interesting to learn that they have a press conference three times a week. A walk around Kreuzberg with a Berlin politician showed us what minorities deal with in Germany. He talked about gentrification and shared his political views. We spoke with a RIAS commission member and Berlin journalists who are RIAS alum. We learned about media and the politics in Germany. I made contacts that I can later use when reporting in my hometown and Berlin journalists asked for help on stories they are working on in my area.
Thursday in Berlin, a meeting with the Economist’s Berlin bureau chief led to talks about his experience as an international correspondent and the relationships between politicians and media. A trip to the Allied Museum allowed us American journalists to see how American military lived within Germany and how pilots would drop coal, food, and even candy to the people and children of Berlin. We saw how a tunnel that was built under the Berlin Wall and the section of the museum dedicated to RIAS or Radio in the American Sector. Then we got a tour of Inforadio, like most media in Germany, it is publicly funded media. In Germany, every household pays almost 18 euros in monthly fees for media culture.
Friday, started off the day by visiting the headquarters of Clean Energy Wire, a company that provides news and data on renewable energy in Germany. I company I had no idea existed. They are former journalists helping journalists finding sources. Then we met with a German campaign consultant who spent time in the US working on campaigns. At that same meeting we spoke with an anchor for ARD’s evening newscasts. They both shared their perspective on German and American politics and how media contributes to elections.
We had a unique tour of the Hohenschonhausen Memorial. It’s one of the former Stasi prisons. Our tour guide was arrested and imprisoned for attempting to escape East Berlin. He talked about the psychological intimidation techniques used on prisoners including himself. He then guided us on a tour of the Berlin Wall Memorial. It’s a place where people who lived in nearby apartments would jump out of windows to get to West Berlin and people would attempt to cross the barrier despite life-threatening obstacles. Many were shot and killed trying to get across the wall.
Saturday, a Syrian refugee gave us a tour of his neighborhood while explaining how he traveled to Berlin. He traveled by land, air, and sea. He says during one of his boat rides, two people who were fleeing Syria drowned in front of his eyes because the boat sank. He says it was a dangerous trip he had no choice but to make. The moment he decided to leave Syria was the moment that a bomb killed people in a car just seconds after he drove off from the exact same spot. So we could feel what it was like being in a different country with completely different language, during the tour he gave us each a word/ phrase to look for in a one block area. The word in a language none of us knew. I didn’t find the word but it ended up being everywhere around me.
The second week it was a trip to Dresden where we had a tour of the church Frauenkirche Dresden. We also got a tour of the city itself and learned about the history behind the buildings. So many are very old with a Baroque style but so many are new buildings. The tour guide tells us about 80% of the buildings were destroyed in World War II and they decided to try to rebuild most of the buildings with some of the ruins. Frauenkirche was one of the buildings which was rebuilt. About 45% of the original bricks were used in the reconstruction.
As soon as arriving in Prague, we visited the German Embassy, the place where thousands of East German went to escape from the East and move to West Germany. Their request was eventually granted. It was incredible to be in the same area where the historical moments took place. This was one of my favorite spots.
After taking a walk across the famous Charles Bridge we talked to a Czech Republic correspondent about his challenges when covering stories in the area. We also visited Radio Free Europe. The building is so secure with lots of security measures because of threats that journalists have received and deaths of others who’ve been on assignment. There we spoke with journalists who bring news and entertainment to regions that don’t have access to objective reporting. They help locals have accurate information about their region and world issues. Very inspiring. Reminds me why I’m a journalist.
In the European Union building at Brussels we had the opportunity to speak with European Commission officials about how their legislation process works. There are so many steps and so many people working together to make it happen. A dinner with fellow RIAS participants who are based in Belgium helped us learn about their experiences of being foreign correspondents and what they learned when visiting the U.S.
The final meeting of the trip was at NATO headquarters in Brussels. It was another incredible experience being able to talk with officials there about their interactions with multiple countries and maintaining relationships. One of the big topics was the US/Russia relationship.
As much as we are different, we are also the same when it comes to politics, media, and life. I am grateful to have also been able to ask questions on camera of how people from the other side of the world view issues in my hometown which is allowing me to bring those stories to my community. Thank you RIAS. Even though RIAS is no longer on air, it’s still changing people’s views and lives in a positive way.
Jeremy Chen, KESQ-TV, Thousand Palms, CA
The changing tides in Germany and Europe: A Reflection
Politics is complicated, to say the least in a nutshell, but even more so in the complex landscape that is German and EU politics. With the rise of the populist far-right along with the youth-driven progressive left, there are shades of political division that’s evident in America.
Getting the opportunity to pick the brains of two politicians at completely opposite ends of the political spectrum provided a lens at possibly the future of European politics. The traditional center left and right in Germany are faltering with the rise of both the AFD and the Green Party filling a void, particularly after the SPD leader resigned, on the first day our RIAS group arrived.
Former Bundestag member and Green party member, Özcan Mutlu presented a vision of a Germany that fights gentrification, welcomes new immigrants and refugees with open arms to contributing to its diverse society, and addressing climate change. A shock poll came out actually showing the Greens as having the strongest support. Current Bundestag member and AFD co-leader Beatrix von Storch however, stood in contrast, as unabashedly pro-Israel, creating a hard-line on immigration, and wanting to put Germany first while deflecting criticism by some that it exudes rhetoric used by the Nazis. Frau von Storch did not hold back answering pressing questions from us and seemed to enjoy the back and forth that was established. She represents the anxieties felt by some in a changing Germany, especially in East Germany where the party is topping the polls in the local elections. This landscape brings questions to the now-unstable coalition built by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a long-time symbol of national stability, and whether her vision of a pragmatic Germany continues to exist.
After speaking with German journalists, it gave me the impression the average citizen in the country is quite well-informed and does an excellent job relaying information to viewers and readers. When it comes to TV journalism, the focus of my personal interest, it seems public broadcasting remains strong with billions of Euros coming in the form of government funding, so money does not necessarily seem to be an issue as it is in America. In fact, the main news program, Tagesschau, remains a staple of German society, with 10 million nightly viewers.
However, they do acknowledge, much can be improved with the advent of social media, in reaching out to younger audiences, with it now in full force in Germany. It seems America has already come ahead in terms of its outreach. The coverage of the populist far-right remains a topic of debate among German broadcast journalists, not willing to give a platform to entities like the AFD, not wanting to tread anywhere close to the rhetoric of the country’s Nazi past. It does seem however, news managers are now more open in covering them giving them a platform to have their voices heard but under the same scrutiny given to all others parties to ensure fairness and accuracy.
The trip to Radio Free Europe in Prague also showed the valuable role unbiased and informational journalism is in areas where traditional media is under attack through suppression or intimidation. Scores of foreign journalists in countries like Russia and the Middle East, continue to report on what’s going happening on the ground without the government spin, without fears of likely reprisals.
Finally, visiting the European Commission and NATO in Brussels gave us a picture into institutions that ensure a peaceful and prosperous Europe that has been the vision of the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II, giving stability to a continent wracked by constant warfare and conflict over hundreds of years. There are signs of discontent, however with the looming Brexit, and the polarization of European politics with the pro-European Greens and Eurosceptic right gaining more power. It remains to be seen whether the political center can respond to populist upheavals from both sides of the spectrum.
This trip would not have been possible without getting the privilege to be a part of the RIAS Berlin Kommission, where engaging talks and exchanges whee done with both German and European-based journalists. All of them are talented in their own ways and all of them versed in one thing Americans need to make up ground on, being multi-lingual. While I and other Americans are blessed to have native fluency in the sometimes unwieldy rules of English, speaking at least one other language fluently opens so many doors in an increasingly connected and diverse world, especially in Europe. It has motivated me to improve my fluency in Mandarin Chinese, and perhaps re-think the future of my career, where reporting abroad could be in the picture, perhaps for a strong German media outlet like Deutsche Welle. It’s an inspirational experience all journalists should have the chance to explore.
Leah Donnella, NPR, Washington, DC
Heather Dorf-Dolce, Freelancer, ARD German TV, Washington, DC
I am not sure where to begin, there is so much to be thankful for. I am truly grateful for the RIAS program. I had the unique experience in our group of being a US journalist who works with German journalists covering the United States. The majority of my work is with the extraordinary professionals at ARD German TV. I have seen them learn about the United States from our travels and I was so honored to have a glimpse of Germany through this program.
Although, I was only able to be on one part of the program, it will have a lasting impact on my work as a journalist and my sense of self. Berlin is a complex city, with a very dark history but also a light that cannot be extinguished. You feel this light in the people, the history, the politics and the culture. The most rewarding part of this program for me was the combination of the politics, the journalism, the history, the positive culture, with the harsh reality for some of a world that is complicated, dangerous, and sometimes just evil.
Meeting our fellow journalists, was a fantastic way to learn about Germany.Everyone was extremely welcoming and open. The first meeting with Jafaar Abdul-Karim; inspiring. The meeting introduced us to a part of German life that you don’t immediately think of as Americans. We often discuss the troubles in our own society and what we can do about them, to hear what Jafaar is aiming to do with his program and the obstacles he had to overcome to make this happen was fascinating. Of course, for me being at the ARD Capitol studio, had a special meaning, as I was able to see where my colleagues in Berlin work and hear what it is like to cover national politics in Berlin. Being able to talk and tour with the journalists at DW, Inforadio, and The Economist, created a wonderful picture of what it is like is to be a German journalist, the challenges and the rewards.
The political access to Ulrike Demmer, Beatrix von Storch, Ozcan Mutlu, and Julius van de Laar, was spectacular. It allowed us as American journalists an inside look at the political spectrum, unlike any access I have ever had in the US. The meetings were insightful and informative. The relationship of the media to the Government is much different than in the United States. The invitation of the press to the Government, the moderator who handles questions, to the level of confidentiality system, was very helpful to see as it is always important to know there are other ways to do things. That is how you grow and learn, even when you don’t always agree with the system or the information the politicians are giving you. There were many differences but also some similarities with division of thought and social consciousness.
I was enamored by the social and historical part of this tour. Even without wanting to speak much English, Kani Alavi East Side Gallery, opened his love of art and Germany up to us and his personally Gallery. I was inspired by his dedication and vision. To contrast the beauty and sadness of the art was the reality of the life Peter Keu, eye witness GDR Stasi victim. Sharing his experience with us was like watching history in the present. It was horrible and wonderful all at once. The same was with our tour of Neukölln with Syrian refuge. His life was full of hardships I could not imagine but to share his journey with us will not only make me a better journalist but a better person.
I am forever changed by this program. I will continue to fight in my work to bring light to the darkness and create knowledge for change. I encourage all to continue this exchange of work and ideas. Last but certainly not least through this program, I have a new network of American journalists to continue on this mission with, thank you RIAS.
Roseanne Gerin, Radio Free Asia, Washington, DC
At 8 p.m. each evening, a chime signals the start of “Tagesschau,” the most widely watched television news program in Germany. Many TV viewers consider the 15-minute roundup of the biggest national and global news stories of the day to be their most important source of information. One evening in early June, I tuned in to the program along with the nearly 10 million Germans who regularly watch the news bulletin produced by ARD, the country’s largest public service broadcast network.
ARD and other public TV and radio broadcasters have helped make Germany one of Europe’s most vibrant media markets, and Germans one of the most informed peoples of the world, as we learned from visits to news outlets and discussions with media movers and shakers during the spring 2019 RIAS Berlin Commission Journalist Exchange Program.
Like their American counterparts, Germany’s public broadcasters are well-regarded and play a huge role in informing, educating, and entertaining audiences. But unlike many U.S. public broadcasters, they have few financial worries, thanks to compulsory, but highly controversial, fees paid by the German public.
Germany’s 16 Länder (federal states) have the power to enact broadcasting laws in their regions, but they cannot use broadcasting fees to influence program content or to engage in media policy. Public media companies are supervised by broadcasting councils (Rundfunkräte), whose members set guidelines for TV and radio stations and select their directors.
As RIAS commission member and former journalist Richard Meng explained, these independent broadcasting councils have regulations that vary from state to state. Their representatives include socially relevant groups, such as trade unions, churches, political parties, and educational institutions to ensure a democratic plurality of voices that represent the general population.
During a visit to ARD’s offices in Berlin, former RIAS fellows Michael Stempfle, Dagmar Pepping, and Daniel Pokraka discussed how their organization and other public service broadcasters rely on funding from the €17.50 monthly fees (Rundfunkbeitrag) paid by German households to finance their operations.
The Rundfunkbeitrag covers the costs of producing radio and TV programs and related services at ARD, public TV broadcaster ZDF, public radio broadcaster Deutschlandradio, and regional public TV and radio broadcasters. The fees are the most important source of revenue for these media outlets, providing a total of €8 billion annually, though they are widely unpopular among citizens, commercial broadcasters, and the country’s far-right political party Alternative für Deutschland, an ARD critic that wants to abolish them.
U.S. public broadcasters, by contrast, often struggle for funding because they are dependent on dues from member stations, money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, contributions from companies, foundations, and individuals, and funds raised from pledge drives.
Journalists and editors at RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg), which operates three radio stations in the German capital and three in nearby Potsdam, emphasized that despite receiving the “broadcast contribution” fees via the government, public broadcasters are not state-controlled.
Though privately owned commercial broadcasters and newspapers complain that the compulsory fees give public broadcasters an unfair financial advantage, the funds always ensure that RBB has a steady stream of income to pay its staff and finance its programming.
RBB editors also discussed public broadcasters’ Bildungsauftrag, a duty to inform and educate the public with a heavy dose of politics. Under its contract with the Berlin and Brandenburg Bundesländer, RBB must inform listeners about what is happening in their democracy and be “very correct” in the way material is presented by including a range of opinions while maintaining a neutral tone free of political bias.
Though funding isn’t an issue for Germany’s public TV and radio broadcasters, most of which have ample staff and office space along with the latest studio technology, they struggle with some of the same issues, such as employee diversity, as do newsrooms in the U.S.
Jaafar Abdul-Karim, a Lebanese journalist who hosts the Arabic-language show “Shababtalk” on Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, noted a lack of diversity among journalists from migrant backgrounds. Though Germany accepted Turkish guestworkers in the 1960s and 1970s, Lebanese migrants fleeing war in the 1980s and early 1990s, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015, immigrants in the country are barely visible on screen. Drawing on his experience as a journalist, Abdul-Karim said migrants hired by news organizations are usually pigeonholed into covering immigration and refugee topics, rather than assigned to meatier beats such as the economy.
A notable positive feature of Germany’s media landscape, however, is the non-antagonistic interaction between federal government officials and journalists. Unlike in the U.S. where the current administration largely views the media as hostile adversaries and dismisses critical reports as fake news, Germany’s government spokespersons attend regularly scheduled conferences at the invitation of the press.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s press officers attend three orderly briefings a week where they field questions on a range of domestic and international topics. A journalist moderator selects reporters from both commercial and public media outlets to ask questions to ensure that the government representatives do not get to decide whom to call on or which topics to discuss.
Dean Kurth, Fox News, New York, NY
“You will learn a lot about America in Germany.” These words spoken by RIAS Commission member Dr. Richard Meng early into the Spring 2019 RIAS made their way into my journal as something to keep in mind as already a whirlwind of meetings had begun to help our group of American journalists more fully connect Berlin’s past and present. Meng also spoke of Berlin not being a typical German city. How it was a city in debt, yet it is still growing. How Berlin was “a city in the center of Europe” — a place for young people, even though rents are on the rise. And when it came to journalism, despite a $17 annual media fee paid by all German citizens, the question of whether to have dinner first or watch one of the evening news programs is rarely considered in German homes anymore. Meng told us young people aren’t watching traditional TV and instead turning to their computers and smartphones for news and information, just like in America.
Another layer of similarities between Germany and the U.S. bubbled up in many discussions about immigration. Indeed, the topic would come up several times over the next few weeks as we learned firsthand from journalists, political figures and a refugee what the city means and meant to so many people. During a memorable and enlightening tour of Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood by former Green Party politician Özcan Mutlu we saw up close how the area became the home for a large percentage of immigrants from Turkey. Over lunch at an authentic Turkish restaurant, Mutlu explained that while Kreuzberg attracts a young, diverse population, the district also has high levels of unemployment and some of Berlin’s lowest incomes. And yet the rents in the neighborhood are on the rise as the growing population puts pressure on the rental market, not unlike the housing situation in many U.S. cities.
Of all of our meetings during our program, one received the biggest reaction from anyone we mentioned it to, and that was our time with Beatrix von Storch, the Deputy leader of Germany’s far-right political party and the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler’s finance minister. Von Storch gave us a generous amount of her time and quickly began highlighting some of her party’s agenda by first stating that the number one current issue is migration and the Islamization of Germany. Von Storch talked about how Germany needs highly-skilled people who speak German, and yet she said the country should not spend resources to educate thousands of migrants who are not yet skilled in their own countries. At one point von Storch said Germany needs more immigrants of Asian descent to help the country compete on a technological level. Some of her comments were somewhat jarring to hear in person, as most of us in the room might have been more used to reading similar statements regarding immigration in the U.S. being bandied about by politicians on social media, most notably by our president.
As we are already full speed ahead into another presidential election cycle in the U.S., it was fascinating to hear from someone during out RIAS program with ties to the former administration. Political strategist and communications expert Julius van de Laar worked for both of Barack Obama’s campaigns and has worked for several political parties in Germany. “It’s the most exciting time in German politics in fifteen years”, van de Laar told us, referring to the changing political landscape in Germany with the eco-friendly Greens party winning 20 percent of the vote in the recent European parliament elections, its best result in history, and as Chancellor Angela Merkel nears the end of her long term in office. He also explained that unlike in America where political campaigns can go on for what seems like an eternity, campaigns in Germany last just two months, with the tone being mostly positive. In fact, there are no attack ads as part of campaign strategies. And, political ads are free for candidates. That’s quite the contrast to the political mud-slinging that now seems commonplace in U.S. elections.
On the media side, a message from Deutsche Welle editor-in-chief Ines Pohl resonated with me: “Listen. You can learn so much.” During our visit to the global English-language news channel, Pohl also shared how, the way she sees it, the American media is very biased in its political coverage. In contrast, she said Deutsche Welle, a network launched using the RIAS broadcast facilities, was “one of the most important pure new sources.” And the brand clearly has its fans and followers. Pohl pointed out that for 11 trainee positions at Deutsche Welle each year there are at least 2,000 applicants.
Many have questioned why the meeting with Beatrix von Storch was included on our RIAS agenda as she is clearly a radical political figure in Germany based on the extreme responses just the mention of her name received. But her inclusion in our program spoke to the strength of the RIAS fellowship program to give fellows a varied and well-rounded look into German politics and media with incredible access to a wide-ranging group of experts and experiences. There were so many more inspiring speakers and moments during the extensive RIAS Spring 2019, and they all continue to come to mind as media and politics are now being viewed through a new and more informed journalistic lens.
Larry Miller, WUSA 9, Washington, DC
LaCrai Mitchell, CBS News, New York, NY
When I first arrived in Berlin for the RIAS Exchange, I wasn’t nervous like I initially thought I might be. Maybe it’s because I’ve been living in New York City for the past 3.5 years and some say if you can survive in the city, you can make it anywhere. Or maybe it was a God-given sense of peace that everything would work out for my good. Whatever it was, from the moment I stepped off the plane onto a shuttle that taxied me to the airport up until the minute I realized I missed my first bus stop at U Ernst-Reuter-Platz, everything felt smoothly orchestrated. At the airport, I figured out that the really long “Alle Passe” line was the line that I should be waiting in and unlike in U.S. airports, the baggage claim area was directly behind the passport checkpoint. After using the ATM, finding the X9 bus, and purchasing a bus ticket, I headed to the hotel. As we pulled up on the U Ernst stop, I stood up and realized that a few Euros had fallen out of my pocket and while gathering the coins in a hurry, the bus doors closed. I missed the stop. After unsuccessfully asking the bus driver if he could let me out at a red light, I waited and exited at the next stop, which was only…seven minutes away from the hotel. When I finally made it to the hotel on public transportation, I felt like I’d accomplished my first real feat in Berlin and with a spirit of anticipation, I knew it was only the beginning of what would certainly be the experience of a lifetime.
I learned so much from the historical and cultural experiences that we undertook over the next two weeks. One of the historical highlights for me included meeting Kani Alavi. In the spring of 1990, months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, parts of the structure were still intact. Many saw the remnants of the wall as a painful reminder but German-Iranian painter Kani Alavi saw a blank canvass. Alavi initiated the “East Side Gallery,” a project where 118 artists from around the world gathered to paint the remains—preserving it so that no one would ever forget its place in Berlin’s history. Decades after completing the project, Alavi continues to fight for its preservation and has raised millions of Euros throughout the years to refurbish parts of the wall. We got a chance to discover Alavi’s art and re-live part of his story through his words and vivid visualizations. Another archival moment etched in my memory came during our visit to Prague. In late August 1989, hundreds of refugees attempting to escape the German Democratic Republic climbed and threw their children over the fence surrounding Germany’s Embassy in Prague. They set up tents, lived in the embassy’s garden for weeks, and by the end of September, the number of refugees had grown to thousands. On the night of September 30, 1989, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher made history when he addressed the refugees from a balcony and announced that they could emigrate to West Germany. We received the amazing opportunity to visit the embassy where history was made.
One of the cultural excursions that we took started with meeting Firas Zakri. Zakri is from Aleppo and in 2015, before Germany opened its borders to refugees, he came to Berlin to escape what his family described as “a land of mafias [that] control every aspect of your life.” Zakri shared stories from his journey with us—the bomb that almost took his family’s life, being separated from his wife and son, having to sell everything he owned, fearing that he’d be caught with fake passports. He used what he calls his “dark sense of humor” to give us a peek into his life. Zakri was an English teacher when he lived in Aleppo and in true educator-fashion, he made the group’s tour through the Neukölln district a learning experience. When Zakri arrived in Berlin in June 2015, he didn’t speak German. To show us how difficult it can be to navigate in a place where you don’t speak the language, he sent us on a scavenger hunt to find the stores and restaurants that matched the Arabic phrases he’d given to us on small pieces of paper.
In addition to the historical and cultural benefits that came from the Rias exchange, our interactions with journalists and media agencies were fruitful too. I remember feeling like our conversation with Jafaar Abdul-Karim of Deutsche Welle, gave me such a personal insight into how news is covered in Berlin from the perspective of a Lebanese journalist. Touring Info radio—and taking cool elevator rides—with Rias fellow Benjamin Eyssel was pretty cool too. Julius van de Laar gave us a crash course in how politics and lobbying works in Berlin, reminding us that there’s huge opposition to the census that dates back to Stasi times and that there’s no gerrymandering in Germany. Who knew? As someone who covers politics now, I can really appreciate learning about the differences in European media as it helps me to keep an open mind when covering American politics.
On our last full day of the program when attempting to travel to Bruges we ended up in a town called Ghent. It was a comfortably hot day and much like my first day in Berlin, everything felt smoothly orchestrated. The group decided to take a boat ride. As I sat on the tiny vessel, traveling down a quaint canal, the sound of the tour guide’s voice became a quiet murmur. I looked around me and tried my best to soak in this moment—the smiles of my newfound friends that I’d become really close with over the past two weeks, paired with memories swirling around in my head. Memories of visiting the European Commission and sitting in the same seats that commissioners sit in, having lunch at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, visiting POLITICO in Brussels, climbing to the top of the Frauenkirche Dresden, walking through the hollow halls of a Stasi prison, reading harrowing stories of escape at Checkpoint Charlie museum, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate. It felt like a real full-circle moment. I’m certain that there will be few experiences in my life as unique as the RIAS Exchange and I hope that RIAS continues to change lives by opening the eyes of and altering world perspectives of journalists like me.
Michelle Morgante, Freelance Producer and Writer, Los Angeles, CA
Gina Presson, WEDU-TV, Tampa, FL
Ryan Prior, CNN, Atlanta, GA
While in Germany with the RIAS Fellowship, I found several foreign stories that I could bring back to home in my work as a writer for CNN in the US. When I got home from the Europe, I pitched these stories. My CNN job was already busy before I left for RIAS, and it got even crazier on my return, but my plan will be to work on these RIAS-inspired stories during my rare moments of down time. These moments in Europe were rare, life-changing events that deepened my understanding of how political issues around the world are inextricably linked. In Germany, we observed many of the same underlying political facts manifesting in ways both vastly different and remarkably similarly to the issues that occupy the national conversation in America.
First, I’m working on a story based on our visit to the Eastside Gallery. I told my my editor how when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Iranian artist Kani Alavi rallied artists to transform the symbol of oppression into the world’s longest art gallery, and Berlin’s most visited attraction. The beautiful murals along that section of wall have become iconic calls for world peace. Thirty years later, policymakers from Latin America to South Korea grappling with their own borders seek out his thoughts. As the US debates a southern border wall, he tells CNN that he hopes Trump will visit what’s left of the Berlin Wall to see how tearing down barriers led to peace. I’m working on finishing my profile on Alavi, the gallery, and the international meaning of walls, which will publish with CNN’s Travel section.
Second, I’d like to report a story about what US can learn from Germany’s policies on renewable energy and climate change. During our session at Clean Energy Wire in Berlin, I asked our speaker what researchers at the outlet thought about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal, which had been causing significant debate in the US with regard to our clean energy future. Erik had a quick quip that “Germany has been living the Green New Deal for the past 30 years without controversy.” That comment could function like a headline for a CNN story. As we move further along into the presidential election as well as Trump’s ongoing feud with AOC and her Congressional allies, this could be a vital piece of reporting to give American audiences important context into where we sit in global energy politics.
And thirdly, because I’m often covering the ongoing American debate about our country’s legacy of slavery and race relations, along with the discussion on whether to remove Confederate statues and memorials, I’d like to publish an essay related to that for the CNN Opinion page. The Holocaust memorial in the heart of Berlin inspired the newly opened lynchings memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. And as the US still struggles to reckon with legacy on slavery and race, I would argue that we can look to Germany’s proactive example of atoning for Nazis and the Holocaust, and saying “never again.” After visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I’ll next drive to Birmingham to see the lynchings memorial and look to explore how we’re processing historical trauma on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lastly, there’s an inescapable connection between the rural whites I grew up with in the American South, working-class East Germans, and the Scottish Highlanders I encountered traveling in the UK after RIAS. Whether they voted for Trump, AfD, or Brexit, an only slightly different character type manifests in each country: it’s someone working in an industry that’s being automated or outsourced, and who’s fearful of migration, clinging to traditional values, and yearning for an authority that can preserve their way of life. Having more intimately looked these issues in the face, and imbibed these cross-border connections, I’m better poised than ever to report accurately on the dynamic combination of economic transformation and value conservation that will shape the entirety of the 21st century human experience.
These projects may take a couple months as I fit them into increasingly fleeting amounts of free time amid our ferocious news cycle. But I hope the story ideas contribute to showing the immediate effects RIAS can have on its participants and on international discussion of trans-Atlantic issues. There’s a direct effect between the RIAS Fellowship meetings and CNN’s coverage that can reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. And that vital fact remains integral to showcasing the enduring power and importance of this international exchange program.
Roxanne Scott, WABE, Atlanta, GA
I was attracted to the RIAS Berlin program because I wanted to learn about a part of the world that I’m less familiar with. Prior to my trip, my brief encounters with Europe consisted of history books in school highlighting events such as World War II. They also included current news about Europe, much of it about Brexit.
RIAS Berlin was a crash course in German politics, media, history and culture. It provided in-person context and conversations to information found in headline news. In two weeks, I was able to learn more about Germany from various people, including journalists, politicians, artists and teachers.
Here are some takeaways from the 2019 RIAS Berlin program:
What I Liked:
The Kreuzberg and Neukölln Walking Tours – Both of these tours gave me a glimpse into local issues such as displacement and immigration. Green party member Özcan Mutlu discussed Kreuzberg’s battle to fight gentrification. Our weekend tour of Neukölln with teacher and Syrian immigrant, Firas Zakri, gave me a peek into an immigrant neighborhood in Berlin.
Homemade Dinner with a German Journalist – Each of the American fellows were paired up to have dinner with a German journalist. I and another 2019 fellow was paired with Martina Gross. Martina brought along a friend, who was an author. That night all four of us talked about everything from race and class in the American South, to our likes (and dislikes) of American podcasts to HARIBO gummies.
Pretty Much Everything About Brussels – I didn’t know what to expect in Brussels (besides what was in our itinerary). I was ecstatic to arrive in Belgium on a rainy day to see people walking in-and-out of cafes and ice cream shops. And I was mesmerized by the palatial square, the Grand Place. I also enjoyed learning about how news outlet POLITICO engages an audience in Europe and the visit to NATO headquarters and the European Commission.
What I learned:
Meeting Fellow Reporters Working In Europe – From our chat with Deutsche Welle journalist, Jaafar Abdul Karim, and his take on (the lack of) diversity in German media, to talking with Tom Nuttall of the Economist about the difference in how elections are covered in Germany and the United States, to informal dinners with German RIAS alum, it was great to learn from the vast network of the RIAS program.
East Side Gallery – I learned so much about the Berlin Wall through Iranian artist Kani Alavi. I loved the story of his memorable work, It Happened In November. The image, painted on a section of the Berlin Wall, depicts faces of East Berliners. Those faces represent people rushing to the West when the wall came down. I also enjoyed learning about the other 100-plus paintings that cover this part of the Berlin Wall, known as the open-air East Side Gallery. The gallery was created by Alavi and fellow artists. It was especially meaningful learning about this gallery this year; the 30th anniversary of the wall falling is in November.
American Life In Germany During The Cold War – I was intrigued by the Little America exhibit at the Allied Museum. The exhibit displays photos of American service members and their families during that time, such as teenage girls cheerleading, servicemen drinking Coca Cola, and an African American technician examining an aircraft. This exhibit got me curious about how Americans made a home in Germany during the Cold War. It also got me to wonder what it might have been like for Black Americans to live in Germany during this time as the Civil Rights Movement was happening in the United States.
A Tidbit That Surprised Me:
Germans And (Federal) Press Conferences – I learned from Ulrike Demmer, spokesperson for the Federal Press Office, that there are three press conferences per week.
There are just a few of the highlights of the trip. It’s unbelievable that we fit all of the above in two weeks … that includes trips to Dresden and Prague. The RIAS Berlin program has given me a framework to better understand European history and politics. It’s also given me a spark to look for opportunities to report abroad. I thank the RIAS Berlin program for reigniting how I see the world.
Kathleen Walker, KOA Denver, Denver, CO
Enriched. When I reflect on the amazing two weeks spent during my RIAS exchange, I will forever feel enriched by the experience.
The people of Germany were very open and frank in discussing their views on politics, refugees, the United States and our President and of the challenges being faced by a powerful country that’s shouldering the brunt of a changing European landscape. It was refreshing to hear many of the same challenges we face in American media to accurately cover the powerful and the powerless during times of transition.
It was amazing to meet so many European Journalists. Among the standouts: Politico’s David Herszenhorn. His approach to covering journalism in the world of NATO and the EU and impressing an American-style of political journalism on these world institutions was fascinating. The frank discussion we shared with Jafaar Abdul-Karim about being a minority journalist in Germany and meeting the head of DW Ines Pohl also left us with a great understanding of how Germany approaches most stories with depth and a completeness not often found in American journalism.
The political fabric of Germany today is best exemplified by the diverse views we heard between meeting Beatrix von Storch, Ulrike Demmer and Ozcan Mutlu. I would say that all of our fellows enjoyed the journalistic jousting we shared with Ms. von Storch, mostly because of the way in which she held her ground on her positions and offered her steadfast responses to views on everything from immigration to marriage and families. Our personal opinions aside, it was the manner in which she shared her view and was so open with us that we truly enjoyed. I found her engaging and so much like the maverick that is US President Trump. I believe our discussion with her was the highlight of my trip.
To give us perspective on the diversity of German politics, I believe our open conversation with Ulrike Demmer was enlightening. Her admiration of Chancellor Merkel, along with information she shared on the transformation from journalist to government spokesperson and the day-in-day-out consumption of news in Germany was quite interesting. I don’t believe a spokesperson for the US President would be so open with journalists. Best of all, the blunt no-holding-back style of Ozcan Mutlu was refreshing. His time with us in Kreuzberg was important in that it showed all of us the tolerance for liberal and diverse thought in Germany. As a bonus, he’s a character who knows good food.
I’m so glad I took the time to read STASILAND prior to my trip. The color of the book and great tour of the Stasi Prison with Peter Keup did so much to help me understand the challenges of daily life in Berlin during the cold war and the difficulties of living in East Berlin during that time. The STASI were your neighbors, the enforcers and the spies. I can’t imagine living with that amount of mis-trust and dis-trust in your life. Worst of all, Peter’s recollections of the cruelty of being held in a Stasi prison. He’s really an amazing piece of German history, all by himself. I’m so glad to have spent time with him. He’s truly a gentle person.
Germany’s power and impact on all of Europe was exemplified by our visit to Prague. Learning more of the stories of the German Embassy in Prague and its importance in the end of the cold war and the persecution of East Germans was a very stop on our tour.
There’s no way our trip to Brussels will ever be forgotten. Visiting NATO and the EU was amazing. So much of our journalistic lives, we hear about the workings of both institutions. To see it in person and be treated with such care and respect was downright amazing. Discussing everything from President Trump to the diplomatic prowess needed when it comes to Russia and China, it was a heady experience in both places. I’ll always treasure our briefings at NATO. I wish I could be part of the press corps covering that group daily!
In general, I was so impressed with the diverse people who spent time with the RIAS fellows. The openness of both opinion and thought leaders and journalists and media executives was eye-opening. I don’t think American politicians or media companies would have been so revealing. I think it shows the maturity of Germans and Europeans being well-schooled in their histories and global understanding. Americans don’t seem to have that comprehension of the lessons of the past. In some ways, I believe my trip highlighted the innovation that American media is capable of embracing. It also exposed the great depth of reporting and concern for media and journalism in Europe, especially in Germany.
The foresight offered by those who established the RIAS Commission is insightful. I’m especially grateful, given my German ancestry, to have been exposed to the experience that two weeks among professionals in Germany has added to my life and to my career. I have new connections and best of all, new knowledge with which to lead my newsroom.
I will be eternally grateful for the connections we made with German journalists and our fellow RIAS travelers. They will all become life-long friends. I’m so proud and honored to be part of the RIAS club.
RIAS Exchange Program – Fall
Ryan Delaney, St. Louis Public Radio, St. Louis, MO
A well-worn former foreign correspondent who had come to speak to my journalism program in college told me — when I asked for advice as most budding journalists do when they meet real-life members of their field — that I should think globally even if I am reporting locally. In other words, it’s always possible to put an international spin on your journalism, even if you work for a local media outlet.
While I tried to apply that to a series I once did on the economic impact of a growing refugee population in my community, it’s not always possible as a regional education reporter as I am now. I find myself hunkered down in the lives of students at a school that may serve people from just a mile radius.
So the opportunity to spread that radius to 5,000 miles and travel around Belgium and Germany through the RIAS program was an amazing opportunity. I got to dive into my international relations studies of the past and think about global relations.
The first two days of the program, visiting the European Union and NATO in Brussels were just the beginning of what I consider an incredibly nerdy vacation, even if it was ostensibly for work. As the trip went on and we visited with German bureaucrats and politicians, I found myself still able to use my knowledge of Europe’s impact on Africa as well as its current relationships with America as I framed questions.
Being able to chat with German journalists either around a boardroom table, or over beers and dinner was incredible. I’ve made an entire spreadsheet of the contacts of the journalists I met and I hope the exchange of ideas, insights and camaraderie was mutual.
Since returning to St. Louis, I have enrolled in a German history course and an introductory German language course through my university employer. While I may have gleaned how to say “stand clear of the closing doors” in German from riding the U-bahn, a bit more language skills and historical context will be helpful if I plan to return to Germany.
The RIAS staff members were informative, helpful and welcoming to our group. Erik was always ready with a fact or context to provide us going into meetings. And Isabell and Lisa were at the ready with pretzels when we finish the meetings. The 10 of us on the trip clicked from the get-go and I consider myself lucky to have such an easy and fun group to travel with. Everyone brought diverse backgrounds and insights to the trip and we learned more because of it.
I’ll save this part to the end but the afternoon I split for the group to do my own networking was invaluable as well. As the lone radio journalist amongst the group, Erik was not only willing to allow me to visit with radio journalists working in Berlin, he even helped set it up. I really appreciated it. I had a chance to visit the only international NPR member station, KCRW Berlin, and then have a beer and later coffee with NPR international correspondents based in Berlin. They were encouraging, insightful, and of course, a delight since we are cut from a similar cloth.
My wish is to use the experiences and connections from RIAS as a vault into future reporting visits to German in the near future.
Perla López Baray, WFMZ-TV Channel 69, Allentown, PA
Jessica Moskowitz, CNN, New York, NY
My RIAS Fall 2019 trip has been all about giving up assumptions about European politics and German society and being open minded to experience as much as possible and to hear from as many different points of view as possible.
I read ten books to prepare for this amazing opportunity but once I landed in Brussels I thought: time to dive in. And that I did, quite literally. I cold plunged into the freezing pool at the Stadtbad Neukölln after participating in a nude sauna ceremony. Ditto (but with a bathing suit) on the last day of the season at the Badeschiff on the Spree. I ended up front and center singing Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” at Bear Pit Karaoke on a Sunday at Mauer Park.
I devoured a Mustafa Gemüse Kebap in the studio of Kani Alavi – and went back again a few days later for more of that amazing food. As a huge art fan, meeting Mr. Alavi was a highlight of the trip. I look forward to showing him some of my favorite work when he is in New York in October.
It was a joy to share delicious alkoholfrei beer with my blind date Dirk Steinmetz in his home in Berlin. His wife and adorable children showed me their plum and apple trees as he prepared an appetizer spread of Oktoberfest treats. His grandfather built the house in 1936 and that fact allowed us to have a very contemplative conversation about everyday Germans and their experiences with the SS and Hitler during World War II.
My Jewish heritage lead to this conversation and impacted a lot of my most cherished RIAS experiences. While touring Topf and Sons in Erfurt wasn’t on our original itinerary, journalist Leon Ginzel helped make this tour of the company that engineered the furnaces at Auschwitz happen. I grew up learning about the holocaust but had never heard the story of these brothers and their oven designer Kurt Prüfer.
I’m so grateful we had the chance to ponder ego, ambition, success and humanity in this building.
Meeting Deirdre Berger from The American Jewish Committee was also very impactful. She shared with us how Jewish life continues in Germany today. I told her how my family back in New York still refuses to visit Germany but that I’ve come to love it. She told me she hears the same thing from younger American Jews a lot.
Meeting Beatrix von Storch was also very interesting. Her grandfather served as Hitler’s finance minister and I asked her directly about this. She said she should not be held accountable for his actions and that she only met him twice. I appreciated the opportunity to ask the question.
Of course there were many spirited intellectual conversations about migration, asylum, questionable monuments, American politics, and lots of introspection as well.
Thank you, thank you, thank you: over two weeks I leaned into this opportunity and I leave drenched in gratitude.
Alex Presha, NBC7 San Diego, San Diego, CA
Monica Quintero, KPEJ/Big 2, Odessa, TX
Erik Runge, WGN, Chicago, IL
I sometimes wonder the place of a journalist today. A world filled with news driven by twitter and done in a news cycle that is continually getting shorter and shorter. I ask myself are we truly the watchdogs of democracy or helping to destroy it?
To be honest, my day to day is not what I thought it would be when I was sitting in J-School. It’s not Woodward and Bernstein or Rocky and Bullwinkle but someplace between. Sadly the media landscape at least in the US, has left few outlets that dig deep and it’s our democracy that suffers.
My experience with the RIAS KOMMISSION has impressed upon me that given the right approach and funding, journalism shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to be superficial. There are so many important issues facing not only our nation but the world and people need to be informed. It is our jobs to do that.
It is my job now to take what I’ve learned and apply it to my day to day. All politics may be local but so much of our lives are globally interconnected that those local politics are at some level impacted by what happens on the world stage.
This experience has given me such an intense look at the role journalism or rather the role journalism can have and at a level I’m happy exists and is supported.
Seeing the importance the German government places on public broadcasting is eye opening and appreciated. The extent the EU goes to make sure journalists have the tools they need in an unbiased way to tell a story is mind blowing.
While journalists are always asking questions, no matter where they are from-it doesn’t appear that in Europe it is necessarily the combat sport it has become in the US. While there will always be a dance between politicians and the press what I’ve witnessed on this trip is even if you don’t like your partner, everyone knows their role and can finish the song without storming out of the room. We are not the enemy of the people but the first defense against tyranny.
This experience has reignited my passion. It has made me once again realize how important our jobs to defend democracy are and more than that, it’s opened my eyes and mind to understanding world events, intergovernmental workings and bureaucracies like never before.
Emanuele Secci, CBS News, New York, NY
Jordyn Siemens, KTVZ, Bend, OR
Germany felt like home throughout our 2-week RIAS program, and it wasn’t just because of repeated gestures of hospitality from our hosts and the ever-expanding alumni network. Our more than 30 appointments revealed the distinct parallels in culture and similar political challenges our two nations face. However, what also became clear is how differently American and German media tackle these issues in both coverage strategy and demeanor. The recurring theme throughout the program was “politics vs. policy”, and our discussions often centered on the Germany priority of educating the average TV viewer, no matter how dense or complex the subject matter. Our repeated lessons in public-sector strategy came in the form of station tours at the ARD in Brussels, Phoenix-TV in Bonn, and RBB info radio in Berlin, all of which offered a unique perspective to the German news diet and how 8 billion euros per year of tax revenue is spent.
Beyond the broadcast product, our group was able to see how each news outlet tackled the growing digital landscape. I was particularly impressed with the work of N-TV in Cologne, where the station’s digital team walked us through the more than 30 platforms it specifically writes and produces content for. We also heard in-depth digital strategies from the team at Deutsche Welle in Brussels and Politico Europe, both of which stressed tailoring content to the web and using the right tools to know your audience – oftentimes better than they know themselves.
Speaking of the digital world, our time in Germany offered an immersive look at a culture where personal privacy is sacred, and the fear of being watched and controlled is passed down by a generation whose formative years were spent at war. Members of our group experienced this firsthand when looking for interviews with citizens on the streets of Cologne, many of whom refused to appear on camera. We learned this wasn’t just a personal value of many Germans, but also one woven into German law, as several journalists and Thuringia’s state domestic intelligence service head, Stephan Kramer, told us exactly what a camera out on the street can — and cannot — capture legally for air. The origin of these values also shone through during tours of the Berlin Hohenschönhausen, a former Stasi prison where our tour guide broke down just how much psychological warfare went on alongside physical invasions and divisions in Germany, less than a century ago.
Politics, coverage strategies, and technology aside, the best part of the RIAS program was the opportunity to explore four beautiful cities in two weeks and make connections with the vast alumni network of journalists working across the country. We spent three nights at RIAS-organized ‘mixer’ events, swapping everything from expertise to street food recommendations. We were also paired on ‘blind dates’ with alumni, offering a more personalized opportunity to make new friends in the industry. An added plus — an impromptu dinner invitation, extended to our entire group by a RIAS fellow yet to take their trip to the U.S. in October 2019. And it didn’t stop with the RIAS network. Our first night in Berlin was spent following world-renowned artist Kani Alavi along the East Side Gallery, then down the street to a famous doner kebab stand, and finally up to his studio to see more of his work. The warmth and hospitality from Kani was wholly unexpected, but it set a positive, inspiring tone for the rest of our week in Berlin.
All in all, the generosity and hospitality just kept coming, and this was the cherry on top to a program that left me irrevocably changed. Anyone who has the opportunity to join the RIAS community should do so, as fast they can, because the result leaves you with a new perspective, and family, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mounia Touzani, Fox News, New York, NY
David Wagner, KLST/KSAN, San Angelo, TX