Peter Herford hasn’t just been a working journalist for decades at CBS — a writer for Walter Cronkite, bureau chief in Saigon, producer for 60 Minutes and more — he’s also been a teacher of journalists, at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, in Africa, Croatia, Portugal — and for a decade in China.
Now, back in the United States, he’s got some reflections on teaching journalism in China. (Here's his blog, from when he lived there, and a video of him leading a conference on war coverage. We sat down in a cozy coffeeshop in his building looking out at the Seattle waterfront, to talk about some of them. So — with a nod to Jerry Seinfeld — here are journalists getting coffee, without the cars.
MKM: So here we are, sitting in your new home in Seattle. And it’s drizzling.
PH: It’s not new anymore. It’s been two years. ... I left in July of ’13.
MKM: And how’s the reacclimatization going?
PH: I think it will go on for the rest of my life. We’ve both traveled a lot. And we’ve both lived in lots of different places. And every time, it’s a different kind of transition. This is kind of a homecoming, though I spent most of my life in New York as a kid, until I was 21 or 22. But I’m coming back to a city that I know very, very well. Two daughters here, all that kind of stuff. So it’s not like I have to find my way around a new place. I knew this before I came back. That’s made it a lot easier. The changes in Seattle have made it even easier, because suddenly it’s turning into a very hot city – enormous growth, lots of young people, very nice. But in terms of the culture, spending the longest time I’ve ever spent, other than New York, in one country, a decade in China, China got so into my blood — you know all about that — I came to the realization that I’ll never be 100 percent comfortable not being there.
MKM: So what drew you to China in the first place?
PH: Pure accident. A friend of mine asked me to do a consult on a radio project in Indonesia, of all places. He and his wife lived in Hong Kong. So I took some time off, went to Indonesia, and on the way back, came through Hong Kong, met a mutual friend of his. And she got to talking, about a new start-up she was doing, which was a journalism school at Shantou University, that I had never heard of, in a city I’d never heard of. And the more she talked about it, the more interesting it seemed. And the idea crept into my head – gee. I’ve visited China, but I’ve never been there, and this might be very interesting. I didn’t say anything to her, but she made it clear she needed faculty. I said, "here I am! Let’s go!" That was November of 2002. By March 2003, the second semester up there, I was in Shantou University. Pure serendipity.
MKM: So the first day, you walk into the classroom and — how did you approach teaching Chinese kids, who want to be journalists in a place where the practice of journalism is, let’s say, different, than it is here?
PH: Same thing I always focus on. Because to me, I think I remember the title of courses there, “International Reporting,” and other things like that, which to me made no sense whatsoever, because I’m from that school of thought that says reporting is reporting. It doesn’t matter where you are. The principles are all the same. And the Chinese view toward Western journalism is colored by what we practice naturally, and by "we," I mean journalists around the world. We’re very open, and demanding and critical about what we see. In China, everything is state media, and the state looks at this as — as a journalist, as someone who is licensed by the state, to do the state’s bidding, whether you’re writing for a newspaper, being on television or what have you. So what I tried to do is give them the basic fundamentals of reporting as a craft, like plumbing.
MKM: But critical thinking is a little more complicated in some ways, and it’s a little more of a threat to the powers that be in a place like China.
PH: I was getting to that next. Because what I really taught was critical thinking. And no matter what course I taught, that was at the heart of it. Because very quickly, I realized – this is the one thing not taught — although now it’s beginning. But then, not taught, in any Chinese secondary schools, elementary schools, and then, not even in universities. I found out that many of my students had never been asked a question in their classes, had never themselves asked a question. All of them said, whatever papers they wrote, they never got back. All they got was a grade. They’d never been through the experience of looking at a paper and seeing where the markings were. So that whole atmosphere, which is second-nature to us, was brand spanking new to them. It was also very quick to see that as I introduced it, they grabbed ahold of it and ran with it. I mean, within a week of starting a class with new students, they were talking up in class. Not all of them had the courage to do it, but those who did dragged the others into it, and the class became lively, and things happened.
But it was always a matter of, of the classic questions in journalism, there’s really only one that makes any sense to me, which is why. Right after you say mommy and daddy, that’s the one you say as a baby. ... And so, that was the idea that I introduced to them, that they should look at life that way, and question everything they’re looking at, if they don’t already feel they have an answer to it. And if they do, they should question that answer, and say, "why?" Why do I think this? Why do I look at life this way? Why am I accepting this? Or why am I not accepting this? And these were concepts that were foreign to Chinese education – because their teachers had never learned that.
MKM: Did you get any push-back from the students or the teachers, saying, "that’s not what journalism is for, here. You’re being a cultural imperialist?"
PH: No. Never that way. What I did get was, "we were taught differently. That’s not the Chinese system." And that was fine, because the answer was easy. "I know that." That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. It was never getting a pushback from any of the students, certainly. From the other faculty members, those in the journalism school, they were sophisticated enough to know the differences. And they were happy to have me there, and a number of them came to me voluntarily, by the way, including the Party secretary for the journalism department, who came to me early on, in the first few weeks I was there, and asked me, would it be alright if she sat in on one or more of my classes? And I said to myself, "OK, I know what this is about. I’m being checked up on." So I said, "welcome to have you, but you’re going to have to do the work." And she said, "that’s wonderful, because I need the English." And she was in for about six weeks. She did the work.
MKM: What did you make her do?
PH: Write. There was a lot of writing. And she needed it. Her English was embryonic.
MKM: How was her critical thinking?
P: She didn’t speak in class. She never spoke up in class. And I didn’t expect her to. And I think the students knew perfectly well why she was there, too. But she was a participant, in that she felt it was helping her. When she stopped appearing, after six weeks, I said to myself, "OK. I guess I’m OK. That’s that." And that’s the last I ever saw of any evidence of the Party in what I was doing. She never spoke to me about it. She never said anything to me, one way or another, other than to thank me for having her. That was it.
I think the classic image many Americans have, or many foreigners have, of somebody over your shoulder all the time — I never had that experience. Now, I was teaching at a provincial university, which was kind of off the map. It was the only university in town. I know from later experiences, with colleagues who were in universities in Shanghai and in Beijing, and in Guangzhou, that there were varying levels of control that were applied or understood. I mean, I knew perfectly well that in Shantou, I was able to say things and do things that foreign teachers in the universities, in the mega-cities of China, had to be more careful about or steer away from.
But on the other hand, I also remember that when I first got there, the then-dean of our department came to me and said, "You know, there are some basic things you have to be careful about. The interesting thing was the one he started with. He said, "no matter how long the classes are" — the shortest was 50 minutes — the longest was two hours. Ridiculous. He said, "you must do the entire class. Because there are monitors. And you will be reported if you are short, or if you are not on time getting there." Then he said, "you have to be careful with certain subjects. Tiananmen Square — you cannot talk about that." At the time, Taiwan, you cannot talk about that. And that was about it. So naturally, what did I do? That’s what I started with! And I was quick to find out the Chinese students knew next to nothing about it. They know a lot more now, not because of me, but because of the Internet. And they were incredibly curious. They were asking why, themselves. And we talked about it openly in class. Nobody ever came to me and said, don’t do that. That went on, the entire 10 years I was there.
It was an indication of the dean protecting himself. That was his job to tell me that. What I did with that was something else. I later learned, it was probably six or sevem years into the experience. I had a colleague from the United States who came to teach at Tsinghua in Beijing. He just came for a semester, to the journalism school. The dean came to him and said, "Look, there are subjects you have to be careful about, in terms of what you say outside the classroom. And they were predictably, Tiananmen, and Taiwan, and a couple of others at the time." But — and this is the interesting thing, they said "inside the classroom, you can do anything you want. We want you to do that." That was a big lesson to me. And later on, I also learned that the Party itself, in their schools, what goes on in their classrooms and their schools, are all the things they’re not supposed to talk about on the outside, because they want their cadre to know, they teach those things so they know about them. And they know, "these are things that you keep in the family and don’t talk about on the outside," but they know about it.
MKM: Knowing what you know about the students you had for 10 years, and also what you know about how the country’s been going the past couple of years, under Xi Jinping, how are you thinking, now, about the short-term to medium-term future of journalism in China?
PH: It’s not going to change much. As long as it is all state journalism, I don’t think there’s anything different from when I arrived to when I left. It is controlled by the Party. The opportunities are always there.There is nothing that says the people who run the Propaganda Department, and control journalism, in China, cannot have their own reform, or revolution, or whatever you want to call it, and decide, "OK, we need another level of journalism."
But Peter’s not going to be there anymore to help train the next generation of journalists who might be up to the task. Once Xi Jinping came to power, three years ago, the central government started to get tougher on foreigners who live and work in China. Peter was informed, at age 77, after 10 years of teaching journalism at Shantou University, that there’s a regulation that says foreigners over 70 can’t teach at universities in China. He left a few months later.
There are now many good Chinese journalists, some of whom learned from Peter. It’s tough for them these days, especially on those who want to be watchdogs. The government has squelched much investigative reporting.
But, as Peter says, things can change. They always do, in China, sometimes faster than you’d ever expect.