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Name in Lights

03 May 11
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I had my name up in lights today.

I’ve been fortunate during my career to have accomplished things I never dreamed possible when I started in broadcasting as a young kid back in 1974 (every time I say that I feel really old). I anchored NPR newscasts from London during the first Gulf War (the only newscasts ever produced for NPR from overseas), covered presidential summits and inaugurations as well as the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, and produced from Colorado for NPR news shows following the Columbine school shootings. But I have never had my name up in lights – until today.

May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day. Supported by UNESCO, it’s a day to reflect upon the role of a free press in promoting and strengthening democracy.

Despite all the negative rhetoric aimed at the media, especially in the U.S., the reality is that a strong and free press is one of the primary pillars of democracy. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, acknowledged this when he said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” Just think about it – one of the founding fathers of the world’s longest-running democracy placed that much value on a free and unfettered press.

The media folks at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta asked me to give a presentation in honor of World Press Freedom Day. The embassy has a shiny new facility inside one of Jakarta’s most upscale malls where they present any number of events, from musical concerts to dances to lectures. Called “@America,” it’s full of electronic toys, from wide screen TVs showing bits of American memorabilia to a huge computer display where visitors can fly themselves around the world using Google Earth.

It’s a perfect place to give a talk.

I traveled to Jakarta with Dandi Supriadi, my friend and colleague from UNPAD, where I have been teaching this semester. The embassy did not know we worked together, so by coincidence Dandi and I were invited separately. I would be speaking, while Dandi moderated. I was grateful to have my friend along.

When we arrived, we were met by intense security. When entering just about any mall in Indonesia today, guests must have their bags searched or x-rayed, or both, and metal detectors are also common. Cars are given at least a cursory look, with undercarriages checked for bombs by the use of mirrors on the end of long sticks.

Unfortunately, malls and other ex-pat gathering places have been bombing targets in the past, so security is taken seriously. And at up-scale malls such as this one (Pacific Place) where westerners are more likely to gather, security becomes even tighter. Drivers here must open up engine compartments and trunks for further inspection before being waved into parking areas. And passengers sometimes have a metal-detector wand passed over them before even entering the building.

So after passing through the mall’s security we made our way past the Ritz Carleton Hotel, the Mount Blanc store, Tiffanys and Bulgari to the third floor of the building where @America opened earlier this year. Here we were greeted by even more security.

The facility sits in the corner of the mall. Those attempting to visit walk up to a very sparse entrance. Its main feature is a glass window, likely bullet-proof, where you are observed by security officials. Once you meet approval you pass through a door on the left into a short hallway before turning right and entering a larger, brightly-lit room. In this area there are Plexiglas containers where all bags and other belongings are left. I had to leave my small Swiss Army knife in a case along with my backpack. Even my laptop had to stay here initially, despite it containing my PowerPoint presentation.

Finally you pass through another metal detector before being allowed to enter the facility itself.

We opened the door to enter a main hall. Straight ahead was the doorway into the performance space, and there overhead, much to my surprise, was a marque with my name on it. To be honest, the flashing lights were embarrassing, but at the same time a lot of fun to see.

We arrived here after a nice lunch and conversation with embassy officials and a few other journalists, including my friend Harry Surjadi, who is an environmental journalist and trainer. He’s currently working on an amazing project on Kalimantan.

We were early enough to talk to the technicians who would set up my presentation. They discussed the remote I would use to operate the computer, and we discussed the best way to run the short video I was going to play at the beginning of my talk. By the time we were done, many members of the audience had taken their seats on the AstroTurf covered risers.

The audience, I was told, was to be a group of working journalists who would fill the 120 seats of the lecture space. When I began though the majority of seats were taken up by students.

This was an important distinction. Working journalists by nature are skeptical, challenging what they hear and wanting a robust discussion of important issues. Students meanwhile lack the confidence needed to challenge presenters, so tend to be more passive.

While this gross generalization seems to be true of any journalism group I have worked with, including my students back at Skidmore, it is even more so here in Indonesia. My lecturing at UNPAD has shown me that it is almost impossible to get Indonesian students unfamiliar with you or your work to react and respond. I tend to work very hard when lecturing students here, at times breaking them into groups to work on problems, walking throughout the classroom to call on individual students for responses and trying to find other ways to make them stronger participants. Even then, getting an active classroom is not always possible.

And today it was even tougher. Because I was expecting working journalists, I had not built into the presentation any places for the active engagement needed for students. But it was too late to change things up.

The presentation still went well. My goal is always to make it less a lecture and more a conversation. To do this I had a number of points where I would ask the audience questions, and encourage a broader talk.

This is a risky thing to do here. For American audiences I can usually read faces and determine fairly well what I need to do to engage them. Americans easily show attentiveness, indifference, even boredom on their faces and in their body language. Indonesians though tend not to show emotion, instead closely hiding how they really feel about something. This issue has made its way into scholarly research, with a number of papers seeming to link it to the Chinese concern about losing ‘face.’ I don’t know that such a comparison can be accurately made, but regardless this is a common behavior here.

This issue has even been discussed in regard to President Obama. I have read some comments about his seemingly distant appearance at times, with people linking this to his time spent with his mother and step-father in Indonesia. An interesting pop-psychology approach.

Despite these concerns, the audience became engaged during the talk, and challenged both me and each other during the question period at the end. All in all, it was a great conversation about a free and unfettered press and its role in supporting democracy around the world. We talked about the price journalists can face in doing their jobs – two Indonesian environmental journalists were killed just before we arrived last September because of stories they were covering. And we talked about why it’s important to keep doing what we do.

Finally, it was a great opportunity to meet other journalists, many of whom have continued the conversation through e-mail.

I love what I do, and I enjoy the opportunity to understand my craft even better. Times like this are a gift. Getting my name up in lights was just a pretty nice bonus.

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