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Journalism Group Criticized for Plan to Train Chinese Officials

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Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism plans to run seminars for Chinese government public-relations officials. Critics say the program would cross the divide between reporters and their sources — and that it would give a "seal of approval" to a country known for its media repression.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A respected foundation faces questions about whether it crossed the divide between reporters and the people we cover. The Nieman Foundation invites distinguished journalists to spend a year of study at Harvard. Recently some past fellows discovered that the same foundation offered to run seminars for Chinese government public relations officials. They're preparing for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

At a reunion last weekend at Harvard, more than 100 former Nieman Fellows packed into a wood-paneled room to talk with curator Robert Giles. One of those fellows, NPR's Howard Berkes, asked Giles whether the foundation had agreed to hold sessions for the Chinese publicity officials. Giles said yes, and the issue exploded. In an interview, Giles says the Nieman Foundation will educate Chinese officials about American press values and the First Amendment, not train them to spin.

Mr. ROBERT GILES (Nieman Foundation): We'll also tell them that the journalists will want to report on much more than the Games. Many journalists will want to pursue stories about human rights or the imprisonment of journalists or air pollution or other topics as well as the Olympic Games themselves.

FOLKENFLIK: But some Nieman Fellows were outraged. China is a repressive, one-party state. Richard Dudman, a Nieman Fellow in 1954, was a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for more than 30 years and reported frequently from Asia.

Mr. RICHARD DUDMAN (Former Nieman Fellow): I think it's a mistake for the Nieman Foundation particularly to accept subsidy from the Chinese government. They don't treat their own news people or visiting news people very well.

FOLKENFLIK: Liu Binyan knows that all too well. He's in his 80s now, but he started as a reporter for China Youth Daily five decades ago and then reported for the People's Daily. He was expelled from the Communist Party and thrown out of work for muckraking reporting on corruption there. He came to America in 1988 as Nieman Fellow and stayed here because the Chinese authorities barred his return. And Liu says he's upset that the foundation has made common cause with the Chinese government.

Mr. LIU BINYAN (Former Nieman Fellow): I think that will damage its reputation and the Nieman fellowship.

FOLKENFLIK: Liu says the arrangement gives repression by the Chinese a Harvard seal of approval.

Mr. LIU: So many newspapers were closed and so many journalists lost their jobs.

FOLKENFLIK: These incidents are closely monitored by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City. Ann Cooper is the group's executive director. She says China has an abysmal record of abusing the media.

Ms. ANN COOPER (Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists): It's one of the worst in the world. It's the world's leading jailer of journalists. They imprison people for speaking critically on the Internet. They even spy on people's cell phone text messages.

FOLKENFLIK: But Cooper also says she strongly favors the idea of a program for the Chinese public relations officials.

Ms. COOPER: They certainly need lessons in all of those things--First Amendment, press freedom. Why are those things important to the public? You know, why does the public have a right to free and independent information? Yes, China's officials could use lessons like that.

FOLKENFLIK: Another Harvard center that promotes the study of China first asked Giles over a year ago to help train 40 Chinese officials who'd be visiting this summer. Giles said he agreed because Chinese officials should gain perspective about the role of the media before thousands of journalists swarm Beijing for the Olympics.

Mr. GILES: You don't know whether they'll stick or not, but it certainly is worth the effort. I really believe very strongly in engagement and in talking and in building relationships.

FOLKENFLIK: While many campuses train government officials, journalists are often reluctant to collaborate with them. Years ago, Nieman Fellows used to take trips abroad, paid for by the US and foreign governments, a practice they have since stopped.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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